Steven Spielberg's forthcoming adaptation of The War of the Worlds prompts Mark Bould to take a critical look at the work of HG Wells.
No one would have believed, in the last years of the 20th century, that the new millennium would prove lucrative for the estate of HG Wells. But then, just as Wells's work was about to enter the public domain, the British copyright period was extended to 70 years after the author's death. And now, a decade later, Penguin are bringing back into print 14 of his novels, with critical introductions by authors like Brian Aldiss, Margaret Atwood, China Miéville and Marina Warner.
However, with two films of The War of the Worlds to be released this summer, the real money will be made elsewhere. You will be lucky to see the low-budget British version in a cinema, but Spielberg's movie, starring Tom Cruise, looks set to stomp all over multiplexes for a couple of weeks before collapsing, like their last collaboration Minority Report, under the weight of its own banality. Although it's fun to ponder how Spielberg might reduce a tale of interplanetary invasion to the problems of fathers and sons, a more interesting question is why, 60 years after his death, do we need Wells now?
HG Wells was born in Bromley, Kent, in 1866. Bankruptcy broke up his family, and at 13 Wells started out in a series of menial jobs. Largely self-taught, he gained entry into the Normal School of Science (now Imperial College) in 1884. He was enthused by the teaching of TH Huxley, the scientist whose vigorous endorsement of evolutionary theory earned him the nickname 'Darwin's bulldog', but bored by his other courses, and Wells flunked his final year. Plagued by ill health, he turned to popular journalism, writing speculative essays, reviews, humorous sketches and a biology textbook before making his reputation, in the mid-1890s, as the author of the short stories and scientific romances for which he remains best known.
In 1903 he joined the Fabians and, discontented with their excessive gradualism, quit them after just a few years. With Tono-Bungay (1909) and The New Machiavelli (1910), he became a leading British social novelist. A friend of Joseph Conrad and Henry James, Wells was no modernist, although there is an experimental quality to much of his fiction. In novels like Ann Veronica (1909), he eroded the border between 'fiction' and 'reality' by incorporating barely-veiled autobiographical material. Later works, like The Croquet Player (1936), are fables or political allegories. He wrote popular volumes on history and science, and became a familiar voice on BBC radio and a figure of world renown. He met with both Presidents Roosevelt, as well as Lenin and Stalin. Nazis burned his books and he was barred from Fascist Italy. He championed women's rights and internationalism and he even campaigned, in 1924, to save the whale. He also contributed to the Sankey Declaration on the Rights of Man which became part of the UN charter.
But if Wells is remembered for anything today besides his much publicised philandering it is for his science fiction, for that astonishing creative decade around the turn of the 20th century.
In his early scientific romances Wells depicted the vast expanse of space and time, and our relative insignificance. Like Darwin, Marx and Freud, he punctured the illusion of bourgeois man's centrality. The Time Machine (1895) and The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) recast humankind as one species among many, as a temporary condition found somewhere between ape-like ancestors and devolved descendants. The War of the Worlds (1898), originally serialised during Victoria's golden jubilee year, explicitly criticises the Tasmanian genocide while Martian invaders lay waste to the heart of the British Empire. These vivid early novels are rich in ambiguity. Moreau is a fabulously blasphemous gothic replay of the Garden of Eden and a Swiftian satire on modern man's self-image. The beast-men that Moreau creates demonstrate humanity's place in Darwin's universe. They embody the struggle between evolution and ethics. They are estranged versions of proletarian and colonial subjects. And Wells keeps all these possibilities in play, not permitting his novel to collapse into some monolithic allegory.
