Science Fiction Studies

#87 = Volume 29, Part 2 = July 2002

Patrick A. McCarthy

New Editions of H.G. Wells: A Mixed Bag

H.G. Wells. The Time Machine: An Invention. Ed. Nicholas Ruddick. Orchard Park, NY: Broadview, 2001. 294 pp. $7.95 pbk.

H.G. Wells. The War of the Worlds. Ed. Leon Stover. THE ANNOTATED H.G. WELLS. Vol. 4. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001. xi + 321 pp. $55 hc.

H.G. Wells. The Sea Lady: A Tissue of Moonshine. Ed. Leon Stover. THE ANNOTATED H.G. WELLS. Vol. 7. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001. xi + 170 pp. $49.50 hc.

H.G. Wells. The Last War: A World Set Free. Ed. Greg Bear. Bison Books Edition. Lincoln: U Nebraska P, 2001. [Originally The World Set Free: A Story of Mankind.] xxiv + 166 pp. $13.95 pbk.

There has been for some years a boom in new editions of H.G. Wells’s novels, both of his sf classics and of other books less well known and less often read. Those under review here include two from each category: The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds (1898) among the standards; The Sea Lady (1902) and The World Set Free (1914; here retitled The Last War) among the generally neglected works. In this review I will deal separately with the editions in the order of the novels’ original publication dates.

Nicholas Ruddick’s edition of The Time Machine for the Broadview Literary Texts series begins with a superb introduction that takes up, in sequence, Wells’s life and the history of the book’s composition, its scientific and literary contexts, a survey of early reviews, and an overview of the novel’s narrative structure and themes. The front matter also includes a basic chronology of Wells’s life and a note on the text (Ruddick uses the 1895 Heinemann edition rather than the Atlantic edition, a reasonable decision even if it is not the one I would have made). The text itself is annotated, and all the notes appear both reliable and helpful. There follow a series of appendices containing material (usually excerpted) that students are likely to find useful: Appendix A, for example, focuses on nineteenth-century writings on evolution by Charles Darwin, E. Ray Lankester, T.H. Huxley, and especially Wells. Other appendices include writings on social, cultural, and scientific issues that are taken up in the novel, as well as selections from Wells’s correspondence, his prefaces to various editions of The Time Machine, and early reviews of the book. The volume concludes with a selective bibliography that is itself divided into several sections, including one devoted to "Time Travel Studies in Physics and Science Fiction."

The text of The Time Machine, complete with footnoted annotations, occupies only about a third of this 294-page volume. The remaining two thirds consist of interpretive and contextual material intended to assist readers— probably for the most part undergraduate college students—in reading the novel. In some respects this might be regarded as a casebook, and the risk that the editor of a casebook runs is that he or she will do too much work for the students by selecting and excerpting the most relevant sources. Would it not be better, we might ask, to require that all students read Huxley’s 70-page Romanes lecture "Evolution and Ethics" rather than just the four pages of excerpts and summary provided here? To my mind, however, there is a practical advantage in assigning a little contextual material as a basis for class discussion, leaving it to students who plan to write papers on the novel’s evolutionary theme to read all of Huxley’s essay. In any case, the book contains no recent criticism other than the introduction itself, so there is still reason for students to head to the library (or at least to a computer terminal).

Ruddick does not use his introduction to set forth a fully formed interpretation of The Time Machine; his intent is to provide materials that will lead students to do that for themselves. Even so, the last section of the introduction, entitled "The Time Machine: Structure and Theme" ( 40-45), contains one of the sharpest and most sensible readings of the novel that I have seen. Arguing that "the unusual structure of The Time Machine offers the chief clue to understanding Wells’s approach to his grand temporal theme," Ruddick draws out the implications of the book’s three time scales: the historical time of 1894-97 in which the frame narrator’s story takes place; the evolutionary or geological time that forms the backdrop for the Time Traveler’s narrative of his trip to the world of the Eloi and Morlocks; and the astronomical time that we glimpse when the Time Traveler voyages thirty million years into the future, offering us "a vision of universal extinction."1 Although each larger perspective might seem to negate those that preceded it, Ruddick argues that the novel is not as pessimistic as it might seem: the world of the Eloi and Morlocks might yet be averted through a more enlightened social structure, and even if the death of the sun thirty million years hence is inescapable, that amount of time is "far longer than that promised mankind by most religions" (44). In place of the immortality promised by most religious versions of apocalypse, Wells gives his readers a sort of "poetic consolation" in the inevitability of extinction that we share with other species and with the stars themselves.

Leon Stover’s edition of The War of the Worlds promotes a very different view of Wells. Its format is, on the surface, not very different from Ruddick’s: the volume consists of a lengthy introduction, an annotated text of the novel based on the first edition, and a series of appendices. Yet there are vast differences between these two editions. Stover’s wide-ranging, often digressive, insistently polemical introduction is confusingly written and, insofar as I can follow it, propounds a fundamentally flawed interpretation of the novel; his annotations are not restricted to the clarification of passages but are extensions of his argument; and the appendices include not only Wells’s 1893 Pall Mall Gazette article "The Man of the Year Million" (to which the narrator alludes), Wells’s preface to the Atlantic Edition of the novel, and the conclusion of Percival Lowell’s Mars (1896)—all helpful adjuncts to the novel’s text—but also three pieces of less obvious relevance.

