Science Fiction Studies

#32 = Volume 11, Part 1 = March 1984

David Y. Hughes

Recent Wells Studies

Roslyn D. Haynes. H.G. Wells: Discoverer of the Future. The Influence of Science on His Thought. NY & London: New York UP, 1980. 283 + xii pp.$28.50.

John Huntington. The Logic of Fantasy. H.G. Wells and Science Fiction. NY: Columbia UP, 1982. 191 + xx pp. $22.50.

Peter Kemp. H. G. Wells and the Culminating Ape. NY: St Marts Press, 1982. 225 + viii pp. $22.50.

John R. Reed. The Natural History of H.G. Wells. Athens, OH. Ohio UP, 1982. 294 + x pp. $23.95.

Criticism of H.G. Wells owes much to the directions given it by Anthony West 25 years ago. West's influence runs in a variety of channels. Wells was by nature a pessimist, West claimed, and his intelligence and aesthetic sense were hopelessly at odds with the progressive line he adopted at mid-career. This thesis--Wells the imaginative artist who wilfully became a Linotype machine--was elaborated by Bergonzi by means of full critical analysis of the art of the early Wells accompanied by magisterial indifference to the "dragooned" imagination (as Bergonzi termed it) of Wells's 46 years after 1900. So by 1961, the year Dr. Leavis blasted the "crass Wellsianism" of C.P. Snow, Wells himself, the early Wells, had already been cleared of that taint. Later his novels up to about 1910 were reclaimed by Lodge, Parrinder, Bellamy, and others. Among the authors now under review, Kemp and Huntington carry on the literary criticism of Wells, giving primacy to works up to 1900 or 1910; and as a formal analysis of the scientific romances themselves, Huntington's study has, I believe, at last superceded Bergonzi's.

The pessimism that Wells deserted at the expense of destroying his creativity West believed to be grounded both in his temperament and in l9th-century mechanistic science--that is, in Hobbes's chance shufflings of atoms extended to the chance shufflings that determined Darwin's survival of the fittest. But while Bergonzi likewise linked Wells's creativity to pessimism, he saw the pessimism in terms of temperament plus Zeitgeist (the fin de siécle) and denied the role of science. Later critics reordered these priorities, first restoring science, then increasingly regarding it--rather than its alleged pessimism--as a major key to Wells's aesthetic. Hillegas reinstated the scientific link by tracing Huxley's "cosmic pessimism" in the early Wells. Several essays of the 1970s redirected Hillegas's work, which was thematic, to the question of how in Wells's hands biology "speciates" (Suvin's term) into the aesthetic forms it takes in his early fictions. Kemp now returns to Bergonzi's emphasis on temperament (not to the exclusion of science, however), while Huntington studiedly ignores temperament and requires above all the tensions of Victorian evolutionary science as the counters he employs to explicate Wells's fictions. Pessimism as such is not a live issue for either. What West regarded as the false optimism of Wells' mid-career he attribute to a shift from mechanistic materialism to vitalism. Wells elected to see design where before he had seen none. He wrote of the mind of the "race" and connected it with an emergent sense of the "purpose" in things. But--ironically-- what the novelist son deplored as a captious betrayal moved Wells's scientist son to his defense. When the biologist G.P. Wells reissued Mind at the End of its Tether in 1968, he prefaced it with his conviction that it neither recanted the last 45 years nor despairingly reaffirmed H.G.'s proper pessimism, as West had claimed. By means of numerous editorial devices, including rearrangement of the book's contents so as to reflect their order of composition, G.P. lent his personal and professional weight to the view that the progressivist and skeptical sides of Wells were coequal in his lifework and in the degree of validity science might confer upon either. Of the authors under review, Haynes and Reed would concur in G.P.'s estimate (Haynes used his edition) and in his conclusion that Wells's later work is a consistent and serious development of his thought, whether or not it rivals his early work as literature. Once again, too, the optimism-pessimism crux tends to drop.

West's "two Wellses," before and after 1900, might both be prodigies. Hillegas's thesis in The Future as Nightmare was that 20th-century dystopian thought both springs from the pessimism of the early Wells and rebounds in reaction from the utopianism of the later Wells. Also, if 1900 was a watershed, some critics might prefer the hither slope (siding with the likes of Snow and the Wells who looked back to Anticipations as "the keystone to the main arch of my work"). Hillegas himself admired Wells's utopianism, seeing the humanist in it; and Wagar admired the tough-minded Wells who planned and campaigned for the world state. If pressed, Haynes and Reed cast their votes, too, for the Wells who repudiated the passive aesthetic dictated by his early determinism.

