- The Time Machine (1895)
- The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896)
- The Invisible Man (1897)
- The War of the Worlds (1898)
- When the Sleeper Wakes (1899)
- The First Men in the Moon (1901)
Time travel, evolutionary manipulation, morose fantasy, interplanetary warfare, lunar exploration, and futuristic dystopia—Wells covered it all, forging new genres and inspiring literary memes for a century to come.
Beyond cutting edge, imaginative stories, Wells’ books say something. I’ve touched on his project in my two-part series War of the Worldviews (here and here). And although C.S. Lewis and H.G. Wells clashed in their spiritual perspectives, they were both culture critics. Sometimes Wells’ critique is overt, like the evolutionary perspective in The War of the Worlds. Here we see the narrator book-ended the scientific romance with this classic words:
“By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers; it would still be his were the Martians ten times as mighty as they are. For neither do men live nor die in vain” (191).
Other times, the critique is layered deeper within a genuine narrative—powerful ideas in the form of a good story. It isn’t difficult to see the critique of colonial imperialism in The War of the Worlds, and that theme develops through his work. The Island of Doctor Moreau and his first novella, The Time Machine both consider the implications of racial and cultural superiority. While they are intriguing narratives, they are also thought experiments on what it means to be human in the modern world.
In his turn of the century thriller, The First Men in the Moon, Wells draws the reader to a startling conclusion. At the beginning of the SciFi classic, Cavor, the scientist, completely disregards the goals of money, fame, collegial consideration, ecology, and even human life when compared with the value of scientific discovery. But as all his scientific dreams come true, and as he plays out the adventure that follows in the craters of the moon, Cavor finds that his mind has changed about his scientific research, about his “secret”:
“[Cavor] stood with his hands clasped behind his back, staring across the crater. At last he signed and spoke. “It was I found the way here, but to find a way isn’t always to be master of a way. If I take my secret back to earth, what will happen? I do not see how I can keep my secret for a year, for even a part of a year. Sooner or later it must come out, even if other men rediscover it. And then … Governments and powers will struggle to get hither, they will fight against one another, and against these moon people; it will only spread warfare and multiply the occasions of war. In a little while, in a very little while, if I tell my secret, this planet to its deepest galleries will be strewn with human dead. Other things are doubtful, but that is certain. It is not as though man had any use for the moon. What good would the moon be to men? Even of their own planet what have they made but a battle-ground and theatre of infinite folly? Small as his world is, and short as his time, he has still in his little life down there far more than he can do. No! Science has toiled too long forging weapons for fools to use. It is time she held her hand. Let him find it out for himself again–in a thousand years’ time.”
In an age of scientific optimism it is a chilling note of caution. As the world tumbled into the first war of great machines, his words must have haunted many readers. And then, a generation later, as the second great war closed with the split of the atom and the burning of Japanese villages, his words, now in paperback, are positively prophetic. My childhood memory is formed by the cold war; my child’s memory will be formed by our ethical questions of health and ecology.
Science, divorced from ethics and the human struggle, will always devolve into “a battle-ground and theatre of infinite folly.” After all, to find a way isn’t always to be master of a way.