A lifelong student with an interest in all things, Herbert George Wells’s research gave him an insider’s view of everything from weapons to household appliances. The author proved to be at the forefront of history, even if many of his ideas weren’t actualized until decades after his death. The heat ray that Wells depicts in The War of the Worlds (1897), for example, became real in 2007, when the U.S. military debuted the Active Denial System, which weaponizes microwave radiation. Preceding modern cloning and genetic modification, The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) showcases one of the first instances of human and animal engineering (although Frankenstein came much earlier). More ominously, Wells’s little-known novel The World Set Free (1913) details nuclear war and the explicit use of atomic bombs years before the Manhattan Project.
But more than just beeps, bells and pneumatic doors, the best of Wells’s novels attempt to tackle giant socio-political issues, all the while maintaining an emphasis on modern humanity’s increasingly close relationship with science and technology. He and other writers of his generation clearly envisioned the post-Victorian world as surrounded by machines and swallowed by the scientific disciplines in all their various forms, from Taylorized work environments to pseudo-scientific caste systems.
Indeed, science and technology do not come off well throughout Wells’s works. The War of the Worlds ends with a victory for nature while all of Earth’s heavily equipped armies are decimated. In three other novels — The Invisible Man, The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau — the author illustrates the dark underbelly of scientific curiosity. From transparent madmen to half-animal mutants, Wells more often than not conforms to the dictum that H. P. Lovecraft puts forth in “The Call of Cthulhu”:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.
In an odd twist, Wells the man (if not Wells the author) was often a champion of science and technology in governance. He connects these ideas to socialism in Experiment in Autobiography (1935), describing his socialist awakening as a result of recognizing the “incompatibility of the great world order foreshadowed by scientific and industrial progress with the existing political and social structures.” For Wells, society and politics had to be made in the image of science; as the only political belief system at the time that fully embraced not only science but the idea that scientific management could be applied successfully to class, socialism held an obvious attraction.
But while today’s socialists might be quick to claim Wells as one of their literary forebears, the author held views that contradict the party line and in fact border on the type of “life-affirmation” ideologies that were espoused by Friedrich Nietzsche. In an essay entitled “H. G. Wells: Utopia and Doomsday,” critic Frank D. McConnell sums up Wells’s politics by arguing that, for the author, “science and socialism … would unite the world” and that this utopian union would incorporate “socialist programs (public ownership of energy sources and land; financial aid for the unemployed, ill and the aged),” along with a “benevolent dictatorship where ‘voluntary nobleman’ would exercise a firm hand (controlling human procreation, for example).”
Like Wells’s personal belief in a world government versus the realities of the League of Nations and the United Nations, the predictions of his fiction also only correspond with history in a limited capacity. Although much has been made of The World Set Free’s “prophetic vision,” for example, its depiction of nuclear weapons’ regular use and Wells’s belief that they would unite, not fracture, the world have both been proven wrong by time.
Still, Wells and the science fiction genre (which, as a founder, he deemed “scientific romance”) have a proven track record for seeing what’s to come before its arrival. In Wells’s case, this foresight was the product of a complex amalgam of socialist and scientific optimism with bone-deep pessimism. Invariably, every new, better civilization of Wells’s comes after a great cataclysm — and in many ways, his real world forecasts follow a similar model: first the weapons, then societal collapse, and then, only after the rubble has been cleared, a better tomorrow. Although gloomy, Wells the novelist and social scientist had a fairly clear view of humanity. And the major reason why his predictions have come to pass is because humanity changes very little.
Benjamin Welton is a freelance writer based in Burlington, Vermont. He prefers “Ben” or “Benzo,” and his writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Crime Magazine, The Crime Factory, Seven Days and Ravenous Monster. He used to teach English at the University of Vermont, but now just drinks beer and runs his own blog called The Trebuchet.
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