Monday, 30 November 2009

A Not So Invisible Man: On H. G. Wells

Having just finished The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells (having previously read an omnibus edition with The Time Machine and The War of the World), I thought it worthwhile to talk about him and his work, not to mention his importance for the genre of science fiction.

To quote from the biography in my edition of The Invisible Man:
"Herbert George Wells—novelist, social critic, and visionary futurist who became one of the most prolific and widely read writers of his generation—was born in the London suburb of Bromley, Kent, on September 21, 1866."
It might sometimes be easily forgotten that Wells was not only an early (and very important) science fiction writer, but that he also wrote other types of fiction as well as engaged in historical and political writing. In particular, his social interest as related to history and politics quite clearly shines through in his science fiction writing as well, and it might be these interests, at least in part, which earned him disparaging comments from Jules Verne (1828–1905) for the lack of strict scientific accuracy in his stories. Despite Verne's opinion in the matter, I think Wells manages to create a convincing sense of verisimilitude that allows him to tackle not only science in and of itself, but society (without which there can be no science) and its role. Don't get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Verne's approach to science fiction, but I doubt he could, for instance, have made as an intriguing study of the concept of invisibility as Wells does in The Invisible Man; simply because of the pseudo-science Wells has to resort to as a backdrop for his real agenda.

As such, I would argue, Wells probably has a stronger kinship to his fellow countryman Mary Shelley, whose creation of Frankenstein operates in similar ways to Wells' fiction (granted that Wells resorts more verbally to both the science of his day and pseudo-science if need be). Whereas Verne's focus seems to often be connected to the technological, Wells is entrenched in the realm of the social; and I would actually argue that the latter has been of overall more importance to the science fiction genre. Perhaps that is why it is easy to trace most if not all of science fiction's primary topics as already there in Wells writing.

In The Time Machine (1895), Wells covered the concept of time travel, clearly a popular science fiction topos throughout the history of the genre. It is also clear from his main focus on the Eloi and Morlocks that his future vision is strongly tied into a societal thinking (formed by many of the ideas of the time).

In The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), the idea is all about scientific experiments and the moral issues related to them (much like in Shelley's Frankenstein). More importantly, perhaps, is the strong suggestions of the science of genetics, which are at least implied by the general plot of the story. Not to mention the fact that this was far before the the discovery of DNA and the concept of cloning really entered the scientific and public debate.

In The Invisible Man (1897), the scientific experiment is once more part of the analysis, but perhaps to a greater degree, it is thought experiment on how a supernatural phenomenon like invisibility would function in the world; both practically in a sort of scientific sense and socially.

In War of the Worlds (1898), Wells turned to the notion of alien invasion, a topos so common to science fiction, both in literature and film, that it almost seems redundant to point out.

In When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), Wells revisits the future, but while the plot obviously (on a strictly technical level) involves a form of "time travel," it is different from The Time Machine in that it is merely an enhanced version of the time travelling we all do on a daily basis. As such, perhaps, the focus should be more on the topos of stories set in the future; but it is hard to not also note that the notion of extended sleep brings cryogenics and options for space travel to mind for modern readers.

And finally, in The First Men in the Moon (1901), Wells turned his attention to space travel (Verne having, of course, been there ahead of him in From the Earth to the Moon and Round the Moon) as well as another instance of first contact with an alien culture.

In short, Wells managed to cover most (if not all) of the major topoi of science fiction in a period of six years and, it could arguably be said, laid a good foundation for the genre; both terms of establishing topoi and in terms of literary style. Because I dare anyone to call Wells writing lesser literature. This is writing with a fine and acute sense for language, to be sure.

When he dies on August 13, 1946, he had long since turned to other forms of writing, but his influence on the genre of science fiction cannot be denied. In fact, it can be quite clearly seen to this day.

No comments:

Post a Comment