Would anything about this strange moment have surprised H.G. Wells? He was called “the man who invented tomorrow” because he seemed to have the future figured out. From his pages tumbled forth ideas for the air conditioner, the television, and the Internet, for servantless households, for mixed hot-and-cold taps—and for the arsenal of modern warfare. He anticipated aerial combat before there were airplanes and was credited by Winston Churchill with dreaming up the concept of the tank. In his 1914 novel The World Set Free, he described the detonation of an “atomic bomb.”
Today he remains best known for the explosively inventive novels that he lobbed over the threshold of the twentieth century: The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898). But these titles marked just the beginning of an extraordinarily prolific and diverse career, which turned Wells into one of the most influential and widely read writers in the world. From 1895 until his death in 1946, Wells produced a book a year, if not two or three: science fiction and science textbooks, social novels and social history, scripts for movies and for political programs. Intellectually omnivorous, insatiably curious, boundlessly energetic, Wells had, as one interviewer wrote, a seemingly “infinite capacity for being interested”—and he aspired to cram every last bit of his learning into his writing.
David Lodge cheekily entitled his 2011 novel about the notoriously priapic Wells A Man of Parts, but Wells was nothing if not a man of everything—and, it seemed, everyone. “Thinking people who were born about the beginning of this century are in some sense Wells’s own creation,” wrote George Orwell, describing how Wells’s visions of the future indelibly stamped the imagination of his generation. “The minds of us all…would be perceptibly different if Wells had never existed.”
One reason for Wells’s enduring impact is that—like his predecessor Jules Verne—he managed, against the odds, to get so many inventions right. But his rarer gift was creative insight into the social ramifications of invention, making him as much a pioneer of speculative fiction as of science fiction (or “scientific romances,” as they were called then). Whereas Verne, for instance, championed new technologies as instruments of progress, Wells recognized that one couldn’t always trust science (let alone scientists) to advance the social good. Other fin de siècle authors wrote of impending world wars, but it was Wells who foresaw the devastating effects that twentieth-century “total war” would have on civilians. Beyond dreaming up tanks, mixed taps, and TVs, he gestured toward a world order shaped by genetic modification, surveillance capitalism, and climate change.
Wells never wrote a pandemic novel. Pandemics didn’t require inventing, after all—especially not by somebody who lived through the influenza of 1918–1919. Yet Wells’s multifarious portrayals of humankind as both beneficiary and victim of biological, technological, and environmental forces make him an uncanny reading companion during the coronavirus pandemic. In a landmark new study of Wells, Sarah Cole, a literature professor and dean of the humanities at Columbia, reveals a writer whose twin obsessions with biology and history saturated his sense of humankind and its future prospects. Inventing Tomorrow restores Wells to his erstwhile centrality in the intellectual culture of the early twentieth century and unspools a “mix of attractive and repellent” ideas that resonate in an ambitious, anxious twenty-first.
Everyone knows about the artist who dies in impoverished obscurity only to be revered as a genius by later generations. Herbert George Wells had the opposite fate. He was born in 1866 in Bromley, less than a dozen miles from London, on the dangling coattails of the middle class. His father was a professional cricketer turned struggling shopkeeper, his pious mother a one-time housemaid compelled by her husband’s fecklessness to return to domestic service. At thirteen, Wells left school to be apprenticed to a draper. As miserable in the job as he was smart, autodidactic, and headstrong, he managed to escape a soul-destroying future trapped behind a shop-counter by persuading his Latin tutor to hire him as a student teacher, then convincing his mother to pay off the indenture and set him free.
Wells’s ascent from “downstairs” to “upstairs” shaped a body of work notable, Cole observes, for the “extent, variety, and sheer gusto of his self-representation,” ranging from bildungsromans featuring young men “on the border of working and middle class,” scrambling up and down the ladders of work and love, to outright autobiographies, including the sexually candid H.G. Wells in Love, published forty years after his death. Already as a student Wells flirted with the socialist politics that he would champion, in one form or another, for the rest of his life. He also came to adopt a strident personal commitment to sexual liberation. He loved smart women, and they apparently loved him; among his numerous paramours were the novelists Dorothy Richardson and Elizabeth von Arnim, the younger Fabian socialists Rosamond Bland and Amber Reeves, the birth-control campaigner Margaret Sanger, the putative Soviet spy Moura Budberg, and, most famously, the writer Rebecca West, with whom he had a ten-year extramarital relationship and a son, Anthony. However self-servingly, Wells was a life-long, outspoken advocate for women’s liberation and reproductive rights.
