The Invisible Man: The Life and Liberties of H. G. Wells
By Michael Coren
Bloomsbury, 1994. 240 pp., $16.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon
H.G. Wells, author of best-selling science fiction novels, was not much taken with Vladimir Lenin: "a rotten little incessant egotistical intriguer. He ... ought to be killed by some moral sanitary authority." Lenin, who met Wells in 1920, was, for his part, singularly unimpressed: "Ugh! Ugh! What a petit-bourgeois! What a philistine!"
As Michael Coren relates in his biography of Wells, the urgings that attracted Wells to a vision of a world "free of war, pestilence and malaise, famine and poverty", and which led him to an audience with Lenin, were continually swamped by his elitist contempt for the masses and democracy. Coren concludes that Wells has been held in unwarranted esteem and that his influence, on balance, has been "pernicious and destructive".
Coren marshals most of the evidence against Wells, who was born in 1866 in Kent, escaping a "servitude to drapery" through his love of literature and ability with the written word. He was involved in reformist socialist groups, joining, in 1903, the Fabian Society, those believers in a gradual evolution to a statist "socialism" under the elitist guiding hand of educated professionals like themselves.
Wells' early science fiction novels explored social and political questions from a middle-class quasi-socialist perspective. The Time Machine was an indictment of class rule and The War of the Worlds a critique of imperialism, inviting those who condemned the Martians' warring spirit to look at our own "ruthless and utter destruction" of peoples such as the Tasmanian Aborigines.
But the "socialist" in Wells was the warped specimen of what Trotsky, writing on Wells, called the typical "English drawing-room socialist ... a rather conservative Englishman of imperialist habits". Tasmanian Aborigines were "in spite of their human likeness" an example of "the inferior races", who with the unemployed, homeless, disabled and other "weak and silly and pointless things", should be cleansed from society.
Some, like the "swarm of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people" would have to be killed; other undesirables and malcontents would be prevented from breeding, incarcerated on islands patrolled by armed guards and otherwise denied any political rights — "whole masses of human population ... cannot be trusted with power", wrote Wells, for whom the rulers would be, in the words of his illegitimate son, a "puritan tyranny of technicians and scientists".
Wells' fantasies and predictions about future authoritarian regimes of the educated classes were marked by a lurking tension between a warning of what could happen (e.g. fascism) if we were not careful and an advocacy of what he believed necessary and beneficial to society. His popular The Outline of History was based on the conservative principle of inevitable political control by ruling elites in all societies, and he was supportive of this providing that the right elite — not the fascists but people like himself — was in power.
Wells' other political positions were coloured by a similar opportunist temper. He was a militant atheist (Roman Catholic bishops preached against Wells during his tour of Australia in 1938), and he challenged religion in the name of science, once goading the Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc to fiercely attack him over the theory of evolution.
Yet much of Wells' vehemence against the Catholic Church was based on the church's opposition to birth control — not, for the Malthusian Wells, on the grounds of women's right to control their own fertility but because the church's policy contributed to population growth in which the "superior people" were overrun by the "fecundity of the inferior masses".
Wells' advocacy of a "confederated system of socialist republics" was to be achieved by such wacky means as patriotic support of England during the first world war and the ushering in of elite rule from the resulting human destruction.
Occasional literary effusions of support for women's rights were negated in practice by Wells' exploitative and uncaring attitude to his wives and mistresses.
Wells died in 1946, leaving behind an enormous quantity of written work. Much of it demonstrates his artistic capability and some of it his sincere desire to rid the world of its distressing evils, but his assumptions of class elitism and political change from above by the "enlightened" remorselessly led Wells to profoundly anti-democratic visions and strategies which lent credibility to the worst horrors of fascism and other tyrannies.
The numberless friends of Wells' fiction attested to his popularity, but he can not be numbered amongst the best friends of his popular audience. It was true of Wells and Lenin that, as Wells wrote, their "minds were tuned in different keys".
The science fiction writer who would undertake radically brutal social engineering to achieve an anti-democratic utopia was on another planet from Lenin and other "tiresome class-war fanatics" who continue to trust to Wells' inferior masses to author their own future in a world of "beauty and harmony" that Wells longed for but whose almost every word and deed denied.