After a brief hiatus, I’m pleased to announce that the Guest Geeks feature has now returned! (Always, always use quality locks and chains on any dungeon guest facility for your geek-wrangling. I had a security breach and it took far too long to round everybody up again using those over-sized butterfly nets.) But the wait has been well worth it, because I’ve got a great one for you today from fellow geek and Seattleite Nick Fraser. And hey, if you’re in Seattle yourself, you can join Nick and a bunch of other awesome geeks at the Wayward Coffeehouse for a showing of the 1960 version of The Time Machine at 8pm on Sunday, May 9th. I’ll be there, and you should be, too.
Take it away, Nick!
New Worlds for Old : The Messages of H.G. Wells
Hi. My name is Nick. Our Gracious Author-Host kindly asked if I wanted to contribute, and who am I to turn down that offer?
So it seems there’s a bit of a kerfuffle in the world of science fiction these days. It seems that one group thinks that science fiction should not be about contemporary social issues, like, say women’s rights, or gay rights, or racism, but should just be adventure stories about good triumphing over evil, with lots of rocket ships and space princesses. Just like it was back in the Good Old Days (the fact that blacks, browns, gays, and women has to sit in the back of the bus in the Good Old Days is, of course, pure coincidence).
Well, I guess you couldn’t get more Good Old Days than the father of English-language science fiction, could you? I mean, Herbert George Wells is about as Old as you can get, and is still considered pretty good (well, I think he is). So, H.G. Wells couldn’t possibly have any bothersome messages in his novels, right? It’s just good old fashioned adventure, right?
[Fair warning – I feel no guilt about spoiling stories that are over a century old. If you feel strongly about this, I suggest you go ahead and read them—they’re short, they’re direct, they ain’t Gravity’s Rainbow.]
Let’s start with what’s arguably Wells’s best known work, The War of the Worlds. Generally acknowledged to be the first alien invasion story, it recounts a Martian invasion of England in the last years of the 19th Century. Nothing can serious impede the Martians in their towering tripod War Machines, wielding their Heat Ray (possibly the first “ray gun”), until they were “slain, all after man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put up this earth.”
So, just a rock-em, sock-em adventure? Oh, no.
Remember that this story was written at the height of the British Empire, upon which the Sun literally did not set. This was during the Scramble for Africa, when Europe carved up the continent and fifteen years, they would have 90% of it. Using superior technology, the Europeans simply walked in and took over.
Remind you of anything?
The Europeans’ biggest problem often wasn’t the natives, but tropical disease. A Major Walter Reed (the one the hospital’s named for) was able to confirm the cause of yellow fever, allowing the United States to build the Panama Canal. Microbes were the enemy.
Again, does that sound familiar?
Wells’s Martians are, among other things, clear analogs of European Imperialists. You want to know what it’s like to conquered? Wells seems to be asking. This is what it’s like: indiscriminate death, society in chaos, the consolation of religion useless, the land remade.
It’s the character of the Parson that intrigues me the most. Despite his words at the end about God’s wisdom, Wells had a problem with religion. (He supposedly once said he wouldn’t drive in France because of the temptation to hit a priest.) What I found most interesting about his character of The Curate is how closely he follows the anthropological literature on religious movements in the face of colonialism (something I studied in college). Same thing with the artillery man on Putney Hill.
But it’s Wells’s best known work before The War of the Worlds, his genre invention of The Time Machine, that contains one of his clearest messages. Cinematic adaptations usually take some time filling in the time between 1899 and the present, but the novel, after making the argument for Time as the Fourth Dimension, and setting up ideas that we very much take for granted today, the Time Traveller goes straight to 802,701 A.D., where he encounters the child-like Eloi and the monstrous Morlocks. In the book, the Time Traveller actually travels all the way to end of the world and witnesses the end of life on Earth.
The Time Machine is, to the best of my knowledge, the first attempt at a “scientific” and conscious attempt to travel through time (Sorry, Sam Clemens). And it launched countless time travel stories.
