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H.G. Wells, the Rational Escapist

A passion for science made Wells famous. But he was driven by a longing for something more.


If you think our world has changed at an unprecedented rate; if you think we’re all but doomed by carbon and capital, or that we might be saved by solar power and silicon; if you wonder whether and when English-speaking societies have ever been through so much so fast, you might look at the years after 1880, when telephones and electric light and the phonograph, cheap high-volume printing and wireless signals and radio, bicycles, trolleys, automobiles, tanks, airplanes, and (not least) compulsory public education made the globe seem smaller, more tightly bound together, and time itself seem to speed up. The Culture of Time and Space, 1880–1918 (as the historian Stephen Kern put it) had altered.

The Young H.G. Wells: Changing the World
by Claire Tomalin
Penguin Press, 272 pp., $28.00

This outlook had no abler, nor more prominent, exponent than H.G. Wells, whose curiosity, unpretentious background, training as a science teacher, and rapid literary production made him famous in the 1890s as a writer of what he called scientific romance, what we now call science fiction. Later, his industry and his pellucid style gave him other successes, as a writer of slice-of-life novels, an idiosyncratic left-wing polemicist, and a public explainer. By the time of his death in 1946, he had met FDR, and Lenin, and Stalin, as well as several prime ministers; befriended such lions as Henry James, D.H. Lawrence, George Bernard Shaw, George Gissing, Arnold Bennett, and his own teacher, the biologist T.H. Huxley; laid down some three decades in advance—as his latest biographer, Claire Tomalin, puts it—the socialist “program of the post-war Labour government” in Britain; helped to launch, without especially trying, science fiction as a self-conscious genre; and earned multiple reputations as adventure writer, socialist sage, futurist, and advocate of what was then called free love.

Focused almost wholly on the first half of Wells’s life, Tomalin’s brisk new study, The Young H.G. Wells, reintroduces this would-be titan of reason, the mustached precursor of Isaac Asimov, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tomalin shows Wells’s difficult path through illness to security, his consistent attention to left-wing politics alongside science, and his appetite for pleasure, once security came. It might not disrupt the picture earlier critics give of Wells the tireless rationalist, who wanted everything (even sex) to make sense. And yet—set beside Wells’s own fiction—it might. Wells became famous not just because he showed a prodigious faculty for reason, an energy for explaining, a passion for science, though he would not have risen without those qualities. His work and his life—especially the first half—also spring from the power in imagination, from the wish (which his characters share) to escape from this life, to discover something more.

Wells’s boyhood held few inklings of the energetic man he would become. His father owned a shop in Bromley, outside London, from which he could barely wring a living: Extra income—and manly recreation—came from a second career as a local cricketer. In 1877, when young H.G. (called Bertie) was 11, his father fell off a ladder and began a penurious, cricket-free convalescence. Bertie’s mother returned to the country estate where she had worked before her marriage, Uppark (or Up Park), entering domestic service and taking her youngest son with her.

At Uppark, the sickly Bertie found fresh air, sympathetic adults, and a well-stocked private library: Tomalin says “his life was effectively saved there.” But he could not stay a boy at Uppark forever. His mother’s first try at finding him employment had ended badly: Before Uppark, he had apprenticed to a draper (a seller of cloth). There he proved both miserable and incompetent. (In his 1896 “bicycling idyll,” The Wheels of Chance, a draper’s shop provides the repressive “civilized superstructure” from which the earnest Mr. Hoopdriver escapes.) Bertie’s stint as assistant schoolmaster under a family friend suited him better but ended when the school closed; another round of trials as apprentice pharmacist, draper, and trainee teacher followed.

The last of these jobs saw Bertie’s luck change. He did so well on an examination that in 1884 he won a scholarship to the new institute for science education at South Kensington (now Imperial College London). Transported by Huxley’s vivid biology lectures, Wells found himself bored and disappointed by physics and geology, drifting from research into another ambition: “to write and print, and printing, to succeed and sell.” In London he was, by his own later account, “scandalously skinny,” “exceedingly shabby,” poor, likely tubercular, and “undernourished.” He would not feel or look well till he gained sound finances.

