The imagination, prognostications, and politics of H. G. Wells
t began with a tango and ended with the raucous cawing of busy ravens feasting on dead Martians in Central Park. In between, about four million Americans were treated to the greatest Halloween trick of all time--the Mercury Theater on the Air's October 30, 1938, radio adaptation of H.G. Wells' 1898 novel The War of the Worlds. Orson Welles, founder and director of the Mercury group, decided that a special Halloween broadcast might attract listeners away from his program's competition, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.
An Edward Steichen photograph of H.G. Wells taken in 1932. CONDE NAST ARCHIVE / CORBIS
Wells' story of Martians invading Earth had been set in late-nineteenth-century England. It had used places familiar to its British readers as the locations for the Martians' landing, the panicked mobs, and the horrific battles, with the haunting ending set in an empty London. This had given the fantastic story a feeling of realism and made its horrors more immediate to its readers, especially those who lived in the named places and who could imagine rampaging Martians in their streets and back gardens.
Welles used the same geographic device, setting his version in New Jersey and New York City. He modernized the story, replacing dreadnoughts with bombers and carriages with automobiles. Welles also decided to tell the story as if it were actually happening and was being reported by CBS as news. Fake news bulletins with reporters witnessing the invasion would interrupt fake "regular programming," starting with a band playing a bland tango, just as real news interrupts real programming during an actual national emergency. Realistic sound effects were particularly effective in creating authenticity. When the Martian spacecraft suspensefully opened, the sound of the metal hatch rotating over a hollow, mysterious interior heightened the ensuing horror when what emerged was described. The chilling sound was created by a sound effects technician slowly unscrewing an empty mayonnaise jar in a toilet bowl in a studio restroom.
Having described the Martians' destruction of New York, Welles finally inserted a brief statement describing the broadcast as a dramatization. It was hardly enough to dispel the vivid descriptions given earlier. The rest of the broadcast was equally evocative, with Welles, as a survivor wandering the devastation left by the alien attack, where he encountered burnt skeletons, wrecked cars, smashed homes, and finally ravens attacking the corpses of the Martians, who had all been killed by earthly bacteria to which their bodies had no immunity.
Although Welles would later claim he had no idea that his fake news would be mistaken for real news, he had made every effort to achieve realism. Thousands believed the broadcast was real and panicked. In Newark, it was reported that twenty families in a single block had rushed into the street with wet towels over their faces to flee the Martians' poison gas. Responding to reports of the gas, police dispatched an ambulance, three police cars, and an emergency squad equipped with special equipment for reviving gas victims. Elsewhere, hundreds fled to parks to avoid being crushed in their apartments by Martian war machines. Thousands of calls from frightened people seeking advice on where to run or reporting sightings of Martians clogged telephone lines to police, fire departments, newspapers, and radio stations throughout the New York area; frightened callers unable to get through became convinced that the invasion was real.
Because the broadcast had included a fake call for National Guard members to report for duty, hundreds showed up at their armories. Stories about looming war in Europe had been in the news, and many panicked listeners thought the Martians were actually German military forces mistaken for alien invaders. The panic wasn't limited to the New York area--the broadcast reached most of North America through affiliated radio stations. In San Francisco, men volunteered to fight the Martians. In Pittsburgh, a man came home to find his wife sitting in the bathroom with a bottle of poison, screaming, "I'd rather die this way than like that." He could dissuade her only after listening to the rest of the broadcast. It has been claimed (although never documented) that at least two people killed themselves out of fear of the invading Martians.
Public condemnation of the broadcast was even wider than the panic. The Federal Communications Commission promised an investigation. CBS apologized but asserted warnings of the broadcast's fictional nature had been made. While technically true, the warnings had been short identifications that could be mistaken for part of the regular programming that was being interrupted. Many who panicked said they had missed the introduction, the next warning didn't come until after the destruction of New York City. The final disclaimer, in Welles' closing remarks, explicitly said the broadcast was a hoax but, by then, the damage had been done. Welles made an abject apology the following day and soon decamped for Hollywood to work on Citizen Kane.
