Science Fiction Studies

#55 = Volume 18, Part 3 = November 1991

David Y. Hughes

H.G. Wells: Towards a Synthesis?

Patrick Parrinder & Christopher Rolfe, eds. H.G. Wells Under Revision: Proceedings of the International Wells Synposium, London, July 1986. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna UP; London & Toronto: Associated UP, 1990. 263pp. $35.00.

Any good Wellsian can reel off some six or eight "world" titles by Wells, such as World Brain, The Way the World is Going, A Short History of the World, The New World Order, and so on; and fittingly, though belatedly, the first world conference on Wells, 25 years after his death, was held in the international city of Montréal. Its proceedings appeared in 1977 as H.G. Wells and Modern Science Fiction. Now at last honoring the prophet in his own country 40 years after his death, this second international symposium took place not only in London but at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, where Wells founded the student literary magazine 100 years before and contributed to it the original version of The Time Macine. The two conferences and the volumes emanating from them are as dissimilar as can be. But it is hard to tell to what extent the direction of Wells studies is changing--it certainly is changing--and to what extent the differences are attributable to the influence of the conference organizers, in the first instance a group of academics who two years later became associated with Science-Fiction Studies, in the second the H.G. Wells Society. Both entities have prospered over a long term.

The Wells Society was established in 1960, and from the beginning there were two camps, which W. Warren Wagar soon dubbed the Admirers and the Partisans. For the Admirers, he said, Wells "becomes a very proper old dear, another Dickens or Shaw," but "for the Partisans, Wells is no more dead than Jesus or Lenin" ("Members Forum," Wellsian, #7 [1962]: 18). To a degree, the 1986 conference splits along the same lines. The first contributor to H.G. Wells Under Revision is Brian Aldiss, a vice-president of the Society, followed by Professor Wagar, a founding member. Admirer Aldiss calls Wells "the Great General of Dreamland" and exhorts us to "confront the Himalaya of Wells studies: that long career punctuated so conspiculously by the ascent of literary heights and the decline into political shallows" (28). But Partisan Wagar considers the ideal of literary immortality another name for antiquarianism. Wells's decades-long teaching of the choice of world-polity or world-collapse is correct, he believes, and adds: at the level of interpretation, this may be just one more reading among many. But what if--at the level of future history, at the level of reality--H.G.'s central conviction happens to be true?" (41). So much for all literary criticism, let alone any deconstructionists.

At the symposium itself, Partisanship ran high, and it sets the editors' tone. The book and symposium's title alludes to Wells's 1928 Sorbonne lecture, "Democracy under Revision," in which he foresaw democracy's recent phase of release soon giving way to a phase of synthesis. By analogy, in other words, now that Wells has been freed from the shadow of the likes of Henry James and F.R. Leavis, at last it has become possible to look beyond the early novels, short stories, and SF, all of which James himself approved, and to open up the whole range of Wells's lifework, itself a portent of world-synthesis. It appears that one of several symposiasts who did not speak for publication was Arthur C. Clarke (another vice-president of the Wells Society), who led an informal discussion of "what Wellsians should be doing, as Wellsians, to make the world a safer place for human habitation in the rest of this century" ("The International Wells Symposium, July 1986," Wellsian, n.s. #10 [1987], 44); and the editors regret the omission of "the rousing final address," "too much geared to a particular occasion" (17), delivered by David C. Smith, the Wells biographer, urging the assemblage onward to the open conspiracy and the new world order.

Including Professor Wagar's paper, six or eight of the 18 contributions belong to the Partisan camp. Julius Kagarlitsky, Wells's Russian biographer and editor (and still another vice-president of the Wells Society), was denied permission to travel outside Russia in 1986 but managed to address the Society the next year. The book concludes with his hopeful but disappointingly brief and indefinite claim that Wells has always been admired and needed in Russia, "a country with such strong social dynamics" (253). Likewise approaching Wells from a pragmatic standpoint, a forceful paper by Krishan Kumar, professor of social thought at the University of Kent, commends Wells's historical eye and a dose of his utopianism as antidotes for the academic fantasy of a "value-free" sociology, whether Marxist, Positivist, or Functionalist: "it is modern sociology, not Wells, that is in need of revision" (214). The concern of W.M.S. Russell, professor of sociology at the University of Reading, is Wells's interest in ecology, a field of which Julian Huxley found him ignorant, and Russell argues that the theme (though not the term) appears as early as The Food of the Gods (1904). Similarly, Professor Kirpal Singh of the University of Singapore wonders why in the West artists and teachers are habitually dichotomized. He proposes and sketches a comparative study of Wells and his "Eastern counterpart," Rabindranath Tagore--albeit Wells lacked Tagore's "abiding spiritual dimension"--in order to "move us closer to the world vision they both wrote about and embraced" (59). Finally, perhaps the firmest Partisan support is supplied by the fan mail selected from the Illinois collections by Robert Crossley, showing Wells's lifelong power to move common readers to thought and to action.

