Thursday, 23 March 2017

Tales of Space and Time (1899)

That this represents his third collection of short fiction in under four years (here are my thoughts on the first, and on the second) says something about just how productive Wells was as a short-story writer in his early career. In the coming decades he would write fewer shorts, and indeed towards the end of his writing life he tended to expand ideas that might have worked better as short pieces into whole novels; but here, in 1899, he was still in the full florescence of his extraordinary imaginative fertility:
‘The Crystal Egg’ (The New Review, May 1897)
‘The Star’ (The Graphic, December 1897)
‘A Story of the Stone Age’ (The Idler, May–September 1897)
‘A Story of the Days To Come’ (The Pall Mall Magazine, June–October 1897)
‘The Man Who Could Work Miracles’ (Illustrated London News, July 1898)
It looks like a truncated contents page, but ‘A Story of the Stone Age’ and ‘A Story of the Days To Come’ are both 25,000-word novellas, so the reader isn't being stinted. Of those two, the former is far and away the better, a small masterpiece of prehistoric speculation set in Wells's favoured Surrey stamping grounds:
This story is of a time beyond the memory of man, before the beginning of history, a time when one might have walked dryshod from France (as we call it now) to England, and when a broad and sluggish Thames flowed through its marshes to meet its father Rhine, flowing through a wide and level country that is under water in these latter days, and which we know by the name of the North Sea. In that remote age the valley which runs along the foot of the Downs did not exist, and the south of Surrey was a range of hills, fir-clad on the middle slopes, and snow-capped for the better part of the year. The cores of its summits still remain as Leith Hill, and Pitch Hill, and Hindhead. On the lower slopes of the range, below the grassy spaces where the wild horses grazed, were forests of yew and sweet-chestnut and elm, and the thickets and dark places hid the grizzly bear and the hyæna, and the grey apes clambered through the branches. And still lower amidst the woodland and marsh and open grass along the Wey did this little drama play itself out to the end that I have to tell. Fifty thousand years ago it was, fifty thousand years—if the reckoning of geologists is correct.
The story concerns a tribe of cave-people lead by ‘Uya the Cunning’, strong, old and ugly. Uya takes a fancy to attractive young cavegirl Eudena, who avoids his advances by running off into the forest. Handsome young Ugh-lomi goes after her, thereby provoking Uya's ire. Rather than be killed Ugh-lomi and Eudena hide from the tribe, and Ugh-lomi accidentally invents the axe when playing about with a holey flint and a stick:
The stick went in and stuck there. He had rammed it in too tightly to withdraw it. That was still stranger—scarcely funny, terrible almost, and for a time Ugh-lomi did not greatly care to touch the thing. It was as if the flint had bit and held with its teeth. But then he got familiar with the odd combination. He swung it about, and perceived that the stick with the heavy stone on the end struck a better blow than anything he knew. He went to and fro swinging it, and striking with it.
He uses this new weapon to kill Uya, bringing back the chief's wife's necklace as a prize for Eudena. Later Ugh-lomi invents horseriding, going one further even than Kubrick's 2001-hominid and showing how clever a caveman he is, by caveman standards. Anyway: the tribe of Uya declare that their leader has returned from the dead in the form of a giant lion, and when they snatch Eudena to sacrifice to this beast Ugh-lomi goes after her. He fights the monstrous lion and, though badly mauled, kills it. Eudenia nurses him back to health, and when the tribe attack again they fight them off together. Eventually survivors come to Ugh-lomi with gifts, to placate him, and he becomes the new leader. The whole is written very nicely, with enough humour and liveliness to keep the conceit afloat. As David Langford notes, although Wells did not invent the ‘caveman story’ (Edward Bulwer Lytton had published his cave-man story ‘The Fallen Star, or the History of a False Religion’ all the way back in 1834; and more proximate to Wells's novella are Andrew Lang's 1880 ‘The Romance of the First Radical’ and Henry Curwen's 1887 ‘Zit and Xoe’)—nonetheless, the success of Wells's story means he ‘effectively annexed the territory’. Which means that Wells's fingerprints are all over the whole subsequent Clan of the Cave Bear-school of writing.