The reaction of H.G. Wells mirrored the public attitude, with the extra impetus that some believed he had been part of the hoax. From London, he threatened to take legal action, declaring that he hadn't authorized the presentation of his story as news. He quickly cooled off, however, as the story was driven from the media by more ominous news of Hitler's territorial demands. Yet, in the popular imagination, the incident would be forever linked with both the actor and the author.
Another radio production of War of the Worlds in Quito, Ecuador (on February 12, 1949) used all Welles' techniques, altered to fit the region, with even more horrific results. Actors imitated the voices of government officials, including the mayor who declared women and children should flee while the men stayed to fight. A fake priest begged for God's mercy. This broadcast also terrified its listeners. Many ran for safety, but others began rioting. The radio station pled for calm, admitting the broadcast had been a prank. This embarrassed and infuriated the rioters, who surrounded the station, pummeling it with stones. Appeals to the authorities for help were fruitless. The police and the local army units had been sent off to the countryside to fight the Martians. By the time they were recalled, the radio station was in flames. Twenty people died, fifteen were injured, and $350,000 in damages had been done.
The New York and Quito War of the Worlds broadcasts demonstrated the power of radio to influence the public. Radio had an authority and immediacy that made even the bizarre believable. But the broadcasts also demonstrated the power of fantasy, especially fantasy elegantly constructed to play on fear. H.G. Wells had written a masterpiece of science fiction.
erbert George Wells was born in Bromley, Kent, a small country town, to a struggling lower-middle-class family on September 21, 1866. His father, Joseph Wells, ran a crockery shop and played professional cricket. Herbert's mother, Sarah Wells, had worked as a servant for a wealthy landowner. She was a melancholy, religious woman who felt overburdened raising Herbert and his three older siblings and running the shop while Joseph was away playing cricket. She often reminded her husband of her burdens, prompting him to stay away from home even more. Sarah was snobbish toward those in lower stations and deferential to those in higher ones. She especially admired Queen Victoria.
Widespread panic followed the 1938 Halloween broadcast; this Grovers Mill, New Jersey, man stands ready to ward off the Martian attack. BETTMANN / CORBIS
Herbert, the youngest child in the family, was precocious and spoiled. Prone to tantrums, he was apt to throw anything handy, which, on one occasion, was a fork that he managed to embed in his brother's forehead. When some boyish wrestling left Herbert with a broken leg, he was forced to spend weeks as an invalid. His parents indulged his every whim, which mainly meant they brought him piles and piles of books he greatly enjoyed. The experience left him with a love of reading that helped him excel at school.
In 1880, after her older children had left home, Sarah was offered a comfortable job as housekeeper, which she eagerly accepted, leaving Joseph to mind the shop. Herbert, now fourteen, was dispatched into an apprenticeship in the drapery trade, a business Sarah much admired. Forced to leave school, he bitterly blamed his mother for cutting off his chance for a better life so she could take her job. Unsurprisingly, he proved a poor apprentice and was let go in just a month. He next worked at a school, then for a chemist, and finally was apprenticed to another draper, where he managed to stick out thirteen-hour days for two years. The work was drudgery, and Wells feared he would have to spend his life at it.
Fortunately, the headmaster of Midhurst Grammar School had taken a liking to Wells while he was working at the chemist's and offered him a position as a tutor, allowing him to study at the same time. Wells wanted to accept, but his mother was insistent that he become a draper. One Sunday, Wells suddenly left his apprenticeship, walking seventeen miles to the estate where his mother worked to angrily appeal to her to let him accept the headmaster's offer. She reluctantly agreed. Motivated by the dismal drapery alternative, Wells was a good student. He won a full scholarship for the Normal School of Science at South Kensington, where he studied to become a biology teacher. The institution boasted T.H. Huxley, a famed advocate of Darwin, as a biology professor.
