Devil take the hindmost

John Sutherland

  • Shadows of the Future: H.G. Wells, Science Fiction and Prophecy by Patrick Parrinder
    Liverpool, 170 pp, £25.00, July 1995, ISBN 0 85323 439 6
  • The History of Mr Wells by Michael Foot
    Doubleday, 318 pp, £20.00, October 1995, ISBN 0 385 40366 6
  • A Modern Utopia by H.G. Wells, edited by Krishan Kumar
    Everyman, 271 pp, £5.99, November 1994, ISBN 0 460 87498 5

Among other certain things (death, taxes etc) is the rule that no work of science fiction will ever win the Booker Prize – not even the joke 1890s version. H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine had no chance against ‘literary’ authors like Hardy and Conrad. In the twenty-five years it has been running, no SF title, as I recall, has even been shortlisted for Martyn Goff’s real thing. In 1940, T.S. Eliot struck the recurrent establishment note when he labelled Wells a ‘popular entertainer’.(Dickens was stigmatised with the same term by F.R. Leavis in The Great Tradition.) Patrick Parrinder has been opposing such anti-Wellsian prejudice for the best part of a quarter of a century. His opposition takes the form of scholarly works which patiently mount the case for critical respect. Parrinder’s contributions include the Critical Heritage volume (1972), a study of Wells’s composition methods, H.G. Wells under Revision (1990, co-edited with Christopher Rolfe), and the reissue of Wells’s scientific romances currently appearing under the World’s Classics imprint. (For copyright reasons – Wells having died in 1946 – this series will probably only be available in America.) Parrinder’s more theoretical interventions include Science Fiction, Its Criticism and Teaching (1980), a work which places Wells as ‘the pivotal figure in the evolution of the scientific romance into modern science fiction’.

Shadows of the Future (a title which plays with the equivocal initials ‘SF’) is Parrinder’s most forceful critical plea so far for the importance of Wells. He begins by staking a claim for The Time Machine as ‘one of the Prophetic Books of the 19th century’, a work which ‘casts its own shadow over futurity’. In fact, two claims are made: one for Wells as a prophet novelist, the other for prophetic fiction (PF?) as a significant literary genre. Parrinder’s own discursive method, as he tells us, is modelled on the Time Traveller’s – a series of ever further ranging intellectual explorations. Wells is praised as the Edward Gibbon of his day, and he is also celebrated for writing parodic fiction of Bakhtinian subtlety whose designs are indistinguishable from the current hypotheses of theoretical physicists like Kip Thorne and Stephen Hawking. Parrinder’s chapters take the form of free-wheeling meditations on Wellsian topoi – ‘Possibilities of Space and Time’, ‘The Fall of Empires’, ‘Utopia and Meta-Utopia’. In Part Two of Shadows of the Future, he branches out into ‘Wells’s Legacy’ – which he takes to be the whole corpus of 20th-century British and American science fiction. There is a wealth of massively informed insight in the book, but more impressive – and more convincing – is the high seriousness with which Parrinder approaches his subject.

There are, however, three problems in joining Parrinder on his high critical road to a full rehabilitation of Wells. The first is Parrinder’s advocacy of the early scientific romances (the only works by Wells which have currency nowadays) as ‘prophecy’. A prophet wanting to communicate his forecasts to mankind might engrave them on stone tablets; he might buy billboard space in Leicester Square or an advertisement on Sky Television; the last thing he would do would be to wrap his prophecies up in popular science fiction – a genre which ranks in cultural authority with the fortune cookie and the cracker motto. A second problem is SF’s appalling record in accurately predicting scientific discoveries and future events. After the usual genuflections (‘Wells foresaw the future wars and anticipated the weapons of war, notably the aeroplane, the tank and the atomic bomb’) any comparison of, say, The War in the Air with what actually happened aeronautically in the world wars, or The First Men in the Moon with Cape Canaveral in 1969, reveals how wildly wrong science fiction invariably is. Nostradamus, Old Moore and Mystic Meg have SF beat every time. (Parrinder sportingly quotes against himself Fredric Jameson’s paradox that science fiction’s role in life is ‘to demonstrate and to dramatise our incapacity to imagine the future’.) The third, and most intractable, problem is the non-fiction prophecy which Wells wrote in the early 20th century, during the period when he felt he was outgrowing scientific romance, and put novels like The Time Machine away as childish things. It is an embarrassment for Wellsians that the master should so disvalue what his admirers, and posterity generally, have seen as his masterwork.

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