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July, 2005 : Essay:

H.G. Wells: Creature of the Twilight

...Wells set forth the parameters of a radical new conceptual universe. This universe was derived from the cool-minded reasonings of science rather than from inherited religious assurances of God's special concern for man and man's privileged place in the world.
--Alexei and Cory Panshin, The World Beyond the Hill
Half the time when I talk to another science fiction writer or SF fan, or whatever, they cite The War of the Worlds as being their first book, the one that turned them on. So as far as the science fiction side of it goes, I think Mr. Wells was responsible for a great deal of it.
--Allen Steele, author of Mars novel The Labyrinth of Night

Creator of Martians

Imagine the young H.G. Wells as he conceived his most famous tale. His writing routine seldom varied. At the time he wrote The War of the Worlds, Wells lived in a villa called Lynton, in the country town of Woking. He wrote every day at his dining room table, using pen or pencil, usually at the same hour each morning. Perhaps the trains rumbling in the background as they passed through nearby Woking Station sounded much like the Martians' huge tripods striding through the countryside.

Shape of the writer to come

H.G. Wells was born September 21st, 1866 in Bromley, Kent, a London suburb. His parents, once servants, then ran a glass and china shop.

Life's setbacks often guided Wells into productive areas. When he was seven, for instance, Wells suffered a broken leg. As he was mending, though, he became a compulsive reader. Wells's mother Sarah was forced back into domestic service when the china shop wasn't profitable enough to support them. His parents' misfortune, however, reinforced his reading habit--Wells first encountered such works as Plato's Republic and Gulliver's Travels in the library of Up Park, the country estate where his mother was housekeeper. Apprenticeships to drapers and a pharmacist followed, but young "Bertie" Wells was unsuccessful with each one. The Panshins say he "contrived to fail." The reason? the library at Up Park was waiting.

Most of Wells's formal education was at the Normal School of Science in South Kensington, London, which he attended from 1884-1887. He led the way in the founding of a school magazine--the Science Schools Journal, which he served as its editor and a frequent contributor.

It was at the Normal School that Wells studied biology and zoology under Thomas Huxley, one of the most outspoken proponents of Darwin's theory of evolution. Wells was an admirer of Huxley, and later said the year with him was "beyond all question, the most educational year of my life." The Panshins say, "He revered Huxley as an intellectual giant of the same stature as Plato and Galileo...." Then Huxley grew ill and quit teaching, Wells didn't maintain his attention to his studies, his scholarship was taken away, and he dropped out.

A year after he left the Normal School, though, he contributed a story to Science Schools Journal. "The Chronic Argonauts" was an early version of the story that became The Time Machine. He spent the next few years teaching science, recuperating from an illness, and writing more fiction and essays. In 1890, Wells took exams that gave him his degree in zoology from London University.

Tragedies continued to strike. His marriage to his cousin Isabel in 1891 did not satisfy body or soul. His mother lost her job, as did his older brother Fred. Wells was now supporting his whole family. Then in 1893 he fell ill again.

Once again, though, adversity led Wells to a positive breakthrough. As he recuperated, he pushed ahead with his writing career. Now he found success, publishing humorous articles to The Pall Mall Gazette and other newspapers and magazines. His personal life turned around as well, when he divorced Isabel and married a former student, Amy Catherine Robbins.

When the book version of The Time Machine appeared in 1895, it was the first of a string of works that would solidify his position as one of the creators of modern science fiction (the other, of course, being Jules Verne).

Other "scientific romances" followed--The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man and, in 1898, The War of the Worlds. Although The Time Machine is considered by many his masterpiece, it is The War of the Worlds that has had the largest literary and popular influence.

Germ of an idea

The origin of War of the Worlds came from The Time Machine. In that work, the Time Traveller, on his journey 800,000 years into the future, wonders how humanity will have evolved. He wonders, as well, how he might be perceived by humans of the far future: "I might seem some old-world savage animal, only the more dreadful and disgusting for our common likeness--a foul creature to be incontinently slain..." What if Martians perceived humanity in the same manner?