Wells’s towering presence in British letters made him a prime target for the rising generation of interwar writers. Virginia Woolf disdained his attachment to realist conventions as “the fatal alloy in his genius, the great clod of clay that has got itself mixed up with the purity of his inspiration.” E.M. Forster complained that “all Wells’ characters are as flat as a photograph.” “There once was an author named Wells,” wrote James Joyce in an unfinished limerick, “Who wrote about science, not smells…/The result is a series of cells.”
The modernists, of course, won the long game of literary reputation. University English departments have canonized their works and more or less consciously adopted their standards of literary merit: a preference for “the primacy of subjectivism and the interior life” over sociopolitical commentary, an aesthetic prioritizing of formal innovation that captures “the sensory present” over traditional literary realism, and an “eschewing of popular appeal.” Cole’s primary objective in Inventing Tomorrow is to persuade scholars of modernist literature to overturn “ingrained assumptions about literary values and ambitions” and take Wells seriously as a writer—i.e., as one worth sustained attention from literary critics. What happens, she asks, when we consider H.G. Wells, rather than Virginia Woolf, as the emblematic writer of their times?
Making the case for Wells means making the case less for a novelist than for what we would today call a public intellectual. The Wells that Cole gives us is best understood as a writer with “idiosyncratic, often radical ideas” who managed to engage a large readership by spinning thoughts across an immense number of books. His vast output was extraordinarily interconnected, in turn, so that his “scientific romances” share intellectual ground with his social novels, his fiction overlaps with his history and science books, his writing on biology intersects with his work on politics. Cole proposes that the best way to reckon with Wells is to read “at large,” across dozens of texts, genres, and audiences—a method that exposes much that the close-reading methods familiar to literary critics may not.
One major payoff of Cole’s approach is to reveal the foundational role of biology in Wells’s work. Wells lacked the Cambridge sheen of the Bloomsbury set, to say nothing of their inherited wealth. What he got instead was a serious education in the sciences. At eighteen he won a scholarship to what became the Royal College of Science in London, where he studied briefly under the celebrated biologist Thomas Henry Huxley. From there, he spent five years as a jobbing science teacher and freelance journalist before he published his first book, a Text-Book of Biology (1893). The textbook remained in print into the 1920s, at which point Wells cowrote—with Huxley’s grandson Julian and his own son Gip—an ambitious biology primer for the general public, The Science of Life (1929). No matter how far he ranged into other subjects, Wells’s “persona,” in the words of one scholar, remained “that of science-teacher to the human race.”
It is hard to overstate the extent to which the life sciences informed Wells’s worldview. “If biology is the study of living forms and the processes that enable them,” Cole observes, then Wells was a kind of literary biologist, documenting the “form, function, [and] process” of human society. His fiction exudes enthusiasm for the “sheer force of life in its many guises,” a passion for looking at the world through both the microscope and the telescope, a twin attraction to “scientific wonder” and scientific analysis.
A proximate outcome of Wells’s training was the astonishing run of science fiction novels that launched his literary career. His first, The Time Machine, awed readers with its originality and thrust him from catch-as-catch-can Grub Street hackwork into the literary limelight. “It did not take us long to recognize that here was Genius,” remembered Ford Madox Ford. “Authentic, real Genius. And delightful at that.” Wells’s innovation was to cast aside the “sleeper awakes”–style futurism of Edward Bellamy and William Morris in favor of time-travel on an evolutionary scale, zooming more than 800,000 years into a future in which the upper and working classes of late Victorian England have bifurcated into two distinct species. He followed The Time Machine with an altogether more sinister meditation on evolution and degeneration, The Island of Dr. Moreau, in which a scientist carves and splices live animals into ersatz hominins. Moreau trains them to speak, walk upright, and forgo raw meat, until one day a victim leaps off the operating table and slaughters him. The “Beast People” quickly revert into growling, carnivorous quadrupeds. Nowhere in Wells’s fiction is his sense of the power of science more terrifyingly paired with his apprehension of its dangers.