In one physics class, Wells did such an inept assembling project that his attempt was preserved for years as the very worst effort ever produced.
Wells enjoyed studying under Huxley, but his other professors were less interesting, and he did poorly. In one physics class, Wells did such an inept assembling project that his attempt was preserved for years as the very worst effort ever produced. Better enjoying debating philosophical issues and writing, he decided to become a writer but had little luck publishing his work. Wells left school at twenty-one without a degree to teach at a private school and continue writing.
While playing football with students, Wells was badly fouled and injured and spent months as an invalid. Although Wells recuperated, he was plagued by illness for years; the experience made him more determined to succeed. When he got another teaching job, he took and passed his degree examination. More importantly, he worked harder at his writing.
In 1891, Wells married his cousin Isabel and set up a home in London, where he taught at a correspondence school and continued writing. He wrote scientific articles and began placing sketches on everyday life in newspapers. This paid modestly but got him a book contract for a collection that, in turn, helped him find a publisher for his first successful novel, The Time Machine (1895).
n 1926, Hugo Gernsback (1884--1967), editor of the pulp magazine Amazing Stories, coined the term science fiction; it was a more modern term than that previously used to describe the genre, scientific romance. While scholars have traced science fiction to fantastic tales of ancient times, it is generally agreed that the modern form originates in Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818) by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797--1851). Her story of a brilliant doctor creating a living being from bits of dead people was the first popular work to incorporate the two elements of the classic science fiction story: description of a scientific advance paired with an examination of the implications of that advance. In Frankenstein, this examination warns of the hubris of creating life without considering that this life will have consciousness, emotions, and goals of its own. Shelley's heedless, grave-robbing scientist, lightning-wracked moment of animation, and hideous, rampaging creature are so compelling that Frankenstein has been continuously in print ever since, and the doctor's monster has become an icon in world culture.
Shelley found inspiration in the early studies of electricity. Scientific progress and the Industrial Revolution changed life fundamentally and with great rapidity, fueling speculation about what new marvels were coming. The French novelist Jules Verne (1828--1905) offered answers. Verne drew upon the scientific advances of the Industrial Revolution to create wildly imaginative accounts of such adventures as a descent to the center of the earth, a balloon voyage across Africa, a race around the world, and other travels under the sea, through the air, and into space. Verne's works were immensely popular and influential, but they were thin on the second of the two classic elements of science fiction, ignoring the implications of the scientific advances he detailed. H.G. Wells, the next great figure in science fiction, would become famous for his elaborate explorations of the scientific advances he imagined.
The Time Machine is told as the recollections of a man who uses his invention to travel to the year 802,701 and discovers that mankind has divided into two separate species, the Eloi and the Morlocks. The weak and childish Eloi have evolved from the upper, leisure class and live in an Edenlike garden, with no concern for art, study, or labor; all they do is play. The Morlocks, evolved from the lower, working class, live underground where, in darkness, they tend the machinery that supports the surface paradise. At night, they venture above to kill and eat Eloi. After befriending an Eloi woman, the traveler tries to teach the Eloi to defend themselves, but he fails and the woman is killed. The traveler flees thirty million years into the far future, where he observes the attenuation of life on Earth to mere lichens whipped by snow and glimpses a tentacled creature thrashing in a red sea beneath a dim sun that has swollen to fill one-tenth of the sky. He returns to the present to relate his adventures, then mysteriously disappears, never to return.
Wells' The Time Machine posits a scientific advance, then explores its implications--in this case, a vision of degenerate humanity. If Shelley had dealt with time travel she might have written about the dangers of jumping into the future; Verne might have described the marvelous sights and adventures a time traveler could experience. Wells wrote about the destiny of humanity and ultimate extinction. The Time Machine was a tremendous success, allowing him to leave teaching, buy a home, and provide for his parents.
Wells' next novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), is similar in theme to Frankenstein.
