After 1914, war became part of everyday life in Europe in a new way. On August 30 of that year, citizens in Paris looked up to the sky to see a great, silent, and ominous German zeppelin passing overhead. The zeppelin unleashed its bombs on the city, and even though only one person was killed, the event marked the beginning of a new kind of war. On one hand it was total war; as a result of mass mobilization and the importance of industry, civilians had become "legitimate" targets for military attacks. But it was also a technological war, one that would realize the wildest and most horrible dreams of science fiction prophets like H. G. Wells.
Later in 1914, the German zeppelins began to appear over England. The most spectacular air raid of the war took place on the evening of September 2 and the morning of September 3, 1916. A zeppelin fleet dropped over 500 bombs, half of them incendiaries, over the city of London. The bombing covered a wide arch from Gravesend in the east up to Peterborough and the North Sea, and sixteen civilians were killed or wounded. The most memorable moment came when William Leefe-Robinson, piloting a small biplane, was able to shoot down the German airship Schütte-Lanz SL-11. The Schütte-Lanz fell to the earth in a flaming spectacle of destruction before the eyes of thousands of Londoners, and as modern historians have aptly observed, "to some the experience seemed to confirm the prophetic character of science fiction."
The images London citizens may have thought of during the raid came from sources like H. G. Wells's novel The War in the Air, where flying machines of mass destruction demolish the world and return it to a primitive, semifeudal state. Wells was seen as a prophet of the Great War because both his visionary thoughts and the general concerns of science fiction as a genre were wrapped up in the intrinsic problems of the war. The connection or disparity between technological progress and morality had always been central to science fiction, and this concern as demonstrated by science fiction authors grew throughout the 19th century. It was as though the inevitability of the coming war was rapidly making possible their most horrible predictions. H. G. Wells himself, in many ways one of the founding fathers of modern science fiction, serves as a perfect model by which to view the effects of the war on the genre as a whole. But before we do this, it is useful to briefly examine the history and nature of science fiction itself.
Although fantastic stories have been around for almost as long as mankind itself, science fiction as a distinct genre can be said to begin in 1818 with the publication of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. What set Frankenstein apart from its contemporary gothic horror stories and monster tales was its rejection of the supernatural. Rather than relying upon magic and superstition to produce horrific situations, Shelley turned specifically to science. Modern literary criticism suggests that "science fiction can only exist when it is possible to distinguish between [the] natural and the supernatural as realms that very differently create 'the interest of the story.'" At the beginning of the 19th century, the sublime style of gothic terror in literature was popular, but as science and technology were debunking myth and superstition through the side effects of the industrial revolution, it became more and more difficult to write about believable supernatural effects. In 1819, for example, John Keats complained in his poem "Lamia" that "science was emptying the haunted air." Storytellers were hungry for a new convention by which to evoke the terrible and the sublime.
Mary Shelley rose to the challenge, and she created the novel that many claim would set the stage for later science fiction. At the same time, she fundamentally linked science fiction to the questions of technological progress and morality that would boil to the surface a century later during the Great War. During the rainy summer of 1816, Shelley, her husband Percy, John Polidori, and the famous poet Lord Byron decided to amuse themselves by telling ghost stories in their summer house in Geneva. Byron finally challenged the group to make up their own gothic tales, and Frankenstein was Mary Shelley's response to that challenge. She recalled listening to stories about the experiments of Erasmus Darwin, who studied such things as golemism and the reanimation of corpses. Her "thrill of fear" at these accounts produced the story we know today.
The subtitle of the novel, "The Modern Prometheus," speaks volumes about science fiction's role as the critic of technological progress and human morality. On one hand, the title can be a compliment to Victor Frankenstein, who follows the Promethean example by stealing the "fire" of science from the gods for the betterment of mankind. Yet at the same time, the title also suggests an "ironic condemnation of a modern world where self-deluded scientists who regard themselves as Promethean benefactors in reality provide only dangerous monstrosities." Within this contradiction lies the fundamental question which troubles science fiction even today: does technological progress, like a Promethean fire, lead to the betterment of the human race, or does it, like an uncontrollable flame, burn the hands of reckless humans who do not have the skill, wisdom, or foresight to control it?
In works like Frankenstein, at the beginning of the 19th century, these questions appear in science fiction with a romantic spirit of hope and rebellion. Victor Frankenstein admonishes the arctic explorers at the end of the novel to give up their voyage to the mysterious North Pole and cease their investigation into forces they do not understand: "seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition," he says, "even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries." Yet the very next moment he withdraws this taboo: "yet why do I say this? I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed." His faith in the possible goal or end result of science—that it will save mankind and make the world a better place—overrides his fear of the dangers of science, even after his own monster causes such vast havoc and destruction. By the beginning of the 20th century, when the world was on the brink of a seemingly inevitable war of technology, such a faith in progress remained, but it took a remarkably different shape.
