The Scientific Romances of HG Wells
Created | Updated Jun 21, 2015
ROMANCE: A long fictitious tale of heroes and extraordinary or mysterious events, usually set in a distant time or place.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Houghton Miffin, 2002
When we hear the word 'romance' today the first thing that springs to mind is likely to be images of candlelit meals and long strolls in the moonlight with your nearest and dearest. If the word conjures up any allusion to literature whatsoever, it is likely to be associated with the words 'Mills and Boon' as well. Nevertheless, dig a little deeper and you may recall hearing of such things as the Arthurian Romances in which knights were bold and committed acts of great daring-do and heroism in the name of chivalry. The term romance can, as the above quote suggests, be attached to tales of thrilling adventure.
When Herbert George Wells (1866-1946) penned the novels for which he is arguably most famous today, 'Science Fiction' was a term that had yet to be coined and the genre that it describes was in its infancy. Despite this fact, many great authors were producing what could be termed Scientific Romances (ie tales of adventure that speculated on areas outside the knowledge of contemporary scientific understanding). Edgar Allen Poe had already written of a journey to the moon in the Tale of Hans Pfhal, and perhaps the only rival to Wells, Jules Verne had produced titles such as Journey to the Centre of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Despite the fact that he is most widely remembered today for a small number of such works, Wells was in his lifetime a prolific writer producing dozens of texts on subjects such as science, politics and social policy. Works such as The Shape of Things to Come (1933) proved Wells talent for scientific prophecy as he predicted world turmoil caused by the threat posed by weapons of mass-destruction. Similarly, in The World Set Free (1914), he predicted the splitting of the atom years before it was finally achieved by Rutherford. Wells also drew upon his experiences of life to write popular fiction like Tono-Bungay (1909) and Kipps (1905), the latter of which was adapted for the stage as the musical Half a Six-Pence.
The Scientific Romances
In chronological order: The Island of Dr Moreau (1892), The Time Machine (1895), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898) and The First Men in the Moon (1901), have been the subject of film, radio plays and other adaptations for many years and still endure as a part of popular culture today. In each, Wells' gentleman adventurer/narrator is both victim of and witness to the fantastic events that constitute the story, reporting the wonders that he witnesses to the reader. Though the formula is the same for most of the books, the subjects are vastly different in nature.
The Island of Dr Moreau
Marooned on the eponymous island, Wells' hero finds himself trapped in the company of the exiled and morally degenerate doctor and his horrific creations. The brilliant Moreau, it transpires, has perfected a process to transform base creatures into sentient humanoids and intends to build with them a utopian community upon his island. As the story progresses the flaws in Moreau's plan become evident as the animals begin to return to their savage nature and eventually revert to their previous forms. The question is asked, if you make a human being, can you also instil that being with morals? To the modern reader there can be no mistaking the resonance Wells makes in this novel with the current forays that science has made into the realm of genetic engineering. In an age where science has cloned plants and animals and is now capable of doing the same with a human being, the figure of the scientist playing god is more powerful than ever.
The Time Machine
In this story, Wells moves away from speculation on the present and takes a giant leap into the future, as his Victorian time-traveller constructs a device to travel in the fourth dimension1. Arriving in the far distant future, the time-traveller is confronted with the realisation that humankind has evolved into two distinct species. The physically beautiful, but mentally childlike Eloi enjoy a seemingly idyllic life in which they want for nothing as they wander among the ruins of an earlier society. At first it seems to the time-traveller that having eliminated all natural threats, the Eloi have degenerated into their current state of innocence. He soon learns, however, that the Eloi are not the sole inhabitants of their world as he stumbles upon the tunnels of the Morlocks, a subterranean species of humankind that shy away from the light and maintain strange technologies beneath the surface. Upon closer study, the darker side of the Morlocks is revealed in their relationship to the Eloi, the latter being similar to passive cattle in more than one sense. As well as commenting on the duality of human nature, The Time Machine provides a timely reminder of the fact that the splendours of society are built on the backs of the masses and can endure only so long as they remain in their allotted places. The elite stand tall until the masses decide to cast off their chains and rebel against the established order.
