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Steven McLean, Hurtling into Futurity: H. G. Wells at 150

2016 June 6
by lucinda matthews-jones

Steven McLean is author of The Early Fiction of H. G. Wells: Fantasies of Science (2009) and the editor of H. G. Wells: Interdisciplinary Essays (2008). As well as a number of articles on Wells, Steven has written on Emile Zola and edited George Griffith’s scientific romance The Angel of the Revolution (2012) for Victorian Secrets. His most recent work is on literature and aeronautics, an area he has published on in the Journal of Literature and Science and in Literature and History. He has taught at a range of institutions.

H. G. Wells

H. G. Wells

This year marks the 150th anniversary of H. G. Wells birth, as well as the 70th anniversary of his death. Wells deserves to be remembered for many reasons. In a writing career that spanned more than 50 years, he wrote ‘scientific romances’ (widely acknowledged as the precursors of modern scientific fiction), short stories, fantastical romances, social novels, scientific journalism, sociological works, and popular history books. Much of Wells’s output might been produced in the twentieth century, but he started his life—and his writing career—as a Victorian.

Wells is, of course, most famous for his late-Victorian scientific romances. His major breakthrough came when The Time Machine was published in 1895. This was quickly followed by The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898), When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) and The First Men in the Moon (1901). (The latter overlaps with the Edwardian era).  Wells’s scientific romances are deeply immersed in—and emerge in response to—Victorian preoccupations and anxieties.

The Time Machine is undoubtedly Wells’s most original, enduring, and influential fiction, and explores Victorian class division through the lens of evolutionary time. Other texts like Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843), Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888) and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) all contain an element of time travel, facilitated by spirits, a one-hundred-year sleep, and a bang on the head respectively. The originality of Wells’s treatment of time travel lies in his introduction of a machine that allows its inventor to control his journey through time. (The plot device of the time machine has been adopted and adapted in myriad subsequent literary and cinematic narratives.) With the publication of The Time Machine, time travel is brought within the grasp of earnest scientific endeavour, rather than less plausible chance means. Indeed, Wells’s time traveller is careful to distance himself from potential allegations that he is being anything less than scientific as he demonstrates a miniature time machine to his dinner guests: ‘ “Have a good look at the thing. Look at the table too, and satisfy yourselves there is no trickery. I don’t want to waste this model, and then be told I’m a quack” ’.[i]

Shortly afterwards, Wells’s time traveller describes the first ever fictional journey through time:

I am afraid I cannot convey the peculiar sensations of time travelling. They are excessively unpleasant. There is a feeling exactly like that one has upon a switchback—of a helpless headlong motion! I felt the same horrible anticipation, too, of an imminent smash. As I put on pace, night followed day like the flapping of a black wing. The dim suggestion of the laboratory seemed presently to fall away from me, and I saw the sun hopping swiftly across the sky, leaping it every minute, and every minute marking a day. I supposed the laboratory had been destroyed and I had come into the open air. I had a dim impression of scaffolding, but I was already going too fast to be conscious of any moving things. The slowest snail that ever crawled dashed by too fast for me. The twinkling succession of darkness and light was excessively painful to the eye. Then, in the intermittent darkness, I saw the moon spinning swiftly through her quarters from new to full, and had a faint glimpse of the circling stars.[ii]

Although the time traveller at first believes the world of the year 802, 701 is a utopia in which the problems of his own age have been resolved, he soon discovers that a disconcerting future in which Victorian social divisions are exacerbated. The dainty surface dwelling Eloi and the machine tending subterranean Morlocks (descendants of capitalist and labourer respectively) have emerged because the class division between the ‘two nations’ of the rich and poor (identified by Benjamin Disraeli) has become an evolutionary distinction, as the time traveller makes explicit:

And this same widening gulf—which is due to the length and expense of the higher educational process and the increased facilities for and temptations toward refined habits on the part of the rich—will make that exchange between class and class, that promotion by intermarriage which at present retards the splitting of our species along lines of social stratification, less and less frequent.[iii]

The future depicted in The Time Machine not only portrays the division of the humanity into two species along class lines, it depicts a chilling inversion of Victorian power relations, as the Morlocks (whose adaptation to their subterranean caverns is the unmistakable consequence of the dark and squalid living conditions endured by their Victorian ancestors) feed cannibalistically on the remnants of the ruling-class that are the Eloi.  Wells’s future—and Wells’s future nightmare—is firmly rooted in Victorian preoccupations. The Time Machine is a powerful warning about the future consequences of failing to implement meaningful social reform.

In terms of Wells’s own journey into futurity, 2016 also marks the last year that Wells is in copyright. His coming out of copyright in 2017 should (hopefully) mean that his work becomes more widely available than ever. What direction should Wells studies take? And what place does the author have in Victorian studies? Despite his consistent popularity, Wells was for many years understudied or even undervalued in academic literary studies. A ‘transitional’ author whose best work belongs to the 1890s and Edwardian era, Wells does not fit the traditional dichotomy between Victorian and Modern, being far removed from the traditional Victorian ‘canon’, as well as outside the experimental modernist movement (Wells was (in)famously written off by Virginia Woolf). The emergence of a sustained preoccupation with the fin-de-siècle, renewed interest in Victorian popular fiction, and the prevalence of the fields of science and literature and periodical studies, have stimulated renewed interest in Wells in the past two decades. It is hoped more studies like Simon J. James’s recent Maps of Utopia: H. G. Wells, Modernity and the End of Culture (2012) will circumvent traditional academic pigeonholing and examine Wells on his own terms.

As for his place in Victorian studies, there remains considerable scope for examining Wells’s scientific romances, lesser known fantastical romances like The Wonderful Visit (1895) and his short stories in the context of Victorian preoccupations. Moreover, Wells provides an instructive reminder of the need for a truly flexible concept of the ‘long’ nineteenth century, and to avoid rigid cut off points. Wells’s work highlights how Victorian debates and preoccupations continue into the twentieth century. Indeed, Wells’s turn to utopia in the 1900s is grounded in the Victorian evolutionary theories of T. H. Huxley (who lectured Wells at what became Imperial College, London) and Herbert Spencer. By guiding its own evolution within a utopia (that is predicated on an acknowledgement that evolutionary change is inevitable), humanity could avoid the type of nightmarish future portrayed in The Time Machine.


[i]H. G. Wells, The Time Machine: An Invention, ed. by Nicholas Ruddock (Peterborough, Ont.; Orchard Park, N.Y. : Broadview Press, 2001), p.66.

[ii]Ibid., p.77.

[iii]Ibid., p.110.

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