H. G. Wells
H. G. Wells is the figure who defined the new shape of science fiction before, during, and after the Great War. In one critic's words, he "revolutionized science fiction while Queen Victoria still reigned and then lived to comment on the destruction of Hiroshima." He prophesied the invention of airplanes, submarines, and even atomic power before the Wright brothers flew their first airplane at Kitty Hawk in 1903, and he lived to see many of his predictions come true. In his youth, he described himself as "a sentimentalist, a moralist, a patriot, a racist, a great general in dreamland, a member of a secret society, an immortal figure in history, an impulsive fork-thrower, and a bawling self-righteous kicker of domestic shins." He was born in 1866, and he was the son of an unsuccessful salesman. Wells was an avid reader with a great capacity for leaning, and eventually he earned a scholarship to attend the Normal School of Science, where in 1884 he began to study with the famous T. H. Huxley. He continued from there to become an accomplished teacher, journalist, and writer. His true masterpieces were The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds (1898), but he wrote prolifically, and his other major works include:
- The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896)
- The Invisible Man (1897)
- When the Sleeper Wakes (1899)
- The First Men on the Moon (1901)
- The Food of the Gods: And How It Came to Earth (1904)
- A Modern Utopia (1905)
- In the Days of the Comet (1906)
- The War in the Air (1908)
- The World Set Free: A Story of Mankind (1914)
In 1901, he also created the precursor of modern futurology in Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life and Thought.
During the years directly before and after the war, Wells turned increasingly away from science fiction toward realistic novels. Some say that he lost his steam (to use an industrial metaphor), but in actuality, "Wells turned not only from what he called scientific romance but also away from fiction itself to the advocacy of a rational world state." George Orwell later called Wells "too sane to understand the modern world," where "nationalism, religious bigotry, and feudal loyalty are far more powerful forces than what he himself would describe as sanity." Frank McConnell, one of Wells's contemporary biographers, notes that
At the end of his golden decade as a science fiction writer, Wells began more and more to abandon the possibilities of pure fantasy [and] free imagination for the strictures and the gray disciplines of social and economic preaching: he began turning his stage into a pulpit.
Similarly, Brian Aldiss comments that:
After The First Men on the Moon (1901), Wells's science fiction novels are never quite the same. They become more like the writing of lesser science fiction authors, the story interspersed with preachments, which chase grandiose but unworkable ideas.
Wells had always clearly seen the vast gap that existed between mankind's moral ideas and its technological development. During the era of the Great War, he realized that pointing out the existence of the fissure was no longer enough; he spent the rest of his life grappling with the question of how to close the gap before humanity would destroy itself.
Wells used scientific phenomena in his writings not as novelties in themselves, but rather as vehicles to offer new angles of vision by which to observe the human experience. He dismissed this technique as "an ingenious use of scientific patter," but indeed, it has now become the standard by which good science fiction is evaluated. Darko Suvin calls science fiction "the literature of cognitive estrangement." In his view, good science fiction uses technology to defamiliarize the ordinary world in such a way that the artifice used to alter the reader's perception demands an examination of the principles and assumptions of the fictional world. In The Time Machine, Wells uses a mechanical engine of time travel to achieve this: his hero journeys (with the aid of technology) to the year AD 802,701. There, humanity has been broken into two subgroups, the Eloi and the Morlocks. Through this division, "Wells poses the problem of whether civilization may short circuit the process by which, according to Darwin, nature ensures adaptation to changing environments." The Eloi, or the "upper-world" class, are empty-minded descendants of humanity who live in paradise, but who serve as cattle and food for the "lower-world" class of the Morlocks, who live beneath the earth, tending to massive machines.
These symbols reveal an undercurrent of the concerns that dominated the era of the First World War. On one hand, there is an overriding fear of socialism; the Morlocks are portrayed as descendants of a working class that has somehow gained control of the world. Yet even deeper than this, we can see a fundamental concern with the relationship between society and evolution. The time machine eventually takes Wells's hero to the end of earth's time some 30 million years in the future, which confronts him with "the shattering implication of time's inhuman duration." Wells's culture was beginning to experience a certain anxiety about the vastness of time and the future. Thomas Malthus's An Essay on the Principle of Population and Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species were widely read documents at the time, and both suggested challenges to conventional religious meaning and the role of mankind in nature. At the same time, the telescope, the microscope, and the sciences of astronomy and geology implied a vast history and an infinite future, and this diminished and relativized man's place in the world and beyond.
In the sad future of the Eloi and the Morlocks, mankind has not progressed or evolved; it has come full circle. Cannibal ancestors have spawned cannibalistic descendants, and all that remains at the end of the world are monsters and tentacled beasts. In The War of the Worlds, earth has been invaded by aliens, but in The Time Machine, the alien monsters are our own descendants. Yet when the time traveler returns, knowing the fate of the future, he leaves us only this: "it remains for us to live as though it were not so."
This statement comes from the Wells of 1895, and it demonstrates both hope and naïveté. This Wells hints at the discontinuity between moral ideas and technological progress, but he places the effects of that discontinuity at the end of time. As the 20th century dawned and the Great War became more inevitable in the minds of both statesmen and authors, Wells found his own dark and prophetic future closing in faster than he had expected, and he turned his task to closing the gap between morality and technology rather than simply observing it.