Besides the simple linear image of Wells contra Wells before and after 1900, West suggested that Wells number two was the heir to unresolved conflict. He had not negotiated with, but had evaded, his former self. But this might be turned around. Presumably, Wells number one harbored in suspension the moves that drove Wells number two. Sure enough, Bergonzi quoted Keats on Negative Capability in the literary artist (the ability, that is, "of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason") and commented: "This, I think, is peculiarly applicable to Wells during the formative years 1894-1917." With or without Negative Capability, certain polarities, complementarities--a binocular vision-- characterized Wells always, more or less. Thus, G.P. finds in his lifework two basic moves: "his belief in the immensity of human opportunities, and his dread that mankind may fail to take them." With the partial exception of Kemp, all of our authors accommodate these "inconsistencies and evasions" of Wells's (West's phrase) and view them as strengths, even though their angles of vision vary. The combined results are generally satisfying and go well beyond previous criticism.

1. Haynes once and for all establishes that no part of Wells's work is conceivable without science. She sets out his science credentials, produces endorsements of the science in his writings by scientists, and surveys the backgrounds in science and ethics transmitted to him by Huxley. Instructing Bergonzi, she soon shows him the science in The Wonderful Visit, The Invisible Man, and wherever else it escaped his notice. She goes on, chapter by chapter, to survey vertically Wells's developing views of science and technology, science and government, science and waste versus order, science and freedom versus predestination, and science as myth and mysticism. She then examines Wells's fictions, revealing that his science training influenced his choice of subjects, his themes, his methods of characterization, and his style. Finally, she defends the practices over which he quarreled with Henry James.

Haynes' best chapters deal with the dynamics of Wells's responses to science and society. How she does so the chapter headed "Science and Technology" will serve to illustrate. She defines those terms only by relating them to each other as viewed over time by Wells, and she reads meaning from later works back into earlier ones. She asks herself upon what pivotal ground Anticipations performs its about-face to a faith in science unprecedented in his writings hitherto. Her reply: unlike writers ever since Blake, Wells had never lumped science with technology, had always seen them as separable entities, had always plotted the future in the interplay between them. For to see science and technology as disjunct is to see them in various possible relationships of power towards each other. Already in The Time Machine the moral issues of power are mounted when a scientist, imprisoned in a future spawned of laissez-faire technical development, is impotent in that future to forestall its nemesis, the Morlocks. Anyway, Wells was skeptical of the Great Man, as Moreau and Griffin, if not the Time Traveler, attest.

How to control and control humanely? Haynes notes the recurrence of Disraeli's theme of England as "a country of two distinct nations" (p. 83). The dichotomies of Morlock/Eloi, Martian/Homo, Ostrog/People-of-the-Abyss reflect this preoccupation in terms of destructive oppositions. Thus, for example, Martian weaponry backed by science--like European weaponry opposed to the Third World--is not necessarily "'evil,' only amoral and highly efficient," while those on whom it is parasitic in Wells's version are only a "confused, self-centered, mob" (p. 74).

In Anticipations, Wells at last believed he foresaw a science adequate to become tillerman to technology: control would lie not with the maverick Great Man, but with scientists as a body, dedicated by training to truth and objectivity and disinclined to political power as an end in itself. With technology so directed, Wells expected the swift dissolution of the "two Englands" and acculturation of the populace through education. "The Land Ironclads" of 1903 presents "Wells's fully endorsed scientific men" who "exploit all the possibilities of the machine as [had] the Martians" and soon mow down the "muddled English soldier." Haynes comments: "When order and efficiency are embodied... in intelligent, moral individuals, Wells's admiration is unbounded" (p. 76). (See also my subsequent comments on Huntington.)

Later, the ideal of "service" led him to mystical faith in self-submergence in the emergent "overmind." Haynes quotes Karenin in The World Set Free: "Science is no longer our servant. We know it for something greater than our little individual selves. It is the awakening mind of the race." Haynes comments: "this is the apotheosis of science [which] has become a spiritual power, Truth" (p. 80). But if anyone asks how this state comes about, Wells swings between saying "by force" and "by education," and he hopes that the very vision will attract the world into the reality. By whatever means, the change will require luck forced by will.

