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Steven McLean. The Early Fiction of H.G. Wells: Fantasies of Science

Keith Williams
p. 243-246
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Steven McLean. The Early Fiction of H.G. Wells: Fantasies of Science. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 242 p.ISBN: 978-0230535626

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1It comes as no surprise that this eloquent, rigorous and enlightening study was short listed as potential book of the year 2010 by the British Society for Literature and Science. It derives from the PhD research of a very promising young scholar and former secretary of the H.G. Wells Society, who has already made a significant contribution to the field by editing the collection H.G. Wells: Interdisciplinary Essays (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2009). McLean starts from the premise that traditional reading of Wells’s early scientific romances—primarily as templates for the foundational themes and tropes of modern SF—undervalues their topical saturation by the interlinking scientific, social and philosophic debates of the 1890s and 1900s. McLean aims to re-orientate serious criticism by examining “how [Wells’s] journalistic speculations begin to reveal the full extent to which his scientific romances are immersed in the discourses of the contemporary sciences”(2).

2He conducts this project through painstakingly historicising each novel’s detailed connections with running arguments waged through the volumes of the time, but also, and most especially, in the periodicals which also published many of Wells’s own fiction and non-fiction writings. Paying attention to the specific context in which they appeared is crucial to understanding their value as dialogic responses, because these periodicals dedicated so much space to science in general, informing Wells’s work as the epitome of a symptomatic new genre—the scientific romance. Hence Wells’s own early article in Nature, “Popularising Science” (1894) bore its most practical literary fruits in the “middlebrow” magazines addressing a new mass audience intellectually enfranchised by the 1870 Education Act and fascinated by how science might remodel their world, for better or worse. Considerations of Wells’s responses to major figures such as T.H. Huxley, Herbert Spencer, Francis Galton and John Stuart Mill permeate McLean’s book, though alongside a host of others largely faded from view outside specialist intellectual histories—Ray Lankester, Ernst Haeckel, Richard Garner, Percy Lubbock, etc. McLean carefully sifts both detailed correspondences and divergences between their work and Wells’s, acknowledging debts to preceding researchers, but also advancing more integrated and extensive connections.McLean’s study falls into a logical tri-partite structure which describes Wells’s own intellectual progress towards his project of a unified “World State”: “Misadventures in a Post-Darwinian Universe”; “Science and Society”; “Towards the Shaping of Humanity”. The first part considers The Time Machine (1895) and The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) in the febrile matrix of contemporary discourse about evolution, zoological retrogression and manifold anxieties about “degeneration”—genetic, moral, intellectual and cultural. His discussion of The Time Machine reveals how much Wells extrapolated from key writings on adaptation such as Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics in projecting the dire biological consequences of the unreformed socio-economic conditions of the Victorian industrial system as the “posthuman” Morlocks of his remote future. Conversely, Wells also satirised intellectual flaws in eugenic breeding programmes for social élites, advocated by Galton and others, through the parasitic degeneration ironically implicit in the inherited characteristics of the Morlocks’ ancestral superiors and present day victims, the Eloi. Nevertheless, in a nuanced way, McLean concludes that The Time Machine is anti-Huxley, because in the final analysis, it suggests that, alongside humane checks and balances against Darwin’s “cosmic process” (as Huxley termed it), preserving an element of competitive challenge is necessary for the continued intellectual and organic vitality of the species, especially because of the synthetic environment humans create and which consequently recreates them. Hence essays such as Wells’s own “Human Evolution, an Artificial Process” (1896) provide McLean with an appropriate segue into his vivisective fable about the slender contingencies making and keeping us human, The Island of Dr Moreau. This cautions against glib optimism sponsored by anthropocentric readings of evolution, especially those laden with presumptions about “natural” hierarchies of class and race. Experiments such as Garner’s into the simian origins of speech and conceptualisation provided Wells with simultaneously scientific and imaginative grounds for questioning genetic and ideological boundaries between controlling colonial humans and reversionary beasts.In part two, McLean focuses on the rapidly changing and sometimes troubled relationship between late the nineteenth-century professional scientist and society. Evidencing a whole series of contemporary articles by Wells (influenced by Karl Pearson and others) prescribing radical reform in teaching science at school and after, McLean turns around the traditional approach to reading its role in The Invisible Man. He concentrates not just on Wells’s dramatisation of the need to democratise scientific research and the professional’s obligation to