Wells' next novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), is similar in theme to Frankenstein. A scientist, Moreau, plays God, attempting to transform animals into human beings through surgery. He comes close, but the manlike creatures revolt against his tormenting experiments and kill him. The man-animals then revert to animal savagery, killing each other. The hero, Edward Prendick, a castaway on the island, survives but is left psychologically damaged. Back in human society, he imagines those around him are also reverting into animals. Wells used this story to examine what it is that makes a being human and to present his musings that humanity is a product of pain.
The Invisible Man (1897) is a Faustian tale of Jack Griffin, an albino scientific genius who renders himself invisible by removing all coloration from his flesh and bones. The story begins with a mysterious bandaged man arriving at a country inn, where his condition stirs the curiosity of the villagers. He rebuffs their curiosity, and it grows. The townsfolk speculate wildly until, one day, the stranger's bandages are pulled from his head in a scuffle, revealing that there is nothing under them. A comic chase follows, with Griffin escaping to begin a life of crime. He tries to enlist Dr. Kemp, an old schoolmate, to help him use invisibility to create a criminal empire. Kemp refuses and becomes the target of Griffin's murderous rage. A fascinating struggle ensues with Kemp in the desperate predicament of defending himself from an invisible killer.
While Griffin begins as a nasty piece of work (he has stolen money entrusted to his father, causing him to commit suicide to escape the scandal), the power of invisibility corrupts him further. The ability to do evil without punishment overwhelms him, making what is convenient for him more important than what is moral. He steals and viciously assaults those who impede him. When Kemp refuses to cooperate, Griffin savagely pursues him to extract vengeance. The chase ends when the Invisible Man is overwhelmed by a mob and dispatched by a shovel to the skull. Wells' tale causes readers to wonder at how well they would behave if given unaccountable power.
In The War of the Worlds (1898), the author's most famous work, Martians invade Earth, incinerating thousands. Only by a caprice of nature does humanity survive.
In The War of the Worlds (1898), the author's most famous work, Martians invade Earth, incinerating thousands. Only by a caprice of nature does humanity survive. Darwin's theory of evolution had comforted Victorians with the notion that they were the highest order of life. Wells poked a hole in this by expanding the arena of life to include other planets where beings more advanced than man might have evolved and be entertaining predatory thoughts about Earth.
The First Men in the Moon (1901) reverses the venue, with a lunar-dwelling race of intelligent insects, the Selenites, being killed albeit as a result of misunderstanding rather than invasion. The First Men in the Moon offered Wells an opportunity to examine a "perfect" socialist state, where the citizens are little more than organic robots with only the highest allowed true self-awareness. This state lacks disorder and unites all Selenites in a single peaceful community, but sacrifices the individual to achieve its unity. It is a warning of what might come from socialism, but Wells didn't abandon his socialist views. Like many other socialist thinkers, he believed that his own favorite form of socialism would be the faultless exception that would unify without stultifying its citizens.
dventurous stories of incredible things made
Wells successful, but he wanted to write more serious literature. He took advantage of the fact that the public saw him as an expert on the future to present his theories of how to improve the world. Wells had more than a few of them.
Huxley had imbued in Wells a belief in Darwinism and agnosticism. Wells had a particular loathing for the Roman Catholic Church, which he saw as a regressive institution, and viewed the European monarchies with suspicion. He supported women's rights, sexual freedom, birth control, and free love. These beliefs about sex were easy to understand, as Wells led a remarkably scandalous private life. A wealthy celebrity, he was attractive to women and took many lovers. (These included the novelist and critic Rebecca west, with whom he had a son, who would become a writer.) At times, he maintained separate households between which he divided his time. That he would seek to justify these choices as modern and healthy is brazen but unsurprising. He arrayed all these beliefs under an umbrella of socialism; he considered private enterprise wasteful and thought that government could solve all problems. Indeed, he believed in the most comprehensive government imaginable, a world state.