Cumulatively, Haynes' "science and" chapters--some of which focus on the novels--easily establish science as Wells's central enterprise while performing an instructive survey of his work. Yet the impact of this useful stuff is diminished by various deficiencies and quirks. The book apparently went to the publishers about 1970, the effectual terminus of the bibliography. But the '70s produced at least a dozen books and articles that relate significantly to the science backgrounds. Allowing for this lapse, text and notes still need schoolmarming for accuracy. Thus Sir E. Ray Lankester would have been startled to find Wells listed (p. 40) as a fellow student: Lankester was 19 years older and an Oxford man. Nor did he edit "Wells's" Natural Science and the Classical System in Education, a book of his to which Wells contributed a few pages.

The quirkiness poses problems too. The main one concerns inclusion and exclusion of Wells's works. Like Reed and Kemp, Haynes handles Wells's oeuvre as a body (a sign that its multifariousness is beginning to come under critical resolution) but unaccountably omits The Shape of Things to Come (not indexed), several novels of the 1920s and many more of the 1930s, and Wells's theological extensions of the overmind, God, the Invisible King and The Soul of a Bishop. In turn, these omissions lead to the scanting of Wells's later psychological concerns. Jung is cited briefly; Adler, an even stronger presence in the late writings, goes unmentioned.

Offputting, too, may be Haynes' double intellectual commitment both to the "two cultures"--she terms herself "a scientist who defected to the literary camp" (p. ix)--and, despite some reservations, to a vitalist view of biology that leads, for example, to the praiseful likening of Wells to Teilhard de Chardin. The vitalist connection may also explain Haynes' absurd belief that science is invariably future oriented. Wells's booklet The Discovery of the Future (which she adapts to her subtitle) sets up a dichotomy between future-regarding and past-or-present- regarding minds, but she outstrips even Wells in linking the first to science and the second to the humanities.

Yet Haynes' intellectual allegiances are also the source of her strength. They lead her to view Wells's earlier writings through the glass of the later ones, revealing potentialities that escape any more time-bound critical perspective and locating in the ambiguities and inconsistencies between his works the path of the problem-solving imagination. The integrity of the individual works suffers; but, as if in response, she quotes Wells: "when you are dead then you are all your life from the first moment to the last" (p. 141).

2.Like Haynes, Reed hammers away at the thesis that Wells possessed "a coherent and mainly consistent" world-view over his lifetime. He concerns himself with the emergence of that view throughout Wells's works, and to a degree only less than Haynes he recognizes the influence of science and especially of Huxley's biological and philosophical teachings on Wells. But, unlike Haynes, rather than perceiving the will to order as installed in Wells by the paradigm of his science training, Reed roots it in "private fears and desires" (p. ix). In other words, he yokes Wells's ideas to his compulsions and so engages a fruitful tension. One might next expect to see space given to establishing the meager, Calvinistic background that Wells escaped. But Reed repeats little of what Wells and the MacKenzies have said already. He turns instead directly to several highly-charged image clusters that recur all through Wells's work.

These clusters have a residual positive or negative loading but may temporarily reverse according to a passing mood or context. Here are a few samples. One set of images is jungle-garden-upland, and the generally upward movement of this scheme is among Wells's "most persistently vigorous analogues for the human struggle" (p. 35). The jungle or jungle-to-garden image (cf. Huxley's Tennysonian "let the ape and tiger die" out of man) is pervasive in the early SF, while the upland Alp appears consistently after about 1900. Yet the garden may be one of false ease (as is the Eloi's); and as for the jungle--to cite an amusing instance--in letters to Rebecca West, Wells was Jaguar, she was Panther: "Obviously, there were some things in the jungle that weren't half bad" (p. 46). An image usually of liberation from entrapment is the architectural aperture. Like jungle-garden-upland, this image may convey actual, literal release, or, like the "door" to utopia in Men Like Gods, may imply "a metaphysical manumission" (p. 20). On the other hand, in "Through a Window" and "In the Avu Observatory," terror enters an enclosure from without.

Reed accords special significance to dreams in Wells, whether dreams of the nightmare past (our present in The Dream) that "goad" us to free ourselves, or dreams that "guide" the mind by intuitions closed to waking thought (like Ugh-Lomi's in "A Story of the Stone Age"). Dreams to Wells were "visions without grace" through which "the unconscious imagination became subject to the will as its operations became manifest" (p. 9).

