Wells, H. G.

views updated May 29 2018

H. G. Wells

BORN: 1866, Bromley, England

DIED: 1946, London, England


GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction

The Time Machine (1895)
The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896)
The Invisible Man (1897)
The War of the Worlds (1898)
The Shape of Things to Come (1933)


Herbert George Wells is best remembered today as an author of several enduring science fiction classics, among them The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The First Men in the Moon and The Island of Doctor Moreau. He was also a vocal advocate of socialism and wrote a large volume of political philosophy and history in addition to his “science romances.”

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

An Early Love of Science Born in Bromley, Kent, on September 21, 1866, Wells was the third son of Joseph Wells, a shopkeeper, and Sarah Wells. The family's lower-middle-class status was not helped by the fact that Wells's father preferred playing cricket to working as a shopkeeper. When he was injured in Wells's childhood, Wells's mother became the primary breadwinner, working as a housekeeper. While the young Wells inherited his mother's capacity for hard work, he did not share her religious nature. Wells later commented that he found religion of little use during a period of painful convalescence after breaking his leg in 1874. What he did find useful, he said, was the opportunity to read voraciously at this time, particularly science books. Wells later identified his reading as a turning point in his life.

Wells struggled to gain an education and finally succeeded in studying the natural sciences under the well-known proponent of evolution T. H. Huxley. Wells also became associated with the Science Schools Journal as a writer and editor.

A Prolific Writer In 1887 Wells and his cousin Isabel Mary Wells fell in love while he was living with her family as a student. They married in 1891, though the couple divorced by 1895 and Wells soon married another woman named Amy Catherine Robbins. Not content towrite only for periodicals, Wells turned his attention to books, and a good indication of how prolific he was at this time can be seen in the fact that in 1895 he published four books, including The Time Machine.

Largely on the basis of The Time Machine, which was popular during its 1895 serialization in William Ernest Henley's New Review and even more popular when published in book form, Wells became an overnight celebrity and was compared to a host of other writers. As he notes in his autobiography, he was variously called the next Jonathan Swift, the next Jules Verne, the next Robert Louis Stevenson, the next Rudyard Kipling, the next J. M. Barrie, and so on. While his next novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau, was less well received than The Time Machine, Wells nonetheless was on his way up the literary ladder.

The year 1898 was a difficult one for Wells, as several years of overwork resulted in a serious breakdown of his health, with the problem variously diagnosed as tuberculosis and kidney trouble. To recuperate, he and his wife spent much of the year in different seaside resorts on the Kentish coast. Here he met and befriended both Henry James and Joseph Conrad, who lived nearby. This year also saw the publication of Wells's novel The War of the Worlds, a story of the invasion of Earth by Martians.

Moving Away from Science Fiction In 1900 Wells clearly saw the need to branch out from science fiction. That year he published Love and Mr. Lewisham, his first successful realistic novel, which deals with the conflicts between academic ambition and sexual desires in a protagonist much like Wells during his undergraduate years and early teaching career. Wells continued to be a prolific writer, producing science fiction such as The First Men in the Moon (1901) and increasingly writing about politics and science's impact on society.

Prior to World War I, such works as A Modern Utopia (1905) and The New Machiavelli (1911) established Wells as a leading proponent of socialism, world government, and free thought. During the period of widespread disillusionment that followed World War I, Wells revised his essentially optimistic vision of the future. For example, his volume of essays The War That Will End War (1914), published shortly after the outbreak of World War I, inadvertently gave the world, through its title, a cynical catchphrase for obstinate naiveté in the face of widespread corruption. But throughout the 1920s and 1930s Wells wrote social and political criticism and prognostications about the future that were increasingly pessimistic. His last book, Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945), predicts the destruction of civilization and the degeneration of humanity. Wells died in 1946.

Works in Literary Context

Wells's critical and popular reputation rests primarily on his early works of science fiction. Wells's science fiction was profoundly influenced by his adaptation of Huxley's philosophical interpretation of Darwinian evolutionary theory, contending that the course of life on earth, like that of any organism, follows a pattern of quickening, maturation, and decadence. Writing at a time when the notion was seriously advanced that “everything had been discovered”—that only refinements of existing scientific and technological advances remained to be made—Huxley's “cosmic pessimism” was deeply disturbing, implying that humankind faced inevitable decline. Wells adopted this chilling notion in the stories and novels that he wrote in the 1890s, such as TheTimeMachine (1895), When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), and The First Men in the Moon (1901).

