Herbert George Wells (21 September 1866 – 13 August 1946) was an English author, best known for his work in the science fiction genre. He was also a prolific writer in many genres, including contemporary novels, history, politics and social commentary.
Together with Jules Verne, Wells has been referred to as "The Father of Science Fiction".
Wells was an outspoken socialist and very sympathetic to technocracy and pacifist views, although he supported the First World War once it was under way, and his later works became increasingly political and didactic. His middle period novels (1900-1920) were more realistic; they covered lower-middle class life (The History of Mr Polly) and the 'New Woman' and the Suffragettes (Ann Veronica).
Herbert George Wells was born at Atlas House, 47 High Street, Bromley, in the county of Kent, on 21 September, 1866. Called "Bertie" in the family, he was the fourth and last child of Joseph Wells (a former domestic gardener, and at the time a shopkeeper and amateur cricketer) and his wife Sarah Neal (a former domestic servant). The family was of the impoverished lower middle class. An inheritance had allowed them to purchase a shop in which they sold china and sporting goods, although it was never prosperous: the stock was old and worn out, and the location was poor. They managed to earn a meagre income, but little of it came from the shop; Joseph received an unsteady amount of money from playing professional cricket for the Kent county team. Payment for skilled bowlers and batsmen came from voluntary donations afterwards, or from small payments from the clubs where matches were played.
A defining incident of young Wells's life was an accident he had in 1874, which left him bedridden with a broken leg. To pass the time he started reading books from the local library, brought to him by his father. He soon became devoted to the other worlds and lives to which books gave him access; they also stimulated his desire to write. Later that year he entered Thomas Morley's Commercial Academy, a private school founded in 1849 following the bankruptcy of Morley's earlier school. The teaching was erratic, the curriculum mostly focused, Wells later said, on producing copperplate handwriting and doing the sort of sums useful to tradesmen. Wells continued at Morley's Academy until 1880. In 1877, his father, Joseph Wells, fractured his thigh. The accident effectively put an end to Joseph's career as a cricketer, and his earnings as a shopkeeper were not enough to compensate for the loss.
No longer able to support themselves financially, the family instead sought to place their boys as apprentices to various occupations. From 1880 to 1883, Wells had an unhappy apprenticeship as a draper at the Southsea Drapery Emporium: Hyde's. His experiences were later used as inspiration for his novels The Wheels of Chance and Kipps, which describe the life of a draper's apprentice as well as being critiques of the world's distribution of wealth.
Wells's mother and father had never got along with one another particularly well (she was a Protestant, he a freethinker), and when she went back to work as a lady's maid (at Uppark, a country house in Sussex) one of the conditions of work was that she would not have space for her husband or children. Thereafter, she and Joseph lived separate lives, though they never divorced and neither ever developed any other liaison. As for Wells, he not only failed at being a draper, he also failed as a chemist's assistant, and after each failure, he would arrive at Uppark — "the bad shilling back again!" as he said — and stay there until a fresh start could be arranged for him. Fortunately for Wells, Uppark had a magnificent library in which he immersed himself, reading many classic works, including Plato's Republic, and More's Utopia.
In October 1879 Wells's mother arranged for him to join the National School at Wookey in Somerset as a pupil tutor, where a distant relative, Arthur Williams, had recently been appointed head teacher. In December that year, however, Williams, whose previous experience as a teacher had been in the West Indies, was dismissed for irregularities in his qualifications and Wells was returned to Uppark. After a short apprenticeship at a chemist in nearby Midhurst, and an even shorter stay as a boarder at Midhurst Grammar School, he signed his apprenticeship papers at Hyde's. In 1883 Wells persuaded his parents to release him from the apprenticeship, taking an opportunity again to become a pupil and pupil teacher, at Midhurst Grammar School where his proficiency in Latin and science while a student was remembered. The years in Southsea had been the most miserable of his life thus far, but his good fortune at securing a position at Midhurst Grammar School meant that Wells could continue his self-education in earnest. The following year, Wells won a scholarship to the Normal School of Science (later the Royal College of Science in South Kensington, now part of Imperial College London) in London, studying biology under Thomas Henry Huxley. As an alumnus, he later helped to set up the Royal College of Science Association, of which he became the first president in 1909. Wells studied in his new school until 1887 with a weekly allowance of twenty-one shillings (a guinea) thanks to his scholarship. This ought to have been a comfortable sum of money (at the time many working class families had "round about a pound a week" as their entire household income) yet in his Experiment in Autobiography, Wells speaks of constantly being hungry, and indeed, photographs of him at the time show a youth so thin as to be virtually starving.