Feminists are another kind of Partisan--of which two appear in this volume: Professors Cliona Murphy and Bonnie Kime Scott assess the role of women in Wells's social thought. Murphy points out that considering how much Wells wrote on "the woman question" and on education, separately, it is perplexing how little he combined the two concerns to write on education and women. She therefore has recourse to extrapolating from what is told of the education of the heroines of his novels, and she concludes that he favored their full exposure right through college to "women'seducation" (224)--by which the Edwardian meant a "less competitive kind than their brothers received" (222). Scott more broadly than Murphy scrutinizes the position of the women of Wells's novels throughout life and whether in or out of marriage; and while agreeing that Wells had his Edwardian limitations, she concludes that he and his "very perishable feminism" still provided "good matter for discussion. And good discussion...may be what he sought after all" (118).

Turning now to the Admirers, they may or may not be anywhere within miles of Professor Wagar's booky caretakers. Several do proceed with conventional comparisons, Dickens included. J.R. Hammond, the founder of the Wells Society, and Professor Maria Teresa Chialant of the University of Naples, take up the well-worn question of the theory and practice of the novel by Wells and Henry James, and both have recourse to Dickens. Hammond pursues a contrast (in part previously explored by Robert Bloom and William J. Scheick) which sets Wells's ongoing and conscious "indeterminacy" and "ambivalence" of form and content over against the tidy productions of the "realists," including Dickens--the argument being that Wells's experimentalism over the five decades of his fictional oeuvre makes him in his way as much a "modernist" as James, or more so. Professor Chialant works the same vein from the other end. Following up on suggestions of David Lodge and Patrick Parrinder made some years earlier, she points out from the presence and the handling of themes of waste and disease that Tono-Bungay may be considered a sequel to Bleak House, but "an Edwardian sequel": not "designed" but designedly agglomerated and open-ended, and provoking that thoughtful response of the reader which Virginia Woolf claimed for James but denied to Wells.

But the realist side of Wells is not neglected. Sociology Professor Christie Davies of the University of Reading inquires how Wells in his comic novels sets about arousing "insightful an entire social process" (82) because it exalts work at the expense of self-fulfilment and pleasure. Professor Davies is readably at home with Taylorism and Samuel Smiles, the writings of Bell, Polanyi, and Weber on the psychology and sociology of work, and with Kipps, Ponderevo, and Polly. He concludes with the suggestion that Americans may look to Sinclair Lewis's Babbittfor a brand of "humor as sociology" similar to Wells's and modeled after it. The "realist"--in this case positivist Wells--is also the subject of the American scholar Professor Martha S. Vogeler, who sketches his personal and philosophical links to Frederic Harrison and the British positivists, and to Comte, from whom the British partly distance themselves. With a light, learned touch, she traces the development of his views of human culture and history by noticing how he connects at various times with Comte or the British positivists, though to him they were all one and he usually disowned them. Nevertheless, positivist influnces are incorporated into The Outline of History, collaborative enterprise that it was; and, earlier, Wells's discovery of a religion of humanity led the witty Harrison to observe that Comte himself must have been the invisible prompter of God, the Invisible King.

On the other hand, the Admirers number among them some who are resolved to save Wells from orthodoxy. Professor Leon Stover, an anthropologist, rejects the received teaching that T.H. Huxley materially influenced Wells's views of evolution; and K.V. Bailey, an SF critic, heretically argues that Wells resembles C.S. Lewis. Stover claims that whereas Huxley opposes moral values to the gladiatorial values of Darwinian evolution, Wells welcomes the latter as pointing the way to the "good" of humanity and advocates their application by a humankind that has learned how to do it efficiently. The argument has merit but would be more convincing if Stover had developed his short paper so as to allow that for both Huxley and the early Wells the fact of our entanglement in Darwin's "tangled bank" renders our self-extrication doubtful at best--no matter how we go about it--so that Wells's faith in evolutionary engineering is not obvious, to say the least, until after The Island of Doctor Moreau. For Mr Bailey with his reciprocal propositions that C.S. Lewis is the H.G. Wells of Christendom and that H.G. Wells is the C.S. Lewis of atheism, the art of both is mythmaking and therefore their art is one and the same no matter what the myths' frame of reference. But, as Mark R. Hillegas's Future as Nightmare long ago established, Wells shifted from a cosmic frame of reference to a social frame of reference in about 1900, the "scientific outlook" is not the same thing in the two frames, and Wells's world-view moves around in relation to C.S. Lewis accordingly. Both Stover and Bailey write one-eyed papers that are needlessly circumscribed.