Cosmic Insignificance Wells's first published novel presents some of the major themes that recurred throughout his works, fictional and nonfictional. “The Time Machine,” said Frank McConnell and Samuel Hynes in their essay “The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds: Parable and Possibility in H. G. Wells,” “is a parable of [a] late-Victorian state of mind—a parable in which science is used as the vehicle for meanings that are profoundly anti-scientific.” By the end of the nineteenth century, the reviewers argued, industrialization and scientific advances had created as many, if not more, problems than they had solved. The ultimate expression of Wells's despair of human progress can be found in the climactic scene of the distant future, after the Time Traveller has fled the Morlocks who have taken Weena. “Escaping on the recovered time machine into the infinite future,” explained fellow science fiction writer and critic Jack Williamson in H. G. Wells: Critic of Progress, “he finds mankind extinct and the solar system itself near death, the earth spiraling inward toward the dying sun.”

By the time Wells published The War of the Worlds, dozens of future-war stories had been read by audiences at first as cautionary tales and later for their vivid scenes of mass destruction. The War of the Worlds is also a future-war novel with many scenes of mass destruction; Wells's innovation here consisted of the fact that this was one of the first, if not the first, such works to describe an invasion by beings from another planet. Like The Time Machine with its suggestion that the extinction of the human race is possible if not in fact likely, the result is a questioning of humanity's confidence in its supremacy. Wells reinforces this theme with the conclusion of the novel: While some people have fought valiantly against the Martian onslaught, it is not human ingenuity or power that defeats the aliens, but rather microbes.

Evolution and Devolution In The Island of Doctor Moreau Wells presents a microcosm both of the dark side of scientific progress and the inherent savagery of evolution. If Moreau is a twisted God figure, the Beast Folk offer a savage satire of humanity and civilization similar to that found in Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift, one of Wells's favorite authors. When he returns to Europe, much like Gulliver after his experience with the Houyhnhnms, the protagonist cannot help seeing his fellow human beings as essentially animals. Despite all our seeming civilization, The Island of Doctor Moreau tells readers that because of our evolutionary heritage we are more like the Beast Folk than we would care to admit.

The novel The Time Machine also explores the implications of human evolution over the long term. In it, society has divided cleanly between the privileged Eloi and the laboring Morlocks. With the elimination of basic societal ills, the Eloi are humans that have evolved but not progressed; along with eliminating disease, crime, and other types of conflict, they no longer have a need for art or science. The Morlocks, with no chance of achieving anything greater than serving the machinery that provides the Eloi their comfortable existence, have also reached an evolutionary dead end.


Wells's famous contemporaries include:

Jules Verne (1828–1905): French author of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth, and widely considered to be the first modern science fiction author.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941): Bengali poet, playwright, and philosopher, Tagore was the first Asian Nobel laureate, winning the 1913 Prize for Literature.

T. H. Huxley (1825–1895): English biologist nicknamed “Darwin's bulldog” for his vigorous defense of the new science of evolution.

George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950): Irish playwright who wrote of society's ills and the exploitation of the working classes and women. A lifelong socialist and early advocate of vegetarianism, Shaw is also the only person to win both the Nobel Prize and an Oscar.

Works in Critical Context

In his lifetime Wells was frequently criticized not only by those who disagreed with his socialist and agnostic tendencies but by those—such as Virginia Woolf and Henry James—who focused instead on his work's occasional lack of polish and its tendency to drift into propaganda. In some academic quarters, Wells, in many ways so much the antithesis of the widely admired Woolf and James, continues to be regarded with condescension. In his review of David Smith's 1986 biography of Wells, Stanley Weintraub, for example, asserts that Wells “was not a great artist, nor was he a major prophet. He was an undersized boy from the working class who, after a Dickensian childhood, heightened the imaginations of readers all over the world and in the process became rich, famous, self-indulgent, and sloppier as a writer.”

Those who admired Wells in his lifetime included Anatole France, who described Wells as “the greatest force in the English speaking world.” Though he deplored the propagandistic streak in Wells's later novels, H. L. Mencken greatly admired the strength and vigor of Wells's mind, calling it “one of the most extraordinary that England has produced in our time.” In 1941—five years before Wells's death—Sinclair Lewis suggested that “there is no greater novelist living than Mr. H. G. Wells.” More recent biographies and critical studies by Smith, Patrick Parrinder, John R. Reed, and John Batchelor reveal that a sympathetic interest in Wells and his work continues to grow. “Wells,” Batchelor suggests, “is a great artist, and those of us who enjoy his work need not feel ashamed of the pleasure we take in reading him.”

