The Magazine

The Wells Machine

A novelist reimagines a novelist’s progress.

Nov 28, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 11 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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Lodge retraces Wells’s rise from very modest beginnings in Bromley, the London borough where his muddled father kept a china shop. Wells’s mother, a maid, pushed her book-loving son into training as a draper—a respectable trade, she reckoned, that wouldn’t leave him grimy and worn at the end of the day. Wells, though, tried teaching and journalism before publishing the string of “scientific romances” that made his name. The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, The First Men in the Moon, and In the Days of the Comet all appeared between 1895 and 1906, along with stories, essays, and books of nonfiction. It was a display of ingenuity and industry not seen since the young Dickens first burst upon the scene.

Early on Wells also published Kipps and Tono-Bungay, effective Dickens-like satires targeting phony advertising and greed. But by 1900 he had wearied of being described as a popular entertainer, or a Dickens imitator, or the English Jules Verne. So he wrote Anticipations, a speculative look at life in the year 2000 that Lodge declines to describe in detail. Wells, who was often spot-on with his predictions, offers in Anticipations an engaging picture of a future filled with motorcars, superhighways, and tidy suburbs where houses are centrally heated and filled with all sorts of marvelous appliances like electric stoves and sound machines that deliver the news every hour.

But Wells had also yielded to the zeitgeist, at least as manifested within the intellectual left during the final decades of the 19th century. Anticipations assumes that these civic and technological advances will arrive only after the prevailing social order has been destroyed. Wells, who joined the Fabian Society in 1903, would spend years attacking profit-seeking and private property. With Beatrice and Sidney Webb, the leading Fabians of the day, Wells believed that only socialism could show the way.

The Webbs, however, were a bit too squishy for Wells, better equipped to run an academic conference than set up a proper collectivist state. Wells had hit on the idea of replacing Britain’s rigid class system with—a rigid class system. On top were more virile rulers than the ones that filled the daydreams of Beatrice and Sidney. Wells’s strapping “New Republicans” would, for starters, chuck the old religions, practicing a sort of Muscular Agnosticism instead. Theirs would be a “spacious faith” rooted in science and reason with the books of Darwin and Malthus as guiding texts.

Wells’s leaders will keep a close watch on procreation, ensuring that only “beautiful and strong bodies, clear and powerful minds” will be allowed to flourish; for many others—including “contemptible and silly creatures, fear-driven and helpless and useless”—the “Men of the New Republic will have little pity and benevolence.” Oddballs and others judged not up to speed can stick around, apparently, “on the understanding that they do not propagate.”

In Wellsland, however, Free Love prevails, at least for the “superior peoples.” Having mastered the contraceptive arts, Wells’s enlightened bosses will sort out the “illogical and incoherent” system of codes and prohibitions that have for so long kept people from “leading happy and healthy sexual lives.” For them, “the question of sexual relationships would be entirely on all fours with, and probably very analogous to, the question of golf.” 

In each case it would be for the medical man and the psychologist to decide how far the thing was wholesome and permissible, and how far it was an aggressive bad habit and an absorbing waste of time and energy.

Wells practiced what he preached. Lodge has him insisting that “my temperament is essentially comic—I want life to be enjoyable, I like festive occasions and happy endings, I like sex and games.” Wells looked like a High Street bank manager.  But at least one of his lovers knew him as “Jaguar,” the lusty cat wont to prowl naked “round the room, emitting low-pitched growls” before springing into bed, claws at the ready. Wells, Lodge reports, “acknowledged the animal nature of lust but turned it into a kind of erotic theatre.”

Lodge shows relatively little interest in Wells’s political theories and the way they reappear, with increasing desperation, in a series of books that all seem to be titled The Shape of the World Brain to Come, or something similar. Lodge is mainly interested in Wells’s sexual practices and his more fascinating partners. A list of his better-known lovers would include the birth control advocate Margaret Sanger and the writers Amber Reeves, Elizabeth von Arnim, Violet Hunt, Dorothy Richardson, and Rebecca West, each of whom turns up in
A Man of Parts.