By attending to such recurrent image clusters, whose polarities are susceptible to reversal, Reed implicitly declines West's optimism/pessimism crux and establishes Wells as a more complex figure. In a note Reed says, "even though young Wells was appalled by man's failings and his likely fate, he had aspirations to change the human condition" (p. 249), and such aspirations escalated over time, of course. But Wells was "an astonishingly self-aware man" (p. 10); and when he identified the deep human conflicts within himself and between himself and society--e.g., passion and reason, instinct and injunction--and discovered them to be irresolvable, he determined to exploit that very impasse. The image clusters emblematize conditions, hopes, movements both personal and social, yet they do not "solve" conflicts, just exhibit their shapes, define boundaries and links, and at most point a direction.

Like Haynes (and Wells), Reed inquires into free will and predestination. Where Haynes elects science as establishing the control needed to exert free will--including science apotheosized as the emergent "Truth" of the race--Reed emphasizes, often by means of poetic figures, Wells's hunger for amelioration like a carrot to the will. He thus sees Wells as a Moses mired in the jungle of present human nature and society but envisioning the (quite possible) garden and upland of the future. The image clusters are a means of surveying the trackless landscape ahead where one day the path of the future must be induced into reality by human willing. Wells emerges as inventing a heuristic of self discovery that relates the individual to himself, society, the race. Thus Wells passes from auto-didact to world educator without ceasing to be above all a writer. Tantalus, Reed quotes from The Shape of Things to Come, "was put within apparent reach of the unattainable by the inexorable decrees of the Gods. Mankind was under no such pitiless destiny" (p. 141).

The body of Reed's study concretely exhibits the dialectics of this (anti-Tantalus) worldview working themselves out across Wells's oeuvre. The chapter heads are: "Flesh and Blood"; "Identity: Self and Race"; "Progress"; "Organization-Order-Education"; "The Will"; "Writing." These fill in with a wealth of detail the framework I have sketched. Alone among the authors under review, Reed has done research in the Illinois Wells Collection; he commands an enviable knowledge of Wells, from fugitive early writings to the last years; and he is abreast of Wells criticism. When Reed wants to, he performs concomitant literary analysis. The image clusters are an example. Another example is his suggestion that typically the SF is a paradigm of "mind achieving self-awareness"; often the protagonist is swept away (Time Traveler, Angel, Moreau, Martians, Cavor) while the narrator awakens to a new consciousness of himself and the world (pp. 205-06); but When the Sleeper Wakes carries cognition into deed since, through Graham, "the motif of rising from sleep to action is the basic foundation of this novel's plot" (p. 1603). A final example of literary analysis is the valuable comparison of Gissing, Conrad, James, Bennett, and Wells in which Reed exhibits their plot structures as measures of Their respective views of free will and determinism (pp. 166-73).

However, Reed is no more interested than Haynes in literature as such, especially not in individual works. Nearly his last words are: "It is ironic chat while Wells is booming as the author of science fiction, he is neglected as a novelist." Yet he says little about Wells's major novels (on tile Theory they are treated well elsewhere); besides, "often Wells's clearest expressions of his opinions and his intentions do not appear in his best novels" (p. x) or in his fiction at all. The title, The Natural History of H.G. Wells, reflects Reed's intention to map the Wells who mapped his times. But since Wells was a self-historicizer (because he saw his life as synecdoche of the age), I assume Reed's title reflects the further aim to use a system of values and perspectives objective in relation to the system of auto-dissection which Wells himself used and whose results he read into the times. If Reed is strikingly successful in mapping Wells, he manages only a qualified success in devising new co-ordinates. Wells still preempts much of the apparatus his historian must use.

3. Kemp is a risible writer. He finds the young Wells lively fun and the old one vainglorious. The Grand Lunar cannot understand who it is that thinks and governs on Earth. Soothed by cooling sprays, the wobbling jelly of gray matter at last incredulously conjectures: "You mean--that there is no Grand Earthly?" No. But Kemp remarks that in later years Wells "seems increasingly to be edging toward this vacancy" (p. 192).