To the end of his life, Wells considered his scientific romances as inconsequential. Most contemporary critics agreed with him, including his distinguished colleague, the French science fiction writer Jules Verne. Verne told interviewer Gordon Jones in Temple Bar, “The creations of Mr. Wells … belong unreservedly to an age and degree of scientific knowledge far removed from the present, though I will not say entirely beyond the limits of the possible.” Verne does state, however, “I have the highest respect for his imaginative genius.”

The War of the Worlds Many critics have interpreted The War of the Worlds as an assault on Victorian imperialism and complacency. “Wells repeatedly compares the Martians' brutal treatment of their victims to civilized man's treatment of animals and supposedly inferior races,” declared Michael Draper. “The overdeveloped brains, lack of emotions, and artificial bodies of the Martians parody the characteristics of modern man and suggest his evolutionary destiny.” “The germs that kill the Martians appear at first glimpse to be coincidental, simply a convenient deus ex machina invented by the author to bring about a pleasing conclusion,” Jack Williamson said. “A second glance, however, shows this solution arising logically from the theme that progress is controlled by biological laws—which bind Martians, no less than men. Meeting a competing species of life against which they have no biological defenses, the Martians are eliminated. Ironically, their lack of defenses is probably the result of their own past progress.”

Responses to Literature

  1. What parallels in Wells's The Time Machine can be drawn between the Morlocks and the Eloi and contemporary society? How does the author's depiction of these two societies reflect his political views? What do you think Wells's ideal future society would look like?
  2. If Jules Verne was the father of science fiction, it could be said that H. G. Wells was the father of science romance. Define science romance; what differentiates it from science fiction? What recent movies or books do you think could be classified as science romance?
  3. H. G. Wells was a pacifist, but he also wrote a set of war-game rules called Little Wars, designed forplaying with toy soldiers. Do you think Wells was being hypocritical? What are your own views of pacifism? Do you think being against war in real life means that you cannot be interested in military matters at all?
  4. Wells wrote about scientific discoveries and inventions that, for modern readers, are in many cases already history. Humans have already ventured to the Moon, for example, and unmanned exploration of Mars has revealed no vengeful alien race ready for attack. Despite this, Wells's work remains popular, especially among younger readers. What do you think accounts for the continuing popularity of Wells's work? Be specific in your answer.


Wells was a master of integrating biting social and political commentary into supposedly fantastic tales, making his far-out tales eerily relevant to his readers. The following are some other works that share these themes and reflect similar mastery of mixing contemporary relevance into tales of imagination.

Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), a novel by Kurt Vonnegut. This story of a man who has become “unstuck in time” uses time travel as a vehicle for exploring its protagonist's personal relationships.

Brave New World (1932), a novel by Aldous Huxley. Set in the far future, Huxley describes a utopia free from war and disease, but purchased at the price of many things considered central to the human condition, such as love, family, and art.

Atlas Shrugged (1957), a novel by Ayn Rand. This magnum opus expounds on Rand's philosophy of objectivism by presenting a world in which artists and intellectuals cease to contribute to the world's welfare, to the detriment of all.

Neuromancer (1984), a novel by William Gibson. Gibson imagines a near-future time dominated by corporations and advanced technology in one of the first popular works to examine genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and worldwide computer networks.



Batchelor, John. H. G. Wells. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Bloom, Robert. Anatomies of Egotism: A Reading of the Last Novels of H. G. Wells. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 34: British Novelists, 1890–1929: Traditionalists. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Ed. Thomas F. Staley, University of Tulsa. Detroit: Gale Group, 1984.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 70: British Mystery Writers, 1860–1919. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Eds. Bernard Benstock, University of Miami, and Thomas F. Staley, University of Tulsa. Detroit: Gale Group, 1988.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 156: British Short-Fiction Writers, 1880–1914: The Romantic Tradition. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Ed. William F. Naufftus, Winthrop University. Detroit: Gale Group, 1996.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 178: British Fantasy and Science-Fiction Writers Before World War I. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Ed. Darren Harris-Fain, Shawnee State University. Detroit: Gale Group, 1997.

Dilloway, James. Human Rights and World Order. London: H. G. Wells Society, 1983.

Gill, Stephen. The Scientific Romances of H. G. Wells. Cornwall, Ont.: Vesta, 1975.

Parrinder, Patrick. Shadows of the Future: H. G. Wells, Science Fiction, and Prophecy. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1995.

“Study Questions for H(erbert) G(eorge) Wells.”DISCovering Authors. Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.

“The Time Machine.” Novels for Students. Ed. David A. Galens. Vol. 17. Detroit: Gale, 2003.

“The War of the Worlds.” Novels for Students. Eds. Ira Mark Milne and Timothy Sisler. Vol. 20. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

“Wells, H(erbert) G(eorge) (1866–1946).” DISCovering Authors. Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.