When Wells sent a copy of Tales of Space and Time to his friend W E Henley he drew a little doodle under the dedication, of Eudena and Ugh-lomi.

That copy is for sale, actually; assuming you have a spare $9,600 lying around. And the German translation put a stark naked Ugh-lomi, full-frontal, bang on the cover. Which is quite ... bold.

Ugh-lomi's cleverness and skill mean that he goes from being tribal nobody to chief, which is a novel reformulation of the core narrative of social mobility that informs so much of Wells's writing, as it had done his life. And there's a nicely hidden-in-plain-sight coding of Wells into his protagonist's name: trimming down the double-u with which ‘Wells’ starts to a single u, reversing the HGU(U) because we're going back in time, and capping it off with a reference to this portrait's simpler and less clever persona, a ‘low me’ instead of the evolutionarily elevated ‘high me’ who's doing the actual writing. And the way the story ends is wittily deflating, too:
Cat's-skin had a trout. It was rare men caught fish in those days, but Cat's-skin would stand silently in the water for hours and catch them with his hand. And the fourth day Ugh-lomi suffered these three to come to the squatting-place in peace, with the food they had with them. Ugh-lomi ate the trout. Thereafter for many moons Ugh-lomi was master and had his will in peace. And on the fulness of time he was killed and eaten even as Uya had been slain.
At any rate, it's a much better story than ‘A Story of the Days To Come’. This paired novella starts in Wells's now:
The excellent Mr. Morris was an Englishman, and he lived in the days of Queen Victoria the Good. He was a prosperous and very sensible man; he read the Times and went to church, and as he grew towards middle age an expression of quiet contented contempt for all who were not as himself settled on his face. He was one of those people who do everything that is right and proper and sensible with inevitable regularity. He always wore just the right and proper clothes, steering the narrow way between the smart and the shabby, always subscribed to the right charities, just the judicious compromise between ostentation and meanness, and never failed to have his hair cut to exactly the proper length ... Mr. Morris had a wife and children. They were the right sort of wife, and the right sort and number of children, of course; nothing imaginative or highty-flighty about any of them, so far as Mr. Morris could see; they wore perfectly correct clothing, neither smart nor hygienic nor faddy in any way, but just sensible; and they lived in a nice sensible house.
Then skips directly forward to one of his descendants:
He had just the same stout, short frame as that ancient man of the nineteenth century, from whom his name of Morris—he spelt it Mwres—came; he had the same half-contemptuous expression of face. He was a prosperous person, too, as times went, and he disliked the “new-fangled”, and bothers about the future and the lower classes, just as much as the ancestral Morris had done. He did not read the Times: indeed, he did not know there ever had been a Times—that institution had foundered somewhere in the intervening gulf of years; but the phonograph machine, that talked to him as he made his toilet of a morning, might have been the voice of a reincarnated Blowitz when it dealt with the world's affairs. This phonographic machine was the size and shape of a Dutch clock, and down the front of it were electric barometric indicators, and an electric clock and calendar, and automatic engagement reminders, and where the clock would have been was the mouth of a trumpet. When it had news the trumpet gobbled like a turkey, “Galloop, galloop”, and then brayed out its message as, let us say, a trumpet might bray. It would tell Mwres in full, rich, throaty tones about the overnight accidents to the omnibus flying-machines that plied around the world, the latest arrivals at the fashionable resorts in Tibet, and of all the great monopolist company meetings of the day before, while he was dressing. If Mwres did not like hearing what it said, he had only to touch a stud, and it would choke a little and talk about something else.

