H. G. Wells’s early scientific romances begin with The Time Machine and conclude with The First Men in the Moon. His social satires and comic romances commence with Kipps and end with The History of Mr. Polly. Didactic fiction dominated his last decades, from Ann Veronica to You Can’t Be Too Careful. Throughout is a struggle between science and socialism. Visions of doom alternate with calls for reform and renewal; individuals acquire knowledge of science but lose control of their destinies.
The Time Machine
Wells’s early novels are journeys of ironic discovery. The enduring point of The Time Machine is in the Time-Traveller’s frightening discovery in the year 802701. He encounters the Eloi, who have been terrorized by the Morlocks, molelike creatures who prey on the flesh of the Upper-worlders. They are the fruits of an evolutionary process of separating capitalists from workers. Before he returns to his own time, the Time-Traveller accidentally moves even further into the future, to an Earth about to fall into a dying Sun.
The Island of Dr. Moreau
Edward Prendick, narrator of The Island of Dr. Moreau, is a castaway, grateful to reach Moreau’s island—until he realizes its horrors. He thinks that Moreau is turning people into animals, but when he finds the Beast-people, he realizes his mistake. Moreau explains that pain is animality, and he excises pain to humanize animals, but they kill him as they revert to their animal natures. Prendick barely escapes becoming an animal before he returns to civilization, where he has anxiety attacks about people’s animality.
Pessimism is never far from the surface of Wells’s writing. Losing faith in reason, he turned to prophetic satire, as in The Invisible Man. In this story, Griffin, having failed to anticipate the awful effects of losing visibility, has lapsed in ethical responsibility because he had no training or economic opportunity to make better use of his knowledge. Lacking love, he lacks constructive purpose for his power. His invisibility represents knowledge itself, as either destructive or constructive. Knowledge and power combine without sympathy in The War of the Worlds to result in catastrophe. The narrator is a frightened man struggling to compete for survival of the fittest. He believes that the Martians are little more than brains, dispassionate reason threatening annihilation. All brain with no sympathy threatens civilization, but so does instinct with no brain. The Martians are near success when suddenly they begin to die, ironically having succumbed to some of Earth’s tiniest life-forms, bacteria.
The First Men in the Moon
Wells reverses the cosmic journey in The First Men in the Moon, as Bedford accompanies eccentric scientist Cavor to mine the Moon, adding private enterprise to science. The heroes find an intoxicating mushroom, which prompts Bedford to speculate that his private motive for profit will produce public benefits—even for the Moon itself. This madly grandiose notion is subverted when Bedford and Cavor are captured by the antlike Selenites, who live under the surface of the Moon. When Bedford escapes alone to Earth, Cavor sends messages that he is to be executed to prevent Earth inhabitants from returning with their violent ways, to do to the Moon what Wells had envisioned in The War of the Worlds, where Earth was invaded by Martians.
The Food of the Gods, and How It Came to Earth
The Food of the Gods, and How It Came to Earth edges beyond science and humor into socialism and satire. Experiments with Boomfood on a chicken farm cause mass destruction through the creation of giant chickens, rats, and wasps; human babies become giants, and ordinary mortals grow terrified. Wells is on the giants’ side, because they can make a new world by destroying the faults of the old. People accommodate to preserve old ways, but they shut their eyes to truth, eventually causing a crisis of choice between old and new. The story ends as the giants prepare for a war with the little people.
In the Days of the Comet
With In the Days of the Comet Wells presents a more optimistic view of changes that can be made in the world. Willie Leadford describes life before the great “change,” when a comet turned Earth into paradise. The power of the novel, however, is in the rhythm of rage and hate that accelerates as Willie pursues the woman he loved, to kill her and her new lover. This momentum is accented by other accelerating events, including economic crisis and war with Germany. The comet changes all, including Willie and his beloved, Nettie, who offers to live with both lovers. In a new world, people learn to accept polygamy as natural and right.
Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul is a story like Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860-1861, serial; 1861, book). The aunt and uncle who reared Kipps expected him to become a store clerk; Kipps has not been very skilled at anything he has undertaken, and he proves no better at handling an unexpected inheritance. Kipps has a dreary existence: He gains no real pleasure from life, not even from reading. Life in lower-middle-class commercial and shopkeeping society is without...
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