“Wells, H(erbert) G(eorge) (1866–1946).” UXL Junior DISCovering Authors. Online ed. Detroit: UXL, 2003.

Wood, James Playsted. I Told You So! A Life of H. G. Wells. New York: Pantheon, 1969.

Wykes, Alan. H. G. Wells in the Cinema. London: Jupiter, 1977.

Wells, H. G.

views updated Jun 08 2018

H. G. Wells

Born September 21, 1866 (Bromley, Kent, England)

Died August 13, 1946 (London, England)

British writer

British writer H. G. Wells made significant contributions to the literary genre of science fiction. Although science fiction was not new to the modern age—scholars have traced its roots back to ancient mythology—writers of scientific fantasy had a profound influence in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For instance, spaceflight pioneers Hermann Oberth (1894–1989; see entry) and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857–1935; see entry) read science-fiction novels and stories by such writers as Wells and French novelist Jules Verne (1828–1905). Most writers at that time, however, concentrated mainly on bizarre tales of alien beings, spaceships, and trips to the Moon and other worlds.

"Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of its appearance."

The War of the Worlds

A committed socialist (advocate of state control of production and services), Wells provided an added dimension in his novels, which he called scientific romances: He depicted the dark side of human nature and warned about the misuse of technology. In these and other works he predicted devastating global conflicts, the development of atomic weaponry, and the advent of chemical warfare. Wells is best remembered today for four of his early science-fiction novels—The Time

Machine: An Invention, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance, and The Island of Doctor Moreau: A Possibility. During an extremely prolific career that spanned fifty years, Wells wrote other types of novels as well as social criticism, journalism, literary criticism, film scripts, and political manifestos (statements of belief).

Education shapes his ideas

Herbert George Wells was born in Bromley, Kent, England, on September 21, 1866. He was the youngest of three sons of Joseph Wells and Sarah Neal Wells. Joseph was a well-known cricket player who worked as a gardener for an upper-class employer, and he had once been an unsuccessful shopkeeper. Sarah Wells was a housekeeper and lady's maid who wanted a better life for her sons. Wells entered Morley's School in Bromley at age seven. In 1880, at his mother's insistence, he left when he was fourteen to become an apprentice to a draper (a clothing and dry goods merchant). Wells hated the job, and three years later his mother let him take a pupil-teacher position at a private school. In 1884 he won a scholarship to the Normal School of Science at South Kensington. Although he studied all branches of science, he was interested only in the classes taught by biologist Thomas Huxley (1825–1895), one of the founders of the school. (A biologist is a scientist who studies living organisms.)

Wells's thinking was shaped by Huxley, who supported the theory of evolution, which states that species (forms of life) evolve through natural selection (survival of dominant traits) over long periods of time. This idea was controversial because it contradicted the teachings of the Christian religion, which stated that all of nature was created at the beginning of time by a divine being. Huxley's students, including Wells, came to think of science in general and biology in particular as revolutionary, and they began to question previously held views. Huxley's definition of biology also took in social and cultural studies, now classified as sociology (the science of social institutions and other aspects of society) and anthropology (the study of human cultures), providing the basis for Wells's later political views.

The Normal School was important for Wells because it gave him a way to escape his lower-middle-class origins by obtaining a higher education. Schools like Oxford and Cambridge, where scholarships were usually limited to the sons of gentlemen, were far beyond the means of families like the Wellses. In addition, these elite schools tended to concentrate on classics and humanities (Latin, Greek, theology, and literature) rather than on the sciences, which were regarded as lower-class studies. Even after Wells became famous, with a worldwide reputation, some of his contemporaries regarded him as a "counter-jumper," a former draper's assistant unworthy of being ranked among the great men of the British nation.

Begins writing career

Wells left Kensington without a degree in 1887 and returned to teaching in private schools in London and Wales for three years. While living in Wales, a serious sports injury prevented him from returning to teaching full time. One of his kidneys was severely damaged and his lungs hemorrhaged (bled excessively), the latter leading to tuberculosis (a severe lung infection) from which he suffered for the rest of his life. Wells received his degree from the University of London in 1890, and the next year he married his cousin, Isabel Mary Wells. Settling with his wife in a suburb of London, he began teaching at a correspondence college and writing articles on education. In 1893 he suffered another severe lung hemorrhage that eventually forced him to leave teaching altogether. As he slowly recovered, he struck up a close friendship with one of his biology students, Amy Catherine Robbins. Wells obtained a divorce from Isabel in 1895 and married Robbins the same year.

