Steven McLean, H. G. Wells: Interdisciplinary Essays and The Early Fiction of H. G. Wells

Steven McLean (ed.), H.G. Wells: Interdisciplinary Essays (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009), 184 pp. £19.99pbk. ISBN: 978-1443811262.

Steven McLean, The Early Fiction of H.G. Wells: Fantasies of Science (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 242pp. £50hbk. ISBN: 978-0230535626.

H.G. Wells: Interdisciplinary Essays (first published in hardback in 2008) is the product of an annual H.G. Wells Society symposium, appropriately titled ‘New Directions’. This collection, while sometimes uneven, offers fresh and important insights into the field, both by examining neglected Wells texts, and by developing new approaches to reading Wells. The book is divided into three parts: the first focuses on the more familiar territory of the early romances (with the exception of Simon J. James’s essay on the nearly-forgotten 1896 comic novel, The Wheels of Chance), while the second and third parts move in ‘new directions’.

The essays of part two of this collection examine Wells’s transition from romancer to novelist, with John R. Hammond providing a useful overview of Wells’s later discussion novels. Along with earlier studies such as Robert Bloom’s Anatomies of Egotism: A Reading of the Last Novels of H.G. Wells and William J. Scheick’s The Splintering Frame: The Later Fiction of H.G. Wells, Hammond’s discussion of Wells’s later work demonstrates the intrinsic literary value and the historical importance of these texts, and the need for further examination of this neglected area of Wells’s oeuvre. The next essay in this collection, by Patrick Parrinder, demonstrates the insight to be gained by reconsidering Wells’s later work. Here Parrinder offers a focused reading of Mr Blettsworthy on Rampole Island, placing this novel within the context of early twentieth-century concerns around psychoanalysis, symbolism and trauma. Parrinder also locates Mr Blettsworthy within the tradition of literary islands, beginning with Donne, via Swift and Defoe through to Wells’s own earlier island narrative, The Island of Doctor Moreau.

The third part of this collection turns to ‘Wells and his Interlocutors’, and here Sylvia Hardy reads Wells’s fictional aesthetic through the lens of William James’s pragmatist philosophy and his earlier work in psychology. Hardy’s examination reveals clear parallels between Wells’s literary aesthetic and James’s writing. For example, in examining James’s writing on differing forms of aesthetic and analytic genius in The Principles of Psychology, Hardy makes the case for James’s influence on Wells’s repeated claims that he would rather not be called a literary artist in his later career (138). Hardy’s essay offers a foundation for taking Wells criticism in a useful new direction: while James’s psychology and pragmatist philosophy has been connected to the ‘high art’ literary experimentation of Henry James and Gertrude Stein for example, scant attention has been given to its impact on the Wellsian literary aesthetic (or the self-conscious lack thereof). Wells produced the bulk of his output in the twentieth century, and outlived all of his earliest scientific influences. It is refreshing to see a collection of interdisciplinary essays which is reflective of this.

The Early Fiction of H.G. Wells: Fantasies of Science joins an established field of Wells scholarship in that it concentrates on Wells’s early scientific romances. McLean rightly observes that a traditional focus on Wells as a ‘father’ of science fiction risks ‘encourag[ing] the popular conception that the significance of his scientific romances lies not so much in their engagement with scientific debates’ than ‘in the contribution of a number of literary tropes toward the creation of the modern genre of science fiction’ (2). While McLean notes that scholars frequently explore Wells’s early fictional and non-fictional writings, his book offers to ‘examine how his journalistic speculations begin to reveal the full extent to which his scientific romances are immersed in the discourses of the contemporary sciences’ (2). What follows is an investigation of Wells’s scientific romances in relation to contemporary scientific debates occurring across periodical and book publications, which is rigorous in its examination of Wells’s early non-fiction writing.

This book is also divided into three parts, the first of which includes discussions of The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau within the context of contemporary debates about evolution, retrogression and degeneration. Part two turns toward the relationship between the scientist and society, reading The Invisible Man in relation to Wells’s own writings in the 1890s on scientific education, and the documented influence of T.H. Huxley upon Wells. Some tenuous conclusions appear here; for example, it is debatable whether ‘Wells’s purpose in The Invisible Man [was] to reveal the necessity for an urgent reassessment of the relationship between scientist and society’, or ‘to dramatise the need for a broader dissemination of scientific method’ across the English educational system (87). More convincing is McLean’s claim that, in The War of the Worlds, ‘Wells utilises his fourth scientific romance as a means to participate in the debate between Huxley and Spencer over the application of evolutionary theory to human society’ (112).

Perhaps the most pioneering work appears in the third part of the book, which turns toward Wells’s later scientific romances and his increasing concern with shaping human progress. In the first chapter of part three, McLean turns to The First Men in the Moon, a text that has received less critical attention than Wells’s scientific romances of the 1890s. Here McLean offers insight into the scientific and sociological foundations of this text, linking Wells’s explanation of the anti-gravity device by which his characters travel to the moon to Wells’s perusal of an advance copy of John H. Poynting’s 1900 Nature article on recent experiments in ‘screening’ the effects of gravitation (118). Identifying Wells’s attempt to disseminate Poynting’s ideas to a broader audience is important, McLean argues, because it ‘reveals a continuation from [Wells’s] earlier work’, especially the article ‘Popularising Science’ which Wells published in Nature in 1894.

McLean considers both First Men and A Modern Utopia in light of Wells’s growing interest in the political and sociological problems of the new century. Like Emily Alder in her essay from the H.G. Wells: Interdisciplinary Essays collection, McLean observes the ‘kinetic’ nature of Wells’s utopia, as compared with preceding utopian fictions. Both Alder and McLean note the influence of Huxley’s interpretation of Darwinian evolution here, though Alder is more careful with her terminology. It is important to differentiate between Darwinian and Spencerian theories of evolution, and to take care when using terms such as ‘devolution’. Alder, drawing on Huxley, writes with more precision of ‘retrogressive metamorphosis’ (114) than McLean does of the ‘devolutionary potential of evolution’ (11). While Alder’s focus is on A Modern Utopia in relation to evolutionary ethics and the redoubt, McLean reads the text alongside Wells’s Anticipations and Mankind in the Making, highlighting how Wells’s early sociological writings can be read as responses to Huxley, Spencer, Francis Galton and John Stuart Mill. Both discussions will be of interest to scholars of Wells’s sociological writings, and of fin-de-siècle utopias in general.

Analyses of Huxley, Spencer and Galton appear throughout The Early Fiction of H.G. Wells, where McLean works to tease out the subtle differences and correspondences between Wells’s work and the theories of these men. While few of the claims here break new ground, this study synthesises much previous work in Wells scholarship and takes research into to Wells’s early writings to a deeper and more thorough level. McLean’s goal of pushing beyond reductive considerations of Wells as a founding father of science fiction is fulfilled here: both The Early Fiction of H.G. Wells and H.G. Wells: Interdisciplinary Essays point us towards several new, and productive, directions in Wells studies.

Elizabeth Throesch, York St John University