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Infidels, Freethinkers, Humanists, and Unbelievers
Wells, Herbert George (1866 -1940)

"I do not believe I have any immortality. The greatest evil in the world today is the Christian religion."

"I was indeed a prodigy of Early Impiety.... There was a time when I believed in the story and the scheme of salvation, so far as I could understand it, just as there was a time when I believed there was a Devil.... Suddenly the broke through to me and I knew this God was a lie.... I sensed it was a silly story long before I dared to admit even to myself that it was a silly story. For indeed it is a silly story, and each generation nowadays swallows it with greater difficulty.... Why do people go on pretending about this Christianity?"

-- H.G. Wells


Herbert George Wells was a British writer best known for his science fiction novels such as The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Time Machine. However, he was arguably one of the most prolific writers in the history of literature, and wrote works in nearly every genre, including short stories and nonfiction. He was an outspoken socialist, and most of his works contain some notable political or social commentary.

Early life
Herbert George was the fifth and last child of Joseph Wells, a former domestic gardener and at the time shopkeeper and cricketer, and his wife Sarah Neal, a former domestic servant. He was born at 58 High Street, Bromley, Kent. The family was of the impoverished lower-middle-class. An inheritance allowed them to purchase a china shop, though they quickly realised it would never be a prosperous concern. The stock was old and worn out, the location poor.

They managed to earn a meagre income, but little of it came from the shop. Joseph sold cricket bats and balls and other equipment at the matches he played at, and received an unsteady amount of money from the matches, for in those days there were no professional cricketers, and payment for skilled bowlers and batters came from passing the hat afterwards, or from small honoraria from the clubs where matches were played.

A defining incident of young H. G.'s life is said to be an accident he had in 1874 when he was seven years old. He was dropped on a tent peg at the local sports ground and was left bedridden for a time with a broken leg. To pass the time, he started reading and 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 said later, on producing copper-plate handwriting and doing the sort of sums useful to tradesmen. Wells continued at Morley's Academy until 1880. But in 1877 another accident had affected his life. This time it had happened to his father, leaving Joseph Wells with a fractured 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, they instead sought to place their boys as apprentices to various professions. At the time it was a usual method for young employees to learn their trade working under a more experienced employer. In time they should be able to practise their trade for themselves. From 1881 to 1883 H. G. had an unhappy apprenticeship as a draper at the Southsea Drapery Emporium. 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 a critique of the world's distribution of wealth.

Wells's mother and father had never got along with one another particularly well (she was a pious Protestant, he a hen-pecked freethinker), and when she went back to work as a ladies maid (at Uppark, a country house in Sussex) one of the conditions of work was that she would not have space for husband or children; thereafter, she and Joseph lived separate lives, though they never divorced and neither ever developed any other liaison. H. G. not only failed at being a draper, he also failed as a chemist's assistant and had bad experiences as a teaching assistant, and each time 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.

Teacher
In 1883, his employer dismissed him, claiming to be dissatisfied with him. The young man was reportedly not displeased with this ending to his apprenticeship. Later that year, he became an assistant teacher at Midhurst Grammar School, in West Sussex, until he won a scholarship to the Normal School of Science (later the Royal College of Science, now part of Imperial College, London) in London, studying biology under T. H. 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. H. G. studied in his new school until 1887 with an allowance of twenty-one shillings a week thanks to his scholarship.

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 studying The Republic by Plato, he soon turned to his 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. The school year 1886-1887 was the last year of his studies. 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.

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.

Marriage and liaisons
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 by Amy: George Philip (known as 'Gip') in 1901 and Frank Richard in 1903.1

During his marriage to Amy, Wells had liaisons with a number of women, including American birth control activist Margaret Sanger. He had a daughter, Anna-Jane, with writer Amber Reeves in 19091 and in 1914, a son, Anthony West, by 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.

"I was never a great amorist," Wells wrote in An Experiment in Autobiography (1934), "though I have loved several people very deeply."

Game designer
Seeking a more structured way to play war games, H.G. Wells 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 Wargaming."

Writer
Wells' first bestseller was Anticipations, published in 1901. Perhaps his most explicitly futuristic work, it bore the subtitle "An Experiment in Prophecy" when originally serialised in a magazine. 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) and its misses ("my imagination refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocate its crew and founder at sea"). He also visualized the elimination of all 'inefficient' people to make way for the utopian future ("And how will the New Republic treat the inferior races? ... I take it they will have to go").

