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Biography of H.G. Wells (1866-1946)

H.G. Wells H.G. Wells

Alongside Frenchman Jules Verne, Herbert George (H.G.) Wells is known as one of the founding fathers of science fiction--a label he always resisted. Instead, he called his works "scientific romances," stressing their concrete humanity and de-emphasizing the abstract ideas at play. A prolific and political journalist as well, the outspoken, larger-than-life figure is still best known for a string of books written at the beginning of his career that toy with ideas of humanity gone fantastically, scientifically awry.

Wells was born into poverty in Britain on September 21, 1866, and he was not shy about glorifying his lower-class beginnings. He later won a scholarship to what is now part of the Imperial College of Science and Technology, where he studied under T.H. Huxley, the esteemed Darwinist. His early exposure to poverty, however, would mark him for the rest of his days; nearly a lifelong socialist, Wells believed that modern civilization, with its profound capitalist class divisions, was doomed, and that communist ideals were the remedy.

Before the advent of his later works, Wells cultivated his literary potential as both student and educator. While studying under Huxley, he started a college magazine he dubbed the Science Schools Journal. He found the laboratories and details of his classes dull and tiresome, however, and left the university in the summer to become science master at a small private school. During this period he edited the University Correspondent, wrote for the Educational Times, and published "The Rediscovery of the Unique" as a philosophical essay in the Fortnightly Review. He soon became very popular for his humorous essays and short stories, and as the magazine serial genre grew more common, he began writing the science fiction that would later become his trademark.

Wells's first novel, The Time Machine (1895), was written to relieve his poverty. It serves as a harsh critique of capitalism. In the novel, a man travels to the future and finds a nightmarish dystopia in which two distinct species have evolved from the ruling and working classes. The novel struck a chord with Victorian England, a heavily industrialized country of Haves and Have-Nots, and it became a success. Wells followed with The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War Between the Worlds (1898). All were hits that solidified Wells's place in the science-fiction canon. In The War Between the Worlds, the description of a Martian invasion of Earth was so terrifying that when it was adapted as a radio play in 1938 by Orson Welles as a "real" emergency broadcast, it sent thousands of listeners into a panic.

Wells soon turned his attention to inflammatory and often contradictory politics. He preached socialism whenever he could, though he later rejected it; he stood for women's rights while he cheated on his wives; he was a staunch supporter of World War I, calling it "The War That Will End War," but after World War II found the war-ravaged world he departed in 1946 more horrifying than any of his fictions. Wells became as major a player in the political landscape as a writer could become. A personal acquaintance of world leaders including Winston Churchill, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and others, he was unabashed in their presence, earning their respect or enmity as circumstances warranted.

Wells also found his share of admirers and detractors in the literary world. He had something of a love-hate relationship with the American writer Henry James. Each recognized great potential in the other, but they wrote cutting letters back and forth for twenty years criticizing each other's technique and ideas. Other writers more concerned with the emotional, interior lives of their characters, such as Virginia Woolf, proclaimed Wells their literary antithesis. Still, Wells was a beloved figure for those who shared his resentment over class issues and those who respected his work in forming the twentieth century's version of the "novel of ideas," works driven by intellectual concerns.

By most accounts, Wells's career sank after 1920. Critics accused him of metamorphosing into a full-fledged propagandist, the "novel of ideas" ran out of steam, and his belligerence surely did not win him many friends. But another cause of Wells's downfall was his increasing disillusionment with the world. As it fast approached the dystopian worlds he forecast in his fiction, Wells had no recourse but to turn to nonfiction to provide answers. He produced the nonfiction work The Outline of History to much acclaim in 1920, but his increasingly utopian works afterward lost credibility with critics and everyday readers alike. Nevertheless, Wells remains a titan in the world of science fiction. The 2002 film adaptation (one of several) of The Time Machine reaffirms his status as a peerless seer of the combination of the fantastic and the political.

Study Guides on Works by H.G. Wells