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In 1877, Joseph Wells broke his leg. It was an accident that seriously affected his ability to earn a living, and to make ends meet his wife returned to service, taking up a position at Up Park in Sussex. In such straightened circumstances, they also put their teenaged son into an apprenticeship with a draper in Bromley. By 1883, however, with his parents now living apart, young Herbert George persuaded them to end his apprenticeship early and let him return to education. It must have been a severe financial blow, but it says a lot about H.G. Wells: he was clever, ambitious, persuasive, and selfish, at least by analogy to Dawkins’s selfish gene. He had a future in mind, and he was going after that future come what may. He was, in other words, fertile ground for the evolutionary ideas he would come into contact with at the Normal School of Science. His time there overlapped by a year with T.H. Huxley’s, and though it is not known whether he was ever taught directly by Huxley, there is no doubt that Wells absorbed Huxley’s ideas lock, stock, and barrel, and they remained with him throughout his career. In the latter years of the nineteenth century, Darwin’s theory was slowly gaining popular acceptance, but with it was the common assumption that evolution had reached its end, that man, specifically the Victorian Englishman, was the peak to which evolution had forever been aspiring. What made Huxley unusual was his recognition that evolution was an on-going process. Wells seized on this idea; it is most dramatically addressed in his first book-length fiction, The Time Machine (1895), but the long evolutionary view underpins everything else he wrote, scientific romances, mainstream novels, history books, scientific texts, political treatises, and the rest. In this fascinating book, W. Warren Wager examines how this long view of time permeates throughout Wells’s fiction and non-fiction, particularly underlying the utopian political views that were to be such a feature of his work.

There is a popular view, repeated by Wagar in this book, that Wells, a young, married, and settled schoolteacher, only turned to writing as a career as a result of tuberculosis. I don’t believe this. Wells had been writing for years; he had co-founded the school magazine in which many of his pieces, including "The Chronic Argonauts," had appeared, and he was already beginning to sell articles to Frank Harris’s Fortnightly Review. I am convinced that Wells always had ambitions to become a professional writer, and that the case of TB only provided the final impetus. Whatever the cause, after a textbook on Biology and a handful of short stories, The Time Machine appeared in 1895, and thereafter he produced at least one book, and more often two or three (or in 1940, a staggering total of five books), every year for the rest of his life. One can only wonder that he ever found time to broadcast regularly on the radio, script films, become involved with setting up the League of Nations, lay the groundwork for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and have affairs with a seemingly endless succession of the most talented women of the day. Such a huge output inevitably means that the quality of his work varied, and it is the four or five scientific romances he wrote at the start of his career that have survived best. Nevertheless, there are now almost as many books about Wells as he wrote himself, and many of these seem to have come from W. Warren Wagar.

Wagar is a historian of ideas rather than a literary critic. (This explains some of the literary judgements to be found in this book; only a historian of ideas would consider The Shape of Things to Come (1933) as Wells’s finest work.) It is this calling which actually makes his latest volume on Wells such an interesting book, because it effectively takes the form of the biography of an idea. The idea in question is Wells’s notion of the future, and specifically the political shape of that future. It wasn’t just in scientific romances such as A Modern Utopia (1905) and The World Set Free (1914)—which incidentally gave Leo Szilard the idea for an atomic bomb—that he addressed the future. He did so in his monumental educational projects, The Outline of History (1920), perhaps the most commercially successful and most influential book he ever wrote, and The Science of Life (with Julian Huxley and G.P. Wells, 1931), and in mainstream novels as varied as Tono-Bungay (1909) and The World of William Clissold (1926). Because most of his non-fiction from at least the turn of the twentieth century onwards was political in character, it is worth stressing that Wells was, by training, a biologist, and brought a long evolutionary view to every topic.

Fairly early in his career as a public intellectual, Wells came up with the idea of a World State towards which our society would eventually turn, usually at the expense of a massive and debilitating war. This World State, he decided, would be ruled by an informal alliance of technocrats—skilled workers, educators, managers—a group he called, in A Modern Utopia, the ‘samurai’. The exact nature of the samurai, the route by which the World State might be achieved, and the overall timescale changed constantly, but the kernel of the idea remained, as Wagar demonstrates in this exhaustive but never exhausting reading of very nearly everything Wells ever wrote.

I suspect that Wells was a short-term pessimist but, as an evolutionary biologist, a long-term optimist. The closer to home he looked the darker the vision, and he was never able to envisage the sunny uplands of his utopian World State except across the grim wastes of war. Given that he lived through two world wars, this is a perhaps excusable predilection. It was only at the very beginning (The Time Machine) and end (Mind at the End of its Tether, 1945) of his career that the long view also became dark. Wagar has a tendency to see these changes in perspective as Wells changing his mind. It has to be said that Wells’s was a restless, magpie mind, forever picking up new ideas, and he did flirt at various times with Fabianism, theism, even fascism, and despite the constancy of his view of the World State, there was little that was really consistent about what he wrote. Nevertheless, while he might imagine different routes, the destination of history remained much the same throughout his work. It is just that those works move in and out of different periods of the past and future—Wagar is right to refer to Wells constantly as a "chrononaut." And what this book does extraordinarily well is tie together everything that Wells wrote, from the most humdrum mainstream fiction (Joan and Peter, 1918; The Bulpington of Blup, 1932) to the most argumentative non-fiction (Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought, 1902; The Open Conspiracy, 1928), and demonstrate that it all lies on a continuum of thought first laid out right at the beginning of his career in The Time Machine. Expressed in accessible and very personal terms, this is about as good an outline of Wellsian ideas as we are ever likely to want.

Paul Kincaid is the Administrator of the Arthur C. Clarke Award. His fiction has been shortlisted for the BSFA Award, and his criticism appears regularly in SF Studies,The New York Review of SF, Foundation, Vector and elsewhere. He has contributed to numerous reference books on science fiction.

Paul Kincaid has received the Thomas Clareson Award and has twice won the BSFA Non-Fiction Award, most recently for his book-length study, Iain M. Banks (2017). He is also the author of What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction (2008) and Call and Response (2014).
One comment on “H.G.Wells: Traversing Time by W. Warren Wagar”
Philip Hamm

I did my post-graduate thesis on HG Wells so I'm pleased to see he has not been entirely forgotten. One explanation for why Wells goes into writing in so many different styles is the desperation he feels as a young man to be 'part of something'. If you look at the characterisation in the early novels they are all about breaking through the financial and class barriers of late Victorian England. When he manages to reach the heady heights of society and becomes an established author he loses some of that necessity for financial stability and begins to believe he can make a difference. Interestingly Wells never considered himself a writer in the mode of his peers (Shaw, Galsworthy or Belloc) but more as a journalist; his aim was to inform and question. His fiction 'cut best where it cut deepest' rather than purposefully going out of its way to entertain. His later fiction wasn't trying very hard; by the 1920s he had taken his role as an educator completely to heart and the 'fun' is often conspicuous by its absence.

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