He soon entered the Debating Society of the school. These years mark the beginning of his interest in a possible reformation of society. At first approaching the subject through The Republic by Plato, he soon turned to contemporary ideas of socialism as expressed by the recently formed Fabian Society and free lectures delivered at Kelmscott House, the home of William Morris. He was also among the founders of The Science School Journal, a school magazine which allowed him to express his views on literature and society, as well as trying his hand at fiction: the first version of his novel The Time Machine was published in the journal under the title, The Chronic Argonauts. The school year 1886-1887 was the last year of his studies. In spite of having previously successfully passed his exams in both biology and physics, his lack of interest in geology resulted in his failure to pass and the loss of his scholarship. It was not until 1890 that Wells earned a Bachelor of Science degree in zoology from the University of London External Programme.
Upon leaving the Normal School of Science, Wells was left without a source of income. His aunt Mary, a cousin of his father, invited him to stay with her for a while, so at least he did not face the problem of housing. During his stay with his aunt, he grew interested in her daughter, Isabel. In 1889-90 he managed to find a post as a teacher at Henley House School where he taught and admired A. A. Milne.
In 1891 Wells married his cousin Isabel Mary Wells, but left her in 1894 for one of his students, Amy Catherine Robbins, whom he married in 1895. He had two sons with Amy: George Philip (known as 'Gip') in 1901 and Frank Richard in 1903.
During his marriage to Amy, Wells had liaisons with a number of women, including the American birth-control activist Margaret Sanger and novelist Elizabeth von Arnim. In 1909 he had a daughter, Anna-Jane, with the writer Amber Reeves, whose parents, William and Maud Pember Reeves, he had met through the Fabian Society; and in 1914, a son, Anthony West, by the novelist and feminist Rebecca West, twenty-six years his junior. In spite of Amy Catherine's knowledge of some of these affairs, she remained married to Wells until her death in 1927. Wells also had liaisons with Odette Keun and Moura Budberg.
"I was never a great amorist," Wells wrote in Experiment in Autobiography (1934), "though I have loved several people very deeply."
As one method of self-expression, Wells tended to sketch a lot. One common location for these sketches was the endpapers and title pages of his own diaries, and they covered a wide variety of topics, from political commentary to his feelings toward his literary contemporaries and his current romantic interests. During his marriage to Amy Catherine, whom he nicknamed Jane, he sketched a considerable number of pictures, many of them being overt comments on their marriage. It was during this period, and this period only, that he called his sketches "picshuas." These picshuas have been the topic of study by Wells scholars for many years, and recently a book was published on the subject.
Seeking a more structured way to play war games, Wells also wrote Floor Games (1911) followed by Little Wars (1913). Little Wars is recognised today as the first recreational wargame and Wells is regarded by gamers and hobbyists as "the Father of Miniature War Gaming."
Wells's first non-fiction bestseller was Anticipations (1901). When originally serialised in a magazine it was subtitled, "An Experiment in Prophecy", and is considered his most explicitly futuristic work. Anticipating what the world would be like in the year 2000, the book is interesting both for its hits (trains and cars resulting in the dispersion of population from cities to suburbs; moral restrictions declining as men and women seek greater sexual freedom; the defeat of German militarism, and the existence of a European Union) and its misses (he did not expect successful aircraft before 1950, and averred that "my imagination refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocate its crew and founder at sea").
His early novels, called "scientific romances", invented a number of themes now classic in science fiction in such works as The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, When the Sleeper Wakes, and The First Men in the Moon. He also wrote other, non-fantastic novels that have received critical acclaim including Kipps and the satire on Edwardian advertising, Tono-Bungay.
Wells wrote several dozen short stories and novellas, the best known of which is "The Country of the Blind" (1904). His short story "The New Accelerator" was the inspiration for the Star Trek episode Wink of an Eye.
Though Tono-Bungay was not a science-fiction novel, radioactive decay plays a small but consequential role in it. Radioactive decay plays a much larger role in The World Set Free (1914). This book contains what is surely his biggest prophetic "hit." Scientists of the day were well aware that the natural decay of radium releases energy at a slow rate over thousands of years. The rate of release is too slow to have practical utility, but the total amount released is huge. Wells' novel revolves around an (unspecified) invention that accelerates the process of radioactive decay, producing bombs that explode with no more than the force of ordinary high explosive— but which "continue to explode" for days on end. "Nothing could have been more obvious to the people of the earlier twentieth century," he wrote, "than the rapidity with which war was becoming impossible... [but] they did not see it until the atomic bombs burst in their fumbling hands." Leó Szilárd acknowledged that the book inspired him to theorise the nuclear chain reaction.