The Invisible Man
After studying the properties of opaque and transparent organisms, the protagonist of The Invisible Man experiments upon himself, becoming just that. One of the most widely known of Wells' literary creations, The Invisible Man poses a question that many people have pondered: What would you do if you actually had the chance to become invisible to the naked human eye? While the first things that may spring to mind are usually either of a voyeuristic or even petty criminal nature, Wells delves far deeper into the practicalities facing the potential invisible individual. The fact of the matter is that the invisible man has to pretty much run around naked in order to take advantage of his unique condition, and as he resides in the south of England and the story takes place in the depths of winter, this presents certain problems. As well as hypothermia, the hapless invisible man also has to contend with the fact that he is not the toughest or the most dexterous of men, and in many cases the fact that he cannot be seen is not enough to allow him the freedom he had imagined. He can still be heard and his physical form is still vulnerable to harm. However, the invisible man also faces trials on a psychological level as well. Living with one's actions and being able to look at yourself in the mirror is a common challenge applied to those who transgress the bounds of morality, but the invisible man does not and cannot thanks to his condition. Wells portrays him as a man sliding towards total degeneracy, fully capable of killing to further his aims as he becomes evermore distanced from human society. The danger in changing what you are, it seems, is what you may become as a result.
The War of the Worlds
Perhaps the most famous of all Wells' works, The War of the Worlds tells the tale of a Martian invasion of the Earth and the horrific consequences for mankind. Landing on the Earth in cigar-shaped craft, they construct vastly superior war-machines and proceed to drive humanity before them in a mass rout. The most striking aspect of the whole tale is that humankind is powerless in the face of the invasion as the Martians brush aside any attempt at resistance. In the end, the alien forces are defeated by their lack of immunity to earthly viruses and it becomes increasingly apparent that humanity had no effect whatsoever on the outcome of the invasion. As is well known, the radio adaptation of the book by Orson Welles, cunningly filled with realistic news broadcasts of the Martian invasion, caused outbreaks of hysteria in the United States when broadcast. Wells himself actually crossed the Atlantic and gave radio interviews with his US near namesake on the adaptation of his novel. For the main part, it seems that Wells liked it, though he chided Welles for transporting the tale to the United States rather than sticking to his own choice of Victorian London. In The War of the Worlds, there is much that can be related to by those who have lived through wartime. Initially, Wells reversed the roles on the Victorians and their vast empire by having a superior and alien force appear from nowhere and conquer all before them, just as the English had done to other cultures in the past. But then there came the horrors of the Great War and mere decades later the second worldwide conflict, where millions lost their lives and devastating new technologies were unleashed upon an unsuspecting world. Even today, we are faced with the realisation that modern warfare in conducted from afar by weapons of mass-destruction by people so far away that they might as well be from Mars themselves.
The First Men in the Moon
Some may find the title of this novel a little odd at first, rather than 'The First Men on the Moon'. But then the men that Wells sends off on a journey to the Moon find that there is far more beneath the surface to interest them than there is above it. Wells' narrator here is an enterprising chap who would probably be termed a 'venture capitalist' in the modern day. The real scientific brain of the story however, is Professor Cavor, a brilliant man concerned solely with scientific discovery. After synthesising an element with anti-gravitational qualities (named 'cavorite' after the man himself), the pair construct a vessel in which they will travel to the Moon utilising the cavorite as a form of propulsion. Cavor of course wants to go there to explore, but the narrator is more interested in the untapped mineral wealth of the satellite. However, upon arriving both are surprised to find that the Moon is far from uninhabited. Beneath the surface, they discover, dwell the insect like Selenites in their hive-like and highly ordered society. Initially, both the professor and his companion are awed and fascinated by the society of the Selenites, its complexity and cohesion.
As time passes, the narrator begins to ponder whether the Selenites are all that they seem, as each is bred for a specific purpose from birth and never deviates from their predetermined purpose. The narrator also fears that they are more captives than guests, and possibly destined for the fate of most scientific specimens or creatures kept in a zoo for curiosity's sake. He makes his escape, leaving behind the more trusting Cavor with the Selenites as he makes his way back to Earth in their craft. The story poses the question to the reader, that if a perfectly ordered society that deals only in hard and logical fact is possible, is it in fact desirable? While often accused of striving for a scientific utopia in his novels, the distinctly cautious approach that Wells takes to such societies as that of the Selenites is underplayed by many critics. Again, the fact that we are approaching the position of being able to determine the genetic inheritance that we pass on to the next generation, the Selenites' breeding of individuals for predetermined roles from which they cannot escape, may soon be a matter of science fact rather than science fiction or Scientific Romance.