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Steven McLean, The Future as a Punchline: H. G. Wells’s Comic Celebrity

2016 September 27
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 is currently based at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Seoul

H. G. Well's in his areoplane

On the 150th Anniversary of his birth, H. G. Wells is firmly associated with the future–from the nightmarish future portrayed in early “scientific romances” like The Time Machine (1895) and When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) to the tentative blueprint for the human race portrayed in works like A Modern Utopia (1905). Wells’s speculations on future humanity fascinated his contemporaries as well.  Wells’s ‘The Man of the Year Million’ (1893), a speculative scientific essay published in the Pall Mall Gazette which postulates humans evolving into ‘hopping heads’ with giant hands, was parodied by the comic periodical Punch in a poem titled ‘1, 000, 000 AD’.[1] Noting that Wells’s forecast envisaged a ‘jawless, gumless, [and] toothless’ future man living underground, Punch’s poem concludes: ‘Our stars we may thank, then, that we shall not be living/A million years from hence!’.[2]

Punch later celebrates Wells’s preoccupation with the future by making him the subject of one of its series of imaginary ‘sketchy interviews’ with prominent figures.  ‘Mr. Punch’s Sketchy Interviews: Mr. H. G. Wells’, published on April 29, 1903, makes hilarious use of Wells’s well-known late-Victorian works (as well as those published at the inception of the Edwardian age).

The item begins with Punch’s imagined correspondent approaching Wells’s custom-made residence at Sandgate, Spade House, ‘built on the prophets of Anticipations[3]—a reference to both Wells’s growing reputation as a social prophet and the fact he was now established enough as a writer to afford a specially-built home. In a humorous extrapolation from the plot of Wells’s recently published romance The Sea Lady (1902), the story of a mermaid who comes to live on land, the piece reports that Wells chose this elevated site, overlooking the English Channel, ‘so that he might be cognisant of the approach of mermaids, which are common of the local shore; so much so that the Sandgate Borough Council have had to pass a law regulating their movements’.[4]

Punch’s correspondent soon arrives at Wells’s front door:

On our pressing the electric button the door was opened by a well-trained Martian, who in answer to our question hooted politely that Mr. WELLS was out on his Aeroplane, superintending the flying drill of the Sandgate Highlanders, and was for the time being an invisible man, but that he was expected in any moment.[5]

The (surprisingly domesticated) Martian hoots exactly as his predecessors in The War of the Worlds had done. It is perhaps a generous testimony to Wells’s role in inventing the future that Punch has him superintending a flying drill months before the Wright brothers took to the air, suggesting that he will never be an invisible man for long.

Right on cue, Wells swoops to earth, and takes the Punch correspondent into his sanctum. Alluding to Wells’s speculation on the self-cleaning design of twentieth-century houses in Anticipations (1901) (in which the author forecasts the probable developments of the new century), the item reports that: ‘We experienced considerable difficulty in keeping our feet, owing to the curvature of the floor—Mr. WELLS adopts this system to prevent the collection of dust’.[6]

Wells ‘settled himself comfortably in the cushioned seats of his Time Machine and began to talk’ of the future:

 ‘No’, said he, ‘I am not interested in the present, nor hardly in to-morrow. It is the day after the day after tomorrow on which my wistful gaze Is fixed. Ah, England will be England then when Anticipations are realities, and man is no longer in the making but made. I look forward to a not too distant day when airships will be as common as hardships now are, and all incompetent statesmen and generals will have married mermaids and disappeared for ever into a subaqueous limbo’.[7]

There is a reference here to Mankind in the Making (then being serialised in the Fortnightly Review) which objects to the effect hardship is having on the well-being (and thus future) of humanity. The notion that incompetent public figures might disappear into subaqueous limbo is inspired by the fate of The Sea Lady’s protagonist, Chatteris, who relinquishes earthly responsibility and descends into the depths (and to certain death) with the mermaid.

The ‘sketchy interview’ then facetiously portrays Wells adapting his diet in preparation for the coming of the man of the year million:

‘The man of the future being ex hypothesi toothless, lozenges become a prime necessity. It is therefore the duty of all far-sighted citizens to forestall the inevitable and conform to the exigencies of posterity. I myself subsist exclusively on a peptonised angel cake prepared from a recipe supplied me by one of my wonderful visitors’.[8]

The last line here alludes to Wells’s story The Wonderful Visit (1895), in which an angel falls to earth.

The piece next has Wells announce that he is ‘ “endeavouring to negotiate an Anglo-Martian alliance’ ”[9]—with support from the pro-Imperial Federation politician Joseph Chamberlain. Wells is next shown to announce his ‘ “National Nursery” ’, ‘ “in which I propose to subject the limbs of the young to a process which will enable future generations to adopt a rotary means of locomotion’ ”[10]—a passage which recalls the way in which the Selenites of The First Men in the Moon (1901) are  physically and physiologically adapted to fulfil their exact social role (a ‘machine hand’ being exactly that).  The sketchy interview ends with Punch expressing its admiration for Wells in a passage that reminds us of the impact his futuristic speculations had on his contemporaries: ‘[W]e arose, unwilling any longer to deprive our great-great-grand-children of the results of his labours.  Mr WELLS showed us to the door, and recommending his moving staircase as an easy means of descent left us with his blessing’.[11]


[1] H. G. Wells, ‘The Man of the Year Million’, Pall Mall Gazette 57 (1893), 3-6; ‘1, 000, 000 AD’, Punch, November 25 1893, 250.

[2] ‘1,000, 000 AD’, Ibid.. These hopping heads are the prototypes of the Martians in The War of the Worlds (1898). Both Wells’s piece, and the Punch parody of it, are referred to in The War of the Worlds.

[3] ‘Mr. Punch’s Sketchy Interviews: Mr H. G. Wells’, April 29 1903, 305.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

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