Unquestionably one of the most popular authors in literary history, British writer H.G. Wells created a world of scientific wonder and technological discovery in such classic novels as The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896 and The War of the Worlds (1898) that helped to give rise to the science fiction genre. Wells' work predicted major word wars, population movement from urban to suburban areas and wireless communication at a time when such accomplishments were still the stuff of fantasy, by presenting them in thrilling adventures that continued to capture the imagination of readers a century later. His work also proved ideal for film and television adaptations, which strove mightily to translate his scope and vision through elaborate special effects. Wells' novels also injected social and political commentary into his "scientific romances," and penned numerous world histories and scientific tomes over the course of prolific career. More significantly, Wells was a part of the foundation on which the whole of science fiction was built, inspiring writers and filmmakers to imagine the furthest reaches of human achievement. H.G. Wells' body of work placed him among a select number of 19th century and early 20th century authors whose writing had a profound influence on the written and visual entertainment of the centuries that followed.
Born Sept. 21, 1866 in the Bromley district of Kent County, England, Herbert George Wells was the last of four by shopkeeper Joseph Wells and his wife, Sarah, a former domestic servant. His early years were spent largely in poverty, due to the failure of the family store, after which Wells' father earned only a meager income as a professional cricket player. In 1874, Wells suffered a broken leg that left him bedridden for an extended period. To pass the time, he read numerous books from the local library, which spurred a lifelong interest in both literature and writing. Unfortunately, his family's financial problems forced him to seek out an apprenticeship at the Southsea Drapery Emporium, the first of many such positions which invariably ended in failure due to Wells' lack of ability or turmoil in the family home. In 1883, he won a scholarship to the Normal School of Science (later the Royal College of Science and part of Imperial College London), where he studied biology under Thomas Henry Huxley, grandfather of fellow speculative fiction author Aldous Huxley. The education he received there would inform much of the scientific content in his subsequent novels, most notably his studies of Darwinism, which would have a significant impact on The Island of Dr. Moreau . While at the Normal School, Wells was also introduced to the Fabian Society, whose ideas of social reform through socialism would have a significant impact on his own political views.
Unfortunately, Wells was not able to fulfill the requirements for his degree, which resulted in the loss of his scholarship. He turned to teaching for a period while continuing to pursue his diploma, eventually earning a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of London External Program. After briefly marrying his cousin, Isabel Mary Wells, in 1891, Wells fell in love with one of his students, Amy Catherine Robbins, whom he married in 1895. That same year, he published two books; a story collection called Select Conversations with an Uncle (Now Extinct) and Other Reminiscences, and a full-length novel, The Time Machine. The latter, about an inventor's travels through time to the distant future, was an immediate success, and was quickly followed by a slew of novels that would help establish Wells as one of the forefathers of modern science fiction. The Island of Dr. Moreau concerned a scientist who accelerated evolution by transforming animals into men through vivisection, while The Invisible Man (1897) followed another man of science whose experiments in optics resulted in the titular condition. The War of the Worlds (1898), which was undoubtedly Wells' best-known work, depicted the destruction of Britain by a Martian invasion, while The First Men in the Moon (1901) followed an expedition to the lunar surface, where a sophisticated alien race is found. In addition to fiction, Wells also published numerous essays and non-fiction work, most notably, Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life and Thought (1901), which predicted, among other technological advancements, the rise of suburban life due to the dispersion of urban populations through trains and cars, the defeat of Germany's military might, and the creation of a European Union.
These and other scientific auguries placed Wells as a contemporary of French author Jules Verne, who also foretold many future achievements in his novels. However, Wells also imbued his work with a considerable degree of social and political commentary, often regarding issues of class and democracy. His beliefs informed both his "scientific romances" - the term for science fiction in his day - as well as non-genre writing like Kipps (1905), a humorous account of a young man's rise from drapery apprentice, as Wells had once been, to the upper-class by means of an unexpected inheritance, and the effect of that social shift upon his happiness. Similarly, Tono-Bungay (1909) reflected Wells' wholesale skepticism regarding a host of issues, from Edwardian English society to organized religion, advertising and big business. In all cases, Wells believed that socialism or some form of it would bring about a Utopian society, which he depicted in A Modern Utopia (1905) and In the Days of the Comet (1906), in which interplanetary gases cause mankind to save itself by acting rationally and avoiding a devastating world war.
Wells was also passionately devoted to improving the chronicles of world history through a series of non-fiction books, including An Outline of History (1920), a three-volume set which detailed the rise of mankind from prehistoric origins, which was soon followed by an abridged version, A Short History of the World (1922) and several longer works on the history of science and achievement. Though bestsellers which remained in print well into the 21st century, Wells' history books were not held in the same regard as his fiction, due in part to mixed reviews from scholars, other historians and writers and religious leaders, many of whom criticized his assessment of world events. While their assessment had a dampening effect on his standing as a world historian, Wells remained exceptionally popular as a novelist and intellectual who could command audiences with leaders like Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He briefly attempted to parlay his standing into a political career of his own by running for Parliament in 1922 and 1923, but failed to gain an office in both cases.
In 1936, Wells penned the script for William Cameron Menzies' film adaptation of one of his most famous novels, The Shape of Things to Come (1933), which opined that a new world war would break out in January of 1940, a prediction that failed to come true by just four short months when World War II was launched in September of 1939. Wells had disapproved of previous Hollywood adaptations of his works, including "Island of Lost Souls" (1932), a controversial take on The Island of Dr. Moreau and James Whale's version of The Invisible Man (1933) for Universal. Though heavily promoted as "H.G. Wells' 'Things to Come'," the author had little control over the film, with many of his scenes edited or completely removed from the final release. He would make a second attempt at screenwriting for "The Man Who Could Work Miracles" (1936), a greatly expanded version of his short story produced by Alexander Korda, who had performed similar duties on "Things to Come." Two years later, The War of the Worlds would be adapted for the radio anthology series "The Mercury Theatre on the Air" by Orson Welles, which caused a nationwide panic among listeners who believed that the updated dramatization was in fact an actual news broadcast of a Martian invasion in New Jersey.
Wells continued to write novels, essays and short stories well into the late 1930s and early '40s, though the decidedly downbeat tone of these works, as well as the controversial nature of his subjects - including frequent criticism of the Catholic Church - caused these works to earn smaller readerships and dismissal from his detractors. Wells' negative stance was often attributed to his declining health due to diabetes, among other factors, which may have contributed to his death at the age of 79 on Aug. 13, 1946. His science fiction works remained classics of the genre in the decades that followed his passing, inspiring countless film and television adaptations, most notably Byron Haskin's "War of the Worlds" (1953) and Steven Spielberg's 2005 version, as well as countless dramatizations of The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, The First Men in the Moon, The Food of the Gods (1904) and the short stories "The Country of the Blind" (1904) and "The Empire of the Ants" (1905).
By Paul Gaita