H.G. Wells was born on 21st September, 1866. The British writer made his name with a series of groundbreaking science fiction novels, many of which have since been transformed into television series, radio plays and Hollywood movies.
149 years after his birth, the influence of Herbert George Wells can still be keenly felt in the world of literature, and perhaps more significantly, in the ways in which we imagine the future.
Born and raised in Bromley, England, Wells was from a working class family. His father played cricket professionally before managing a hardware store, while Wells’ mother was a former domestic servant. A sickly child, something which caused his parents grave concern, Wells spent a period of several months bedridden at the age of seven, during which time he devoted himself to reading works by the likes of Charles Dickens and Washington Irving.
Wells’ family entered a financial crisis when the hardware shop his father ran went bankrupt. Wells’ older brothers were forced to start work as drapers’ apprentices, while his mother was forced to return to work as a housekeeper. Having to take the young Wells to work with her, he was given access to the extensive library of the estate, exposing him to a wider range of literature including works by the likes of Voltaire and Jonathan Swift.
In his teens Wells won a scholarship to the Normal School of Science, where he started to learn about the world of physics, chemistry, astrology and biology – scientific themes which would soon prove so central in his books. He also began his career as a writer, with a short story named “Chronic Argonauts” being published.
Wells’ debut novel, ‘The Time Machine’, was published in 1895. It set out many of the themes which would recur throughout his career. The story of a scientist who invents a time machine, it discussed the potential and dangers of scientific progress, as well as social issues such as class conflict.
Following ‘The Time Machine’s’ success, Wells wrote and published ‘The Island of Doctor Moreau’, ‘The Invisible Man’ and ‘War of the Worlds’ in quick succession. The books helped lay the foundations of the sci-fi genre, with the broad themes of each one having been expanded on by countless authors since. The fact that such ideas are still the basis of Hollywood films shows how embedded they have become in the collective consciousness of what the future could be like.
Perhaps influenced by his youthful immersion in the socially critical works of the likes of Voltaire and Dickens, Wells’ sci-fi stories always engage with the human and social impacts of scientific advances. Writing at a time when technology was developing at an alarming rate, heralding both progress and untold destruction with the advances in weaponry, Wells used fantastical situations to raise vital questions over the direction science could lead humanity.
Alongside his works of science fiction, Wells was a prolific essayist and reviewer, being an early champion of the careers of writers such as James Joyce and Joseph Conrad. He produced a collection of predictions called ‘Anticipations’ which anticipated modern trends such as globalisation and urbanisation, again, showing the writer’s uncanny ability to predict the trajectory of history, and the problems it might cause.
Later novels, such as ‘Tono Bungay’ and ‘The History of Mr Polly’, abandoned the sci-fi themes to focus even more specifically on satire and social commentary. Removing the fantastic plots of works such as ‘the Time Machine’, they dealt with the human experience in a rapidly changing society and in the case of both books, questioned the conventions and economic realities which shape the modern world.
H.G. Wells was an author with many facets to his career and personality, a politically engaged socialist and vocal opponent of war, as well as noted novelist and article writer. His novels are reflective of an individual with the unusual ability to both reflect and affect society.
The Time Machine
by H. G. Wells