Thursday, October 20, 2005

HG Wells

HG Wells forecast 20th century society so accurately that he has been dubbed 'the man who invented tomorrow'. He is seen by many as the founding father of modern science fiction and was predicting the future long before people like Herman Kahn and Arthur C Clarke. He foresaw super-highways, overcrowded cities and television news broadcasts well in advance of their reality. This talent for prophecy was to prove most accurate, however, when regarding the machinery of war.
Early life
The youngest of three brothers, Herbert George Wells was born to a lower middle class family in Bromley, Kent. After breaking his leg as a child he had a period of convalescence in which to read. This was a passion that he would continue to indulge at the library of Uppark, the estate where his mother was a housekeeper.
But his more immediate work didn't service his love of literature – he was apprenticed to a draper. This didn't last, and in 1883 he took on a student assistantship at Midhurst Grammar School, giving him the opportunity to study and teach. Later, after winning a scholarship to the Norman School of Science in South Kensington, he studied under the biologist TH Huxley. Huxley influenced the young writer greatly and inspired the character of Russell in his 1908 novel, Ann Veronica.
Wells left the Norman school of Science in 1887 without completing his degree. But in 1890, after teaching in private schools for some years, he obtained an honours degree in biology from London University.
He married his cousin Isabel in 1891, but the marriage wasn't to last and he later eloped with one of his students, Amy Catherine, in 1895. He did not stay faithful, however, and during his life had many mistresses, often modelling his female characters on them.
Early works
His first published work was a biology textbook in 1893 but his debut as a novelist came in 1895 with The Time Machine. The book is generally accepted as one of the first modern science fiction stories, but it is also notable for offering the first glimpse of the author's prophetic style. In this novel, Wells asserts that time is a fourth dimension, pre-empting Einstein's theory of a four dimensional time continuum by years.
The novels that followed were The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) and The Invisible Man (1897). Both were clearly influenced by his background in biology, featuring scientists tampering with the forces of nature. It was in 1898, however, that he published arguably his most famous work: The War of the Worlds.
The War of the Worlds
In the years preceding the publication of his classic invasion novel, Mars had captured the writer's imagination. In 1894, the red planet was positioned close enough to the Earth to allow an Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli, to see channels on its surface. This led to fervent speculation that Mars was harbouring life and in less than four years HG Wells had unleashed his Martian invaders on the world. The novel was made into a Hollywood film in 1953 but it was the earlier 1938 radio broadcast by Orson Welles that caused the most controversy. On its first airing many Americans believed that the Earth really was being invaded by Martians – there was widespread panic.
All of Wells' writing was heavily influenced by his belief that society could be better organised. And though after the First World War he published several non-fiction works, it was his preoccupation with warfare and society that led to his most astute predictions.
Destructive technology
In his life, as well as his work, HG Wells seemed torn between the idea of the salvation and destruction of human society. In 1903, he foresaw the use of modern tanks, in The Land Ironclads. In 1908, inspired by the Zeppelin flights in Germany, he published The War in the Air, depicting a civilisation decimated by the aerial bombing of cities. Perhaps one of his most important insights was in The World Set Free, published in 1914. In it, he predicted the use of the atomic bomb, well before the world witnessed the horror of Hiroshima. although this work dealt with nuclear destruction there was also a more positive message in it that hinted towards a future without war.
This optimism had all but disappeared by the time of his last novel though. Mind at the End of its Tether (1945) portrayed his growing dissatisfaction with the world. Wells died in London, after living to see many of his darkest predictions come true.


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