To Kemp, the framework of biological themes in Wells is worth tracing only because "where they connect with powerful obsessions, they generate powerful excitements" (p. 6). It is Wells till 1910, he claims, who mostly yields these excitements. For instance, The Time Machine is a tale of "ironic nemesis." Kemp reveals the irony through the chapter title--"The Edible Predator" --and eating administers the nemesis; but--and here the true Kempian note sounds--eating "is depicted with both relish and ferocity.. ., a responsiveness well beyond the mere requirements of didacticism" (p. 14). Similarly, in The War of the Worlds, the Martians partly "represent a didactic menace to mankind, and partly they are nightmare creatures to be fitted out with attachments fashioned by his heated imagination" (p. 25). But, to return to the Time Traveler, Kemp zestfully (with selected quotation marks) traces his voyage. He landed among the "delicious" Eloi; ate frugivorously; scented the "halitus" of a fresh "red joint" where he knew no animals should exist; eluded the "little teeth nipping" of the Morlocks and "the many palps. . . flickering and feeling" of the monster crab; and home at last, dismounting his machine, the renascent clubman, seated, "sniffed" the mutton; and, says he, "What a treat it is to stick a fork into meat again!" and refused another word till he put "peptone" in his arteries (pp. 1~15).

Kemp assembles Homeric catalogues. Noticing in the chain above that vegetarians are on the wrong end, he turns to Bedford's report on Cavor, "a water-drinker, a vegetarian, and all those logical disciplinary things," and, Kemp's voice adds, "suicidally naive." Next, vegetarianism, not suicidal but nutty, takes Kemp to A Modern Utopia's nature crank who babbles, "Simple Foods and Simple Ways," "No animal substance inside, no vegetable without;--what could be simpler or more logical Then the "etiolated goings-on" of the vegetarians fix his attention successively on The New Machiavelli, The Research Magnificent, The Passionate Friends, Joan and Peter, The Holy Terror, Guide to the New World, and You Can't Be Too Careful. And in The War of the Worlds he finds "an enthusiastic gardener Who] proffers samples of his strawberries, vacuously opining 'this lot'll cost the insurance people a pretty penny,' as the Martian missiles crash," prefatory to what Wells calls their "suctional operation" at feed (pp. 15-17).

So it goes. Kemp devotes pages to tentacles, teeth, taste of (one's own) blood, cannibalism, salivation, the taking of the Sacrament (God-eating), missile food, culinary proper names, and carnivore fetishism. The last refers to Benham and Amanda (of The Research Magnificent), pet-named Leopard and Cheetah, and their "erotically carnivorous rompings" (p. 46), and, of course, to Wells-Jaguar, Rebecca-Panther, and, Kemp adds, their son, christened Anthony Panther. Continuing, Kemp links food to sex, to aggression, to indigestion, to patent medicines, to class origin, to individual temperament, to knowledge and education (as in The Food of the Gods), and always back to Wells himself (tid-bits courtesy mostly of the autobiography and the MacKenzies).

The subsequent chapters (on women, utopia, war and peace, and the world state) at last exhaust the Homeric card catalogue, which is only sometimes undigested or limply suspended as if in Griffin's see-through stomach. What is Kemp's organizing principle? The pseudo-antitheses. Each chapter tide places or discovers Wells in a reductio ad absurdum: "'The Edible Predator: Wells and Food," "The Slave Goddess: Wells and Sex," "The Redeveloped Basement: Wells and Habitat," "The Pugnacious Pacifist: Wells and Survival Mechanisms," and "The Grand Earthly: Wells and Self-Image"; and then the tide of the book, H.G. Wells and the Culminating Ape. In each case, the subside relates to science (biology, ecology, psychology) while the main tide indicates an inconsistency not in the science but in Wells. It turns out that Wells never thought. He was visceral. What passes for thought is glandular, appetitive, and in youth touched by a "sharp scientific precision, pinning the fantasy to fact" (p. 142). In those days he dramatized his obsessions with comic, bizarre, creepy gusto and distinction, untethered by the dropsical profundity and self-importance that later fettered his imagination.

