Science Fiction Studies

#104 = Volume 35, Part 1 = March 2008

Nicholas Ruddick

An Unsuitable Memorial

H.G. Wells. Things to Come: A Critical Text of the 1935 London First Edition, with an Introduction and Appendices. Ed. Leon Stover.The Annotated H.G. Wells  9. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007. x + 261 pp. $60.00 hc.

In spite of much leaden dialogue delivered in comically posh British accents, the 1936 movie Things to Come, produced by Alexander Korda and directed by William Cameron Menzies, is worth watching for at least two reasons. First, its interwar vision of the century to come is a visual treat, enhanced by brilliantly conceived sets and costumes, impressive special effects, and a powerful musical score by Arthur Bliss. Second, the film, whose title sequence begins with “H.G. WELLS” spelled out in gigantic letters, offers direct insights into the imagination of the greatest figure in sf history. For Things to Come was in every sense the brainchild of Wells, who not only wrote the screenplay but also was given a free hand by Korda to intervene in every aspect of the production on and off set. The result was a painfully serious, unprecedentedly expensive box-office flop. Nevertheless, as Christopher Frayling shows in his excellent short book on the film (1995), Things to Come was enormously influential on subsequent popular cultural depictions of the near future (10-11). It is the first great sf film of the sound era.                 

The movie originates in Wells’s lengthy future history The Shape of Things to Come (1933). In this work, the West’s failure to learn the lessons of the Great War precipitates a conflict so disastrous that human beings finally get the message that civilization is incompatible with competing nationalisms backed up by air power. More than a century hence, a global socialist utopia, the World State, emerges. For the film, Wells reduced Shape’s sweeping narrative to a slenderer scenario with three main elements: the onset of the “Second World War” and the calamitous effect of aerial bombardment on the modern city; the reversion to barbarism, until Airmen of cosmopolitan, technocratic disposition intervene to topple the warlords and impose a benevolent dictatorship; and the defeat, several generations later, of a socially retrogressive movement trying to prevent the launch of a manned expedition beginning the colonization of space. In 1935, the year before the movie was released, this scenario was published by Cresset Press of London as Things to Come: A Film Story Based on the Material Contained in His History of the Future “The Shape of Things to Come. (The US edition, published by Macmillan of New York, is subtitled simply A Film by H.G. Wells.) This “film story,” hereafter abbreviated TTCFS, is composed of Wells’s “Introductory Remarks” followed by a screenplay in dramatic form. The movie itself, especially in its now standard shortened version, differs from TTCFS in many details.                

In his book The Prophetic Soul (1987), published by the library-oriented academic press McFarland, Leon Stover included a lengthy close reading of Things to Come (27-97), making a strong case for the importance of the film as a major social document while at the same time proposing that its author endorsed the radically antidemocratic spirit embodied by the Airmen. Stover evidently had an impressive grasp of the history of authoritarian socialism from its origin in the writings of Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), and his wide reading in Wells enabled him to support his argument by innumerable citations from the oeuvre. The Prophetic Soul also included two important unpublished documents as appendices: Whither Mankind? A Film of the Future (1934), a privately circulated “film treatment” by Wells that preceded the Cresset/Macmillan TTCFS; and the release script of the movie itself. The Prophetic Soul was a major contribution to Wells studies, and as Patrick Parrinder noted in the “Foreword,” after Stover “neither Things to Come nor H.G. Wells can ever quite seem the same again” (xiv).                

In 1996, Stover published with McFarland a new hardcover scholarly edition of the 1895 Heinemann first edition of The Time Machine: An Invention with a full apparatus. It would be the first in a series entitled The Annotated H.G. Wells (hereafter AW), each installment of which consists of a scientific romance edited by Stover. Stover died in November 2006, so the latest volume, the ninth in the AW series, will likely be the last. Each of the previous eight volumes was reviewed in SFS and there is a remarkable consensus among the reviewers. While they sometimes give Stover credit for his intelligence, or for the courage of his convictions, or for his occasional new insight into the texts, they all criticize him, often harshly, for his carelessness with facts and for his tendency to distort evidence to support a scarcely credible argument.                

