H. G. Wells 1866–-1946
(Full name Herbert George Wells; also wrote under the pseudonyms Sosthenes Smith, Walker Glockenhammer, and Reginald Bliss) English novelist, short story and novella writer, essayist, lecturer, author of children's books, historian, autobiographer, and critic.
The following entry provides criticism on Wells's short fiction from 1990 through 1999. See also The Time Machine Criticism.
Wells is best known as a major progenitor of modern science fiction who foretold the development of such present-day realities as atomic weaponry and chemical and global warfare. Several of Wells's short stories are acknowledged as classics in the fields of science fiction and fantasy and have profoundly influenced the course of both genres. Critics generally concur that the appeal of his work stems from his ability to introduce exotic or fantastic elements into mundane situations, which often arise from institutional social pressures.
Wells was born into a lower-middle-class Cockney family in Bromley, Kent, a suburb of London. He was awarded a scholarship to London University and the Royal College of Science, where he studied zoology under noted biologist T. H. Huxley, who instilled in him a belief in social as well as biological evolution. After graduating from London University, Wells published his first nonfiction work, Text-Book of Biology (1893), and contributed short stories to several magazines. The serialization of his novella The Time Machine (1895) launched his career as an author of fiction, and his subsequent science fiction and science fantasies proved extremely popular with audiences and critics alike. Enabled by his growing fame to meet such prominent authors as Arnold Bennett and Joseph Conrad, Wells developed his own prose style while serving under editor Frank Harris as a literary critic for The Saturday Review. A socialist, Wells joined the Fabian Society in 1903, but left the group after fighting a long, unsuccessful war of wit and rhetoric over some of the group's policies with his friend George Bernard Shaw, a prominent Fabian and man of letters. Wells's socialist thought, coupled with a belief in the gradual advancement of humanity through evolution and scientific innovation, is expressed in his short fiction in the form of imaginative fantasies in which the innovative ideas of liberated individuals intrude upon conformistic society.
Most of Wells's short stories were published prior to World War I, a period when Wells was commonly regarded as an advocate of the new, the iconoclastic, and the daring. However, the war and its aftermath of widespread disillusionment upset his optimistic vision of humankind. Wells's postwar ideas on the perfectibility of humanity were modified to stress the necessity of education in bringing about progress. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Wells's fiction became progressively less optimistic about the future of humanity. The advent of World War II increased Wells's despondency about the future, and his last book, Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945), predicts the destruction of civilization and the degeneration of humanity. Wells died in London in 1946.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Wells's canon of short fiction includes approximately seventy short stories and two novellas, most of which were originally published in five collections. His early sketches, many of which appeared in his first short fiction collection, The Stolen Bacillus, and Other Incidents (1895), are considered indicative of the exceptional descriptive skills, narrative prowess, and striking imagination that characterize his later stories and novels. The pieces in Wells's next major collection, The Plattner Story, and Others (1897), are generally considered indicative of the wide range of his talent and are often based upon seemingly absurd premises that have their basis in concrete theory. Tales of Space and Time (1899), a volume of science fiction tales, contains “The Star,” a critically acclaimed story that is regarded as exemplary of Wells's technique of building vivid imagery in poetic terms. “The Star” concerns the discovery of a bright planet that is eventually revealed to be a comet hotter and brighter than the sun. As the celestial body approaches the earth, Wells invests the narrative with detailed images of impending catastrophes such as tidal waves, escalating temperatures, and earthquakes. The stories in his next volume, Twelve Stories and a Dream (1903), are generally regarded as less consistent in range and quality than his previous tales. The volume contains “The New Accelerator,” in which a physiologist discovers a drug that stimulates the nervous system to function at several thousand times its normal rate. After taking a dose with a friend, he walks along Folkestone Leas in England, observing the world in a seeming state of suspended animation.
Wells wrote successively fewer short stories after 1910, preferring to devote himself to longer works. Although primarily comprised of pieces that appeared in previous collection, The County of the Blind, and Other Stories (1911) contains several new stories written in the mature style of his later works. The title piece has appeared in many anthologies and possibly remains his most frequently debated work of short fiction. In “The Country of the Blind,” a mountaineer named Núñez risks traversing the Andes Mountains in South America to reach a valley were all native inhabitants are blind. Recalling the mythical proverb “In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” he believes he will attain power over the natives but is instead treated as an insane criminal and reduced to menial tasks. Presented with the chance to marry a woman with whom he has fallen in love if he will consent to have his eyes removed, Núñez initially agrees, but then attempts to escape to the mountains, preferring the remote possibility of death. While some reviewers view Núñez as a selfish exploiter who seeks to force European values on a peaceful and content native people, others perceive him as a heroic individual who resists the blind conformity of an inward society.
Together with Jules Verne, Wells is regarded as one of the most prominent innovators in the fields of science fiction and fantasy. The continued popularity of his books, the tremendous body of criticism devoted to them, and the liberalizing effect that much of his work has had on Western thought combine to establish Wells as one of the major figures in twentieth-century literature. Although some critics contend that Wells's stories reflect the distinct influence of such diverse authors as Jules Verne, Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, and Rudyard Kipling, many concur with the opinion of J. R. Hammond: “[In] the last analysis his stories have a distinctive quality which gives them a flavor peculiar to himself; it lies in their ability to stimulate thought, to suggest new possibilities of action, to unfold novel horizons of human endeavor.”