The trouble is that because Wells's compulsions were lifelong and because Kemp is a collector and curator of compulsions, he ransacks Wells's writings of every period and genre, along with his life and letters, without pause or discrimination. Here is another sample, if more is needed. Kemp's counterpart to Reed's junglegarden-upland is a cellar and a high place. Forthwith the collector takes over: Wells lives in cellars, mounts to Up Park, yet there lives "below stairs"; trogloditic characters turn up in Tono-Bungay, The Dream, The Wife of Sir lsaac Harman, in The Days of the Comet, Love and Mr Lewisham, and Kipps; tall buildings are admired in Tono-Bungay, The Holy Terror, A Year of Prophesying, The Future in America, The War in the Air, The Passionate Friends, The Dream, World Brain, Mr Blettsworthy on Rampole Island, and In the Days of the Comet; lofty locales lure lovers in The Secret Places of the Heart, Kipps, Marriage, Star-Begotten, The New Machiavelli, The Passionate Friends, Meanwhile, The Dream, The Research Magnificent, and The Book of Catherine Wells; this is followed by airplanes and flying and inter-aspersed with catalogues of windows and of airy and confining homes. The extremes of publication fall between 1906 and 1939, but Kemp's order (which I have preserved) makes mincemeat of chronology (as for dates, those are in his bibliography) while he omits page citations for his barrages of quick quotes. How can one guess (does Kemp care?) whether what is served up with such relish exemplifies Wells at his best or worst?

This book says nothing new about Wells and science, Wells and other writers, Wells and his times, or Wells as an artist. It weathers these disappointments as pure entertainment (and it is that) and then because it invents categories of polarities that reveal Wells's abiding tensions, whether in his successful or less successful phases.

4. Huntington treats a relatively smell body of work: to much that Bergonzi treated (The Time Machine through The First Men in the Moon and selected short stories), he adds Anticipations, A Modern Utopia, The Food of the Gods, and In the Days of the Comet, and winds up with We, Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451. Huntington promises to show that "opposition" is the structural principle of the scientific romances--"not by developing a theoretical justification for it, but by...studying the texts closely"--and he promises that by comparing them with later works by Wells and others, "we can begin to explain the possibilities and failures of the form in general" (pp. xiv, x). The first task is performed with virtuosity, the second yields a provocative (and controversial) sketch of a criticism, and both break fresh ground.

Thematically stated, the grand opposition throughout the early Wells is the conflict between evolution-nature-natural law and ethics-civilization-humanity's law. The mechanism that sets up the opposition is the "two world" structure. The phrase is Wells's and comes from The Wonderful Visit. The approach or way of thought in relation to the opposition is "undirected." This is also Well's term, which he defines as "imaginative play" checked by experience, a semi dreaming mode of thought, as against "directed thought" eventuating in actions and conclusions. The latter was whet wells approved by the time he coined the dichotomy (in The Work Wealth, and Happiness of Mankind), but the former was what he engaged in until Anticipations; for, "in blunt teens, Wells's career is a movement from the 'undirected thought' of the scientific romances toward the 'directed thought' of his later work, both fiction and nonfiction" (p. xii).

As a rough scheme this is familiar from Bergonzi, who pointed out Wells's characteristic juxtaposition of the exotic and the commonplace (opposition of two worlds), noted his Negative Capability (undirected thought), and rejected him after 1900 (Huntington stops at 1906). Bergonzi's scientific illiteracy is another matter, not shared by Huntington, whose two worlds, unlike Bergonzi's exotic and mundane, engage the most debated of all Victorian antinomies. The continuing vitality of a debate that permits Huntington to turn to the Norton Critical Darwin and quote Huxley, Owen, Sedgwick, and Agassiz, as well as Darwin, conveniently preserves a range of thought within the Victorian ambience which serves to suggest to the reader overlappings, cross-linkages, and mediations, as between the evolutionary and ethical poles.

Yet the two-world structure is of course detachable from science. It is in part pleasurable as such; neither world need be noteworthy. In "The Remarkable Case of Davidson's Eyes," the worlds are London and an uninhabited islet in the sea, and the interest (the story is plotless) lies in Davidson's being physically in London and visually on the island. So neither science nor the exotic need enter. Mediation between opposites is another fun thing for author and reader. Huntington is an ingenious guide in his discussions of means of marking differences and links. The orchid in The Flowering of the Strange Orchid" marks a cut point between the jungle (nature) it came from and the hothouse (civilization) it enters: it converts the hothouse into a slaughterhouse; but civilization is restored when the housekeeper violently turns the inside outside (nature) by smashing the glass. Here the opposition of evolution and ethics (nature and civilization) is in full force, nothing is settled, but there is pleasure in the ironies of the linkages. At the same time, the story is a way of thinking--meditating--upon these oppositions.