But it wasn’t just an exploration of temporal physics; it was also about politics; Wells’s politics.
Wells was a Fabian socialist. You don’t hear much about the Fabians these days. They took their name from a Roman general named Fabius who dealt Hannibal several powerful blows, but not by attacking him directly, but indirectly, hitting his supply lines.
The Fabian socialists thought that rather than attacking capitalism directly, society could be led indirectly to socialism rather than forcing it on people by revolution. Wells was a proponent of a non-Marxist form of socialism, not what you’d find in the USSR.
Wells also lived in a country with a very strong class system; he himself was born into a lower middle class household, the son of servants who graduated to shopkeepers. Before he became a teacher and writer, he was an apprentice draper.
So, it should come as no surprise that The Time Machine is actually a (not very thinly veiled) critique of the Victorian social system. And in the novel, he makes this pretty plain. The Eloi are the descendants of the useless, pretty, rich people—the 1 Percenters, in today’s parlance. They live out their—brief—lives carefree in the sun, never asking about anything, and never caring about anything, including their fellow Eloi.
The Morlocks, however, are the inheritors of the people who actually worked and ran the machinery. And in time they realized up above them was all the food they’d ever need. The Morlocks treat their cousins like cattle, partly because they can, but mostly because the two are so alienated from each other, and because the Eloi are so totally useless.
Wells is clearly saying to his audience that if they do not repair this breach in their society, a horrible fate awaits those who like they are in control, but are in fact not really running society. It’s an interesting take from a Socialist, because he resists the urge to make the descendants of laborers heroic or oppressed. Instead, Wells turns them into monsters, warning his audience that, as Yeats would later say:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
So, when someone tries to tell you that “the good old stuff” is completely free of the taint of sociopolitical agenda, just ask them “how is this stuff?” and mention Wells.
ABOUT THE GEEK
Nick Fraser was raised by the mutant lizard people underneath Los Angeles, where his mind was permanently warped by the electric shadows the city produces. Escaping the desert to the perpetually soggy Pacific Northwest, he learned to read while hiding in the basement of a bookstore attached to a hidden underground city. He currently lives inside the ghost of an ancient stream, where he writes on the wall in crayon.
You can also find Nick on Facebook.
Christa Yelich-Koth says
Great guest post! I think the amazing thing about science fiction is that you can HAVE great adventure stories, but they can always reflect society. From Star Trek’s (1960’s) civilized Earth, but the same conflicts in other aliens (racism, greed, etc.) to the dictatorship change from democracy in Star Wars (1970’s/80’s) (the age old debate of security vs. freedom in government) to the racist themes in Black No More by George Schuyler circa 1931 (which Dr. Seuss rebranded in the Sneetches story in the 60’s) to 1984 (published 1949) by George Orwell and his dual-political overtones.
Science fiction has the amazing capacity to take you to the unknown, stretch your imagination, create new worlds to escape into, AND still make you think. Doesn’t mean you HAVE to write a story that way, but isn’t it amazing that you CAN?
Michael G. Munz says
Thanks, Christa! (Nick really hit it out of the park here, so far as I’m concerned.) And I think the best sci-fi (and fantasy) contains at its heart an exploration of the human condition. Sure, the genre means its couched in wild ideas, far-flung settings, and exciting wonder–all of which makes it AWESOME–but I think so many people who dismiss sci-fi because they consider it childish escapism really do the genre a disservice.
But, hey, their loss, right?
Nick Fraser says
Ahh, shucks, thank you. It’s easy to do well when working with Wells.
And as an aside, the related link for this post was these 1904 Brazilian illustrations for the War of the Worlds . The War Machines look a little cutesy, but otherwise very damn good.
Christa Yelich-Koth says
Definitely their loss, Michael. lol! Everything you said is also why I write science fiction/fantasy. It’s always amazing what you can “sneak in” under the guise of “wild ideas and far-flung settings”. It’s a great way to combine escapism with the human condition. (Even if it isn’t always about humans. haha!)
Crystal Dawn says
Really great post. Definitely lots to ponder. Thanks!