Wells couched this fantastic tale of Martian invasion in the most mundane of settings--the very town where he was writing. The first confrontation with the Martians happens behind Wells's house on Horsel Common. This contrast between the naturalistic and the fantastic gives the story much of its power. In a review in The Academy in January 1898, the reviewer said, "Mr. Wells never relaxes his hold on the commonplace, everyday life, against which his marvels stand out so luridly. A thousand deft and detailed touches create an atmosphere of actuality, bring the marvels into the realistic plane."

Nature of Wells's Martians

This First Contact starts off as a curiosity, a lark for the onlookers who have gathered to see the first Martian cylinder that has plowed into the earth near the common. Wells's narrator imagines that the cyclists, caddies, butcher, gardener, and others loitering at the scene are disappointed at the lack of "charred corpses" about.

Then the cylinder opens, and events escalate. The first sight of the Martians is repulsive:

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. It 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 body heaved and pulsated convulsively. A lank tentacular appendage gripped the edge of the cylinder, another swayed in the air.

No wonder the the narrator found himself gripped by terror!

Wells establishes early on in The War of the Worlds that Mars is older than the Earth. Mars's smaller size meant its interior had cooled faster than Earth's when the solar system formed, and that life there had begun to develop while this planet was still molten. Unfortunately for the Martians, the Red Planet "was not only more distant from life's beginning there but nearer its end."

All this was in accordance with established scientific theory of the day--which has since turned out to be untrue. We now know all the planets were formed pretty much at the same time.

Wells, though, was working within the framework of the latest knowledge available to him. That meant the idea that Mars is the home of advanced, sentient beings who do not welcome the end of their civilization was quite plausible to his audience. The harsh conditions that arose on Mars have changed the Martians themselves--they've become smarter as a species and developed advanced technologies. And they have hardened themselves to the task before them--to ensure the continued survival of their species.

These "intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic" turn their attention toward the blue planet sunward--a "morning star of hope," our own Earth. They intend to make the Earth their own, and their invasion plan allows no mercy to be shown its inhabitants. The War of the Worlds takes this concept one step further: what if the entire human race were perceived as an inferior, backward species? As the Panshins put it, "The Wellsian universe was vast and merciless, chilly and uncaring. It owed not a thing to mankind. It might even prove to be hostile to all of man's ethics, all of man's aspirations."

A new realism

Wells took pains to depict credible non-humans. As Arthur Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, says,

...unlike his later imitators, Wells made his monsters plausible and well-motivated. They were not hell-bent on destruction for its own sake, but were proceeding on a logical plan of conquest, with a definite though deplorable--from our biased point of view—objective.

Wells knew how to make the latest scientific speculation--and his audience's knowledge of that speculation--work for him. Much of his audience was predisposed to believe in his Martians. The Academy review, after all, notes that "it is less unreasonable to think that Mars is inhabited than that it is not...." The review also says, "...the reasons given for the invasion of the Earth by Mars are perfectly valid from a scientific point of view, and are supported by the latest observations of the nature of the planet's surface."

Wells knew that to make the Martians similar to humans would be anthropomorphism--a lesson many of his successors have yet to learn. Wells's physical concept of an alien species, with their "sixteen slender, almost whip-like, tentacles," has become a cliche only because Wells has been so imitated. Perhaps his larger accomplishment, though, was that he took pains to show that the Martians also think differently from humans.

In dramatizing this, Wells has his lead character share his insights into the Martian physiology and psychology. In fact, Wells's protagonist maintains a remarkable detachment in some of his descriptions. He recounts an incident in which an eminent physician is found, still alive but "horribly mutilated" by the Martians. "I know it is the fashion to write of these Martians as being incredibly cruel," the narrator tells us. But he maintains that what humans perceive as cruelty is actually detachment. The evidence, he says, points to curiosity as the motive in pinning the man's body down and dissecting him while still alive. If they did not put him out of his misery after this inspection, it was an ommision, not a conscious desire to inflict anguish.