Of course his toilet differed very much from that of his ancestor. It is doubtful which would have been the more shocked and pained to find himself in the clothing of the other. Mwres would certainly have sooner gone forth to the world stark naked than in the silk hat, frock coat, grey trousers and watch-chain that had filled Mr. Morris with sombre self-respect in the past. For Mwres there was no shaving to do: a skilful operator had long ago removed every hair-root from his face. His legs he encased in pleasant pink and amber garments of an air-tight material, which with the help of an ingenious little pump he distended so as to suggest enormous muscles. Above this he also wore pneumatic garments beneath an amber silk tunic, so that he was clothed in air and admirably protected against sudden extremes of heat or cold. Over this he flung a scarlet cloak with its edge fantastically curved. On his head, which had been skilfully deprived of every scrap of hair, he adjusted a pleasant little cap of bright scarlet, held on by suction and inflated with hydrogen, and curiously like the comb of a cock. So his toilet was complete; and, conscious of being soberly and becomingly attired, he was ready to face his fellow-beings with a tranquil eye.
This is jolly enough, and the story that develops sketches the future-world along lines not all that different to the future-world of When the Sleeper Wakes (to which ‘A Story of the Days To Come’ is actually prior). But there's something small-c conservative, almost smugly so, about the humourous conceit that this future differs in merely superifical ways from our present. That language has not changed is given a plausible-enough in-story explanation: ‘the invention of the phonograph and suchlike means of recording sound, and the gradual replacement of books by such contrivances, had not only saved the human eyesight from decay, but had also by the establishment of a sure standard arrested the process of change in accent that had hitherto been so inevitable.’ But in a larger sense the tale implies that the present exerts so profound a gravitational pull that the future becomes drawn back into it. The future, this story says, is just the present in fancy dress.

The narrative is a kind of Romeo-and-Juliet narrative; Mwres's daughter has fallen in love with a lower class lad (‘“He is”—and his voice sank with shame—“a mere attendant upon the stage on which the flying-machines from Paris alight. He has—as they say in the romances—good looks. He is quite young and very eccentric. Affects the antique—he can read and write! So can she. And instead of communicating by telephone, like sensible people, they write and deliver—what is it?” “Notes?” “No—not notes.... Ah—poems”’) and the obstacles of parental disapproval include such things as brainwashing-by-hypnosis. But there is a sense of love as timeless, or at least as transhistorical, that vitiates the effective future-estrangement of the story, and for all its intriguing details it comes across as rather flat.

‘The Star’, on the other hand, is one of Wells's very best stories. Simple as that. It is a short and to the point, and the point it is to is sense-of-wonderful. Astronomers notice a new star approaching the solar system. It collides with Neptune and the two bodies become locked together as a flaming mass that hurtles towards the Sun. Wells deftly sketches reactions to this news: some in denial, some despairing, others indifferent: ‘the star grew—it grew with a terrible steadiness hour after hour, a little larger each hour, a little nearer the midnight zenith, and brighter and brighter, until it had turned night into a second day.’ Soon enough the star passes so close to Earth that the two bodies swing about one another, causing earthquakes and floods and disaster. Here's a June 1926 illustration of this climax, from when Gernsback fleshed out the nascent Amazing Stories with a run of Wellsian shorts.

After this catastrophe the world ends-up in a closer orbit about the sun, the moon is much further away, and the shattered land is so much hotter that the few survivors are compelled to migrate to the poles. But the real touch of genius in this story is its final two paragraphs, a masterful focus-pull (as the cineasts say):
But of the new brotherhood that grew presently among men, of the saving of laws and books and machines, of the strange change that had come over Iceland and Greenland and the shores of Baffin's Bay, so that the sailors coming there presently found them green and gracious, and could scarce believe their eyes, this story does not tell. Nor of the movement of mankind now that the earth was hotter, northward and southward towards the poles of the earth. It concerns itself only with the coming and the passing of the Star.