His early novels, called "scientific romances", invented a number of themes now classic in science fiction in such works as The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, and The War of the Worlds (which have all been made into films) and are often thought of as being influenced by the works of Jules Verne. He also wrote other, non-fantastic novels which have received critical acclaim, including the satire on Edwardian advertising Tono-Bungay and Kipps.

Wells also wrote several dozen short stories and novellas, the best known of which is "The Country of the Blind" (1911). Besides being an important occurrence of blindness in literature, this is Well's commentary on humanity's ability to overcome any inconvenience after a few generations and think that it is normal.

Though not a science-fiction novel, radioactive decay plays a small but consequential role in Tono-Bungay. It 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 for thousands of years. The rate of release is too slow to have practical utility, but the total amount released is huge.

Wells's 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 classic two-volume work The Outline of History (1920) set a new standard and direction for popularised scholarship. Many other authors followed with 'Outlines' of their own in other subjects. Wells followed it in 1922 by 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. Usually starting 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 (In the Days of the Comet), 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 social reconstruction through the rise of fascist dictators in The Autocracy of Mr Parham (1930) and The Holy Terror (1939).

Wells contemplates the ideas of nature vs nurture and questions humanity in books like The Island of Doctor Moreau. Not all his scientific romances ended in a happy Utopia, as the dystopian When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) (rewritten as The Sleeper Awakes, 1910) shows. 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 1938, he published a collection of essays on the future organisation of knowledge and education, titled 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 liquidation 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.

Political efforts
Wells called his political views socialist, but he occasionally found himself at odds with other socialists. He was for a time a member of the 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 also ran as a Labour Party candidate for London University in 1922, but even at that point his faith in that 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. The details of this state varied but in general it would be a planned society that would advance science, end nationalism, and allow people to advance solely by merit rather than birth. He also was consistent that it must not be a democracy. He stated that in the same period he came to realize a world-state was inevitable he realized that parliamentary democracy as then practiced was insufficient.

HG Wells remained fairly consistent in rejection of a world-state being a parliamentary democracy and therefore during his work on the United Nations Charter he opposed any mention of democracy. He feared that the average citizen could never be educated or aware enough to decide the major issues of the world. Therefore he favored the vote be limited to scientists, organizers, engineers, and others of merit. At the same time he strongly believed citizens should have as much freedom as they could without consequently restricting the freedom of others. These values came under increasing criticism from the 1920s and afterwards.4

That said he remained confident of the inevitability of a planned world state well into the 1930s. 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. This despite the fact that he was a strongly anti-Marxist socialist who would later state that it would've been better if Karl Marx was never 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, "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.5

In the end his political importance was almost neglible. His efforts to help form the League of Nations became a disappointment as the organization turned out to be a weak one unable to prevent even 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." He spent his final years venting this frustration at various targets from the Roman Catholic Church to a neighbor who erected a large sign to a servicemen's club. As he devoted his final decades toward causes which were never truly realized this caused his literary reputation to decline. One critic complained: "He sold his birthright for a pot of message".6. That being said The Happy Turning, a short book from 1944, contains a great deal of wit and imagination.

Legacy
In his lifetime and after his death, Wells was considered a prominent socialist thinker. In his book The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek, one of the twentieth century's most famous proponents of laissez-faire capitalism, held up Wells in particular as a person who believed in "the most comprehensive central planning" and could "at the same time, write an ardent defence of the rights of man".

In later years, however, Wells' image has shifted and he is now thought of simply as one of the pioneers of science fiction; Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives and staunch Republican, praised Wells in his book To Renew America, writing "Our generation is still seeking its Jules Verne or H.G. Wells to dazzle our imaginations with hope and optimism".

Appearances in other contexts
H. G. Wells has been portrayed as himself in a number of films and television programmes, including:

The Doctor Who serial Timelash.

The novel and motion picture Time After Time, where he chases Jack The Ripper after the latter stole his time machine and escaped to 1979-era San Francisco.

A semi-recurring character in Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.

The novel The Time Ships, by British author Stephen Baxter, was designated by the Wells estate as an authorised sequel to The Time Machine, marking the centenary of its publication, and features characters, situations and technobabble from several of Wells' stories, as well as a representation of Wells (unnamed, and referred to as 'my friend, the Author').

In C. S. Lewis' novel That Hideous Strength, the character Jules is a caricature of Wells, and much of Lewis' science fiction is written both under the influence of Wells and as an antithesis to his work.

Arthur Sammler, the main character of Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet is portrayed as working on a biography of H. G. Wells. Sammler is a Holocaust survivor and a self-made philosopher who treasures his pre-war acquaintance with Wells.

 
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