Wells had concluded that humanity was in a race with disaster. Technological progress was improving life, but it also heightened social conflict and created more powerful weapons of war. Wells thought a "capable elite" of technocrats could avert this crisis by building a world government he called the "New Republic." In his fiction, he wrote of an elite building a new state after a world-shattering war. In his nonfiction, he described his hope to skip the destructive war.
In A Modern Utopia (1905), Wells details his vision. No part of life is skipped, from industrial organization to alcoholism. Wells reaches a remarkable conclusion: alcohol abuse won't be a problem because Utopia is such a happy place. He wrote: "The conditions of physical happiness will be better understood in Utopia, it will be worth while to be well there, and the intelligent citizen will watch himself closely. Half and more of the drunkenness of earth is an attempt to lighten dull days and hopelessly sordid and disagreeable lives, and in Utopia they do not suffer these things. Assuredly Utopia will be temperate, not only drinking, but eating with the soundest discretion."
It's true that happy people are less likely to abuse alcohol, but Wells' prim certainty is revealing. While unhappiness is one reason people drink, it certainly isn't the only reason. The security guards at Disneyland, the "happiest place on Earth," have to deal with countless drunks, both happy and sad. Arguing that "happiness" will eliminate problems places a lot of faith in the perfection of untested prescriptions. This is a common fault of utopian thinking. To revise an old saw, Utopias are always perfect, like a childless couple's children.
A child of the lower middle class, Wells was raised to play a lesser role in society, despite being more intelligent than many of his social betters. An alternative order was naturally attractive to him. As a teenager, he read Plato's Republic; at twenty, he wrote his own plan for a perfect state and became a member of the Fabian Society. When literary success thrust Wells, who had barely escaped the drapery trade, up among the great, his socialism was a handy device to counter their sense of proprietorship.
he world has suffered immensely from those who used socialist fantasies to create tyranny, but Wells can be given some latitude in that he advocated Fabian socialism, a mild strain. The influential Fabian Society was founded in London in 1884 with the purpose of implementing a socialist state through gradual democratic reforms, not revolution. This matched Wells' hopes. A cynic might suspect that this moderation stemmed more from a distaste for the excesses of revolution than from philosophical disagreement with revolutionary ends. It's been waggishly observed that Fabians wanted a complete reconfiguration of society without the inconvenience of having lampposts disfigured with the hanging corpses of those who objected.
The playwright George Bernard Shaw was one of the Fabian Society's founders. He and Wells had met when both worked for the Saturday Review, a journal commenting upon arts and literature. Shaw brought Wells into the inner circle of the society's most influential members, government officials and leading intellectuals, who paid attention to Wells' social theories. His notion of a New Republic was intriguing to them, for they saw themselves as a capable elite like the one that Wells said should command the world. In time, Wells thought to make the Fabians the creators of his utopia by taking over its leadership, but the society preferred to involve itself in more pragmatic, political issues of the moment (it helped create the Labour Party), not the far future. It was also reluctant to elevate Wells, whose romantic escapades might become public and injure the cause. Shaw played the mollifier at first, but, when Wells grew more and more insistent, Shaw sided against him and with the pragmatists. Shaw's wit neatly deflated Wells' posturing and helped deflect Wells from his purpose. Shaw was particularly adept at annoying, then placating, Wells; the two exchanged cutting criticism and soothing praise, both in print and in private, until Wells' death.
Socialism has been classified by the irreverent as either patient or impatient. The Fabians and Wells were all patient socialists, willing to incrementally advance toward world socialism. Impatient socialists found that expression in fascism and communism; they wanted a new order of society and were willing to spill blood to get it and keep it.
After the Fabians rejected his leadership, Wells left the society, becoming a commentator on the actions of others rather than an active participant in the political process. Writing mainly for newspapers, he had opinions about any event ready on demand and wrote millions of words expounding his views. He liked to call himself a journalist, but he didn't report information about events or people; rather, Wells reported on ideas. The role of commentator distanced him from socialism's failures--and there were some terrible failures coming.