Wells had not planned to make his living by writing, but his bouts of tuberculosis left him few other options. His work for newspapers and magazines led to a position as fiction reviewer for the English Saturday Review magazine. He worked at this job for three years but gave it up to concentrate on his own writing. His first project was to revise and expand a story he had published in his college paper in 1888, under the title "The Chronic Argonauts." In 1895 he published the story as The Time Machine, the first of his scientific novels. The Time Machine tells the tale of an inventor, known only as the Time Traveller, who creates a machine that can navigate into the past or into the future. When the machine is completed, the Time Traveller takes a journey into the distant future, to the year 802,701 c.e. He discovers a world inhabited by pretty, childlike beings called the Eloi, who enjoy lives of pure leisure. He also discovers an underworld inhabited by the Morlocks. The Morlocks manage the technology that keeps the Eloi in comfort and in turn use the Eloi as a food source. The Time Traveller makes friends with an Eloi named Weena and loses the time machine to the Morlocks. After returning to share his story with his friends on Earth, he starts on another voyage in time. He is never seen again.

In Wells's second scientific novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), a young diplomat is found floating adrift after

a tragic shipwreck. His rescuer is an assistant of the infamous Doctor Moreau, a scientist who fled his homeland because of charges of unethical treatment of animals. Moreau has created half-human and half-animal Beast People by means of a surgical process that involves assembling body parts with plastic surgery. The Beast People are frightened of him and worship him only so they can hold onto their human characteristics. After Moreau's death, the Beast People return to being animals. Wells's next novel, The Invisible Man (1897) is about a character named Griffin who, like Moreau, is a "mad scientist." Griffin invents a way to make skin, bones, and blood invisible. He then uses the formula on himself so he can go anywhere and threaten anyone without being seen. He can never become visible again, however, and he goes insane.

Today, Wells is best known for The War of the Worlds (1898), which describes a Martian invasion of Earth. The story takes place over a ten-day period in England during the late nineteenth century. As the novel opens, astronomers observe a series of large explosions on the surface of the planet Mars. Within a few days, huge cylinder-shaped objects begin landing outside London. From the cylinders emerge the Martians: giant octopuslike creatures possessed of greatly superior technology. The Martians attack and drive the inhabitants of London out of the city. Only two or three Martians are killed by resisting people, but suddenly they begin to die from the Earth's microorganisms (bacteria), which cause them to rot and decay. Forty years later The War of the Worlds was the basis of one of the most memorable events of the twentieth century: On an October evening in 1938, the actor Orson Welles (1825–1895) and his Mercury Theater players broadcast a live radio dramatization of the novel. The performance was so realistic that listeners in New Jersey fled their homes in panic, believing they were actually being invaded by Martians.

Promotes worldwide socialism

Wells considered his scientific romances to be unimportant, and most critics agreed with him at the time. Wells was more respected for his comic novels, including Kipps (1905) and The History of Mr. Polly (1909), and his social criticism, such as Tono-Bungay (1908). These works gained Wells a reputation as the foremost British novelist of the early twentieth century. He wrote his best science fiction before 1901, when he was firmly established as a professional writer. By that time he had earned enough from sales of his writing to build a home, Spade House, near the English coast in the county of Kent. As social conditions in England changed, his novels became less relevant. He turned instead to a long, drawn-out campaign to promote worldwide socialism, but the works he wrote in support of socialism were not taken seriously.

The War of the Worlds

In this excerpt from Chapter 4 of The War of the Worlds, the narrator expresses his horror upon seeing Martians for the first time.

I think everyone expected to see a man emerge—possibly something a little unlike us terrestrial men, but in all essentials a man. I know I did. But, looking, I presently saw something stirring within the shadow: greyish billowy movements, one above another, and then two luminous disklike eyes. Then something resembling a little grey snake, about the thickness of a walking stick, coiled up out of the writhing middle, and wriggled in the air towards me—and then another….

A big greyish rounded bulk, the size, perhaps, of a bear, was rising slowly and painfully out of the cylinder. As it bulged up and caught the light, it glistened like wet leather.

Two large dark-coloured eyes were regarding me steadfastly. The mass that framed them, the head of the thing, was rounded, and had, one might say, a face. There was a mouth under the eyes, the lipless brim of which quivered and panted, and dropped saliva. The whole creature heaved and pulsated convulsively. A lank tentacular appendage gripped the edge of the cylinder, another swayed in the air.

Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of its appearance. The peculiar V-shaped mouth with its pointed upper lip, the absence of brow ridges, the absence of a chin beneath the wedgelike lower lip, the incessant quivering of this mouth, the Gorgon groups of tentacles, the tumultuous breathing of the lungs in a strange atmosphere, the evident heaviness and painfulness of movement due to the greater gravitational energy of the earth—above all, the extraordinary intensity of the immense eyes—were at once vital, intense, inhuman, crippled and monstrous. There was something fungoid in the oily brown skin, something in the clumsy deliberation of the tedious movements unspeakably nasty. Even at this first encounter, this first glimpse, I was overcome with disgust and dread.

Wells had more success with Outline of History (1920), which he wrote with the assistance of prominent advisors. It was the first attempt to present the story of human existence using biological, anthropological, and sociological studies. It proposed world socialism as a means of promoting world peace. If The Outline of History was taught in schools, Wells believed, people would reject such empty values as nationalism and patriotism in favor of a world society based on socialism. The work was enormously popular. History for Wells was not simply a story about the past, however, and he revealed his ideas and hopes for the future in a film script, The Shape of Things to Come. The motion picture was filmed by director Alexander Korda (1893–1956) in 1936. It was the first big-budget science-fiction film, an ancestor of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars. Things to Come failed at box offices, mainly because its message about the "war to end all wars" was regarded as unconvincing and meaningless.

Wells lived mainly in France between the years 1924 and 1933, but he had returned to London by the outbreak of World War II (1939–45). During the German blitz (air bombardment) he refused to be driven out of the city, remaining at his house in Regent's Park. He contributed to the war effort with the book The Rights of Man (1940), which later formed the basis for the United Nations' Declaration of Human Rights. Although Wells made lasting contributions to the problem of human rights abuses, his last book, Mind at the End of its Tether (1945), expressed his gloomy outlook about the future of the human race. He died in London on August 13, 1946. His body was cremated in accordance with his wishes, and his ashes were scattered over the English Channel. In the 1960s Wells's science-fiction novels finally began receiving serious attention.

For More Information


Wells, H.G. The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance (first published serially in Pearson's Weekly, June–July, 1897). New York: Arnold, 1897; large print edition, Waterville, ME: G. K. Hall (Thorndike), 1996; edited by David Lake, with an introduction by John Sutherland, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Wells, H.G. The Island of Doctor Moreau: A Possibility. New York: Stone & Kimball, 1896; expanded, with notes by Leon E. Stover, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1996.

Wells, H.G. The Time Machine: An Invention (first published in Science Schools Journal as "The Chronic Argonauts," 1888). London: Heinemann, 1895, and New York: Holt, 1895; reprinted, New York: Dover, 1995.

Wells, H.G. The War of the Worlds (first published serially in Pearson's Magazine, April-December, 1897). New York: Harper, 1898; large print edition, Waterville, ME: G. K. Hall (Thorndike), 1995.


Achenbach, Joel. "The World According to Wells." Smithsonian (April 2001): p. 110.

Web Sites

The Complete War of the Worlds Web site.http://www.war-of-the-worlds.org (accessed on June 29, 2004).

Wells, H. G. "Chapter Four: The Cylinder Opens." The War of the Worlds.http://www.online-literature.com/wellshg/warworlds/4/ (accessed on June 30, 2004).

Other Sources

Welles, Orson. The War of the Worlds. 1938 Mercury Theatre Broadcast. Radio Spirits, 2001.

Wells, H. G.

views updated May 29 2018


Herbert George Wells (1866–1946) was born in Bromley, Kent, United Kingdom, on September 21, to servants turned shopkeepers. After a poor education in local private schools he was apprenticed to the drapery trade at age fourteen. After a spell as a pharmacist's assistant Wells became a student-teacher in Midhurst, where he won a scholarship to study for a degree under the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895) at the Normal School of Science in South Kensington. After initially failing to earn a degree, he became a schoolteacher and completed his bachelor of science degree in zoology at the University of London in 1890. He died in London on August 13.

Although eventually Wells became world famous as the author of The Time Machine (1895), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898), and other novels, his first two books were science textbooks published in 1893. Throughout the 1890s Wells was a regular contributor to scientific periodicals and wrote popular science articles for the mainstream press. Even after becoming famous as a writer of fiction, Wells maintained an interest in science as a Fellow of the Zoological Society after 1890 and joined the Sociological Society (on its foundation in 1904). He debated eugenics with the scientist Francis Galton (1822–1991) and others and published scientific works such as Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought (1901), The Science of Life (1930), and Science and the World-Mind (1942).