In 1926, when Hugo Gernsback launched the first pulp science fiction (sf) magazine, he called for 'the Jules Verne, HG Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story'. He quickly reprinted 14 stories and novels by Poe and Verne, but reprinted 26 by Wells. Consequently Wells has often been dubbed the 'father of science fiction'. However, in the US pulp tradition, Wells's offspring were rather poor pupils. Its first decade was dominated by small-town bigots (as scared of the future as they were of women, people of colour and the working class) and dreadful writing. In the second decade the generation of Robert Heinlein bootstrapped themselves into competent-enough prose but abandoned Wells's metaphorical and moral complexity. Instead they championed reactionary renegades and unfettered capitalist expansion. They fantasised about purity, mastery and unbounded energies. Mostly, their offspring still do. Wells's real children are to be found in Britain, in Olaf Stapledon and George Orwell, M John Harrison and Gwyneth Jones.
Curiously, Wells's own sf novels after The First Men in the Moon (1901) fall into the error which so debilitates the pulp tradition he 'fathered'. Too often, from Gernsback to the Roddenberry-Lucas-Spielberg complex, a spaceship is just a spaceship and a robot is just a robot. They are there because they are there, not because they mean anything. Similarly, when Wells turned his art to the task of changing the world, he forgot that it was also necessary to fantasise it. He fixated on utopia's plumbing rather than the vision utopia allows you to imagine. Blueprints became more important than hope. Utopia demands such a radical transformation of self and society that it is unimaginable and inexpressible. But in the later Wells, as in most subsequent sf, social transformation became merely about superficial things. As Wells grew older he became more insistent, but lost the imaginative urgency of his earlier work.
Miraculously, the reputation of Wells's stories and novels has survived their many mediocre adaptations into other media. One measure of Wells as an imaginative writer is that, no matter how poor the reworkings, they nonetheless capture something essential of their times. The film Things to Come (1936), based on Wells's 1933 The Shape of Things to Come, was released in the year Guernica was bombed. It imagines the terrors of aerial bombardment of civilian centres and a 'benevolent' technocratic state which shades into fascism, a fruity world of corporate elites and shopping malls. Orson Welles's 1938 War of the Worlds radioplay terrorised an audience already anxious about European conflicts and invasion threats. The 1960 film of The Time Machine replaced Wells's melancholy with the lunk-headed machismo of pre-Vietnam US imperialism. Four years later The First Men in the Moon's laboured comedy evokes a nervousness about the passing of empires.
The shrill religiosity of the 1953 film version of War of the Worlds signalled the turn to consolation in the face of a nuclear cold war evident in the 1950s US Protestant revival. Its reworking as Independence Day (1996) is a Nafta-era movie set much closer to Mexico than Canada, in which the president describes the aliens as migrant labourers. In Wells's novel the Martians are killed by bacteria. In Independence Day Will Smith gets to 'kick ET's butt'. The gulf could not be wider.
Some of the Wells adaptations - The Island of Lost Souls (1933), The Invisible Man (1933), The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936), La Merveilleuse Visite (1974) - are pretty good. But even the best of them cannot reproduce the supple imaginative vision or ambiguous metaphoric treatments of space, time, human, animal, alien and machine to be found in the early novels and short stories. And if Wells's later writing is as ossified as his utopian visions, he should not be criticised too harshly. Before Rosa Luxemburg, he sensed the coming choice between socialism and barbarism - 'a race', in his words, 'between education and catastrophe'. And although he lacked faith in the ability of ordinary people to make the right choice, he nonetheless proselytised tirelessly for it - or at least for the choices that might make that choice possible.
The early Wells knew the importance and purposes of the fantastic. He knew how to make the world strange. The Time Machine imagined the evolution of rival but interdependent post-human species. They resemble the bourgeoisie and proletariat, aesthetes and engineers. But the time traveller realises that to treat them as such would be a mistake. He recognises the danger of reading this future through his own limited perspective. He knows that an interpretation is not the truth.
This radically destabilising perspective may not be the reason we're getting so much Wells right now, but it is why we need him - and not dressed up in computer generated imagery by Dreamworks SKG, but in our hands and in his own words.
Mark Bould is a senior lecturer in film studies at the University of the West of England.
A selection of HG Wells books are published by Penguin Classics. The War of the Worlds (director Steven Spielberg) will be released on 21 June. The National Film Theatre in London will have an HG Wells season during May.