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DARKO SUVIN WELLS AS THE TURNING POINT OF THE SF TRADITION H. G. Wells's first and. most significant SF cycle (roughly to 1904) is based on the vision of a Horrible New as the evolutionary sociobiological prospect for mankind. His basic situation is that of a destructive newness encroaching upon the tranquillity of the Victorian environment . Often, this is managed as a contrast between an outer framework and a story within the story. The framework is set in as staid and familiar Dickensian surroundings as possible, such as the cozy study of The Time Machine, the old antiquity shop of "The Green Egg", or the small towns and villages of Southern England in The War of the Worlds and The First Men in the Moon. With the exception of the protagonist who also participates in the inner story, the characters in the outer frame, representing the almost invincible inertia and banality of prosperous bourgeois England, are reluctant to credit the strange newness. By contrast, the inner story details the observation of and the gradual, hesitant coming to grips with an alien, superindividual force that menaces such life and its certainties by behaving exactly as bourgeois progress did in world history—as a quite ruthless but technologically superior mode of life. (Compare the uneasy conscience of an imperial civilization which did not wipe out only the bison and the dodo: "The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?") As Wells observed, the element of newness is "the strange property or the strange world". The strange property can be the invention that renders Griffin invisible, or obversely new ways of seeing—literally, as in "The Crystal Egg", "The Story of Davidson's Eyes", and "The New Accelerator", or indirectly, as in the Time Machine or the Cavorite sphere. It is always cloaked in a pseudo-scientific explanation, the possibility of which turns out upon closer inspection to be no more than a conjuring trick by the deft writer, with "precision in the unessential and vagueness in the essential" as a critic put it—the best example being the Time Machine itself. The strange world is elsewhen or elsewhere. It is reached by means of a strange invention or it erupts 106 directly into the Victorian world in the guise of the invading Martians or the Invisible Man. But even when Wells's own bourgeois world is not so explicitly assaulted, the strange New always reflects back on its illusions, its "false security and vain self-satisfaction". The strange is menacing because it looms in the future of man. Wells masterfully translates some of the oldest terrors of man—the fear of darkness, monstrous beasts, giants and ogres, creepy crawly insects and Things outside the light of his campfire, outside tamed nature—into an evolutionary perspective that is supposed to be validated by Darwinian biology, evolutionary cosmology, and the fin-de-siecle sense of a historical epoch ending. Wells, a student of T. H. Huxley, eagerly used alien and powerful biological species as a rod to chastize Victorian man, thus setting up the model for all the Bug-Eyed Monsters of later chauvinistic SF. But the most memorable of those aliens, the octopus-like Martians and the ant-like Selenites, are identical to "The Man of the Year Million " in an early article ofWells's (alluded to in The War ofthe Worlds): they are emotionless higher products of evolution judging us as we would judge insects. In the final analysis, since the aliens are a scary, alternative human future, Wellsian space-travel is a trick, a variation on his seminal model of The Time Machine. His interplanetary contacts have a function quite different from Verne's liberal interest in the mechanics of locomotion within a safely homogeneous space. Wells is interested exclusively in the opposition between the bourgeois reader's expectations and the strange relationships found at the other end: that is why his men land on the Moon and his Martians on Earth. Science is the true, demonic master...


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pp. 106-115
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