The Martian astronomers—for there are astronomers on Mars, although they are very different beings from men—were naturally profoundly interested by these things. They saw them from their own standpoint of course. ‘Considering the mass and temperature of the missile that was flung through our solar system into the sun,’ one wrote, ‘it is astonishing what a little damage the earth, which it missed so narrowly, has sustained. All the familiar continental markings and the masses of the seas remain intact, and indeed the only difference seems to be a shrinkage of the white discolouration (supposed to be frozen water) round either pole.’ Which only shows how small the vastest of human catastrophes may seem, at a distance of a few million miles.
This is a strong slug of the espresso of ‘sense-of-wonder’, expertly framing human suffering in cosmic immensity. It does something that, really, only SF can do, describing an event that is ‘sublime’ in Burkean or Kantian terms—the terrifying tempest, the earthquake and catastrophic inundation—only in order to step back from it and reveal it, in all its terror and excitement, to be trivial compared with the ultra-sublimity of the cosmic frame. This, to be clear, is one of the things Kant meant by his distinction between the mathematical and the dynamic sublime. Slavoj Žižek's summary is spot on, despite his habit of random Germanic capitalisations of words: ‘in the Kantian Sublime, the boundless chaos of sensible experience (raging storm, breathtaking abysses) renders forth the presentiment of the pure Idea of Reason whose Measure is so large that no object of experience, not even Nature in its wildest and mightiest displays of it forces, can come close to it’ [Žižek, Tarrying with the Negative (1993), 245].

The other two stories in the collection are both good, though neither of them quite as good as this. ‘The Man Who Could Work Miracles’ is a neat little fantasy about fantasy. Fotheringay, an unimaginative small-town clerk, acquires the ability to perform miracles. He toys with this superpower until. having lost his temper and sent a policeman to Hell, he grows worried and consults a local preacher called Mr Maydig. The two go about at night doing good at Maydig's prompting, draining swamps, reforming drunkards and the like, until Fotheringay decides, again at Maydig's prompting, to extend the amount of time available for their night-time sallies by stopping the rotation of the Earth. This turns out to be not such a good idea: ‘when Mr. Fotheringay had arrested the rotation of the solid globe, he had made no stipulation concerning the trifling movables upon its surface ... so that the village, and Mr. Maydig, and Mr. Fotheringay, and everybody and everything had been jerked violently forward at about nine miles per second—that is to say, much more violently than if they had been fired out of a cannon. And every human being, every living creature, every house, and every tree—all the world as we know it—had been so jerked and smashed and utterly destroyed.’ He saves his own life with a wish, and, the last human alive, and fed-up with his powers, wills himself back in time to a point before the gift came. It's wittily and charmingly written, although fairly disposable; although it's yet another of those Wellsian ideas that has led a fertile afterlife, from mostly awful Bruce Almighty to the truly awful Absolutely Anything. That this latter is in effect the last ever ‘Python’ film causes me genuine pain.

Finally we have ‘The Crystal Egg’, which stands as a sort of pendant to The War of the Worlds. An antique dealer in Seven Dials called Mr Cave seems oddly reluctant to sell the titular egg, although it is one of the items in his shop. We discover that, when a ray of light strikes it from the correct angle, it gives him a real-time, moving view of a strange landscape. He takes it to a scientific acquaintance called Wace, and together they decide they are seeing what we would nowadays call a ‘live feed’ of Mars. Amongst other things they observe an array of other crystal eggs on top of masts, as well as alien Martians, some hopping along on their tentacles, others wearing wing-prostheses that enable them to fly.
For a time the Martians—if they were Martians—do not seem to have known of Mr. Cave's inspection. Once or twice one would come to peer, and go away very shortly to some other mast, as though the vision was unsatisfactory. During this time Mr. Cave was able to watch the proceedings of these winged people without being disturbed by their attentions, and, although his report is necessarily vague and fragmentary, it is nevertheless very suggestive. Imagine the impression of humanity a Martian observer would get who, after a difficult process of preparation and with considerable[27] fatigue to the eyes, was able to peer at London from the steeple of St. Martin's Church for stretches, at longest, of four minutes at a time. Mr. Cave was unable to ascertain if the winged Martians were the same as the Martians who hopped about the causeways and terraces, and if the latter could put on wings at will. He several times saw certain clumsy bipeds, dimly suggestive of apes, white and partially translucent, feeding among certain of the lichenous trees, and once some of these fled before one of the hopping, round-headed Martians. The latter caught one in its tentacles, and then the picture faded suddenly and left Mr. Cave most tantalisingly in the dark. On another occasion a vast thing, that Mr. Cave thought at first was some gigantic insect, appeared advancing along the causeway beside the canal with extraordinary rapidity. As this drew nearer Mr. Cave perceived that it was a mechanism of shining metals and of extraordinary complexity. And then, when he looked again, it had passed out of sight.
So the eggs are in effect palantíri; and presumably (though this is not specified in the story) the Martians have somehow seeded them onto the earth by way of reconnoitering their future invasion ground. The story ends when Cave stops coming to Wace's, who calls at his shop to see why not to discover Cave dead and the egg gone.