communicate, but Wells’s complementary implication that standards of scientific understanding amongst an under-educated public urgently needed raising. Only by such means could they recognise the value of strange new discoveries and make informed, consensual decisions about their practical application through social policy—a debate still ongoing today. From McLean’s viewpoint, Wells’s chief motivation in writing the novel was not just “to reveal the necessity for an urgent reassessment of the relationship between scientist and society”, but to “dramatise the need for a broader dissemination of scientific method” through the nation (87). At the same time, the novel stresses the equal roles of inductive reasoning and imagination in the process of scientific discovery itself. Thus the whole paradox and tragedy of Griffin’s invisible condition, which nonetheless acquires increasingly public profile though panic and terror, as community and media respond with prejudice, incomprehension and violence, functions as a metaphor for this mutual crisis in scientific knowledge. McLean’s chapter on The War of the Worlds then explicates how Wells turned his literally world-shattering topic of alien invasion and the subsequent imagined collapse of Britain’s imperial civilisation into a vehicle for further intervention in the argument between Huxley and Spencer over the implications of Darwinism. Huxley’s “ethical evolution” and advocacy of cooperation is set against Spencerian naturalisation of individual competition and domination (summed up in his notorious slogan “the survival of the fittest”). The implications of both for organised collective action and indeed our very survival as a species is put to the ultimate test under pressure from an infinitely superior extra-terrestrial competitor, which deals a mortal blow to universal anthropocentrism. The book’s third part deals with Wells’s turn away in the early 1900s from this dystopian tendency towards speculative fictions expressing practical concern with shaping future progress through planned and rational application of scientific thought and inventions to solving human problems. McLean’s first chapter sees The First Men in the Moon (1901) as pivotal in that it shows Wells self-critically testing the pros and cons of political thinking in his non-fiction works of futurology though the more concretised form of “liveable” otherworlds. McLean unearths major sources of both the sociological and technological architectures of the text: e.g. an advance copy of John H. Poynting’s 1900 Nature article discussing the experiments with “screening” the pull of terrestrial gravity, and Percy Lubbock’s 1885 study of the social organisation of insects. Absorption of such sources exemplifies Wells’s ongoing mission to disseminate scientific ideas to wider audiences. The perfectly adapted and moon-wide order of “hive-minded” Selenites is arguably also a tentative sketch of Wells’s World State, although undercut by a satirical impulse highlighting extremes of both amoral individualism and proto-totalitarian social engineering. In A Modern Utopia (1905) Wells would try to resolve this contradiction between “need for efficient management of society with individual liberty” (149). Hence in the second chapter of part three, McLean reads it alongside Anticipations (1902) and Mankind in the Making (1903) as a more developed response to the thought of Huxley, Spencer, Galton and Mill on the subject. He sees the novel as crystallising Wells’s conception, emerging with increasing definition through earlier writings, of perpetually creative “dynamic evolution”. Wells believed this must provide the driving force of any enlightened, socialised state, to guard against the dangers of entropy and regression. Thus he broke with established utopian tradition, still current amongst late nineteenth century examples such as Morris, Bellamy, etc.: i.e. as formulating an ideal, but also essentially static order. Like theirs, Wells’s otherworld was a yardstick measuring the deficiencies of the status quo, but emphatically no blueprint for a teleological goal of absolute perfection, without scope for further social advances. It might have been rewarding if McLean had also subjected When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) (the only dystopic romance not accorded a separate chapter) to equal examination of its polemical roots, especially in respect of imagined outcomes for experiments and debates about broadcasting, mass psychology, social conditioning and commodification. However, The Early Fiction of H.G. Wells: Fantasies of Science already does so much and so compellingly, that this seems minor criticism. Indeed McLean supplies an admirable guide to the huge intellectual terrains spanned by Wells’s early work. It’s both a timely reminder about one of the most polymathic minds of his (or any) age and an impressive basis for further historicisation of critical synergies between literary fiction and scientific enquiry through the subsequent epoch.

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Keith Williams, « Steven McLean. The Early Fiction of H.G. Wells: Fantasies of Science »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 73 Printemps | 2011, 243-246.

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Keith Williams, « Steven McLean. The Early Fiction of H.G. Wells: Fantasies of Science »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 73 Printemps | 2011, mis en ligne le 05 octobre 2015, consulté le 19 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Keith Williams

University of Dundee

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