Socialism has been classified by the irreverent as either patient or impatient. The Fabians and Wells were all patient socialists, willing to incrementally advance toward world socialism. Impatient socialists found that expression in fascism and communism; they wanted a new order of society and were willing to spill blood to get it and keep it. Patient socialists generally are repelled by this violence, but their socialism lends philosophic support to more aggressive strains. In hindsight, it is easy to see that authoritarian movements were apt to bring misery. But no one--not even Wells, the famed prognosticator--could have been expected to imagine the scope of that misery: the death camps, deliberate famines, gulags, years of war, and millions of dead.
orld War I was a massive challenge to those who believed in rational progress. Indeed, science and technology were placed in the service of destruction, greatly compounding the carnage. Unlike many socialists, who wanted soldiers from both sides to revolt and establish a universal workers' paradise, Wells saw the conflict as a battle between civilization and evil. A victory for imperial Germany, he believed, would revive the worst of the monarchic, nationalist depredations of the past. Too old to enlist, he became a propagandist for the British war effort, a role that antagonized many of his socialist friends. Wells hoped the war would be the first step in creating institutions to prevent future wars and lead to the establishment of a world state. The phrase "the war to end all wars" was his.
As the war slowly ground on, destroying a generation, Wells lost enthusiasm for it and attacked politicians and generals for their stupidity. After the war, he became involved in the promotion of the League of Nations as a step toward his New Republic. He quickly realized, however, that the league had no teeth and would do little to change the world. In the novel Men Like Gods (1923), the hero, Barnstaple, reflected Wells' own post--World War I disappointment. He wrote of Barnstaple, "His hope had always been in liberalism and generous liberal effort, but he was beginning to think that liberalism would never do anything more for ever than sit hunched up with its hands in its pockets grumbling and peeving at the activities of baser but more energetic men ... whose scrambling activities would inevitably wreck the world."
Unlike Barnstaple's liberalism, communism wasn't sitting on its hands in Russia, where it took advantage of the war to gain power. After the war, fascism in Germany did the same. Wells had self-contradictory views of both. He called Hitler a lunatic and saw the Nazis as inextricably linked to militarism and nationalism, but the Nazis resembled his fictional state builders--a small group of self-identified elitists who grab power to reorder the world. Wells scorned Marx, calling Das Kapital "a monument of pretentious pedantry." Yet he labeled Soviet Russia "a mighty step in the march of mankind towards an equalitarian federated world socialism" and proclaimed his desire to vote for a communist candidate in the 1945 general election. Wells was receptive to the communist point of view, a courtesy prominent communists didn't return. For them, Wells' ideas were merely quaint.
Wells interviewed both Lenin and Stalin. Stalin, who could be bluffly charming when it suited him, extended a short interview into a three-hour conversation that left Wells thinking that one of the most duplicitous of tyrants was honest. Lenin was less charming and gave Wells little of his time. The epitome of impatient socialism dismissed Wells to an associate with "Ugh! What a narrow petty bourgeois!" Meant as an insult, it is testimony to the distance between the pale Fabian socialist Wells and the red-blooded communist Lenin.
Wells also visited the United States, the capitalist opposite of Soviet Russia. He liked the fact that any citizen could better himself without class restrictions and appreciated American technical ability. He didn't, however, care for Yankee commercialism, thinking the constant striving for gain was unseemly and destructive. And, while Wells professed egalitarianism, he had elitist reservations when faced with its actuality.
World War II was another challenge to Wells' hopes for the future. It seemed to verify his predictions that only a world federation could forestall global catastrophe, and the destructive technical achievements displayed during the war convinced him that mankind's fate was more precarious than ever. He became pessimistic and observed after a speech in Australia, in which he attacked the Judeo-Christian religious tradition and nationalism, that his audience politely applauded and "everything went on just as it had been before." His radicalism had become trite, old-fashioned, and ineffectual. The man who had dreamed the future couldn't make it come into being. In August 1946, he died at seventy-nine, after a long struggle with cancer.
new wave of criticism has accused Wells in recent years of being a racist. In part, this derives from applying modern sensibilities to an earlier time when stereotypical descriptions of ethnic and racial groups were commonplace. Wells indulged in these politically incorrect characterizations but believed in the equality of races. He didn't, however, believe in the equality of cultures, disdaining superstitious customs and what he thought of as archaic social systems, whether they belonged to whites or any other race.