In SFS 70, the late R.D. Mullen noted, of Stover’s edition of The Time Machine (AW 1, 1996), that “by any standard of scholarship, Stover’s work is sadly deficient” (363). Mullen concluded that while “many of [the] annotations are quite informative ... such information cannot compensate for the misinformation with which Stover seeks to establish an absurdly false view of Carlyle and Wells” (370). David Y. Hughes (SFS 71) remarked of Stover’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (AW 2, 1996), that “one cannot but welcome his battling spirit—while enduring his reckless and tendentious scholarship” (109). John Huntington (SFS 77), reviewing both The First Men in the Moon (AW 6, 1998) and The Invisible Man (AW 3, 1998), concurred: “Stover has a wide-ranging, if selective, knowledge of Wells, which allows him to achieve some curious insights among the cranky, strange, and misguided interpretations. He has tracked down references; he has annotated the geography; he has explained words and ideas. But the enterprise is all so smothered in the accumulation of an obsessive agenda that even the documentation becomes suspect” (127).                

The late W. Warren Wagar (SFS 82), reviewing When the Sleeper Wakes (AW 5, 2000), wrote:

Except for some of the appendices and a stray thought here or there, it is all but useless.... Stover’s 263 absurdly intrusive footnotes, many of them lengthy tirades designed to support his thesis, clog the text from start to finish, occasionally crowding the text right off the page.... Stover is a clever and widely read scholar. But his fifteen-year crusade to defame H.G. Wells is a wonder for which I can contrive no explanation. (513-14)

In an omnibus review, Patrick A. McCarthy (SFS 87) said of The War of the Worlds (AW 4, 2001), that “As to the annotations, they are so intrusive as to be a hindrance rather than an aid to readers”; and of The Sea Lady (AW 7, 2001), “The introduction is riddled with marks of carelessness” (250-51). And most recently, of The Man Who Could Work Miracles (AW 8, 2003), Everett Bleiler (SFS 92) stated that “to call this over-priced, inadequate edition ‘a critical text’” was nothing less than an affront to scholarship (130). Taken together, the reviews raise a large question: if these editions are indeed so deficient, how could they have received the imprimatur of a scholarly press?                

When I was working on my annotated Broadview edition of the Heinemann Time Machine, I frequently consulted Stover’s edition of this same work. I found that while I could never rely on his apparatus, I could not dismiss it entirely, as occasionally it did offer a useful insight into the text. It was at once intensely irritating and strangely salutary to have to double check almost every sentence in a handsomely produced edition of a classic intended for a scholarly readership. Yet I took up Stover’s new edition of TTCFS with more confidence. Here Stover was editing a work that he knew more about than anyone else and in relation to which he had made his reputation as a Wells critic. In his “Preface,” Stover notes that as Things to Come “is very much a digest of everything gone before in Wells,” so “the present volume is a digest of the previous titles in the annotated series” (x). On reflection, I find this last statement to be true, but sadly not in Stover’s intended sense: this edition of TTCFS epitomizes everything that is wrong with the AW series.                

Like its AW predecessors, Stover’s TTCFS does contain some valuable elements. It usefully reproduces a hundred images, including many stills from the movie and related material, and occasionally Stover uses them to illustrate an interesting point. On p. 38, for example, an enlargement of the movie’s invading air fleet accompanies a footnote about Hitler’s reported reaction to this scene in the movie. Appendix II usefully reproduces “The Silliest Film: Will Machinery Make Robots of Men?” (1927), Wells’s devastating critique of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926), the movie with which Things to Come is sometimes compared but to which it should really be contrasted. But for the most part Stover overwhelms the text of TTCFS with annotations characterized by tendentiousness, verbosity, inaccuracy, and irrelevance, in which the faults identified by earlier reviewers of the AW series return in extreme guise.                

