Wednesday 21 September 2016

H.G. Wells - born 150 years ago today (21 September 1866)

H.G. Wells by Beresford
George Charles Beresford
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Herbert George (H.G.) Wells was born 150 years ago today, on 21 September 1866. A prolific author and writer across genres that include fiction and non-fiction, he applied his mind to just about every field of human enquiry. He was outspoken on many issues of the day and his views were eagerly listened to – by politicians and public alike.

He is recognised (along with Jules Verne) as one of the founders of science-fiction and his contributions to this genre are mostly responsible for making him a household name. War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau are as much enjoyed today, in their original form, as they were upon publication, over 100 years ago. If that was not enough, they have been endlessly adapted for stage, screen, radio and other media. His near-namesake, Orson Welles, famously broadcast a radio adaptation of War of the World in October 1940, the response to which has become the stuff of legend.

A prolific writer throughout his adult life, Wells is, nevertheless, best and most fondly remembered for what would be considered his first work. Little more than a novella, The Time Machine was first published in 1895, although an early version of it appeared as a short story in 1888, under the title, The Chronic Argonauts. In it, Wells postulates the ultimate fate of humanity and the planet that it dwells upon, considering the ramifications of a society basing its orientation on blind obedience to, what some might consider to be the fate to which it is ordained. The views presented and conclusions drawn remain curiously fascinating today, even with the passage of time.
"Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change." - from The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895)

His particular skill as a storyteller was to devise themes and then use them as a larger device, to convey a sense of morality, foreboding or harbinger of things to come. It is a format that many have followed but few have emulated. His science fiction (or scientific romances as he called them) are based on a true understanding of scientific principles – something that he possessed in abundance – but also, deeply rooted in real word concerns. His other novels, such as A History of Mr Polly and Kipps, reflect his preoccupation with social class and what he saw as the restrictive, detrimental and ultimately ruinous consequences for a society based on it.

Of course, Wells himself had humble beginnings. The fourth child of parents who worked as domestic servants for most of their lives, his early education was sporadic and based on whatever his parents could afford to pay for. He served an unhappy apprenticeship in this teenage years, working 13-hour days and sleeping in dormitories with other apprentices. All of this could not but have left a mark on his personality and temperament. His adult years and his literary efforts therefore, were devoted to finding cures for various social and other ills, as he encountered them. He was an advocate of World Government and devoted much time to investigating ways that it could be realised.

In a way, just as Wells' life straddles the 19th and 20th century, so too, his thinking and his ideas encapsulate the hopes, dreams and ambitions of the period in which he lived and worked. Much of what he anticipated has come to fruition, even if not entirely in the way that he might have conceived. Still, there is much else in his body of work that may indicate 'the shape of things to come', all making for an enduring enigma.

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