H. G. Wells (1866 -1946) is more remembered today for his science fiction novels, written at the end of the 19th century - The War of The Worlds, The Island of Dr Moreau, The Invisible Man and The Time Machine - than for his other novels or non-fiction books, such as his global bestseller, The Outline of History (1920).
Adam Roberts, Professor of English at Royal Holloway College in London and Sarah Cole, Dean of Humanities at Columbia University, while taking different approaches, provide strong evidence for a Wellsian reassessment.
Wells was arguably the most celebrated intellectual in the English-speaking world in the decades between the First and Second World Wars, a role which has also been largely forgotten. Wells met with many world leaders, such as Roosevelt, Lenin, Stalin, and Churchill, who said that he knew Wells' works so well he could pass an examination in them.
Roberts highlights the impact of "The man who invented tomorrow". Wells envisaged in 1936 the concept of "The World Brain", a precursor on microfilm of Google/Wikipedia, and foreshadowed, inter alia, the tank, the atom bomb, global warming, aerial flight, mass surveillance, germ warfare, laser beams and cosmetic surgery.
George Orwell wrote in 1941 that, "thinking people who were born about the beginning of this century are in some sense Wells' own creation ... The minds of all of us, and therefore the physical world, would be perceptibly different if Wells had never existed".
Wells visited Australia in January, 1939, addressing the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science in Canberra's Albert Hall, against a backdrop of a heatwave and bushfires. Wells' comments in his speech, criticising Mussolini and Hitler, aroused the anger of Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, a supporter of Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement. Lyons responded, "The Federal Government is not to be associated with remarks which have been made by our visitor".
Roberts sees Wells' non-fiction as irrevocably dated, whereas Coles, who views his 100 books of fiction and non-fiction and 6000 articles, as deliberately intertwined, writes that, "Wells felt no need to banish the pedagogic voice from his fiction".
Coles sees Wells as a visionary radical, outlining the case for global unity, economies serving the "common good" and universal human rights. He was the major drafter of the Sankey Declaration, a precursor to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Wells ideas for global unity and a world state now seems less likely, with the rise of populism and the backlash against globalisation, although his attacks on autocratic leaders and dictators are still very relevant.
Equally, Wells' comments on the Black Death, "a pestilence of unheard-of virulence", resonate today: "Never was there so clear a warning to mankind to seek knowledge and cease from bickering, to unite against the dark powers of nature".
Wells' last book, the short Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945), was foreshadowed in his Canberra speech, when he said, "humanity . . . can't escape entire self -destruction as a species". Roberts sees parallels between Mind and his first novel, The Time Machine, revealing "a psychopathological going over and over the same ground, like Lady Macbeth endlessly washing her own hands".
Roberts, an acclaimed sci-fi novelist and vice-president of the H. G. Wells Society, provides the first complete literary biography of Wells for 30 years, and the first to encompass his entire career as a writer. He adopts a chronological approach to Wells' writing to lead the reader through Wells' life in books. He is particularly insightful on the scientific romances, seeing, for example, The Island of Doctor Moreau as the first great novel of the Darwinian "revolution in thought".
Coles argues that, while Wells "rejected and was rejected by modernism, Wells' influence on the twentieth century novel was greater than is often assumed ... His goals for literature were soaring, world-scaled."
Both Coles and Roberts agree that Wells' lesser-known novels deserve rehabilitation, and especially praise Mr Britling Sees It Through (1916), which Maxim Gorky called "the finest, most courageous, truthful and humane book written in Europe in the course of this accursed war".
Neither, however, shirk from documenting Wells' faults, especially on eugenics, sexism and, in Cole's words, "spasms of racism and callous complacency".
Nonetheless, both authors make a persuasive case, through their different structural approaches, to restore Wells' reputation and ideas in a world again under threat, with the need more than ever for a belief in democracy, faith in scientific knowledge and the reaffirmation of human rights.
- H.G. Wells: A Literary Life, by Adam Roberts. Palgrave Macmillan. $34.99
- Inventing Tomorrow: H.G. Wells and the Twentieth Century, by Sarah Cole. Columbia University Press. $74.00