Sunday, June 26, 2011

HG and Me

The life of pioneer science fiction author H.G. Wells (1866-1946) did not overlap mine, yet there is a sense in which he is an old friend.

My mom was a crafty sort in her own way. She wanted to encourage her kids to read, but knew their contrarian natures. Overtly pushing books on us would have been counterproductive. So, she simply brought into the house the kinds of reading material likely to appeal to my sister and me. She put them where we would find them, and left it at that. She had none of the snobbish prejudice so common at the time against comic books – she figured reading was reading, and anything which fed the habit was good. She supplemented these with magazines, children’s literature, and more ambitious material, including Mark Twain and Sir Walter Scott. The strategy worked. Both Sharon and I became early and lifelong recreational readers.

The first full length legitimate novel I read cover to cover – not counting Dr. Seuss and the like – was The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The 1959 hardcover is still on my shelf. The second was The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, in an edition that also included about a dozen of his short stories. I actively sought out more of his work afterward, and, a half century later, I’m still a fan. My appreciation only grew as I came to understand more of the wry humor and social commentary in his writings.

HG Wells has had a very mixed history on the screen.

The 1960 Time Machine is excellent, though its anti-war theme deviates from the capital/labor theme in the book; it’s also an ambiguous anti-war message since Rod Taylor whips up the Eloi to battle the Morlocks. The 2002 version is visually stunning but has very little to do with the book.

The 1953 The War of the Worlds is superior to the 2005 version (which in some ways doesn’t even make sense) with Tom Cruise, though I’d still like to see one set in the 1890s when the book was written.

The Island of Lost Souls (1936) is the best version of The Island of Doctor Moreau, no doubt because HG himself had a hand in it; later versions tend to lose the central message that we are all wild beasts tortured into the (sometimes unconvincing) appearance of civilized beings.

He also wrote the screenplay to Things to Come based on his novel The Shape of Things to Come. It predicted the Blitz with fightening precision.

Not a single version of The Food of the Gods has come off properly; every one has become a simple monster movie, sometimes with an eco moral; in the book the giants include humans whom HG plainly favors against the masses of “little people” trying to bring them down (a little unsubtle elitism there, though not of a conservative variety).

The Invisible Man (1933) worked well.

The First Men in the Moon (1964) was a solid adaptation, too, even though it got the details of a near future moon landing wrong; the bulk of the film, a flashback to the turn of the century, followed the book well and did it with pretty good fx for the time.

If a miniseries counts as a movie, The Infinite Worlds of HG Wells isn’t bad. It handles several of his short stories with wit and style. It does misrepresent his relationship with his second wife (it doesn’t mention the first at all) Amy Catherine, but, hey, it’s a movie. Advocates of Free Love, HG and Amy Catherine in fact were far more unconventional than depicted; among HG’s mistresses were birth control activist Margaret Sanger, writer Amber Reeves (with whom he had a daughter). and feminist novelist Rebecca West (with whom he had a son).

We tend to forget what a lively intellectual time the turn of the century was. (I mean, of course, c.1900, not c.2000.) True, it saw the last and fullest bloom of reactionary Victorian morals, but in the same garden was a radical rebellion against them. Oscar Wilde (who helped young Wells get published), G.B. Shaw, Emma Goldman, Aleister Crowley, W.B Yeats, Victoria Woodhull and other socialists, anarchists, feminists, eugenicists, free love advocates, neo-pagans, and revolutionaries of all types abounded. Wells was very much a part of that milieu, and it permeates his work without (usually) overpowering the literary merits.

Unless someone invents the time machine described by Wells in The Time Machine (1895), I’ll never meet old Herbert George face to face. Nonetheless, through his books he has been a far larger part of my life than most of the people I have met in person, and I am in his debt.

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