Huntington examines about a dozen stories, using them as entertaining instructional laboratories. He then gives a chapter to The Time Machine and substantial space to each of the scientific romances. He continues to guide through temporal and topographical boundaries and shows mediations between worlds. What is now superadded is the encounter with intelligent aliens and the problems of communication and domination so raised. In this context, the discussion of fire in The Time Machine is admirable. Fire defines civilized man: on the Time Traveler's hearth, as weapon against Morlocks, to amuse Weena, as tool to light the dark. Fire is technology, even if only a safety match, and it performs mediations in the land of those who lack it. But it mediates most powerfully when it goes out, and puts the traveler suddenly on a footing with the natives, or when it rages out of control, causing him to feel pity and cease from massacring its blinded victims. In The War of the Worlds sunsets mediate, accompanying first the incursion of the aliens into the Surrey landscape, then melding with the darkness the aliens themselves rain down, then dying as the "Ulla" "Ulla" dies that had made London seem alive.

By the time of The First Men in the Moon (and other works of that period) Wells is straining towards "directed thought." Huntington's salient insight concerning The First Men in the Moon is that the apparent upper/lower lunar worlds are really one because there is but one lunar species, the Selenite. The outside doesn't signify. The Selenites, moreover, are classless (a fact camouflaged by their endless individual differences), and--being a sort of cerebral beehive--they combine cognitive and instinctive co-operation. The result is an illegitimate fusion of evolution and ethics. The story remains "undirected," but only in the ambiguous relationships between the Selenite and human worlds, as mediated by Bedford or by Calor.

Huntington oddly calls the early works "anti-utopias." On the other hand, "utopias" and "dystopia" are works that strive for a totalitarian self-consistency, "good" or "bad." Thus, "anti-utopia" becomes equivalent to the early Wells, to his sort of self-regarding skepticism. Huntington sees his heirs in Čapek, Stapledon, and Le Guin, and he reads Zamyatin's We as surpassing Wells in relentless ironies. Orwell, Huxley, and Bradbury are dystopians: Orwell monolithic, Bradbury and Huxley content with "simple plus-minus oppositions" of "nature against technology, and the individual against society" (p. 164). The book closes with discussion of A Modern Utopia, pointing therein to a voice of anti-utopia, the Botanist.

According to this line of argument, Wells turned from anti-utopia to utopia in about 1900. The story that Huntington says "epitomizes the new shape of Wells's imagination" (p. 134) is "The Land Ironclads," which depicts two initially stalemated armies, until tanks become the sufficient reason why the young engineers wipe out their bucolic adversaries. Huntington quotes:

For the enemy these young engineers were defeating they felt a certain qualified pity and quite unqualified contempt. They regarded these big healthy men they were shooting down precisely as these big healthy men might regard some inferior kind of nigger....'If they must make war,' these young men thought, 'why in thunder don't they do it like sensible men?' (p. 136)

Huntington notes that this is "what one imagines an insensitive Martian might have thought." The problem is not that Wells has defected--part of him was always "Martian"--but that now "one side is right" and in order to make propaganda the story has to ignore its own implications.

A good test of a book at the present stage of Wells criticism is how far it throws light on Wells's movement across the divide of 1900. In one basic way Huntington fails. He concentrates almost exclusively on Wells's early writings, which he prefers for ethical-aesthetic reasons. "The problem with directed thought. . . is that it strives to reduce complexity" (p. 2), whereas undirected thought "holds together oppositions and lives with them" (p. 18). After 1900 Wells supposedly overbalanced himself and fell into the directed mode, which Huntington finds simplistic. But what about Tono-Bungay, for example: is it "directed"? In any case, is it simplistic? Huntington discusses Lewisham's Chaffery at some length and no other novel. Why not others, or other episodes--Mordet Island in Tono-Bungay, for instance?

Granted the bias, though, nothing like Huntington's extensive and detailed analysis of Wells's formal structures has been attempted before. By following that development Huntington convincingly demonstrates that within several years Wells's mechanisms of irresolvable opposition begin to crystallize (it is Reed who develops the image of the crystal in Wells: "abruptly, chaos achieves order" [p. 1131]) so that the one world of utopia emerges alone. At the same time, the evolution-ethics opposition develops into the unity of evolution-through-culture. And this scheme of the works is induced from them, without reference to Wells's private life, and shows what the works themselves do. It charts their movement across the 1900 divide as no study has before. Beyond that, the essays on later writers--controversial in respect to Huxley and Bradbury--lend added interest for the general student of SF.

moonbut.gif (4466 bytes)  Back to Home