Wells's contribution to science, technology, and ethics was considerable. He recognized from his university days that although human progress was not inevitable, science would play a key role in human achievement. From Huxley he adopted the notion of ethical evolution: humankind's responsibility to influence the biological destiny of humans and other species positively. That notion ultimately led Wells to promote, at the micro level, a welfare state based on negative eugenics and state provision of a "basic minimum" and, at the macro level, a cosmopolitan world state based on education, cooperation, and socialist planning.

Eugenics was an important subject for Wells during much of his career. He first considered it in Anticipations(1901) before analyzing it more closely in works such as Mankind in the Making (1903), A Modern Utopia (1905), Men Like Gods (1923), The Science of Life (1930), and The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind (1931) and finally rejecting it outright in The Rights of Man (1940) and '42 to '44 (1944). During the Edwardian period Wells believed that negative eugenics could be a viable means of preventing the procreation of "the people of the abyss": the incurably diseased, habitual criminals or drunkards, and those unable to adapt to the rapidly changing modern world. Gradually he tempered his position, seeing welfare provision, education, and medical science as more important factors for improving the quality of successive generations. With the rise of Nazi eugenics after 1933, Wells distanced himself from general eugenic theory, declaring that any form of compulsory or state eugenics would be a fundamental breach of human rights in The Rights of Man (1940).

According to Wells, human progress rests on technological advancement, and he predicted that in the twentieth century humanity would either destroy itself or create material abundance and cosmopolitan unity. His 1935 film Things to Come is a marvel of invention, with ultramodern architecture, highly skilled workers, scientific population control, space flight, moving footpaths, and more. However, the society it portrayed was brought about only by generations of warfare, and in this lies the tension that existed between Wells's vision of a technological future and the means to achieve it.

Although Wells preached disarmament and world peace throughout his life, his futuristic utopian societies founded on the power of science consistently had to go through devastating wars to be achieved. Humankind had to learn a severe lesson before it would apply the gifts of science to its destiny. Thus, in TheWar in theAir (1909), powered flight leads to aerial combat; in The World Set Free (1914), harnessing the atom leads to nuclear war; and in The Shape of Things to Come (1933), material progress leads to global conflict and an "air dictatorship." All these stories end with global human fellowship and peace, but they are achieved at a high price.

Wells's legacy in terms of science, technology, and ethics lies in his imaginative application of science to invention, his hopefulness about what science may produce for humanity, but also his warnings about what the abuse of science may mean for the human race. In his nonfiction writings Wells was ambiguous throughout his life, never able to offer a peaceful route to the achievement of his predicted scientific utopias. Although Wells was never certain in his hope or despair for the future, his ultimate mood on the subject is aptly characterized in the title of his final work, published a few months before the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan, Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945).


SEE ALSO Eugenics;Progress;Science Fiction;Science, Technology, and Literature;Utopia and Dystopia.


Haynes, Roslynn D. (1980). H.G. Wells: Discoverer of the Future: The Influence of Science on His Thought. New York: New York University Press. A detailed study of Wells's application of scientific concepts in his literary art; an alternative reading to Reed (see below).

Partington, John S. (2003). Building Cosmopolis: The Political Thought of H.G. Wells. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate. A comprehensive analysis of Wells's political thought, considering the influence of Huxleyan notions on Wells's world-view, and detailing Wells's support and later rejection of eugenics.

Reed, John R. (1982). The Natural History of H.G. Wells. Athens: Ohio University Press. An alternative study of the influence of science on Wells's literary work; an alternative reading to Haynes (see above).

Smith, David C. (1984). H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal: A Biography. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. The outstanding biography of Wells.

Wagar, W. Warren. (1961). H.G. Wells and the World State. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. The first thorough study of Wells's world-state ideas.

Wells, H.G. (1984). Experiment in Autobiography: Discoveries and Conclusions of a Very Ordinary Brain (Since 1866). London: Faber and Faber. Wells's outstanding autobiography, first published in 1934.

Wells, H. G.

views updated Jun 11 2018


WELLS, H. G. (1866–1946), British novelist, journalist, historian, sociologist, and futurologist.

Herbert George Wells was born into an impoverished lower-middle-class family and was apprenticed to a draper at age fourteen. He won a scholarship to the Normal School of Science (now part of Imperial College, London), where he studied biology under Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895). Subsequently, he worked as a teacher and then as a journalist, producing a series of scientific speculations for a number of leading periodicals including the Fortnightly Review and Nature.