Professor John R. Reed contributes the only paper limited to SF, a close analysis of a single work, The Island of Doctor Moreau. Its style and construction are not as fluent as one wants from the author of The Natural History of H.G. Wells nor entirely justified by the ambiguities which it deals with, but it is ground-breaking. The ambiguities arise from the simultaneous operation in Moreauof what Wells elsewhere calls instinct and injunction (laws of nature and human laws), whose strong conflicting sanctions, by suggesting variously that one or the other is the law supreme, threaten to render them both nugatory. From the problem of survival (cannibalism) versus the law forbidding murder, which Prendick faces while starving at sea, to his keeping the Beast Folk in line by the erection of the lie that Moreau is watching from on high, Reed's thread of "the law" keeps at the central questions. It also keeps Prendick at the center, and Reed's conclusion is that Prendick finally learns what it is to be a human being, as he seems not to have thought of what it means before the events the story relates and thus affords Wells the perfect subject for learning.

The two remaining contributors, Professors Romolo Runcini and John Huntington, focus in different ways on an objection (quoted by Huntington, 175), which the botonist of A Modern Utopia raises against the main character's utopianism: "You are always talking as though you could kick the past to pieces." Runcini, of the University of Naples (along lines since argued in detail by Carlo Pagetti, in I Marziani alla Corte della Regina Vittoria), proclaims Wells's literay niche in his title, "H.G. Wells and Futurity as the Only Creative Space in a Programmed Society." That is, the alienating processes of science, technology, and the marketplace have programmed the present but simultaneously have fractured and relativized what was formerly the absolute idea of time, thereby opening futurity to the terrors and the hopes of the imagination, which Wells accordingly exploited. In this regard, Wells is contrasted with Verne, and The Time Machinefigures briefly, but Runcini ranges abruptly up and down Wells's career. Presented in translation (by another hand), this paper's coherence may suffer. It is florid and seems wilfully disconnected.

Huntington, in "Problems of an Amorous Utopian," quotes Wells in H.G. Wells in Love and remarks (170-71) that the undertow of what Wells calls his "responsive flesh and bood" and "consciously weak and insuffient" devotion to higher principles was a factor whose complexity he himself never recognized amid his evocations of order and the world state. It was indeed a factor. In reviewing David Smith (SFS #43), I have noted that Wells liked to tell that after meeting Theodore Roosevelt in 1904, he suffered a reaction from high-level talk and had the cabby take him to a black whorehouse. On the other hand, Wells--blatently with Odette Keun--could persevere in sexual relationships he detested. Huntington, a Freudian, suggests that Wells never recognized the fantasties he enacted as anything more complex than, say, the recidivism of his Beast Folk. He transgressed yet never saw that the very restrictions set by civilization make civilization's discontents, and he often avowed--though we may recall that Stover claims only Huxley avowed--that instinct can be willed into submission. Thus "part of the power of Wells's work derives from the repressed recognitions in it of desires" he cannot acknowledge or ignore (176). For example, in The War of the Worlds, the curate appears when the narrator is angry at his wife and at the time is curiously imputing his anger to his inability to reach her--though in fact one may surmise it was anger that made him leave her--a surmise which is confirmed when he facilitates feeding his surrogate new housemate, the effeminate curate, to the Martians. As a sketch for a method, with examples, this is an excellent paper and lives up to what one expects of the author of The Logic of Fantasy.

None of this present crop of critics was at Montréal 20 years ago. One of the present editors, Professor Parrinder, did contribute a paper but could not attend in person. Yet the narrow terms of the old title, H.G. Wells and Modern Science Fiction, for many people still conjoin to define what Wells is all about--which is as it should be since his SF as a field for thought and criticism is far from exhausted. This new volume, on the other hand, has only one paper on Wells's SF and contains no mention of other SF except for Runcini's glance back at Verne. The sense of a coming synthesis in Wells studies, conveyed (if awkwardly) by the title H.G. Wells Under Revision, raises hopes of a broadened understanding of each aspect of his life and work, the SF included. But the present volume is itself in need of synthesizing. The headings of the five sections under which the editors group the contributions indicate the problems they faced. Three papers fall under "Artist or Prophet?"; four under "Wells and the Novel"; four (Stover, Reed, Russell, and Runcini) under "Wells and Science"; six miscellaneous under "Educationalist, Utopian, Visionary"; and Kagarlitsky's delayed paper brings up the rear as "Epilogue." Moreover, it is as the striking exception that one paper, Reed's, makes serious reference to one other, Stover's. In a more perfect world, during the four or five years between a conference and the publication of its proceedings the papers would of course be revised by their authors, having heard and read all the others. That would be something like a symposium, or, literally, a drinking together. As it stands, H.G. Wells Under Revision goes off along lines--often interesting and fresh in themselves--that crisscross any which way. Fortunately it is well indexed.

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