Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Herbert George Wells - Great Science Fiction Author
It is HG Wells' birthday today. He is not the most consistent writer I've ever read, not by a long shot. But he is one of the most interesting. His fiction is, in a lot of ways, what science fiction should be: a thinly veiled critique of today's society. He accomplishes this by pushing tendencies of it to the extreme. The things I appreciate most about science fiction are clearly present in HG Wells' work. He also sits within the epic tradition.
I love the part in War of the Worlds when all the people just line up on the street, trying to escape town, and once they are out of town, amongst the fields, they stick to the street. Initially the act is so surprising for the aliens that they don't even target the people all lined up for killing. The protagonist, on the other hand, hides and sneaks and forges his own path, and because of that he has a hard go of it but comes closer to truth and comes out better in the end. If this isn't a parallel to day-to-day life I don't know what it.
The Invisible Man is a story about a man unable to fit into society. Unlike the Odyssey, where the protagonist is a PTSD scarred war vet who cannot re-integrate into the society that sent him out to kill, this is a kid that is poor, and therefore feels he cannot integrate into society. However, like Odysseus, he does superhuman things – becomes invisible – and, again like Odysseus, though it helps him stay alive it doesn't help him in the long run with his overarching problem of being unable to be a part of his society.
As Darwin's ideas hit the scientific community in the 1800s, the idea of degeneration, or the idea that the state of humanity need not be fixed, spread like wildfire. Wells took the idea of human evolution to a logical extreme in the Island of Dr Moreau. In that work a doctor on an island creates humans out of animals, but continues to treat them as animals. When he is done experimenting he sets them free on the island and they form their own society. However, this story is really dealing with the inhuman nature of science: warning against vivisection and human experimentation. The island's compound is a parallel for a lab while the island is a parallel for the memory of prior experiments gone wrong. The animals then become people from this scientific culture attempting to parrot humanity, while really engrossed in something other, something inhuman. Two years after this popular book came out The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection was founded.
But my favorite work of his to read is the Time Machine. This is one of my favorite books of all time – in the top five at least. Sitting right around 32,000 words this incredibly dense story can be read easily within an afternoon. It is Wells' first work in a prolific career. Told by an unnamed man around a dinner table, this is the first major work to deal with the idea of time travel. Some say Wells invented the concept, and though I disagree, he does have a major influence on time travel fiction. In he creates a society where humanity has everything provided for it and no longer has challenges or conflicts. This lack of adversarial stimulation produces a significant lack in intelligence and the two races of human he encounters are neither able to think like humans today. As he becomes stuck and then frees himself, it is clear that these are truly post-human beings, but not in the typical (for 2010 at least) singularity sense, but rather in an evolutionary sense. The two groups are logical extensions of the lower and upper classes. It is a fantastic piece about never shying away from challenges in your life and about the adverse affects of a rigidly classed culture, where rich people cannot communicate with or understand poor people and vice-versa. If this tendency hasn't happened throughout history I don't know what else has. But the story is, in my mind, his best written and one of my favorites. It reads so well.
He has protagonists that, through the distraction, evolution, or stupidity of other characters are superhuman heroes who do what other people only attempt. Their deeds are superhuman in the sense that they are out of the norm of humanity. His setting in the War of the Worlds and in Time Machine are vast settings spanning space and time respectively. Supernatural or otherworldly forces intrude on humanity and the heroes, but sometimes it is just human culture that intrudes. It is overwritten and exciting – explosions, babes, crazy scientific advancements, half-human half-animal creatures, and highly stylized, especially with the triple narrator setup in Time Machine. The only epic characteristic that doesn't always fit is the omniscient narrator. Though that one fits War of the Worlds partially. (These six elements are from Tom Drake's epic page.)
HG Wells is an underrated author who should be read by more people. Yes half of his books are utter crap filled with misspellings and grammatical errors that drive even me crazy. But these four main books of his are cultural treasures that, unfortunately, culture ignores. This is what science fiction should be. This is why HG Wells deserves to be remembered on his birthday. So here's to you, Mr Wells, thanks for the entertainment and interesting ideas. Spot on mate.