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06-21-05, 09:04 AM
War of the Worldviews
H.G. Wells was a sci-fi pioneer, but his political ideas were abominable.
Tuesday, June 21, 2005 12:01 a.m.

If H.G. Wells had not performed poorly on an astronomical physics test and several other exams as a young man, he might have spent the rest of his life as an obscure academic rather than a popular author. He probably would not have written his most famous book, "The War of the Worlds"--a novel that's never gone out of print since its publication in 1898 and that now serves as the inspiration for the Stephen Spielberg film reaching theaters next Wednesday.
Those lousy marks at the Normal School of Science in London's South Kensington are perhaps one of the best things that ever happened to the original Martian chronicler. Wells himself didn't see them that way. He bore a deep grudge. In an 1895 story, "The Argonauts of the Air," his protagonists slam a "flying machine" into the Royal College of Science (as the Normal School had been renamed), causing explosions and fatalities. It's difficult to interpret the episode as something other than a morbid act of literary terrorism.

Even this didn't flush the anger out of his system. Three years later, in "The War of the Worlds," Wells unleashed those iconic tripods and their devastating heat rays on his old stomping ground. In a letter, he boasted of "selecting South Kensington for feats of peculiar atrocity."

Perhaps the professors got the message and began to practice grade inflation. Whatever the case, the author's lingering resentment highlights one of the central aspects of his work: He simply couldn't accept the world he encountered in his everyday life. Disappointments often sparked a destructive urge. The man was nothing if not a radical who yearned to reshape the fundamentals of human society through books and politics.

Wells was a pioneer of science fiction more than a generation before Hugo Gernsback coined the term in the 1920s, and he's often lumped together with another child of the 19th century, Jules Verne. When the two are compared--and Wells hated it when they were, because he held the Frenchman in low regard--Verne usually comes off as a relative lightweight. His fiction tended to focus on the gadgetry of hot-air balloons and submarines. Wells was no slouch on technical details, but he was far more interested in concocting grand theories about life, the universe and everything.
Verne at least got a few things startlingly right: In "From the Earth to the Moon" (1866), he described a rocket launching from the coast of Florida, not far from Cape Canaveral. On the return trip, Verne's astronauts splash down in the ocean close to the place where the Apollo 11 crew actually did.

Wells, for his part, was often appallingly wrong. "Human history is in essence a history of ideas," he once wrote. That may be, but Wells flirted with the worst ideas of his time. After interviewing Lenin, Wells called him "creative" and described communism as the best hope for reforming Russia. The man simply never met a collectivist movement that didn't intrigue him. "There is good in these Fascists," he said of Italians in 1927. "There is something brave and well-meaning about them." He despised Catholicism and mocked Jewish traditions as "nonsense." It was for views such as these that George Orwell delivered a blunt verdict in 1941: "Much of what Wells has imagined and worked for is physically there in Nazi Germany."

Orwell also was referring to the utopianism that distinguished so much of what Wells wrote. Whereas the author of "Animal Farm" and "1984" possessed a keen sense of how and why totalizing states go badly wrong, Wells was constantly drawing up plans for ideal societies driven by rationalist principles and governed by high-minded elites. This could lead to bizarre results: In "Men Like Gods," Wells envisioned a scheme of eugenic reproduction and centralized planning so perfect (in his mind) that everybody went shamelessly nude.

Defending this particular notion, Wells commented that the practice of wearing clothes was a silly taboo. He certainly had little patience for sexual mores. Admirers have hailed Wells as a proto-feminist, but he was more accurately an advocate of free love--a doctrine that typically benefits men who shirk their duties. As it happened, Wells treated the women in his life shabbily. He cheated on his wives and impregnated his mistresses.

Maybe he was just acting on Darwinian impulses. Wells was in fact a strident devotee of the evolutionary creed, which he learned from the biologist T.H. Huxley at the Normal School. "The War of the Worlds" is best interpreted as an aggressive statement of what C.S. Lewis called "Wellsianity"--the promotion of materialistic science as true faith. The moral of the story may be found in the novel's first sentence, which describes the sobering reality of "intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as our own." Humans aren't noble creatures of God, but animal feed for hungry Martians. If we are to go on living, it isn't for any purpose greater than "the sake of the breed" (as one character says in a late chapter).
At least Wells didn't let the Martians get away with their dastardly plot. They fall victim to disease spread by bacteria, which Wells called "the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon the earth." The author of these words would have profited from a little more humility himself. We should be grateful that he left his imprint on the science-fiction genre, and almost nowhere else.