He would do so through his pen. By 1893, Wells was already author of A Text-book of Biology and co-founder of Science Schools Journal; he had begun a clunky but promising story about time travel, “The Chronic Argonauts”; and he was turning out essays for nationally circulating magazines. He gave up on teaching only when he found himself once again weak and coughing up blood. Soon he discovered that journalism (how times have changed!) paid more reliably, once he met the right editors. Between the final draft of The Time Machine (1895), first drafts of novels to follow, and various articles, during the mid-1890s he was “turning out seven thousand words a day,” among them “single sitting” stories intended to illustrate scientific principles.

The Time Machine launched him: The book, first serialized and then published in one volume, became a smash hit. Its never-named Time Traveller introduces, to skeptical London clubmen, the eponymous device. He describes perils and exploits in the far future, among the Eloi (harmless, childlike flower gatherers) and the Morlocks (menacing underground hominids). Then he vanishes, perhaps into the past. A metaphor for science fiction itself—a story whose device shows us the future—The Time Machine also indexes SF’s goals and subgenres: dramatic illustration of a new scientific hypothesis (four-dimensional pre-Einsteinian space-time); a tale of a castaway thrown back on technical know-how; an interspecies love story (involving the girlish Weena); a demonstration of scientific method, as the Traveller tests ideas about his new world (“very simple was my explanation, and plausible enough—as most wrong theories are!”); adventure, with narrow escapes and combat scenes; a fictive museum that frames wonder after wonder, like the “Palace of Green Porcelain” (a kind of decayed Victoria and Albert Museum) in which the Traveller takes shelter.

The Time Machine also introduced other Wellsian obsessions: Malthusian doctrines of surplus population (users of birth control in late Victorian England were sometimes called “neo-Malthusians”); the doomed imperial project (attempts to colonize or subjugate unfamiliar peoples, in Wells, usually fail); the very idea that we can predict the far future; and that biology is in some way destiny. The book unfolded an allegory of England to come—the Traveller sees the country in a “condition of ruinous splendor,” as elites weaken and workers coarsen until they become separate species. And it built both on then-modern tech crazes (the machine looks a bit like a bicycle) and on earlier popular fiction, such as the ghost stories of Grant Allen (named in the book). Wells would devise strong scientific packaging for Gothic, detection, and horror traditions in other early work, such as 1897’s The Invisible Man.

And he was just getting started. Between 1895 and 1902, Wells completed and published most of the scientific romance that made his name: The War of the Worlds, in which Martians defeat earthly armies and then succumb to earthly disease; The Island of Dr. Moreau, where a classic mad scientist tries to alter animals so as to make them more like human beings (“not to go on all-fours; that is the Law”); The First Men in the Moon, with its strong component of social satire; When the Sleeper Wakes, a less exciting but influential story of a high-tech, literally stratified urban future (rich people live high above poor ones). He also built a life with his lover, Jane, born Amy Catherine Robbins—his brilliant, practical, and devoted former student from the teacher training course Wells ran in the early 1890s. She would become his second wife after his amicable divorce from his first love, his cousin Isabel.

By 1900, Bertie and Jane owned a home by the sea at Sandgate, Kent. Before 1910, he would produce his last significant scientific romances, The Food of the Gods (with its proto–X-Men mutant children) and The War in the Air, and his most ambitious realist novel, Tono-Bungay, whose morose engineer-protagonist gets swept up in patent medicine fraud and then participates in the cruel failures of colonialism. Wells also began his career as a prolific writer on politics and history, and—now financially secure—opened up his complicated love life, first with the writers Ella D’Arcy, Dorothy Richardson, and Violet Hunt, and then with his younger admirer, Amber Reeves, the model for Ann Veronica (1909), his then-scandalous, now pleasantly romantic novel about a young woman who rejects her father and chooses her lovers on her own.