Wells's protagonist makes his point directly: "Man who vivisects the lower animals certainly has no claim to exemption when in his turn he becomes a lower animal."Here is where the Martians are different. They do not consider humans their enemies--the Martians do not wave flags or "deck themselves with the spoils" of war. They do not hate humanity. We are simply in the way, we are vermin. The Martians are technicians, not patriots.

Wells's achievement of a new kind of verisimilitude was recognized even when the novel first appeared. In the review in The Academy, the reviewer said War of the Worlds "is extraordinarily detailed, and the probable departures from possibility are, at least, so contrived as not to offend the reader who has but a small smattering of exact knowledge."

Some reviewers also saw a benefit in such stories in promoting an interest in science for its own sake. This was an idea SF editor Hugo Gernsback would take to its ultimate extension when he founded the first all-SF magazine, Amazing Stories, in 1926. Gernsback's intentions were as often focused on educating young people about science as on literary concerns.

In a review of the book in Nature, Sir Richard Gregory remarked that "scientific romances are not without a value in furthering scientific interests; they attract attention to work that is being done in the realm of natural knowledge, and so create sympathy with the aims and observations of men of science."

In H.G. Wells: His Turbulent Life and Times, Lovat Dickson says that in his best-known SF works, Wells not only gives fantastic events an uncommon verisimilitude, he adds to the reactions literature can evoke: is aware of surrendering to some emotion not normally felt in reading. Language alone could not do this; it is the accompaniment to the theme. But it lifts the imagination to a level at which the reader not only surrenders disbelief, but positively wills belief, and is conscious of participating in the action, not just being an observer of it. All these books are about man and his place in a universe of which science has made him suddenly aware.

In his detailed creation of situations and attitudes that have never before existed, Wells helped create new reactions to literature. It was now possible to derive enjoyment from an author's skill at fabricating a new reality.

Wells's vision of future war--and peace

I launched the phrase 'The war to end war'--and that was not the least of my crimes.
--H.G. Wells

The War of the Worlds, in many ways, was part of a curious literary sub-genre that flourished in the late 1800's and early 1900's. All recounted imaginary future wars, most were cautionary tales that preyed upon fears of German nationalism. Literary critic I.F. Clarke has called this literary form "narrow and limited" but "a natural propaganda device."

It all started in May 1871 with Lt. Col. George Tomkyns Chesney, and his novelette The Battle of Dorking. It was an account of a fictional German invasion of England, in which the English suffer a devastating defeat because of superior German weaponry.

Chesney's aims were as much political as literary. He was a colonel of engineers in the British Army, and later founded an engineering college. He was made a general, knighted, and later elected to Parliament.

By the time he wrote The Battle of Dorking, Chesney had studied the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War and concluded that the nature of war had changed forever. Soldiers no longer marched into battle two or three deep, firing their smooth-bore muskets, if they were lucky, at a rate of about three shots per minute. Now mobile artillery pounded one's enemies before the infantry charged. Now soldiers sported guns with rifled barrels that were accurate at up to three thousand yards.

In the words of Alexei and Cory Panshin, "He knew that he was no longer living in the Romantic Period, but rather in a new Age of Technology." He also believed his country was falling behind technolgically--not keeping up with the pace of rapid change in the field of armaments. Many people believed a major European war was inevitable, that new types of military equipment and armaments were developing rapidly, and that Britain had not kept up. Besides the many differences in the way land battles were fought, the advent of steam power had so revolutionized navies that some observers feared that the Royal Navy hadn't maintained parity with some European powers, particularly France.

The rumblings of war were all around. Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II, after taking the throne in 1888, proclaimed Germany a world power and began to strengthen his nation's navy. Wilhelm was the kind of theatrical monarch Wells instinctively disliked. He was always in military uniform, sporting a silver helmet, breastplates, and white cloaks. Armed force was his only passion; upon his accession, his first proclamation was addressed to his army. He only addressed the people three days later.

Germany's schools preached the superiority of its people and that war was a necessary part of life, ordained by God. Years later, in The Outline of History, Wells wrote of the first signs of inevitable conflict:

This sort of teaching, which pervaded the German Empire from end to end, was bound to be noted abroad, bound to alarm every other power and people in the world, bound to provoke an anti-German confederation, and it was accompanied by a parade of military, and presently of naval, preparation that threatened France, Russia, and Britain alike. It affected the thoughts, the manners, and morals of the German people.