Wells also wrote nonfiction. His bestselling two-volume work, The Outline of History (1920), began a new era of popularised world history. It received a mixed critical response from professional historians. Many other authors followed with 'Outlines' of their own in other subjects. Wells reprised his Outline in 1922 with a much shorter popular work, A Short History of the World, and two long efforts, The Science of Life (1930) and The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind (1931). The 'Outlines' became sufficiently common for James Thurber to parody the trend in his humorous essay, "An Outline of Scientists" — indeed, Wells's Outline of History remains in print with a new 2005 edition, while A Short History of the World has been recently reedited (2006).
From quite early in his career, he sought a better way to organise society, and wrote a number of Utopian novels. The first of these was A Modern Utopia (1905), which shows a worldwide utopia with "no imports but meteorites, and no exports at all"; two travellers from our world fall into its alternate history. The others usually begin with the world rushing to catastrophe, until people realise a better way of living: whether by mysterious gases from a comet causing people to behave rationally and abandoning a European war (In the Days of the Comet (1906)), or a world council of scientists taking over, as in The Shape of Things to Come (1933, which he later adapted for the 1936 Alexander Korda film, Things to Come). This depicted, all too accurately, the impending World War, with cities being destroyed by aerial bombs. He also portrayed the rise of fascist dictators in The Autocracy of Mr Parham (1930) and The Holy Terror (1939), though in the former novel, the tale is revealed at the end to have been Mr Parham's dream vision.
Wells contemplates the ideas of nature versus nurture and questions humanity in books such as The Island of Doctor Moreau. Not all his scientific romances ended in a happy Utopia, and in fact, Wells also wrote the first dystopia novel, When the Sleeper Wakes (1899, rewritten as The Sleeper Awakes, 1910), which pictures a future society where the classes have become more and more separated, leading to a revolt of the masses against the rulers. The Island of Doctor Moreau is even darker. The narrator, having been trapped on an island of animals vivisected (unsuccessfully) into human beings, eventually returns to England; like Gulliver on his return from the Houyhnhnms, he finds himself unable to shake off the perceptions of his fellow humans as barely civilised beasts, slowly reverting back to their animal natures.
Wells also wrote the preface for the first edition of W. N. P. Barbellion's diaries, The Journal of a Disappointed Man, published in 1919. Since "Barbellion" was the real author's pen name, many reviewers believed Wells to have been the true author of the Journal; Wells always denied this, despite being full of praise for the diaries, but the rumours persisted until Barbellion's death later that year.
In 1927, Florence Deeks sued Wells for plagiarism, claiming that he had stolen much of the content of The Outline of History from a work, The Web, she had submitted to the Canadian Macmillan Company, but who held onto the manuscript for eight months before rejecting it. Despite numerous similarities in phrasing and factual errors, the court found Wells not guilty.
In 1934, Wells predicted that the world war he had described in The Shape of Things to Come would begin in 1940, a prediction which ultimately came true one year early.
In 1936, before the Royal Institution, Wells called for the compilation of a constantly growing and changing World Encyclopedia, to be reviewed by outstanding authorities and made accessible to every human being. In 1938, he published a collection of essays on the future organisation of knowledge and education, World Brain, including the essay, "The Idea of a Permanent World Encyclopaedia."
Near the end of the second World War, Allied forces discovered that the SS had compiled lists of intellectuals and politicians slated for immediate execution upon the invasion of England in the abandoned Operation Sea Lion. The name "H. G. Wells" appeared high on the list for the crime of being a socialist. Wells, as president of the International PEN (Poets, Essayists, Novelists), had already angered the Nazis by overseeing the expulsion of the German PEN club from the international body in 1934 following the German PEN's refusal to admit non-Aryan writers to its membership.
Wells called his political views socialist. He was for a time a member of the socialist Fabian Society, but broke with them as he intended them to be an organization far more radical than they wanted. He later grew staunchly critical of them as having a poor understanding of economics and educational reform. He ran as a Labour Party candidate for London University in the 1922 and 1923 general elections after the death of his friend W. H. R. Rivers, but at that point his faith in the party was weak or uncertain.
His most consistent political ideal was the World State. He stated in his autobiography that from 1900 onward he considered a World State inevitable. He envisioned the state to be a planned society that will advance science, end nationalism, and allow people to advance by merit rather than birth. During his work on the League of Nations charter, he opposed any mention of democracy. He feared the average citizen could never be educated or aware enough to decide major world issues. Therefore, he favoured suffrage to be limited to scientists, organisers, engineers, and others of merit, though he believed citizens should have as much freedom as possible without restricting the freedom of others.
In his book "In the fourth year" published in 1918 he explained why he supported Britain in the war against Germany, but was also aware of the crimes of British and French imperialism.
His values and political thinking came under increasing criticism from the 1920s and afterwards.