Tomalin treats Wells’s romantic life harshly, seeing Jane, who stayed at home (though she also had her own flat), typed his fiction (and wrote her own), and cared for their children, as her “true heroine.” “He was a bad husband and an unreliable lover.” Certainly he made promises he did not keep. He was moody; he was headstrong. He had the sense of entitlement common to people—especially cisgender heterosexual men—who defer the supposed pleasures of adolescence until they have become secure adults. He was also open about what he was doing, and his lovers preserved his letters; where mores permitted, they remained friends. Wells’s own massive and sometimes magnificent Experiment in Autobiography (1934) considers his attempts at free love as a kind of experiment, testing potential remedies for the hypocrisy, misfortune, and wasted energy that inherited structures create: “I have never given any person nor place a simple disinterested love.” Ethical nonmonogamy is complex even now, when many more people are trying it; Wells and his lovers were building the airplane while flying it—no wonder it sometimes crashed.

Like earlier readers, Tomalin sees in Wells’s writing a struggle between optimistic beliefs about what the future might bring—if scientifically planned, if rationally directed—and gloom about what’s probably coming instead (our climate emergency makes Wells look prescient). Works such as The Time Machine might be, not prophecies, but spurs. Like the ghosts in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, they show not what must come but what may come if this goes on. And the now all but unreadable A Modern Utopia (1905), along with much subsequent nonfiction, tried to show what humanity might accomplish if only we listened to science. (Have we ever listened to science?)

Wells described Tono-Bungay (1909) as his “finest and most finished novel upon the accepted lines.” It is also a grim one, as its central character sees economic motives dominant everywhere, technology put to the service of “enterprising business men.” Its eponymous product is a fraudulent health tonic, “slightly injurious rubbish,” and its final treasure, for which sailors die, a poisonous or radioactive ore: The modern world, or at least the British Empire, “is all one spectacle of forces running to waste.” Yet even Tono-Bungay admires the pace of science-driven change.

Only thirty years ago … I learnt of the electric light as an expensive, impractical toy, the telephone as a curiosity…. There was no argon, no radium ... and aluminium was a dear, infrequent metal.… and no one but a lunatic … thought it possible that men might fly.

What possibilities Wells saw, and sees, even in 1909, for a world illuminated by science! What a waste (Wells considered calling the novel Waste) that we follow the false light of capital instead!

Humankind had an immense opportunity, thanks to science—and to the romance of science—and we were likely to throw it away. “I have no delusions about the natural goodness and wisdom of human beings,” Wells wrote in Experiment in Autobiography, “and at bottom I am grimly and desperately educational.” He also wondered “Whether I am a Novelist” at all, since his strongest works (even Ann Veronica) had less to do with the intricacies of character than with setting, science, or society. The people who read The Wheels of Chance read it, not for the love story, but for the bicycles. The scholar Sarah Cole, in Inventing Tomorrow (2019), sees Wells above all as an explainer, whose “claims on the moral imagination” grow out of his “message about scientific and world education.”

But he was also—at least before 1910—an entertainer; and he was funny. Finding delicious mushrooms under the lunar surface, the intrepid scientists of The First Men in the Moon wonder whether they’ve lit on a way to feed Earth’s “surplus population,” then realize that the fungi make them drunk—and “we are” (as one of them stammers) “the creashurs o’ what we eat and drink.” Having failed to subjugate the clever Selenites, Wells’s narrator returns to Earth, while his companion, Cavor, whose antigravity mineral Cavorite powered their voyage, remains. The moon people (Cavor reports) physically shape their children early in life, making some into mere hands for turning cranks, others “swift messengers with spider-like legs,” and others into a managerial class: “It is really in the end a far more humane proceeding than our earthly method of leaving children to grow into human beings, and then making machines of them.”