As Wells put it, "After 1871 the German abroad thrust out his chest and raised his voice."

Writers in Britain, France, Germany, and Italy also made use of Chesney's techniques to further their own views on military matters. Many of the articles and short stories that now appeared in the bookshops and newspapers were reactions to Chesney. Several professed to continue his tale, with British forces rallying to defeat the German invader. Many times the titles alone revealed the author's intention: After the Battle of Dorking or What Became of the Invaders?, The Battle of Dorking: a Myth,The Other Side at the Battle of Dorking.

Such stories were a sensation right up to the beginning of World War I. In a promotion for William Le Queux's The Invasion of 1910, which ran in the the Daily Mail in 1906, sandwich-men donned Prussian uniforms and spiked helmets.

Although the British Committee of Imperial Defence studied the threat and decided in 1908 that an invasion would be unsuccessful, it didn't pass that conclusion on to the public, which remained fascinated by the idea.

Wells's concerns went far beyond any narrow political agenda. Ever the social critic, when Wells turned to his own future war story he saw the obvious parallels between the fictional scenario he had created for War of the Worlds and Europe's treatment of peoples it considered "backward." Examples were far too numerous. The British Empire had slaughtered the aboriginal inhabitants of Tasmania, an island south of Australia, over the course of fifty years, while dumping convicts there. Rubber was the resource Belgium exploited in the Congo; the native population was in turn exploited to obtain it. Years later, in The Outline of History, Wells said, "No European power has perfectly clean hands in this matter."

In the sense, mentioned earlier, that the Martians are technicians rather than patriotic soldiers, they represent all that Wells and many of his contemporaries feared about the possibility of war in Europe. As terrifying to many as the thought of war itself was the realization that the new conflict, when it came, would not be the opportunity for glory that previous wars were perceived as being. The glamor had been leached out of war, leaving only moral ambiguities and the vilest political maneuvering.

Wells's son, Anthony West, in H.G. Wells: Aspects of a Life, says,

My father had not been taken by surprise by the outbreak of the war. He was one of a number of people who had seen it coming for several years, and he had been giving it more and more thought as he had watched it spreading out of the Balkans, dragging one great power after another into it...

In his memoir Wonder's Child: My Life in Science Fiction, SF writer Jack Williamson says that in The War of the Worlds and, earlier, The Time Machine, Wells delineates the "cosmic limits to human progress." "Since Darwin," Williamson says, "we're no longer the chosen darlings of God, but only one more evolving species, striving in competition with other evolving creatures for survival in a universe that doesn't care who wins."

Arthur Clarke says War of the Worlds "is in some ways Wells's most remarkable tour de force and contains passages whose relevance is far greater today than when it was written at the close of the last century." Clarke praises Wells's vision:

This astonishing novel contains what must be the first detailed description of mechanised warfare and its impact upon an urban society. Yet Wells wrote it not only before the First World War but even prior to the Boer War! The acount of refugees streaing out of London before the assault of the Martians must have seemed unbelievable fantasy to the comfortable Victorians; to us, it is more like straight news reporting. We have seen it happen, and we know that it can happen again.

To the Victorian readers of Wells's original serial version of War, which appeared in the April-December 1897 issues of Pearson's Magazine, much of the shock of the story was in the depiction of whole populations being routed and humans slaughtered wholesale.

Some of the most vivid scenes are those in which the civilian populace flees before the Martian threat:

So much as they could see of the road Londonward between the houses to the right, was a tumultuous stream of dirty, hurrying people pent in between the villas on either side; the black heads, the crowded forms, grew into distinctness as they rushed towards the corner, hurried past and merged their individuality again in a receding multitude that was swallowed up at last in a cloud of dust. "Go on! Go on!" cried the voices. "Way! Way!" One man's hands pressed on the back of another.

