- The Invisible Man: The Life and Liberties of H.G. Wells by Michael Coren
Bloomsbury, 240 pp, £20.00, January 1993, ISBN 0 7475 1158 6
Late in 1900 H.G. Wells sat down to draft the series of articles which were to make his reputation as the foremost prophet of the new century. His working title was ‘Speculations’ or ‘The New Prospectus’, and the essays were later published as Anticipations. His friend Arnold Bennett referred to them mockingly as ‘Uncle’s-dissipations’, but for Wells futurology was anything but a sideline. In fact he was tempted to regard the scientific romances and humorous journalism with which he had made his mark in the Nineties as little more than dissipations.
1900 was not a peaceful year. From his new house on the cliffs at Sandgate, Wells would have been able to see British troopships heading for South Africa. Elsewhere the great powers were preoccupied with slaughter in the Belgian Congo and the Philippines and with the Boxer Rebellion in China. Part of Wells’s originality was to see these scattered conflicts of the old century as harbingers of a new epoch of world wars. The nightmarish weaponry of a technological age was grotesquely foreshadowed in The War of the Worlds, which had been published two years earlier; in another story of the near future, When the Sleeper Wakes, he had invented the fighter pilot as hero. The Time Machine, with its visionary glimpses of a degenerate far future, contained graphic scenes of primitive hand-to-hand fighting. The author of Anticipations was the same Wells who a few years earlier had shown his Time Traveller smashing the heads of the future descendants of humanity to pulp with a crowbar.
When Wells’s imagination was at its most vivid it was also at its most violent. Nothing in his later writing shocks us like the Martians’ sucking the blood of their human victims, or the bath of pain in which the vivisectionist Dr Moreau transforms wild animals into sham human beings. The violence in the early scientific romances nearly always has a luridly comic side, which is part of the effect: The Island of Doctor Moreau, for example, parodies Kipling’s Jungle Book. For the sociological essayist that Wells (or part of him) was to become after 1900, it was an explosive mixture.
Bernard Bergonzi once explained what happened to Wells at the turn of the century by saying that his acceptance of a collectivist ideology destroyed the autonomy of his imagination. In other words, Wells would have been a better artist if he had not meddled with socialism. This is nonsense, of course; neither the Fabians nor anyone else ever succeeded in telling him what to write. His mistakes, and he admitted a few, were all his own. Genius with its flarings and gutterings is mysterious at best, but there might be a clue in his curious medical history. Throughout the Nineties, the author of the scientific romances was all too familiar with the taste of blood – his own. A footballing accident in 1887 had left him with a damaged lung and a damaged kidney, and on several occasions his doctors gave him only a few months to live. After 1900, however, this supposed consumptive healed of his own accord, and lived on at a frenetic pace until after the Second World War. Some of the desperation that fuelled his early writings may be thought to have gone out of him once it became obvious that he was not going to die young.
Wells’s most famous imaginative device, the time machine, is relevant to this, since the Time Traveller is in effect cheating death by voyaging forward in another dimension. Did Wells himself make some such jump into hyperdrive, becoming a prophet of the future in order to outwit his body’s infirmity? If so, the Traveller encounters the return of the repressed in the form of a terminal vision of global destruction, beyond which he cannot go. Wells, in the wake of Darwin and Huxley, was trained as a biologist and geologist, so his model for imagining the future was inevitably the prehistoric past. The fossil record of extinct species suggested a trail of innumerable deaths leading up to and beyond the present state of the species, which was moulded by natural selection. The triumph of human intelligence and civilisation had been bought at the cost of unremitting sacrifice and wastage: not merely a martyrdom of man, as the Victorian rationalist Winwood Reade had called it, but a remorseless winnowing of nature.