To read lots of Wells at a clip is to see how much he owed to that opponent of liberal progress, that skeptic about humanity, Jonathan Swift. Having escaped the island of mutated creatures, the shipwrecked narrator in Dr. Moreau sounds like Gulliver: “I felt no desire to return to mankind.... I could not persuade myself that the men and women I met were not also another Beast People, animals half wrought into the outward image of human souls.” We are indeed much like other animals, made up of what we eat and drink, as Huxley, and Huxley’s hero Charles Darwin, would agree. And we are not rational. People regularly drive Wells to despair. They don’t make sense, they defeat their own purposes, they illustrate “the unfaltering littleness of men,” as he put it in The Food of the Gods, where littleness became literal: The brilliant mutants who will control the future are physically giants compared to their parents.

And yet even the parents in that novel—baseline humans like us, but scientists—try to honor science itself, “so wonderful, so portentous, so full of mysterious half-shapen promises for the mighty future of man!” Wells is not kidding—he says so in Tono-Bungay: “Scientific truth is the remotest of mistresses; she hides in strange places, she is attained by tortuous and laborious roads, but she is always there! Win to her and she will not fail you.”

Tomalin’s Wells ends up likable, even admirable, unless you were hoping to marry him: “ambitious, generous, hardworking, and astonishingly energetic and original,” “playful, fun to be with, attractive to women, and eager for sex.” His work ethic also suggests an unquenchable thirst, a never-ending wish for more. Cole says, rightly, that Wells stood out for “his willingness to take the future seriously as something that can be known.” But he also sought out, and imagined, the unknown: He could produce a sense of dislocation, a reverse perspective by which we become the unknown, seen through unfamiliar eyes. The deep-sea diver of “In the Abyss” (1896), who finds sentient life undersea, “thinks what a barbaric people might do, to whom an enhaloed, shining creature came suddenly out of the sky.” Wells’s experimenters and explorers—even if they are repelled or disillusioned (as in The Food of the Gods) by what they create—want to see, or to be, that creature, fascinating and fascinated by a new world.

To see that fascination in sharp relief, we can return to 1902, and to Wells’s almost wholly neglected novella about, of all things, a mermaid. The titular Sea Lady comes ashore on England’s South Coast. A well-off family takes her in, hiding her fish tail with blankets and a wheeled chair. The putative Miss Waters says she just wants to learn about life on land (she proves especially fond of tobacco). In fact, she’s fallen in love with one Chatteris, a young man who expects to run for Parliament. His friends and family learn, too late, of their mutual fascination: Chatteris quits politics, leaves his human fiancée, and follows the mermaid under the sea, either to a new aquatic life or (so Wells’s narrator believes) to death.

The Sea Lady might be an exculpatory study of romantic folly and erotic pursuit. It might be a book about the death wish (a term not yet coined). But it is, above all, a book about what education, and science, cannot capture: a book about how the real is never enough. “Perhaps after all there are things beyond our reason,” muses Chatteris. “Perhaps after all desire has a claim on us?” Wells’s witness and intermediary, named (perhaps by coincidence) Melville, even repeats the mermaid’s catchphrase: “There are better dreams.”

And Wells as a science-fiction writer could dream them. These dreams—and their doubts as to whether the real is enough—connect The Time Machine, the mermaid story, the satirical voyage to the moon, the bourgeois tragedy of Tono-Bungay, and even the adventures of Mr. Hoopdriver, whose “real life was absolutely uninteresting.” (“If he had faced it as realistically as such people do in Mr. Gissing’s novels,” Wells’s narrator remarks, “he would probably have come by way of drink to suicide in the course of a year. But that was just what he had the natural wisdom not to do.”) Wells’s wisdom—the genius of science fiction, even—was to ground his dreams in science, education, and technology, whether real (like bicycles and contraceptives) or extrapolated (like flying machines) or far-fetched (like Martians); to bring science into so many kinds of storytelling; and to link desires for the inexplicable and curiosity about the future to the ability to imagine otherwise on which all science, and science fiction, and all progress in human life depend.