Science Fiction Studies

#47 = Volume 16, Part 1 = March 1989

David Y. Hughes

God, the Devil, and H.G. Wells

Michael Draper. H.G. Wells. ["Modern Novelists" Series.] Basingstoke & London: Macmillan, 1987; NY: St Martin's, 1988. x + 133pp. $24.95

This is a book that turns Wells into a theologian for non-believers--an irritatingly oracular and fragmented study that nonetheless repays careful reading. The publishers' statement would lead one to expect a standard survey, such as Cambridge University's "English and Irish Authors" Wells (by John Batchelor, 1985) or, less reliably, the Twayne Wells (by Richard Hauer Costa, revised in 1985). This one does not get. Instead, Draper provides a concise, integrated view of the fiction through 1910--the first 15 years--and then slights the remaining 35 years because, he contends, the later fiction is finally overwhelmed by Wells's sense that apocalypse is itself no fiction. He pursues this thesis with spirit, and about the early writings themselves he has some fresh things to say, coming out of an obviously secure and easy familiarity with the field of Wells studies as a whole. However, where others who prefer the early Wells (e.g., Bergonzi, Parrinder, Huntington) simply exclude the later fiction, Draper goes on the attack. He insists, chronologically, that already the second half of Tono-Bungay (1909) betrays "artistic decline" (p. 97); that, progressively, in Wells's later fiction, "mistrust of the imagination cripples these books" (p. 105); and, finally, that "the 1930s may in my judgement be ignored by all but the specialist" (p. 7). Accordingly, he suppresses about 20 of the later novels, and the remaining 8 or 10 get cursory treatment as illustrating that "none of his discursive fictions manages to get its content into a sufficiently illuminating and entertaining perspective to satisfy" (p. 106). Also, though Draper includes a welcome chapter on the later non-fiction, it is exactly two and a half pages long and looks and feels like a sop for selling out the missing novels that have been left to "the specialist." The avowed purpose of the chapter, though, is to suggest that the later non-fiction retains a sense of challenge, of openness to possibilities, which the fiction of the same years forecloses by attempting "to transfer the synthesizing vision of art into the world outside the book" (p. 123).

Of course, it is no crime to prefer the earlier Wells. Few would disagree that the first 15 years saw the major themes embodied in the major fiction, whether short story, scientific romance, utopia, comic novel, or social novel --most of the forms Wells would practice. Working within the early years, Draper's important contribution is his elaboration of quest motifs in both the SF and the comic novels. Following Northrop Frye, he proceeds on the assumption that "the implicit pattern behind any quest plot is the age-old struggle between deliverer and devil" (p. 72); and he labels Wells in adolescence (but equally so thereafter) as "not so much an atheist as an ex-Christian," who was "looking, in other words, for some form of salvation" (p. 13)--even if he pursued it in the SF with the skepticism appropriate in a student of Huxley's. Thus, quest variants link Draper's individual SF readings, and it will suffice in this review simply to consider the two major types--that of the parody messiah and that of Plato's cave--and to leave Draper's parallel exegesis of the comic novels entirely out of account (in them, the "devil" element largely takes the guise of the stupidity and occasional malice of human institutions). Among the short stories, Draper not surprisingly plays favorites with those that lie on the metaphysical borderlands of science and religion, notably "Under the Knife," "The Star," "The Man Who Could Work Miracles," and "The Country of the Blind"; but he accords generous space to all of the book-length SF up through The War in the Air.

The basic quest-motif is that of the parody messiah. First, here are three comical examples. Gabriel's voice in "Under the Knife" cries "Awake!" but then turns into the voice of a deckchair attendant demanding payment. The crew of a lost and drifting German airship, singing Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, pauses in The War in the Air, while its commander speaks out of the heavens to an amazed camp of revivalist Canadian lumberjacks: "Vat id diss blace here galled itself; vat?" (quoted, pp. 26, 68-69). The whole of "The Man Who Could Work Miracles" is a reworking of Fotheringay's messiah-like Midas-gift, which he thankfully renounces. The intent is usually more serious. The parody messiah-figure appears in Nunez, would-be king of the Country of the Blind; in the Angel of The Wonderful Visit, who falls heir to human ills like pain and rage; in the Time Traveler's harrowing of the Morlocks, not saved souls, from hell; and in the actions of Moreau, the Beast Folk's deity. In all these, the parodic element only underscores the quest's necessity in a merely material universe--an urgency "for some form of salvation" so pressing that Wells by 1899 modeled When the Sleeper Wakes, without irony, on the medieval legends of Christ and the Emperor of the Last Days, "the people of the future responding to Graham as a convincing messiah" (p. 62).