Lenin's attempts at reconstructing the shattered Russian economy, as his account of a visit (Russia in the Shadows; 1920) shows, also related towards that. This is because at first he believed Lenin might lead to the kind of planned world he envisioned. Despite being a strongly anti-Marxist socialist who would later state that it would have been better if Karl Marx had never been born.
The leadership of Joseph Stalin led to a change in his view of the Soviet Union even though his initial impression of Stalin himself was mixed. He disliked what he saw as a narrow orthodoxy and obdurance to the facts in Stalin. However he did give him some praise saying in an article in the left-leaning New Statesman magazine, "I have never met a man more fair, candid, and honest" and making it clear that he felt the "sinister" image of Stalin was unfair or simply false. Nevertheless he judged Stalin's rule to be far too rigid, restrictive of independent thought, and blinkered to lead toward the Cosmopolis he hoped for.
Wells believed in the theory of eugenics. In 1904 he discussed a survey paper by Francis Galton, co-founder of eugenics, saying "I believe .. It is in the sterilisation of failure, and not in the selection of successes for breeding, that the possibility of an improvement of the human stock lies." Some contemporary supporters even suggested connections between the "degenerate" man-creatures portrayed in The Time Machine and Wells's eugenic beliefs. For example, the economist Irving Fisher said in a 1912 address to the Eugenics Research Association: "The Nordic race will... vanish or lose its dominance if, in fact, the whole human race does not sink so low as to become the prey, as H. G. Wells images, of some less degenerate animal!"
Wells had given some moderate unenthusiastic support for Territorialism before the First World War, but later became a bitter opponent of the Zionist movement in general. He saw Zionism as an exclusive and separatist movement which challenged the collective solidarity he advocated in his vision of a world state. No supporter of Jewish identity in general, Wells had in his utopian writings predicted the ultimate assimilation of Jewry.
Wells brought his interest in Art & Design and politics together when he and other notables signed a memorandum to the Permanent Secretaries of the Board of Trade, amongst others. The November 1914 memorandum expressed the signatories concerns about British industrial design in the face of foreign competition. The suggestions were accepted, leading to the foundation of the Design and Industries Association.
In the end his contemporary political impact was limited. His efforts regarding the League of Nations became a disappointment as the organisation turned out to be a weak one unable to prevent World War II. The war itself increased the pessimistic side of his nature. In his last book Mind at the End of its Tether (1945) he considered the idea that humanity being replaced by another species might not be a bad idea. He also came to call the era "The age of frustration."
Wells wrote in his book God The Invisible King that his idea of God did not draw upon the traditional religions of the world: "This book sets out as forcibly and exactly as possible the religious belief of the writer. [Which] is a profound belief in a personal and intimate God." Later in the work he aligns himself with a "renascent or modern religion...neither atheist nor Buddhist nor Mohammedan nor Christian...[that] he has found growing up in himself." 
Of Christianity he has this to say: "…it is not now true for me. … Every believing Christian is, I am sure, my spiritual brother … but if systemically I called myself a Christian I feel that to most men I should imply too much and so tell a lie." Of other world religions he writes: "All these religions are true for me as Canterbury Cathedral is a true thing and as a Swiss chalet is a true thing. There they are, and they have served a purpose, they have worked. Only they are not true for me to live in them. … They do not work for me."
He spent his final years venting his frustration at various targets which included a neighbour who erected a large sign to a servicemen's club. As he devoted his final decades toward causes which were largely rejected by contemporaries, his literary reputation declined. One critic said, "Mr. Wells is a born storyteller who has sold his birthright for a pot of message."
Wells was a diabetic and a co-founder in 1934 of what is now Diabetes UK, the leading charity for people living with diabetes in the UK.
He died of unspecified causes on 13 August 1946 at his home at 13 Hanover Terrace, Regent's Park, London. Some reports indicate the cause of death was diabetes or liver cancer. In his preface to the 1941 edition of The War in the Air, Wells had stated that his epitaph should be: "I told you so. You damned fools." but his wish was not granted as he was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium on 16 August 1946 and his ashes were later scattered at sea. A commemorative blue plaque in his honour was installed at his home in Regent's Park.
In his lifetime and after his death, Wells was considered a prominent socialist thinker, but he also adopted the ideas of the Technocracy movement. Wells's image has shifted and he is now regarded as one of the pioneers of science fiction. Out of America's fascination with technology came a movement known as Technocracy. Technocracy held that all politics and all economic arrangements based on the "Price system" (i.e., based on traditional economic theory) were antiquated and that the only hope of building a successful modern world was to let engineers and other technology experts run things on engineering principles. Technocracy counted among its admirers H.G. Wells
H. G. Wells has been portrayed in a number of novels and films, including:
Anticipations of the reaction of mechanical and scientific progress upon human life and thought (1902) Harper & Brothers New York and London
Sources - collections
Sources - letters, essays and interviews
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