The key to salvation in Wells's later works is man's very consciousness. Time, nature, and evolution may doom man to extinction, but man's consciousness sets him apart from time, nature, and evolution. Man is self-aware, and as McConnell says:
while this may simply mean that he has the power to be more adept at his own destruction than other less intelligent forms of life, it can also mean that he is capable, through an exercise of will and intellect, of appealing and upsetting the verdict of universal history, of adapting himself to meet even the worst challenge of time.
Wells realizes that mankind must live up to its potential; humans must turn their consciousness and intellect toward stopping their inevitable destruction.
The Great War did not shake Wells's conviction that mankind can save itself, and in many ways he is both one of the first and last great optimists of science fiction. All of his postwar writings carry the same plot with multiple variations: "a massive destructive, bloody, and universal war must occur, given the present conditions of human venality and shortsightedness—a war whose wholesale disaster is sufficient to return civilization to the primal sociological muck out of which all human communities have so arduously struggled." After such a war, mankind is shocked into its senses and people are able to create a new social system that can "give free reign to the human intelligence and the expansiveness of human enterprise, making possible a world of undreamed-of creativity, energy, and joy." This theme is the essential plot of:
- The World Set Free: A Story of Mankind (1914)
- Men Like Gods (1923)
- The Shape of Things to Come (1933)
- Star Begotten: A Biological Fantasia (1937)
- All Aboard for Ararat (1940)
Yet even more significantly, it is the core of the nonfiction critical works he wrote, such as The Outline of History (1920), wherein he presents all of human history as an upward progress that can be understood and used to save the human race from suicide.
In 1914, just months before the outbreak of the war, Wells published The World Set Free: A Story of Mankind. This was perhaps one of his most strikingly prophetic works, because it predicted, in part, the outcome of World War II on the eve of the outbreak of World War I. He foresaw the development of atomic power and weapons in the '30s, and he predicted that atomic warfare would be the chief force that caused an apocalyptic disaster that would destroy the world. Despite this prophecy of impending doom, the novel is optimistic: it imagines the "utopian consequences of atomic bombs as instigators of a world government that would liberate humanity from the specter of warring nation-states." After the destructive world war, the ruined nations of the world band together to form a global government based on the principles of common sense. The story is not told from the perspective of one individual, but rather is seen from the eyes of the human race as a whole. The novel takes the form of a history book written after the war during the world-government period, and it bases its observations on the assumption that the war had to happen in order to shock mankind into the realization that a better future had to be built.
Here we can see both Wells's pessimistic (and justified) fear that technology would be a harbinger of death and his romantic and determined hope that a better future would come as a result. The story of Victor Frankenstein is repeated: Promethean fires are unleashed by "fools" who cannot control them, but in the end, hope remains that someone will remain to succeed where mankind had previously failed. At the same time, Wells emphasizes this in the form of a history, and again his belief that an aggressive and optimistic reading of the story of humanity can reveal an upward progress shines through. Save for a few frustrated visionaries like Wells, mankind will not learn to match progress with wisdom and morality until it experiences the fruits of its folly firsthand. Only then can history speak clearly and reveal the truth that has been present all along. The World Set Free is about a race rather than an individual, and for Wells it is a conscious race that possesses a self-awareness and intelligence that can let it escape from the blind and destructive forward march of the universe.
H. G. Wells died the year after the bombing of Hiroshima. At his memorial service, Winston Churchill said:
Few first class men of letters have more consistently crabbed and girded at the national society and the social system in which they have had their being. Fewer still have owed so much to its ample tolerations and its magnificent complications.
From the standpoint of today, Wells's angry words of 1945—"God damn you all; I told you so"—resonate like thunder when we reflect on the 20th century. Although Wells himself is gone, his legacy lives on in the pages of science fiction. While not all science fiction may give us hope for a better future, most of it continues to give us fresh perspectives on the human experience, and it is through these insights and others that perhaps one day mankind will narrow the distance between technological progress and moral wisdom and actualize the hopeful, defiant, and beautiful wisdom of H. G. Wells.
[Ed. note: Links are not necessarily to the edition consulted.]
Aldiss, Brian, "H. G. Wells," in E. F. Bleiler, ed., Science Fiction Writers (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1982), 25-30.
Alkon, Paul, Science Fiction Before 1900: Imagination Discovers Technology (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994), vii-54.
McConnell, Frank, The Science Fiction of H. G. Wells (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 182-216.
Rottensteiner, Franz, The Science Fiction Book (New York: The Seabury Press, 1975), 27-32.
Shelley, Mary, Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus (New York: Penguin Books, 1983), 15-211.
Wells, H. G., The Time Machine (New York: Bantam Books, 1982), 13-88.
Wells, H. G., "The War of the Worlds," in The Complete Science Fiction Treasury of H. G. Wells (New York: Avenel Books, 1978), 250-350.
Winter, Jay and Baggett, Blaine, 1914-1918: The Great War and the Shaping of the Twentieth Century (New York: Penguin Studio, 1996), 130-132.
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