In his depiction of the "riotous tumult," of "a whole population in movement" as it desperately tries to outrun the Martians, Wells anticipates many of the horrors of World War I. As a million German soldiers thrust through Belgium into France in August 1914, for example, civilians on foot, in wagons, and even carted in wheelbarrows clogged the roads. They blocked communication and slowed the trucks and buses the military had commandeered to transport the wounded. If present, Wells would surely have believed his fantastic vision of civilization in flight had come alive before him.

This is one of the key dilemmas of our time. In 1934, in his book Technics and Civilization, Lewis Mumford asserted that scientific advancement of the 19th and early 20th century altered our very environment, that its instruments "were changing the dimensions and to some extent therefore the very qualities of experience..." Just as Wells did, though, Mumford knew this new form of experience need not be dehumanizing:

The telegraph wire, the locomotive, the ocean steamship, the very shafts and pistons and switches that conveyed and canalized or controlled the new power, could awaken emotion as well as the harp and the war-horse: the hand at the throttle or the switch was no less regal than the hand that had once held a scepter.

Again, it is the nature of the hand holding the throttle or switch more than the device itself that determines humanity's fate.

Cynicism about science continued to grow, however. Jack Williamson has told of how science was once depicted as "the shining new frontier," but no longer:

The shift began long before I was born, but we still had heroes in the world where I grew up. Those we most admired were scientists and engineers. Modern magicians, they were building us those better worlds, until a bad thing happened on the way to wonderland. That tragic shadow has chilled science fiction since H.G. Wells, and darkened all our lives since Hiroshima.

Wells, Williamson says, "preached progress not out of confident hope, but out of cold desperation." Wells saw the future and it distressed him--he realized that science must be wedded to humanity.

This is the origin of a common fallacy about Wells--that he was anti-science. This of the man who studied biology and zoology under Huxley! If Wells was a pessimist in some of his early work, it was only because of his awareness of human fallibility, not a sense that science or technology are somehow evil. Wells knows that the evil is within our own hearts, and that the uses of technology are as broad and uplifting--or as narrow and repressive--as humans decide to make them.

Wells later returned to this theme in another story that showed a remarkable prescience, "The Land Ironclads." Published eleven years before the start of World War I, Wells depicts humans who have taken on some of the same qualities as his Martians. They are the men who operate the land ironclads of the title, what we would call "tanks" today. When introduced against an army of cavalry and cyclists, they decimate their enemy. While finding victory on the battlefield, though, they have lost something in their souls. The young men "who were standing about their victorious land ironclad, drinking coffee and eating biscuits, had also in their eyes and carriage something not altogether degraded below the level of a man."

Beware! Wells is telling us. Science can allow us to travel to the moon, it can show us all the mysteries of time and space, but it can also bring us previously-unknown dangers. Indeed, if we allow it to, it can steal much of what makes us human.

Certainly scientific achievement does not make a person--or a species--infallable. As the narrator of War of the Worlds approaches Primrose Hill, he finds one of the Martian tripods standing motionless. He hears the final cries of "Ulla, ulla, ulla," from the Martian within as it finally dies. Farther on, he discovers nearly fifty of the Martian tripods scattered about in a pit. The giant machines had toppled over one by one as their pilots expired.

In the end, the Martians are not defeated by humanity, but by "the humblest things that God has put upon this earth"--bacteria. The Martians had apparently wiped out all disease on their home planet long ago, and were ignorant of the many varieties of germs that awaited them here. The novel's narrator points to the evidence--that the Martians did not bury their own dead, and perpetuated a "reckless slaughter" of humans, without regard to the effects of so many decaying bodies upon their environment.

But the Martians have served a purpose. Well's narrator sees that humanity's horizons have expanded:

The broadening of men's views that has resulted can scarcely be exaggerated. Before the cylinder fell there was a general persuasion that through all the deep of space no life existed beyond the petty surface of our minute sphere. Now we see further.

This was one of Wells's two goals. One was philosophical: making his readers realize that there was a vaster physical world out there than they had realized, that Woking and Horsel Common and Primrose Hill were not the sum of existence. This was in line with the teachings of his beloved Huxley, the proponent of evolution, who preached of previously-unconceived timelines and previously-unrealized potential. The other goal was one Lt. Col. Chesney might have approved of, a goal more practical and political. War is coming, and it will be on a scale previously unknown. It will not confine itself to battlefields, civilian populations will be attacked indiscriminately, and the very social order between nations and within them will be threatened.

