- The Early Fiction of H.G. Wells: Fantasies of Science
Those casually aware of H. G. Wells likely know him as the originator of modern science fiction and perhaps also as author of the scientific romances, published between 1895 and the earliest years of the twentieth century, that secured that reputation. Generally forgotten is the large amount of fiction he continued to produce until his death in 1946. This amnesia developed along with the critical consensus that the early novels are by far Wells’s best and that didacticism undermined artistry in his subsequent efforts. His once important role as popular historian and social critic, especially as tireless advocate for a world state governed by a meritocracy of experts, has also been largely forgotten. In recent years, however, Wells scholars increasingly have labored both to counter the dismissive attitude toward the bulk of his fiction and to reassert his importance as a thinker and activist once famous enough to consult with world leaders. As part of this trend H. G. Wells: Interdisciplinary Essays (2009) covers a broad range of Wells’s publications and positions, attending to both his major and lesser-known writings. The editor of that collection, Steven McLean, is also author of The Early Fiction of H.G. Wells, in which he returns to the early scientific romances.
The Early Fiction does not so much offer a significantly new approach as extend already established lines of inquiry. As such the book makes a valuable contribution to Wells scholarship. Citing the vital importance “of the periodical press in shaping the fortunes of the young Wells” (1), McLean explores “how [Wells’s] journalistic speculations begin to reveal the full extent to which his scientific romances are immersed in the discourses of contemporary science” (2). The Early Fiction consists of three sections or “stages” of two chapters each, with the book chronologically tracing the development of Wells’s thought through its analyses of six novels.
The first of the three sections studies “the pessimistic vision of Wells’s ‘evolutionary fables,’” namely The Time Machine (1895) and The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) (13). Concerning evolutionary theory, degeneration, and the relation of animals to humans, this section is the least innovative of the three. Like the other two sections, it does demonstrate Wells’s great involvement with periodical publications, his own and those of others. It also establishes the theme of Wells’s shifting reactions to the thinking of Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer—in particular their contrasting commitments to forms of cooperation and individualism. These two authors are joined throughout the book by an impressive array of other writers who McLean claims either influenced Wells directly or, more often, shaped the context of scientific controversy into which Wells entered. It is on this level that The Early Fiction, interested in the early novels more as expressions of ideas than as art, is especially impressive.
In the second section McLean considers Wells’s first novelistic attempts to explore the relationship between science and society. The fourth chapter contends that The Invisible Man (1897) dramatizes the need for broader scientific education and intelligible popularization. This makes for an original and thought-provoking reading, but the evidence presented strikes me as insufficient. McLean’s fifth chapter shows that The War of the Worlds (1898) marks a transition from Wells’s earlier scientific romances, moving from concern about “the devolutionary potential” of evolution to its ethical [End Page 646] implications (11), especially by championing Huxley’s commitment to cooperation against Spencer’s advocacy of economic competition and Social Darwinism.
The third section of the book, about the final stage in what McLean sees as the developmental trajectory of the early scientific romances, presents Wells’s initial attempts to develop the idea of a world state. Chapter 6 interprets The First Men in the Moon (1901) in view of Wells’s Anticipations (1901), his first detailed attempt to describe a possible social order congenial to what science had revealed about human nature. McLean analyzes...