Wells has also been called anti-Semitic. He did oppose Zionism, thinking it would be better for Jews to integrate into society than to set up their own religion-based state. Wells didn't believe religion should play such a dominant role in a nation and saw Zionism as nationalism, something that hindered the coming of his world state. He also saw the Jews, who were spread around the world, as natural citizens for his world state.
In 1936, Wells participated in a Hollywood version of his The Shape of Things to Come, which dramatically depicted the beginning of a world war in Europe with a massive bombing attack on a British city in 1940. World War II began in 1939, and the massive bombing of British cities actually did begin in 1940, killing thousands.
While Wells disdained anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, he was very anti-Catholic and indulged in papal conspiracy theories. He saw the church as opposed to his sexual philosophy and socialism, and his hatred grew stronger until, near his death, he was nearly rabid with it. He opposed Catholic-Protestant marriage and thought Catholics should be barred from governmental office. His Crux Ansata (1943) was a one-sided litany of Catholic atrocities and speculation about the church's purported sympathies for the Axis cause.
Another charge against Wells is that he was ruthless in his political thought. He was sure that a technocrat elite, what he romantically called "voluntary nobility" or "samurai," were the deserving rulers of the world. The less capable, broadly defined in Wells' 1901 book Anticipations as "a multitude of contemptible and silly creatures, fear-driven and helpless and useless," were to be given little tolerance. These people existed at the sufferance of the elite, and the elite would not hesitate "to kill when that sufferance is abused."
Contempt for those who don't fit into a utopian ideal is nearly a proofmark for revolutionary ideology. Much of it is the armchair fanaticism of those who don't understand that words can lead to human beings being shoved into cattle cars. Wells' words were heartless and irresponsible. Fortunately, the public preferred Wells the fantasist to Wells the social philosopher. In a 1921 letter to a friend, Lytton Strachey neatly expressed this with: "I stopped thinking about him [Wells] when he became a thinker."
In 1936, Wells participated in a Hollywood version of his The Shape of Things to Come, which dramatically depicted the beginning of a world war in Europe with a massive bombing attack on a British city in 1940. World War II began in 1939, and the massive bombing of British cities actually did begin in 1940, killing thousands. Despite the danger, Wells bravely refused to leave his London home. When his friend Elizabeth Bowen visited him there after one air raid, she found him trembling, but it wasn't the aerial bombardment that had frightened him. "It's the dark," he said, referring to the blackout that came with a bombing attack. "I've been afraid of darkness all my life."
Wells had predicted terrible wars and the destruction of civilization, but there was a note of hope in his work. Early in his career, in Mankind in the Making (1903), he wrote, "Each generation is a step, a definite measurable step, and each birth an unprecedented experiment, directly it grows clear that instead of being in an eddy merely, we are for all our eddying moving forward upon a wide, voluminous current." Unfortunately, by the time of his death, the darkness of cynicism and pessimism had enveloped him.
H.G. Wells' lasting legacy hasn't been his pet philosophical theories. He had hoped to dream the future, to make his vision of a world ruled by reason come true. Instead, his scolding tracts are forgotten. Rather, it has been his early adventurous stories that have endured. Though they are now as dated as a celluloid collar or a gas lamp, they contain visions of things that are unknown, fearful, wonderful, and strange but always rooted in reason. This is why Orson Welles found it easy to terrify a nation with one of them. They are ripping yarns.
Ed Morrow is an author and illustrator. His most recent book is The Halloween Handbook.