H.G. Wells: Traversing Time (Early Classics of Science Fiction)
by W. Warren Wagar
Review by Edward Carmien
Wesleyan University Press Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0819567256
Date: September, 22, 2004 List Price $34.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
I?m guilty. Guilty, guilty, guilty. Sorry, Herbert George Wells (1866-1946), novelist, essayist, scholar, and grandfather of American SF. I have done you wrong lo these many years. One consolation is I?m likely not alone. I?m sure others are guilty of the crime of seeing only the surface Wells, the Wells of The Time Machine and most famously in the mind of popular culture, The War of the Worlds (two movies based on this novel on the way). Thanks to the television, even my three-year-old daughter knows what a Morlock is.
I might plead generation gap. I might plead that there?s simply too much SF, and writers of same, to know all there is to know about it and them. Pleading, it seems, will get me nowhere. Consider these revelations from (admittedly boosterish) Wagar: Wells, in his time, was one of the most well-known and successful writers of his day. Not for his fiction, mind you, but for his non-fiction. The Outline of History did just that, from the creation of the solar system to World War I. The Science of Life is just that, as it chronicled everything from the first stirrings of life on Earth to the prospects for ?One Collective Mind and Will??a planned and unified world civilization.
Wells, it turns out to my amused surprise, was quite the rake in his day, and a figure far beyond that cut by his ?scientific romances.? In the introduction of The Cherryh Odyssey (shameless plug alert: now available at wildsidepress.com and Amazon.com) James Gunn wrote that Cherryh, myself (as editor), and the book?s contributors and indeed SF writers in general exercise our imaginations for love of the genre, perhaps even to contribute to Wells? ?Open Conspiracy? as a means of working toward ?human survival and even improvement.? Now I know what Gunn was referring to: although the quote is suggestive and descriptive enough on its own, learning about Wells and his views of humanity and our chance for survival gives the idea new life.
Wells, I hardly knew ye, and I?m sure that?s true for many fans of SF. His heyday was almost a century ago, and there are other giants standing in the way ? people like Asimov, Heinlein, Tiptree / Sheldon, the list goes on. Wagar, in this very nicely produced Wesleyan University Press edition from the ? Early Classics of Science Fiction? series, addresses Wells from, as the title suggests, a perspective of his having traversed time, both in a biographical sense and in a sense of his many literary accomplishments.
The Outline of History goes not only backwards but forwards in time, and for his time does so in a new and exciting way, in a way that does not privilege the European perspective of world history. Wagar notes Wells? shortcomings regarding gender equity and his handling of then-unknown cultures of Africa and other areas of the world, but in large part this History and the abridged version which ultimately made Wells a rich man represent him at his best as a thinker. In addition, works such as this and a few others demonstrate one of Wagar?s assertions that Wells was astonishingly prolific as a writer, undertaking in a matter of many months what might take other thinkers decades to accomplish.
Naturally, Wells is also seen as traversing time to the future as well as the past: his best-known work imagines what our future might bring?and frequently these imaginings are deliberately political. These speculations range far beyond The Time Machine.
Wagar addresses many elements of Wells? career and biography, not stinting on representing him as he apparently was?a womanizer, at times sexist and even racist (in later years he repudiated early work to that effect.) Wagar?s prose is not casual, but it is also not overly stodgy. As Wells has been the focus of Wagar?s attentions for many years (and several other books) it is not surprising that the source-base here is unusually rich. The footnoting work is of a high standard, yet like that of the best scholarly work a review of each and every footnote is not required for consumption of the text. Rather, they work as they ought: as signposts to further research.
This Wesleyan University Press text is not for casual readers. But for those who wish a view into the previous century (and a bit into the one before that), for those who wish to have a greater understanding of Wells that goes beyond the oft-televised films about invaders from Mars and Morlocks and Eloi, Wagar?s book is a must-read. No serious research about Wells should progress without access to this text.
If nothing else, Traversing Time provides a feeling of astonishment and wonder that so many of the issues we wrestle with today were wrestled first by Wells. Much like a distant grandparent who has lived a life inside one?s imagination as a beneficent grey-haired figure can snap into focus once one really spends time getting to know them (?you did what in the war? You won how many medals? Your work in the civil rights movement got you into the FBI?s files??), getting to really know Herbert George Wells can help one avoid being guilty of hearing (and even believing) a hundred times he?s important to SF?without knowing the full story.