On My Shelves: H.G. Wells




     While the bulk of his written work was general fiction and commentary, Herbert George Wells is remembered today along with Jules Verne as one of the fathers of modern science fiction. I first encountered his work somewhat secondhand, as part of the script for the Orson Welles version of War of the Worlds; this was published in a marvelous anthology called simply Contact!, a collection of "first contact" stories (humanity's initial encounter with alien intelligences).


     It was many years later that I was looking for something new to read in the local library, and recalled Wells' name. I immediately went to the W's in Fiction, and there were several large Wells collections; I proceeded to sit down and devour most of his SF output in the next couple of days.


     H.G. Wells can lay claim to the invention (or at least first popularization) of several of science fiction's most enduring and popular core themes. Wells gave us the first terrifying invasion of our world by vastly superior aliens in The War of the Worlds. In The Time Machine, he gave us the quintessential time-traveller concept, not as some fantasy or dream but as the product of hard and focused scientific work. The Food of the Gods anticipates the kaiju and "mad scientist" creation of supersized creatures subgenres. He explored the consequences of man "tampering with things he was not meant to know" in multiple novels. Besides The Food of the Gods, The Invisible Man explores the consequences of a man acquiring a power far beyond those of his compatriots – and one that also isolates him from other people – and The Island of Doctor Moreau anticipates concerns of genetic engineering, the determination of how to treat different intelligent species, and other aspects; The Sleeper Wakes may well be the first science-fiction based tale of a man who outlives his era due to some form of suspended animation (Rip Van Winkle, obviously, anticipates the basic concept).


     Both Verne and Wells tackled the idea of a trip to the moon. Interestingly, Verne's From the Earth to the Moon used a hard-SF approach which was utterly unworkable if theoretically reasonable (firing the capsule from a gargantuan gun at escape velocity has SO many practical objections to it, starting with the fact that the acceleration would turn your passengers to goo), while in The First Men in the Moon Wells used "Cavorite", one of the earliest mentions of what we now refer to as "unobtainium", a material whose properties permit whatever action is in the story to take place, to give our heroes the ability to literally insulate something from the influence of gravity; Wells then tells a story of an otherwise much more practical trip to the Moon, although his Moon is of course… rather different from the one we know today.


     This makes Wells, in some ways, more aligned with the mainstream concepts of science fiction than Verne, who stays fairly firmly on the hard-SF side of the line. Verne wanted to tell his adventure stories often centered around amazing technology, while Wells was focused on telling a tale that often had a meaning or moral involved, and thus used technology of one sort or another as his jumping-off point but did not let the limitations of known science hinder him. The gadgetry and inventions and phenomena – invisibility formula, Cavorite, Martians, suspended-animation  serum – simply provide a mechanism to tell the story in a particular way that might be more effective than trying to discuss things in a more realistic context.


     Both men achieved huge success and remain well-known to this day, and contributed immensely to the field of literature, and most especially that particular branch of literature known as science fiction. But while Verne is one of the great fathers of hard science fiction, and likely the progenitor of the particular subgenres of the technothriller and the "madman taking over the world", I think it is H.G. Wells whose legacy looms largest overall. He not only originated more of SF's most core ideas, he also produced stories which used those ideas as they have most often been used, in ways accessible to more people because they specifically focus, not on the creation of the gadget, but on the consequences of the gadget, the invention, the capability – and this is what tends to hook people, to draw them in and bring them back.


     This approach also tends to be more… resilient, I suppose. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, awesome a story though it is, is pretty much explicitly limited to its time. To re-write it in modern or future settings would require a great deal of work, and could fail easily for the simple reason that it would have a hard time managing the essential appeal of the original – the hard-SF yet graspable super-submarine built by the lone genius simply doesn't work in a modern context.


     By contrast, the story of alien invasion hardly needs to be changed at all – and the changes will be, overall, surface details. It is not terribly important to the story of War of the Worlds that the Martians use heat rays per se; give them blasters, anti-gravity cannons, whatever, or even that they be Martians at all; give them a distant origin and superior technology, the story is basically untouched.  The same is true of The Time Machine, The Sleeper Wakes, or The Island of Doctor Moreau; we can change the specific technical details, even change the time and setting, and the story survives with minimal changes.


     Because of this, I suspect more people have used H.G. Wells' work as a basis than Verne's. It's easier to adapt… and thus vastly stronger as an influence across the genre. We authors steal…er, are inspired by many sources, and the ones most used are those that can survive being transferred to different settings and times with minimal disruption. Such are the works of Mr. Wells.


     H.G. Wells was a well-known socialist. Given that, I think he might very well be pleased, at least, that his work is now part of the great public domain, and is used by so many people to bring joy to others.


     Thank you, Mr. Wells, for all you gave.





  1. At this remove, I can no longer tell which of his books I have read from which of the movies I have seen. And one of the best movies was when Herbert himself chases Jack the Ripper forward in time to America, and returns to his own time with a late 20th century wife. Swapping his broken glasses at one point with a spare pair in his desk on display.

    He was a great writer. “War of the Worlds” inspired, among others, “Independance Day” and Heinlein’s “Puppet Masters”.

    I’ve been wondering if you have Niven and Pournelle On Your Bookshelf. Besides their alien invasion story “Footfall,” there’s their other alien invasion stories, “The Mote in God’s Eye” and “The Gripping Hand.” The aliens in the latter two are those weird bilaterally symetric creatures who invade through the Crazy Eddy points.

  2. And lately she’s been working at the warehouse…

Your comments or questions welcomed!