While readers love H.G. Wells for his novels about alien invasions and time machines, he was once far better known for his social criticisms. As a socialist progressive and a great believer in science in the late 1800s, he often wrote with the intention of sharing his visions for a better, more peaceful society. These visions—whether presented in his fiction or nonfiction—argued for a future in which there was a code of ethics but no individual property rights. These works were widely read and respected, but Wells's sci-fi is ultimately what stood the test of time.
That's not exactly a tragedy. Most writers would be lucky to stay relevant 70 years after their death (old Herbert George made his earthly exit back in 1946). But it’s curious that Wells, once so celebrated for his social critiques, earned a reputation for novels like The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds (1898). Perhaps his ongoing popularity is also indicative of his influence on science fiction—and the genre’s own unique power.
Science fiction works like all literature: It tells a story, which sometimes informs us of something broader about life, ourselves, or our society. But more so than other genres, science fiction is largely concerned with placing that story (and teaching those lessons) within a unique setting. And usually, that’s years into the future.
Wells himself was a futurist, and he used sci-fi to open people's eyes and minds to new ways of thinking: He introduced early concepts of time machines, nuclear weapons, and airplanes. The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896)—a novel about a scientist who breeds human-beast hybrids—was passionately against animal cruelty. The War of the Worlds, according to one interpretation, is a perfect example of “invasion literature”—a story that depicts England's inferiority to foreign conquerers (and thus, reflected British imperialism and/or Wells' pre-World War I anxieties). Meanwhile, other readers see the novel as an exploration of social Darwinism, a relatively new theory at the time of its publication.
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What made these books so successful was, in part, their revolutionary ideas. But Wells' brand of sci-fi was also unique in its realism: By grounding his stories in recognizable realities, the impossible seemed not only possible but probable. This approach evolved into the official “Wells’ Law” of science fiction, which asks that only one plot element require the audience to suspend their disbelief. Once subjected to familiar constraints and settings, these singular, outlandish elements—e.g. time travel, alien invasion, or invisibiity—seemed much more immediate, and worth consideration.
This is how Wells' fictional visions of the future became more widely celebrated. The entertainment value of his science fiction books—combined with their ability to teach, predict, and reflect the real world—made them more memorable than the his social commentaries (though you should read them, too, of course; just don’t expect any Tom Cruise adaptations). Even today, 21st-century readers can find some food for thought, and draw lessons from, the universes Wells created.
H.G. Wells is widely considered to be "the father of science fiction," and few can compete with his claim to the honor. He didn't just invent new concepts, he also shaped the genre itself. As a result, his books are often as prescient as they are exciting, as fun as they are important—and that’s what the best science fiction is all about.
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Featured photo of H.G. Wells: Alchetron