Stover’s TTCFS has all the problematic elements already identified by reviewers of the AW series. I am not the first to note that Stover’s reiterated claim for the baleful influence of Saint-Simon upon Wells’s political views would be more convincing if Wells had occasionally mentioned Saint-Simon in his oeuvre or correspondence; no new evidence is adduced here. But with TTCFS the Saint-Simon issue is relatively minor, in that the Things to Come project does support Stover’s view of Wells the authoritarian socialist—at least on the surface. A deeper examination, however, reveals that, here as elsewhere, Stover failed utterly to understand the sources of literary creativity. Wells, like most writers sensitive to the currents of their times, wrote fiction not to reassert repeatedly the same ideological position, but because he was constantly changing his mind as he was buffeted by the tides of history. Indeed, far from expressing satisfaction that in Things to Come he was finally able to express fully what he had really always thought, Wells was soon disappointed by the film’s failure to live up to his vision (see Smith, Correspondence of H.G. Wells 4.121).                

Things to Come was conceived in urgency, Wells in the mid-1930s sensing an imminent threat to civilization from air power deployed by belligerents whose political systems were in his view merely elaborate forms of barbarism. The opening scenes of the movie are still chilling in their evocation of the terror of civilian populations under aerial attack. Wells’s fears were well founded: the Nazi air attack on Guernica in April 1937 occurred just over a year after the release of the movie. Wells’s letter to the editor of the Spectator of circa December 14, 1936, clarifies his thinking at the time (see Smith 4.118). He hurriedly tried to envision some means of neutralizing air power’s unprecedented destructive capacity, and the Things to Come project was the immediate result. His aim is clearly enough expressed in his “Introductory Remarks”: The Shape of Things to Come, the basis of the “film story,” was “essentially an imaginative discussion of social and political forces and possibilities, and a film is no place for argument” (15; Wells’s italics). Stover, normally so copious an annotator, ignores this statement, preferring to assert that Things to Come and its “film story” finally and completely exposes H.G. Wells in his true colors as “the world’s foremost Soviet apologist” (3), an enemy of democracy, labor, the free market, and civic society (10).               

But Stover’s TTCFS has faults that do not directly stem from his internalized caricature of Wells the antihumanistic ideologue and propagandist. They are far too many to enumerate, so here is a short list of characteristic types, each with a representative example:                

1. Incoherence. In the Preface, Stover writes that the “Also By” list of Wells’s publications opposite the title page of TTCFS “amounts to a summa of ‘Wellsism,’ the logic behind calling Things to Come a ‘propaganda film’ for that selfish-ism” (x). “Wellsism” is Stover’s term for his own non-standard view of Wells’s political ideology, and one must consult The Prophetic Soul (3ff) for clues to what he means by it. What the rest of the sentence means is anyone’s guess.               

2. Lack of Documentation. Stover in his Preface tells us that this text “has cumulated [sic] a huge bibliography impossible to simplify, so I have reduced the one appearing in this book to a roster of ‘Stover on Wells’” (x). In other words, the only bibliography in TTCFS is a one-page list of Stover’s writings on Wells, and in the apparatus Stover only documents his own works.                

3. Carelessness. The epigraph correctly gives John 16:13 as a source of the phrase “things to come,” but the very first sentence of the Introduction, in which the book title is discussed, cites it as John 16:1.                

4. Excessive Repetition. Stover makes the same point about the relation of Rex Warner’s The Aerodrome (1941) to Things to Come on pp. 1, 3, 10, and 203.                 

5. Irrelevance. Appendix III reprints Wells’s story “The Land Ironclads” (1903), the inclusion of which Stover justifies by stating that it is Wells’s first work of fiction to illustrate the mechanized warfare of the future. But the Things to Come project focuses on air power, not on tank warfare.                

A note preceding the text of TTCFS states that Stover died “before having an opportunity to read proofs” (ii), but what we have here is far more than a problem with proofreading. The culpability for the shambles that is Stover’s edition of TTCFS rests squarely with his publisher. The McFarland website refers to Stover as “the world’s foremost Wellsian scholar,” a claim for which, perhaps predictably, not a trace of supporting evidence is provided. But let us suppose that the claim were true. Would it not then have been more in keeping with Stover’s eminence to have ensured that his work was professionally appraised, fact checked, documented, and copy edited before being posthumously released? (Of course, all previous installments in the AW series would also have greatly benefited from such treatment. It is standard procedure in publishing that is truly scholarly.)                

