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H.G Wells: the man who invented tomorrow

June 9, 2011

The British Library has been holding science fiction themed lectures in conjunction with its Out of this World exhibition, and having recently read The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau and being, currently, half way through The War of the Worlds, I’ve been looking forward to the H.G. Wells talk for some time. From first reading The Time Machine, and consequently learning a little about Wells himself, I have found his prolific and varied literary output incredibly intriguing, particularly his scientific fiction.

The lecture consisted of a discussion and question and answer session with David Lodge (who has recently written a novel A Man of Parts about the life of Wells), Steven Baxter (who has written a sequel to The Time Machine), and Adam Roberts (who writes Science fiction and teaches literatures at Royal Holloway), about the author’s life and works.

Whilst the talk moved between discussion of Wells’ life (particularly his many relations with women) and his various works, I was specifically interested in discussions of Wells’ Utopian and Dystopian visions, and how he grappled with both throughout his career.

The two (and a half) scientific fiction works by Wells that I have read to date are all written in the early period of his career where he was poor and in ill-health, and these novels depict gloomy prospects of devolution, monstrous vivisection, and alien attack. The panelists explained that, as Wells made a name for himself and his health improved, he began to write utopian fiction which presented a positive attitude towards the progress of mankind. I am sure there is more depth to this U-turn than my brief surmising, but it is very interesting and I therefore intend to return to this aspect of Wells in my blog when I have read his later Utopias and learned more about him from biographies and literary criticism.

Stephen Baxter focused his attentions to Wells’ opinion on War and Darwinism, which seemed to address the fluctuation in Wells’ outlook. He explained that Wells at first embraced war from patriotic standing and was involved in the war effort. However he later became disillusioned after it became clear to him that the First World War had wiped out a generation of young men. After living through two World Wars Wells, unsurprisingly, returned to dystopia to express his frustration at a species too flawed to progress to a utopian ideal.

David Lodge addressed Well’s utopian and dystopian works in comparison to Modernism as it developed in the early twentieth century. Modernist literature used the society depicted in the novel as a frame within which to represent the individual consciousness, the subject of Utopian and Dystopian literature is the frame itself. I think it will be interesting to consider the utopian and dystopian literature I read from this point in regards to this ‘frame’ (especially as it seems a good justification for the somewhat lacking plots or characters of a couple I have read so far).

I find H.G. Wells most interesting primarily as a man of great and numerous ideas. He seems to have written a novel or short story for every one of those ideas (Stephen Baxter explained that this is the reason that the H.G. Wells Society continues to have a wealth of material to write about), and he took this ideas to their logical end, depicting the progression, or destruction, of society as he knew it. No other utopian or dystopian writer I have had read of has had such an output (most only wrote one or two) and I find it immensely impressive that Wells considered and depicted so many contradictory possibilities for mankind.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. June 12, 2011 9:04 pm

    Wow. The lecture sounds really interesting – especially the fact that Wells’ choice to write dystopia or utopia fiction may have been influenced by his physical health. Sounds like you got to listen to some expert speakers – I really should try and book tickets to one of the Out of this World talks. I went to the exhibition on Saturday and loved it – that’s one thing that can be said about the British Library is that their displays are so interactive! 🙂 Anyway, I look forward to reading you next post!

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