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Summer of H.G. Wells

Finally...my very belated thoughts on my Summer of H.G. Wells. To recap, I read War of the Worlds, The Island of Dr. Moreau, In the Days of the Comet, The Time Machine, The First Men in the Moon, The Food of the Gods, and The Invisible Man.

After reading these seven novels, a few things struck me about Wells. First, these books - universally regarded as science fiction - weren't heavily scientific. In fact, he mostly glossed over the technological breakthroughs (time machine, anti-gravity matter, hypergrowth-generating food, invisibility potion) to focus heavily on their aftermath. And even when the turning point is natural instead of manmade, in In the Days of the Comet, in which a comet strikes Earth but, instead of obliterating humankind, instead makes the world a peaceful and equitable place, he barely mentions the collision and doesn't even bother to explain how the resulting gas cloud magically transforms society. He never seemed to worry about the actual science, just the impact that science could cause.

Second, he had a great (and almost comically implausible) belief in human speech, and the ability of homo sapiens to communicate with others: the animal-human hybrids of The Island of Doctor Moreau, the moon-dwelling Selenites of The First Men in the Moon, the simple-minded descendants of humans in The Time Machine. No matter how distant from humans these others are, Wells' protagonists still manage to develop a common language with the others, and can fully comprehend everything they say. And those others often have a remarkable tendency to speak like 19th Century English gentlemen.

Lastly, Wells' scientist protagonists were almost entirely incapable of foreseeing the ramifications for their inventions, whether personal (Griffin, in The Invisible Man, bafflingly decides to take his potion in the dead of winter, which means he can only evade arrest by remaining stark naked, outdoors) or societal (widespread death and destruction), and later did almost nothing to fix the havoc that their creations ultimately inflict. You can tell that Wells must have admired scientists in their singular quests, but also disdained their blind ambition and ethical deficiency.

In short, it was another good summer of reading. One or two clunkers, of course, but several books that I will gladly read again, particularly The Time Machine (I'll never forget the image of The Time Traveler on that desolate beach, at nearly the end of Earth's existence) and The Island of Dr. Moreau. I think, as a general rule of thumb, that I'd recommend Wells' shorter novels, when he focused more on action and plot, and gave himself less time for expository lecturing.

(Incidentally, after reading these books and enduring Wells' frequent bloviations about capitalism, socialism, social justice, religion, etc., I'm now less tempted to read The Wheels of Chance, which I've seen cited a few times as one of the greatest cycling novels. I'm not sure whether that means it's a great novel, period, or that there aren't very many cycling novels - I suspect the latter. I'm a cyclist myself, so I know that long rides give you plenty of time alone with your thoughts - and so, unless Wells came up with a really compelling plot, the book might not consist of much more than his protagonist being alone with his thoughts, and bloviating about capitalism, socialism, social justice, religion, etc.)

September 28, 2017 in Books | Permalink


"a remarkable tendency to speak like 19th Century English gentlemen"

Is In the Days of the Comet one where he bloviates? That's the one that sounds most interesting to me.

Posted by: Paul at Sep 29, 2017 4:22:29 AM

The most obvious example of that English gentlemen speech is in Dr. Moreau. Kind of ridiculous. And actually, In The Days of the Comet was the least interesting of the seven books, possibly due to its lack of an ethically deficient scientist creating a mess he has absolutely no interest in fixing.

Posted by: Pete at Oct 1, 2017 10:32:51 AM

For such a genuinely brilliant guy with a keen eye on the future, Wells seems to have been remarkably blind to the possibility that changes--technological, social, cultural--had complex, multidimensional ramifications. In his intro to Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, Lionel Trilling notes that Wells "had pooh-poohed the threat of Hitler and had written off as anachronisms the very forces that were at the moment shaping the world--racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, patriotism, love of war." Even so, it looks like you had fun digging into Wells! Revisiting famous but little-read books is always a series of minor, memorable revelations.

Posted by: Jeff at Oct 6, 2017 12:23:56 AM