The second and related quest motif is Plato's parable of the cave, of the reality that a few daring souls discover beyond it, and of their bedazzled blunderings when they would bring the news back into the world of shadows. Such is the case with Nunez again, accounted as possessed by hallucinations in the valley of the blind; and the motif is inscribed in the names of "Mr. Cave" of "The Crystal Egg" and "Cavor" of The First Men in the Moon, men who are permitted extraterrestrial visions (for which Cavor gives his life). On the other hand, Nunez's world of reality beyond is only our own world, itself Plato's cave, and Nunez no inspired philosopher; and as to the Moon itself, the cave of Selenite science, it may be more benighted than the cave of our mere terrestrial irrationality. Again, the same may be said inversely for the bestial world dimly revealed to the Time Traveler by his matches, symbol of science ("a match that man has just got alight," as Wells had put it in "The Rediscovery of the Unique" [quoted, p. 38]). Yet just as Plato had dreamt that the cave's denizens might be redeemed by the sighted philosopher-king, Wells acknowledges the same hope by envisioning the Grand Lunar, that purely cerebral guardian of the lunar cave, soon to be followed by the soberly conceived New Republicans of Anticipations and Samurai of A Modern Utopia. Thus, by 1899 or 1900 the quest-motif changes value--whether in the guise of the philosopher's cave or of the would-be messiah--losing its ironic edge and moving towards the possibility of actualization, while at the same time it may begin to escape the bounds of art (either into non-fiction or into unacknowledged power fantasy).

The emergent apocalyptic idealism that Draper claims for When the Sleeper Wakes and the later SF he ascribes to the apocalyptic despair of science. In the quest scenario, the role of science is predominantly that of the devil or his proxy. Through the window of science is revealed a "Huxleyite" cosmos inimical to all humane value (p. 29). Scientists themselves in the SF are a suspect lot, from the reckless, destructive Time Traveler and the "repulsively knowing materialist, Dr. Crump" of The Wonderful Visit (p. 22) through all the early work (up till Cavor--by which time science for Wells was becoming the instrument of redemption). Not only are the scientific activists disparaged, so are the mere observers. For Prendick of Moreau, for Kemp of The Invisible Man, or for the narrator of The War of the Worlds--each in his way a smug or value-free scientific observer--"it is the implications of his own world view which are brought so spectacularly to light" by the events he witnesses (p. 50). That is, the scientific outlook is made to be the object, ironically, of the relativism which it turns against religious faith. Then, Draper claims, a reaction sets in: "the very credibility of the view that mankind is the doomed victim of uncontrollable forces demands a counterbalancing utopian view to be spelled out" (p. 47). For example, a food discovered by science creates first giant vermin, then good giants (Food of the Gods) or the exhalations of a heavenly body transform a bestial humanity into the likeness of angels (In the Days of the Comet)--in each case as if a condition of disorder had called up order. However, up until 1900, Draper would contend, the SF escaped this incoherence because its stance was playful and challenging, not dogmatic, and it was still in touch with its own merely fictional status.

For such movement away from art's inner world into the role of world prophet, Draper credits two tendencies in Wells. One was a desire to change the world as it had changed for him in his upward mobility and improved health and prosperity--an urge which, moreover, was part of a shared effort in the Edwardian novel "to advance from the kind of imaginative secession from contemporary reality which had dominated the 1890s to a new position of critical engagement" (p. 59). That was the public, reasoned aspect of Wells's utopianism (that in itself would preclude any Jamesian ideal of fiction). In this regard, the Macmillan dust jacket bears a "Futurist" reproduction, Umberto Boccioni's "The Street Enters the House." (It is unfortunately printed backwards, with artist's name as "Bocciani," and not cited in the book itself, but one assumes that Draper intends it as a reminder that Wells's diagnosis of his own practice at this period--"the splintering frame began to get into the picture" [quoted, p. 98]--was a phenomenon of the times.) The life of the street in Boccione's futurist painting rushes into the house of art, and some incoherence ensues. However, Wells's SF is affected only indirectly by the attempt to incorporate and manipulate the noise of the street as it rushes into the future, whereas such an effort is central to the novels.

The second centripetal tendency, which very much affects the SF, is a closely related one: namely, the lure of fantasies of the "pitilessly benevolent" (quoted [p. 67] from The Shape of Things to Come). In other words, what the non-parodic messiah "who wants to revolutionize the world most needs [is] a revelation" (p. 58), since he will then be possessed of "an ideal that will make killing worth the while" (Anticipations, quoted p. 61). Draper notes the psychology of revelation as early as Bedford's state of dissociation during his return from the Moon, floating, "a cloudy megalomaniac" (quoted, p. 58), like many other souls from "Under the Knife" on. In the earlier SF, such power ploys and fantasies as those of Moreau, the Invisible Man, and the Artilleryman of The War of the Worlds are treated as grotesque. Later, however, they are legitimized. The ideal of the redemption of humanity conceals (from Wells himself most of all) his deployment of crude power fantasies in projects such as the official extermination of the unfit (Anticipations), the benevolent perfecting of humankind through surgery and intrusive medicine (The World Set Free), or the intervention of the cadres of the Samurai (A Modern Utopia). It is not so much the fact of being "highly didactic" that for Draper impoverishes such fantasies as it is the effort (to quote again) "to transfer the synthesizing vision of art into the world outside the book" (pp. 69, 123).