Stover’s interpretation of The War of the Worlds is, basically, that while the Martians might appear to be evil, they are "by no means monstrous in the eyes of their creator. They are rather agents of his ‘Religion of Progress’ (1927:32) in his vindictive ‘War with Tradition’" (3). The parenthetical "(1927:32)," referring us to Wells’s 1927 book Democracy Under Revision, is typical of Stover’s citations: there is no further contextualization of the passage from the 1927 book, which we are to assume is directly relevant to a reading of an 1898 novel. Indeed, Stover draws much of his evidence from later writings, especially from The Shape of Things to Come (1933), using quotations from those works to demonstrate that Wells was throughout his career a staunch advocate of state capitalism with strong leanings toward authoritarianism and even fascism. The sort of future for which Wells longs, Stover argues, is a dictatorship such as the one portrayed in When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), a book that I have always read as an attack on a capitalist totalitarian state but that Stover views as a utopian work.

It is difficult to summarize how he makes that case, since Stover’s method of argument is digressive and associative rather than straightforward. Yet the reading of When the Sleeper Wakes is crucial, since Stover regards it as the "sequel" to The War of the Worlds, apparently on the basis of a brief passage from chapter 2 of Sleeper in which two men discuss what has happened in the twenty years since Graham has fallen into a deep sleep:

Wurming turned. "And I have grown old too. I played cricket with him [Graham] when I was still only a lad. And he looks a young man still. Yellow perhaps. But that is a young man nevertheless."

"And there’s been the War," said Isbister.

"From beginning to end."

"And these Martians."2

In the epilogue to The War of the Worlds the narrator tells us that "It may be that in the larger design of the universe this invasion from Mars is not without its ultimate benefit for men; it has robbed us of that serene confidence in the future which is the most fruitful source of decadence, the gifts to human science it has brought are enormous, and it has done much to promote the conception of the commonweal of mankind" (252). Stover’s note connects the world portrayed in Sleeper to the second and third of these "benefits": "the ‘gifts’ of Martian science, which make possible the advanced technology of A.D. 2100 in Sleeper" and the "world state" that Stover believes is implied by the phrase "commonweal of mankind." It is the last that he finds "most important": "This is the principal legacy of the Martians, fulfilled in the world state of 2100: a future willed into being by wilful intellectuals who won their own war of the worlds—progressives vs. reactionaries" (252 n.180). The "progressives," apparently, are Ostrog and the others who have consigned the working class to a hopeless, cheerless existence; the "reactionaries" are those who support Graham, the Sleeper, in his crusade against oppression.

This makes little sense to me. Then again, I am at a loss to understand the argument that the Martians have come in peace and that they use violence only for our own good. Stover begins with the fact that the space cannon in Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865) was cast from melted pieces of artillery—an sf version of beating swords into plowshares—and then observes that the same method of interplanetary propulsion is used by the Martians in The War of the Worlds and by Oswald Cabal, head of the World Council, in the film Things to Come (1936). In that film, Stover says,

The Wellsian space gun ... is oddly decorated with a vestigial gunsight, suggesting a ... conversion of military technology to civilian industry in the Modern State. That colonists from the Red Planet shoot themselves from Mars by means of a Vernian space cannon further suggests the same conversion. The Martians, in their history, must also have evolved toward the peaceful Wellsian world-state they presage here on earth. That they bring war machines with them is no contradiction, since these are meant to fight against human aggression from lower beings, whose few brave artillerymen have the temerity to attempt resistance. Nothing can withstand a superior technology and the superior (socialist) moral idea behind it. (21-22; italics mine)

I am reminded of the scene in Mars Attacks! (1996) in which Martians walk through Congress declaring "We come in peace" while blasting people right and left. Apparently, a contradiction between such words and acts is lost on Stover.

One problem is that Stover works by a process of association so unrelenting that he cannot see that Wells might come back to the same idea, the same image, the same situation from more than one angle. Likewise, in tracing Wells’s sources, he argues for so tight a fit that Wells almost becomes identified with the source. His constant emphasis on Saint-Simon’s influence on Wells’s version of socialism, for example, means that virtually any political idea in any of Wells’s novels may be explained by reference to Saint-Simon. The fact that Wells wrote a favorable review of Elie Metchnikoff’s The Nature of Man (1903) and later wrote an obituary of Metchnikoff might well mean that he was familiar with the "Metchnikoffing procedure" (removing the large intestine to rid the body of harmful bacteria and introducing good bacteria into the small intestine by eating yogurt) when he wrote The War of the Worlds, as Stover believes, but it does not follow that this is the procedure through which the Martians eliminated bacteria from their planet. For one thing, the novel’s narrator says that either Mars never had any micro-organisms or they were all eliminated long ago through "Martian sanitary science" (193), but Metchnikoff assumed that good bacteria would continue to be necessary for human life; moreover, he did not propose to eliminate all bacteria in the world, only those in individual bodies.