In that sense, the marauding Martians of The War of the Worlds were a warning to the world--one the world ignored. Over twenty million people died in World War I.

After his success with War of the Worlds, Wells wrote other "scientific romances," including When the Sleeper Wakes and The First Men in the Moon. It is War of the Worlds, though, along with his other classic, The Time Machine, that he is best remembered for.

Wells didn't wish to keep his visions of the future confined to the printed page. He saw the outbreak of World War I as an opportunity for lasting peace once the carnage ended. He foresaw a League of Nations, a sort of international parliament. Diplomats from around the globe would conduct their business there. The League would do more than talk, though--it would act decisively to prevent further wars. A permanent peace-keeping force would enforce the idea that conflict between nations would be perceived as aggression toward the world community.

Wells's dream, the League of Nations, held its first meeting in Geneva in 1920. However, it had no powers to coordinate military forces that would maintain the peace, nor could it demand inspections of powers that might seem to be contemplating war. Idealism yielded to the unwillingness of the major powers to cede any of their power.

Wells continued to work. His massive look at the story of humankind, The Outline of History, appeared in 1920. He also went on to interview Lenin, Stalin, and Franklin Roosevelt, and he crusaded for world peace. He collaborated with film director Alexander Korda on Things to Come, an early SF classic that reflected his faith in humanity's potential.

Though Wells eventually became more cynical about much of what defined the human race, he retained an optimism about that potential. In a speech before the Royal Institution in 1902, he said:

We are creatures of the twilight. But it is out of our race and lineage that minds will spring that will reach back to us in our littleness to know us better than we know ourselves, and that will reach forward fearlessly to comprehend this future that defeats our eyes.

It is this vision of Wells that we remember, that retains its power even though in his later years the man himself grew less convinced of humanity's perfectability. And who can blame him, having witnessed the many horrors World War Two engendered, from Bataan to Sobibor to Hiroshima?

H.G. Wells made his final journey into the twilight on August 13, 1946. His ashes were scattered into the English Channel. His Martians live on, remaining our most vivid and popular conception of Martian life.

Works Referenced

Clarke, I.F. "Tales of Invasion: The Background of The War of the Worlds." From Voices Prophesying War, 1763-1984, Oxford University Press, 1966.

Dickson, Lovat. H.G. Wells: His Turbulent Life and Times. Athenum, 1971.

Smith, David C. H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal. Yale University Press, 1986.

Tuchman, Barbara. The Guns of August. New York: Macmillian Publishing Co., Inc., 1962.

——— The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914. New York: Macmillian, 1966.

Wells, H.G. The Outline of History. Garden City, NY: Garden City Books, 1920.

——— The Time Machine, 1895.

——— The War of the Worlds, 1898.

Copyright © 2005, Dave Creek. All Rights Reserved.

About Dave Creek

Dave has previously published SF in Analog. His "real world" job is in journalism: he's a news producer of some thirty years experience at various TV stations in Kentucky and Tennessee.


Jul 4, 23:45 by IROSF
This thread is open for discussion of H.G. Wells in the original!

Dave Creek's article is here.
Jul 5, 08:09 by Ross Hamilton
Nice article - I'm quite partial to a bit of HGW as War of the Worlds was one of my earliest introductions into science fiction.
Jul 9, 07:56 by Adrian Simmons
Good article. I read HGW's 'War of the Worlds', and have enjoyed the various movie incarnations. I notice that they all leave out the most disturbing aspect of the alien invasion. In the book they use poison gas on us. I've still got that image trapped in my mind- a wave of humanity driven from a burning city, canister after canister of poison gas fired at them, herding them out, and the walkers looming above it all, waving their heat-rays over the buildings and the people.

In many ways, I guess that would almost be too horrible of a scene to put to the screen.

And then, of course, there is the unpleasant fact that, through the poison gas, Wells predicted the chemical warfare of the first world war.

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