The Magazine

Future Perfect

H. G. Wells and the history of things to come

May 17, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 33 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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H. G. Wells is famous today mostly -- perhaps only -- for the science-fiction novels he published in the 1890s, the first decade of his long and prolific career. Although the books owed something to Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe, Wells devised a style strictly his own to create such works as The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. He "has caught the trick," as one reviewer claimed at the time, of mixing "imagination with the technical precision of a newspaper reporter." Wells was (as the British writer Brian Aldiss more recently put it) "the Shakespeare of science fiction."

But after these early successes -- insisting that he didn't want to be remembered as a mere purveyor of "sensational" stories -- Wells began to distance himself from the "scientific romances" that had made his name. He wanted to be thought of as a serious literary artist, which drove him from 1900 to 1915 to produce several ambitious novels about class and society, including Kipps, Tono-Bungay, and The New Machiavelli. And he wanted to be thought of as a pundit and seer, which drove him in 1905 to write A Modern Utopia -- the book that his modern readers assume represents his first foray into what would become a life-long obsession: the establishment of a super-efficient "World State."

But Wells, in fact, had ventured down this road before. In 1901, he published his Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life and Thought. Now largely forgotten, Anticipations was intended as a serious prediction about the shape of human life and culture in the year 2000. It was the Future Shock of its day, widely disputed and hotly defended throughout England and America. The book's appeal came partly from its novelty. There was an entire genre of such "future histories," sparked by the turn of the century, but unlike most of them -- including Edward Bellamy's still-read Looking Backward -- Anticipations didn't present itself as a novel. This wasn't scientific fiction, or tea-leaf augury, but scientific prediction, written in a prose so assured it seemed to carry instant conviction. The world it predicted and celebrated in 1901 was clean, technological, bureaucratic, scientific -- and a whole lot like Hitler's Germany.

As a child Wells was intellectually curious and read voraciously. But his schooling was uneven, his options few. His father ran a struggling shop in Bromley, a far London suburb. His mother, a lady's maid, forced him at fifteen to start work as a draper -- a future he loathed. Determined to stick with his education, he won a scholarship to train as a teacher at the Normal School of Science in South Kensington.

Wells wasn't a notable student, tending to neglect his classes in favor of roaming London's engrossing streets. But he never missed the lectures of South Kensington's star instructor, Thomas Huxley, who was known inter nationally both for his biological research and his elegant, accessible essays on various scientific issues and social themes. Indeed, Huxley's central ideas inform virtually everything that Wells ever wrote. Huxley, known popularly as "Darwin's Bulldog," stressed that evolution didn't necessarily equal progress; that "retrogressive is as practical as progressive metamorphosis"; and that while human beings couldn't hope to escape distant cosmic calamity -- a "universal winter" induced by a cooling sun -- they could in the interim improve their earthly lot. Huxley looked forward to a worldwide "Kingdom of Man" where "the struggle for existence" is ended and enlightenment reigns.

Given his spotty record at Kensington, Wells couldn't land a good teaching job and so tried his hand at journalism. Indeed, Wells wrote with such cleverness and zest that, in later years, he could fairly point to himself as a prime example of what happens to a talented man who finds his focus and masters his will. Well's first published fiction included Poe-like tales and humorous sketches that owed a bit to Charles Dickens's Sketches By Boz. Then came the string of early, popular novels, including The Island of Dr. Moreau in 1896, The Invisible Man in 1897, and When the Sleeper Wakes in 1898.

His 1901 Anticipations caught well the hopeful mood that prevailed throughout much of the industrialized world between the 1890s and the First World War. The nineteenth century had, after all, produced major progress in manufacturing, transportation, housing, and hygiene. Even war was widely viewed as a bane of the past. The nineteenth century was, on the whole, remarkably peaceful -- "an anomaly," writes one historian, "in an otherwise continuous pattern of warfare" over the previous five centuries.