Yet Wells’s science fiction, as influential and enduring as it has been, made up only a small part of his oeuvre. Indeed, as much as Wells has been celebrated for his futurism—“the historian of the ages to come,” as Joseph Conrad wonderfully put it—it would be as a historian, full stop, that he enjoyed his greatest contemporary success. A second revelation of Inventing Tomorrow lies in its parsing of Wells’s preoccupation with the passage and representation of time. This fixation he shared with the modernists, but whereas Joyce and Woolf put time under a magnifying glass, stretching all of Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway across a single day, Wells inverted the lens to emphasize the shortness of human experience on the vast scale of geological and biological time. The result was The Outline of History (1920), a titanic history of humanity from the beginnings of life on earth to the day after tomorrow. It turned Wells into, as Cole writes, “one of the period’s most influential envisioners of the past,” and remains the best single testament to his intellectual vision.
Wells conceived of The Outline as a response to the jingoistic nationalism that had provoked the Great War. Arguing that “there can be no common peace and prosperity without common historical ideas,” Wells said that he sought to cultivate “a sense of history as the common adventure of all mankind.” Written “as if…to be read as much by Hindus or Moslems or Buddhists as by Americans and Western Europeans,” The Outline is propelled by a simple argument:
That men form one universal brotherhood, that they spring from one common origin, that their individual lives, their nations and races, interbreed and blend and go on to merge again at last in one common human destiny upon this little planet amidst the stars.
“What will be the next stage in history?” he wonders. His answer, in a hopeful conclusion, is a “Federal World State” that will usher in a single world religion, universal education, demilitarization, democracy, free speech, scientific innovation, and a global economy serving the “common good.” A nice state if you can get it.
Designed to fall within “the purchasing (& digestive) power of the ordinary citizen,” The Outline of History sold ten times more copies in English than Wells’s most popular novels, crossing the two million mark by 1932 (among US nonfiction titles during the 1920s, it ranked second only to a diet book). It was swiftly translated into languages ranging from Swedish to Japanese, and earned a hilarious spoof in the humor magazine Punch.* Though parts of it are obviously dated and some of its language makes a modern reader recoil, The Outline can be seen as the first blockbuster “big history” of the kind now written by the likes of Jared Diamond and Yuval Harari. Mutatis mutandis, its argument that the history of human societies is a history of increasing interdependence aligns rather well with recent scholarship in the field of “global history,” which charts the accelerating entanglement of economies, societies, and polities.
For all Wells’s interest in advancing a specific (if ultimately unsuccessful) political program—a great deal of his later work presses the case for a unified “World-State,” and his writing helped inform the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)—what makes The Outline of History striking today is his consistent privileging of long-term biological and environmental forces in directing human society. In a splendid takedown of the role of “great men” in history, he describes Napoleon as a man
of little significance to the broad onward movement of human affairs; he was an interruption…a thing like the bacterium of some pestilence. Even regarded as a pestilence, he was not of supreme rank; he killed far fewer people than the influenza epidemic of 1918, and produced less political and social disruption than the plague of Justinian.
Wells’s passage on the Black Death, “a pestilence of unheard-of virulence,” also lands with a jolt. “Never was there so clear a warning to mankind to seek knowledge and cease from bickering, to unite against the dark powers of nature,” he writes. But the wealthy “were too ignorant of economic laws to understand that they must not press upon the toilers in this time of general distress.” The result was a string of peasant revolts, the beginning of centuries of class conflict.
As to Wells’s argument for human unification, this too advances less by political or economic logic than by a biological one, namely the process of evolution. Evolution, for Wells, is humanity’s masterplot: “The life-process,” an explanation of origins, a theory of the future. It is where history and biology meet. As a testament to the centrality of evolution in the human story, The Outline of History can effectively be read as a companion piece to The Time Machine. Both works present modern humankind as a blip on an evolutionary scale. The Time Machine hurtles into the far future to hold a mirror up to the late Victorian present. The Outline plunges into the prehistoric past to reflect Wells’s vision of the imminent future. But whichever mirror we stare into, as Cole writes, Wells “reminds his readers regularly, even obsessively” that we can see “the caveman’s red eyes staring through ours.”