Wells began his varied and prolific literary career with a succession of "scientific romances," which are generally acknowledged as the pioneers of science fiction. The Time Machine (1895) is a fable set in the year 802701 and portrays the split of the human race into two species—the dainty Eloi and the monstrous, subterranean Morlocks—along class lines. This was followed by The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The First Men in the Moon (1901), and other works. These works were inspired by the reassessment of humanity's place in nature initiated by the theory of natural selection described by Charles Darwin (1809–1882). They display Wells's lifelong preoccupation with evolutionary time and contain, to varying degrees, social allegory, foreboding about the future (often arising out of the laws of thermodynamics), and an assessment of the impact of scientific advancement upon the social order. Wells's output as a scientific romancer was paralleled by a series of fantastic novels, notably The Wonderful Visit (1895) and The Sea Lady (1902). In the 1890s, he also embarked upon a career as the author of such unforgettable short stories as "The Stolen Bacillus" (1893), "The Red Room" (1896), and "The Door in the Wall" (1906).

After 1900, Wells diversified his energies into a number of fields. His determination to establish himself as a mainstream novelist began with Love and Mr. Lewisham (1900) and culminated in Tono-Bungay (1909). In Kipps (1905) and The History of Mr. Polly (1910), Wells displayed considerable sympathy for the "little man." Ann Veronica (1909), which considers sexual equality and the issue of women's rights, caused considerable controversy. He famously feuded with Henry James (1843–1916), whom he ruthlessly caricatured in Boon (1915). Wells's insistence that novelists should fulfill a didactic purpose, rather than indulge in art for art's sake, also caused his estrangement from Joseph Conrad (1857–1924). Anticipations (1902), his first major work of futurology, examined the scientific and social trends that might shape the twentieth century. Wells joined the Fabian Society in 1903, but severed relations after a polemical exchange with leading members George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), Beatrice Potter Webb (1858–1943), and Sidney James Webb (1859–1947); he depicted the Fabians in The New Machiavelli (1911). During his Fabian period, Wells wrote A Modern Utopia (1905), which established the popular conception of him as one of the twentieth century's few unequivocally utopian writers. Wells foresaw many of the advancements in modern warfare, including the use of poison gas in World War I (In The War of the Worlds [1898]) and the development of the tank (in the short story "The Land Ironclads" [1904]). In The World Set Free (1913), he predicted the atomic bomb.

Wells was an outspoken critic of the League of Nations but campaigned tirelessly towards global unification, which he saw as the only alternative to annihilating conflict. He was pivotal to the Sankey Declaration on the Rights of Man, a precursor of the United Nations Charter. Wells's readership as a novelist declined in the 1920s, as attention turned to younger novelists such as Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) and James Joyce (1882–1941). However, he continued to reach a vast audience, particularly with The Outline of History (1920, abridged as A Short History of the World, 1922). Wells saw human history as a "race between education and catastrophe," and increasingly endeavored to facilitate the synthesis of existing nations into a "World State." Wells famously debated with world leaders, including U.S. presidents Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945). He met with Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924) in 1920 and with Lenin's successor, Joseph Stalin (1879–1953), in 1934. Wells's The Shape of Things to Come (1933, with its cinematic version, Things to Come, appearing in 1936), confirmed his status as a great popularizer of scientific and political ideas. Wells's last book, Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945), is a deeply pessimistic vision of humanity, which should be understood as a despairing response to the outcome of World War II. His Experiment in Autobiography (1934) is a lively account of Wells's involvement in the controversies of his own age.

See alsoFabians; science and Technology; Verne, Jules.


Haynes, Roslynn D. H. G. Wells: Discoverer of the Future. New York, 1980.

MacKenzie, Norman, and Jeanne MacKenzie. The Time Traveller: The Life of H. G. Wells. London, 1973.

Parrinder, Patrick. Shadows of the Future: H. G. Wells, Science Fiction, and Prophecy. Syracuse, N.Y., 1995.

Partington, John S. Building Cosmopolis: The Political Thought of H. G. Wells. Aldershot, U.K., 2003.

Steven McLean

Wells, H. G.

views updated May 29 2018

Wells, H. G. (1866–1946). Shopkeeper's son who jumped the counter to become successful author and eventually teacher-at-large to the human race. A scholarship to what is now Imperial College, London, where he studied under T. H. Huxley, suggested the power of science to make us free, though it was an imaginative energy which fuelled his early romances The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds (1898). Moving in literary and Fabian circles, he saw the novel as a medium for discussing problems ‘raised in such bristling multitude by our contemporary social development’. Perhaps no one did more to shape that development, and after the First World War he increasingly abandoned fiction for analysis and exhortation. The best-selling Outline of History (1920) offered mankind ‘salvation by history’, lasting world peace only to be secured by learning its lessons. Yet Wells's faith in human potential was not blind to obstacles to be overcome, and in the novels too comedy and pessimism are mingled.

John Saunders