As to the annotations, they are so intrusive as to be a hindrance rather than an aid to readers. The effect is something like trying to watch a movie while in the next row a fellow who has seen the film before, and who has formulated a complete (although implausible) interpretation of the film, insists on telling his companion what will happen next and what everything means. Even worse, the notes are simply obsessive, often involving tangential readings that have no place on the same page as the novel that we are presumably attempting to read. Note 4 (52-54), for example, begins sensibly enough with a reference to the "magnificent poetic diction" of the novel’s opening paragraph, but then wanders off into a discussion so rambling that I would be hard pressed to characterize it except to say that it has little to do with the novel at hand. It does repeat, insistently, Stover’s recurrent critique of Wells, but in my view this is not a judicious criticism of the novel; rather, it is the critical equivalent of saturation bombing.

One final observation and then I’ll turn to the remaining editions. In note 71 (126), Stover begins by quoting the reference to "the earthquake that destroyed Lisbon a century ago" and finds in this a sign of the narrator’s unreliability:

The great Lisbon earthquake occurred in 1775, "a century ago." If the Martian invasion happened in 1900, the narrator is off by 25 years. Wells cannot be that ignorant; from student days he kept notebooks on historical chronology ... that led on to The Outline of History (1920). So the narrator is unreliable on this point, which hints at a characterological flaw.

The note goes on to equate the narrator, who cannot even keep his dates straight, with Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide (1759), a connection also made in several other notes. The evidence for such a reading of the narrator’s character is thin in any case, but I find it especially telling that Stover misstates the date of the Lisbon earthquake while criticizing the narrator for not distinguishing clearly between 100 and 125 years: the Lisbon earthquake, to which Voltaire refers in Candide (1759), actually occurred in 1755, not 1775. Perhaps "the narrator is unreliable," but so is the editor.

The Sea Lady (1902), also edited by Leon Stover, is the story of a mermaid who enters human society in search of a man named Chatteris, who becomes infatuated with her and eventually follows her to the sea—and presumably to his own death. This volume is not so elaborately introduced and annotated as The War of the Worlds, although there are more annotations, and longer ones, than this rather slight novel really needs. As in The War of the Worlds, Stover develops what I think is an untenable interpretation of the novel, often through fleeting references to other (usually later) works by Wells. Once again, Stover introduces Saint-Simon as the linchpin of Wells’s thought, but exactly what he has to do with The Sea Lady is unclear. The introduction is riddled with marks of carelessness, one glaring instance being the citation and discussion of a conversation between the Sea Lady herself—who is given the name Miss Waters—and Chatteris. "At this point Chatteris is lost," says Stover (8), but Chatteris isn’t the only one: Stover seems equally lost, having failed to read his own text carefully enough to recognize that the person conversing with the Sea Lady in this scene is not Chatteris but his friend Melville. (Indeed, Chatteris is not physically present in this scene: see chapter 6, section 2, 89-95.)

"The bad sales record of The Sea Lady is a puzzle, since it no more than endorsed on a metaphysical plane the same horrors explicit in Anticipations," says Stover, adding "Perhaps now its time has come" (2). The bad sales record is not a puzzle to me, nor will I hold my breath waiting for The Sea Lady to become popular: it is a poorly crafted novel that is worth reading only because the inferior productions of a writer like Wells have their interest, or at least their uses. A better contender for critical study is The World Set Free (1913), even if we have to read it under the title The Last War, whose source is never made clear: a note at the beginning of Greg Bear’s introduction simply informs us that "For this Bison Books edition, The World Set Free has been retitled. In this historical introduction, I’ll continue to use Wells’s original title." My guess is that someone in the marketing department changed the title; I can’t imagine a writer like Bear taking such liberties with another writer’s work. In fact, his use of "Wells’s original title" throughout the introduction might constitute a mild protest against the alteration.

There are no annotations or appendices to this edition, but Bear’s introduction provides readers with all the context they really need. He focuses on Wells’s relationship to Henry James and the distinction between the aims and forms of their novels: on one hand we have James’s aestheticism and his emphasis on character; on the other there is Wells’s anti-aestheticism and his subordination of character to story, story to idea. The other subject Bear develops in his introduction is Wells’s use of fictional atomic bombs in a novel published three decades before real ones fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indeed, The World Set Free is known today primarily as the first work in which the term "atomic bomb" was used. It deserves attention, however, not just for its speculation on atomic warfare and the ensuing world government but for being a utopian work whose form is that of the future history. Not one of Wells’s most compelling or coherent fictions (for example, the late scene in which the role of women is debated seems oddly out of place), it is, nonetheless, a novel worth reading—under one title or another—as an installment in the intellectual history of one of the twentieth century’s most engaging writers.


1. Ruddick’s "‘Tell Us All About Little Rosebery’: Topicality and Temporality in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine," SFS #85, 28:3 (Nov. 2001): 337-54, which expands upon the interpretation offered in his introduction, appeared as I was writing this review-essay.

2. When the Sleeper Wakes, in Three Prophetic Novels of H.G. Wells, introduction by E.F. Bleiler. New York: Dover, 1960, pp. 12-13.

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