Here are some things that would not have surprised Wells about the coronavirus pandemic: the higher death toll among the poor and socially marginalized, the callous self-preservationism of the rich, the inadequacy of national states (and especially nationalist governments) to respond to a global challenge, the prospect of economic ruin, and the outpouring of social protest. He would have been disappointed but hardly surprised by what, in The Science of Life, he and his cowriters described as “a steady undercurrent of deprecation and antagonism” against scientific knowledge, already palpable in the United States in the early twentieth century. Having written a novel about a scam wonder drug, Tono-Bungay (1909), Wells could have predicted the potential for hype, if not far worse, in the quest for prevention and treatment.
But here is what might surprise us, and must certainly trouble us, about Wells. Although he was prophetically right, and right-minded, about some things, he was profoundly wrong about others. Nowhere was he more disturbingly wrong than in his loathsome affinity for eugenics, and the repulsive norms and prejudices that attend ed it.
As Cole describes in her final chapter, Wells’s progressive positions on issues such as birth control were paired with a downright chilling advocacy for the elimination of human “waste.” Though Wells openly disagreed with the founder of eugenics, Francis Galton—and though, as Cole points out, his “views on social perfectibility were not racial” in a white supremacist sense (he held that “race-mixture is more desirable than race-purity”)—Wells’s prescriptions for improving humanity aligned naturally with so-called positive eugenics. The Science of Life describes as “evil germ-plasm” humans deemed “responsible for a large amount of vice, disease, defect, and pauperism,” and coolly notes that “the problem of their elimination is a very subtle one.” Ideally, such “defectives” would “be bribed or otherwise persuaded to accept voluntary sterilization.” “There would be no killing, no lethal chambers,” Wells had written in A Modern Utopia (1905). But in even imagining the possibility of such mass extermination, he gestured toward the gas chamber. At the height of World War II, Wells casually described the millions of victims of the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic as “old people, weak people, feeble children who had to die somehow.”
It is in light of this strand in Wells’s thought that one can read The War of the Worlds, written at the turn of the twentieth century, as the closest thing he produced to a pandemic novel—but not because the Martians descend on Earth like an infection, draining the blood from human victims. After days of devastating Martian attack, the narrator wanders through a deserted, looted, corpse-strewn London, resigned to his own death—until, looking down from the ridge of Primrose Hill, he sees the Martians laid out in a row:
Dead!—slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared;…slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.
Germs save the world! Three cheers for acquired immunity! “By virtue of this natural selection of our kind we have developed resisting power; to no germs do we succumb without a struggle,” Wells writes. “By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth…. For neither do men live nor die in vain.” It’s a version of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” with a nasty eugenic cast.
Despite the apocalyptic scenarios his imagination could concoct, and despite living through two world wars, a pandemic, and a global depression, Wells had a penchant for optimistic pronouncements. It was Wells, after all, who coined the hopeful phrase that the Great War might prove to be “the war that will end war.” With one eye he squinted into a future in which
man may prove unable to rid himself of the over-development of war…. Or the incalculable run of climatic changes may turn harshly against him. Strange epidemics may arise too swift and deadly for his still very imperfect medical science to save him from extirpation.
With the other, he looked toward humanity’s ability to “take control…of the whole of life” via grafting and genetic engineering.
It is tempting to share Wells’s hope in the human capacity to innovate our way out of social and environmental disaster. And when it comes to the present pandemic, such hope isn’t misplaced: sooner or later, there will surely be a vaccine. But Wells was always better at diagnoses than prescriptions. He wrote as a white male citizen of the world’s largest empire, and his utopian internationalism and endorsement of genetic manipulation rested on a privileged blindness to the enduring violence of racism. His most productive legacy for our times, Cole concludes, is to have established a template for the activist writer in imagining the future. Millions are pressing for a more just and sustainable post-pandemic world. The question is whether those in power will make such an imagined tomorrow come true.
“The Outline of Everything,” Punch, April 4, 1923, including “‘The Outline of Gastronomy’…Early Hittite eating—Discovery by Professor Bortsch of a metal colander in the ruins of Ur…Methods of mummifying hash…Rise of Greek civilization due to consumption of soused tunny-fish…Plato as a dinner guest,” etc. ↩