A recent enquirer to the Guardian Notes and Queries column asked
“Which sci-fi author has come closest to predicting the future? Perhaps Isaac Asimov? Aldous Huxley? George Orwell? JG Ballard? Philip K Dick ? Arthur C Clarke?”
Guardian commenters weren’t slow to point out the name most conspicuously missing from that list with reader ‘geot22’ pointing out that
“Guys like Huxley and H.G. Wells’ do it for me. Huxley, spot on, predicted how our, ‘scientific,’ culture would evolve, and all culture with it. Wells’ Time Machine hit lots of sweet spots. My favorite is the bifurcation of man. Whereas we commonly, now, refer to the 99% and the 1%, or 0.1% …, Wells gave us the terms Eloi and Morlock, so vital for us to see our way through today.“
So what else did Wells predict? Moon landings, the second world war, lasers and genetic engineering have all come to pass, time travel, invisibility and alien invasions haven’t so far as we know…
And why are we thinking about Herbert George Wells at the moment? Because 21 September is his 150th birthday and we’re big fans of his books here in Westminster. Plus, he spent the last decades of his life living in Marylebone, first at 47 Chiltern Court, next to Baker Street Station and then at 13 Hanover Terrace just by Regents Park (where his windows were shattered in an air-raid).
So which Wells should you read? Well, if you’re in any way a science fiction fan, The War of the Worlds is essential. It’s one of the first stories of alien invasion, this time in the homely surrounds of Surrey and South London, and contains some unforgettable images of the invading Martians and London, empty and silent after the population have fled. There have been several film versions and those of us of a certain age grew up with Jeff Wayne’s concept album, but the most famous adaptation is undoubtedly Orson Welles’ 1938 radio play which allegedly caused panic throughout America.
You can listen to it below and judge for yourself how frightening it is:
You can also find out what Wells himself thought, in this conversation between Wells and Welles:
Or perhaps you might prefer The Time Machine with its futuristic story of the feeble luxury-loving Eloi, evolved from the leisured classes, and brutal light-fearing Morlocks, once the workers. If you’ve never seen the 1960 film adaptation with Rod Taylor, you’re in for a treat. Another favourite is The Man Who Could Work Miracles, a short story within The Country of the Blind, and Other Stories (read it online here), about an office clerk who finds he has magical powers.
Science fiction is all very well, but Wells really deserves to be known for his social realism too. The History of Mr Polly and Kipps (soon to be seen in the West End as the musical Half a Sixpence), both of which draw on Wells’ unhappy experience as a draper’s assistant, are probably his best known novels but the lesser known ones offer their own charms. A particular favourite is The Dream, which combines both Utopian fantasy and harsh realism as a man from the future tells his friends of his dream of being a publisher’s clerk who becomes a soldier in World War I.
There are plenty of places to find out more about Wells’ long life and career. Your first port of call should be the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log in with your Westminster library card) but having had your appetite whetted you may well want a full biography – there are many to be found in Westminster Libraries. Or you may wish to try David Lodge’s novel A Man of Parts which focuses on Wells’ many affairs.
Whether you commemorate Wells’ sesquicentennial with a book, a film or a radio play you cannot fail to be amazed at the extraordinary range of his works. Whatever you choose, you’re in for a treat.