Even though Leon Stover’s views were shared by few Wellsians and were not expressed in a way conducing to their wider acceptance, he did make a considerable contribution to Wells studies. He deserves a better memorial than this edition of TTCFS. I would urge McFarland and Company to withdraw it from sale immediately and submit the manuscript to an expert editor tasked with correcting the kinds of errors that I have summarized above and bringing its documentation up to the standard expected of a scholarly work. I recommend that scholars and librarians not purchase this new edition of TTCFS until an acceptable revision is made available.

Bleiler, Everett. “Book That Fails to Work Miracles.” SFS 31.1 (Mar. 2004): 127-31.
Frayling, Christopher. Things to Come. BFI Film Classics. London: British Film Institute, 1995.
Hughes, David Y. “The Doctor Vivisected.” SFS 24.1 (Mar. 1997): 109-18.
Huntington, John. “Kinbotean Experience.” SFS 26.1 (Mar. 1999): 125-28.
McCarthy, Patrick A.  “New Editions of H.G. Wells: A Mixed Bag.” SFS 29.2 (July 2002): 247-52.
McFarland website. 16 Nov. 2007.< 978-0-7864-1237-2>.
Metropolis. Dir. Fritz Lang. UFA, 1926.
Mullen, R.D. “Scholarship and the Riddle of the Sphinx: The Stover Edition of The Time Machine.” SFS 23.3 (Nov. 1996): 363-70.
Ruddick, Nicholas, ed. The Time Machine: An Invention. H.G. Wells. 1895. Broadview Literary Texts. Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2001.
Smith, David C., ed. The Correspondence of H.G. Wells. Vol. 4: 1935-1946. London: Pickering and Chatto, 1998.
Stover, Leon, ed. The First Men in the Moon: A Critical Text of the 1901 London First Edition, with an Introduction and Appendices. H.G. Wells. The Annotated H.G. Wells 6. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1998.
─────, ed. The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance. A Critical Text of the 1897 New York First Edition, with an Introduction and Appendices.H.G. Wells. The Annotated H.G. Wells 3. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1998.
─────, ed. The Island of Doctor Moreau: A Critical Text of the 1896 London First Edition, with an Introduction and Appendices. H.G. Wells. The Annotated H.G. Wells 2. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1996.
─────, ed. Man Who Could Work Miracles: A Critical Text of the 1936 New York First Edition, with an Introduction and Appendices. H.G. Wells. The Annotated H.G. Wells 8. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003.
─────, ed. The Prophetic Soul: A Reading of H.G. Wells’s Things to Come together with His Film Treatment, Whither Mankind? and the Postproduction Script (Both Never before Published). Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1987.
─────, ed. The Sea Lady: A Tissue of Moonshine: A Critical Text of the 1902 London First Edition, with an Introduction and Appendices. By H.G. Wells. The Annotated H.G. Wells 7. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001.
─────, ed. The Time Machine: An Invention: A Critical Text of the 1895 London First Edition, with an Introduction and Appendices. H.G. Wells. The Annotated H.G. Wells 1. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1996.
─────, ed. The War of the Worlds: A Critical Text of the 1898 London First Edition, with an Introduction, Illustrations and Appendices. H.G. Wells. The Annotated H.G. Wells 4. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001.
─────, ed. When the Sleeper Wakes: A Critical Text of the 1899 New York and London First Edition, with an Introduction and Appendices. H.G. Wells. The Annotated H.G. Wells 5. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2000.
Things to Come. Dir. William Cameron Menzies. London Films, 1936.
Wagar, W. Warren. “Ingenious Feats of Sophistry.” SFS 27.1 (Nov. 2000): 512-14.
Wells, H.G. The Shape of Things to Come. 1933. London: Corgi, 1967.
─────. Things to Come: A Film by H.G. Wells. New York: Macmillan, 1935.
─────. Things to Come: A Film Story Based on the Material Contained in His History of the Future “The Shape of Things to Come. London: Cresset, 1935.

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