Wells, then, is seen as the victim of a self-deconstructing opposition between devil and deliverer. The poles all too readily reverse, and the devil becomes the redeemer; but above all, Wells forgets that the system itself is a fiction. Draper does overwork this dialectic, so much so as to arouse incredulity when he repeatedly claims that the SF is light entertainment. In any case, this is not one's immediate sense of The Island of Doctor Moreau, for example, let alone of Draper's interpretation of it, where "mankind is the doomed victim of uncontrollable forces," its representatives all satirically discredited (p. 47). In general, his theological bias leads Draper to overstate the contrast between early misgivings and later utopianism, especially misgivings about the outlook and works of science. For instance, in arguing that in the early Wells knowledge of science and technology is "liable to constitute a threat rather than an asset" (p. 29), Draper enlists "The Lord of the Dynamos" as a case in point. Holroyd knows his Carnot's cycle; yet, like the savage he supervises, he falls a literal sacrifice to the machine they both tend. What Draper overlooks, though, is Wells's recovery of normality (typical of his endings), which is specifically achieved by science in the person of "the scientific manager" who sets all to rights again. A worse distortion and diabolizing of Wells's view of science is Draper's characterization of Prendick's outlook as differing from Moreau's "only in its greater passivity and sentimentality" (p. 47). This is with reference to Prendick's final hermit-like withdrawal into the contemplation of "the vast and eternal laws of matter" written in the stars--bodies which likewise attract the unfeeling eyes of Griffin and Kemp in The Invisible Man (as Draper points out, p. 49). However, the emphatic position of the "little stars" ending Prendick's story links them to Nunez's dying vigil once free of the blind or to the Time Traveler, for whom (as Draper himself says, p. 39) the stars "symbolize liberation, as once they did for Wells at Uppark." Moreover, Draper unduly equates the world of light and science in "The Country of the Blind" itself with the valley of the blind: "Although Nunez descends into their world from above, like a visitor from heaven, their valley is situated in the mountains and he has previously had to ascend from a lower world" (p. 14). All the same, our illimitable oceans and skies Wells sets in a contrast to the steep valley of the blind that could not be more deliberate. Though he calls the early Wells "strong in the sense of wonder" (p. 28), Draper's agenda in fact requires minimizing that aspect and emphasizing the skepticism or actual despair that would later drive him into the messianic mode.

Draper compares Wells to first W.B. Yeats and then, in greater detail, to William Blake. This wakes one up, expecting the usual Wells-Henry James exchange that Draper abandons. The Blake discussion typifies this critic's engaging unconventionality and marked bias and may stand as a pattern of his method. Ignoring the facts that Wells and James were contemporaries, neighbors, fellow-novelists, and in the end outspoken mutual critics, Draper seizes on Blake and the single, all-encompassing fact of apocalypse. Other overlap is inconsequential (and unmentioned): that both are Cockneys with haberdashery-drapery connections and that both are self-made if not self-educated. Also, a major opposition is concealed in Draper's unqualified assertion that both Wells and Blake "were quick to absorb modern technology and scientific thought into their vision" (p. 118). So they were. Blake, of course, regarded the laws of Newtonian space as false simulations of those of the inner space of the spirit. His view of the dark satanic mills of industry is even better known. On the other hand, that Wells extended a welcome to science (and in lesser degree to technology) as the engine of change of both inner and outer reality is equally a commonplace. Their one real affinity is their shared "heretical Christian outlook" (p. 119). Both entertain an early vision of a cruel God-the-Father and later develop a vision of God-the-Redeemer; both in their early years cycle in and out of the visionary and the satirical modes; and both actively aspire to bring about change in the world. How shall that quest be pursued? Blake looks to the transforming of inward reality, Wells to the transforming of the external world. For Draper, the first is the way of the artist, the second the way to the betrayal of art; and although we and Wells face the 20th century predicament of a closed material universe which Blake denied, Draper contends that: "Wells falls short of Blake's artistic and spiritual integrity" (p. 121). Yet judging him by Blake's standards is no better than judging him by James's: each of these comparisons rationalizes the dismissal of Wells's later works--and in the process overlooks certain aspects of his early writings.

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