What both ‘The Crystal Egg’ and ‘The Man Who Could Work Miracles’ have in common is the utilization of a self-reflexive conceit. Wells's stories speak to their various imagined worlds, but also speak to the ground of their own imagining. Cave's egg is science fiction, that (n)ovum that gifts us glimpses of a compelling, exotic alienness (calling him ‘Cave’ is presumably Wells's little Plato joke). Fotheringay's sudden ability to fulfill any wish projects the inside of the imaginarium onto the exterior world. The comic tone of the latter is saved from smugness by the fact that such projection leads to the death of literally everyone in the world; and the potency of the former is in the way it grasps that the science fiction channel to alienness is also a channel by which alienness can surveil us. As Nietzsche might have said: ‘when you gaze into the egg-crys, the egg-crys also gazes into you.’

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

When the Sleeper Wakes (1899)



Wells was so dissatisfied with this novel that he rewrote and re-issued it a decade later as The Sleeper Awakes (1910). His preface to that revised edition calls it ‘one of the most ambitious and least satisfactory of my books,’ and talks about how he was ‘overworked, and badly in need of a holiday’ when he wrote it.  In point of fact Wells was writing Love and Mr Lewisham concurrently with this one and was just as dissatisfied with that novel, later recalling ‘the impotent rage and strain of my attempt to put some sort of finish to my story of Mr Lewisham with my temperature at a hundred and two’. The difference was that he held back Love and Mr Lewisham to rewrite, during his convalescence, whereas fiduciary necessity compelled him to publish When the Sleeper Wakes in its original and unsatisfactory form. In the Experiment in Autobiography (1934) Wells gives us some details about the 1898 illness: ‘a sort of break-up,’ he calls it, ‘of the scars and old clotted accumulations about my crushed kidney’, which I really don't think is an actual medical thing (he'd damaged the kidney playing football when working as a schoolmaster in the 1880s). He goes on:
Nothing could have been worse for me than to start, as we [Wells and wife Jane] did, upon a cycling journey to the south coast ... I plugged along with a head that seemed filled with wool and a skin that felt like a misfit. Somewhere on the road I caught a cold.
The finest traditions of English holidaying! Things got so bad Jane took the feverish and agonized Wells by train to a New Romney doctor (‘I was now in considerable pain, the jolting carriages seemed malignantly uncomfortable, I suffered from intense thirst, I could get nothing to drink and the journey was interminable’). The doctor insisted on the immediate removal of the injured kidney, and a surgeon was called down from London to perform this operation; but when he arrived it was discovered ‘that the offending kidney had practically taken itself off and that there was nothing left to remove’. This really strains credulity (I mean, where did the infected, or perhaps necrosing, kidney go? Did Scotty beam it directly out of his body?) At any rate Wells health improved, and he claims he was never again bothered with the kidney. Hmm.

It's worth considering whether the original version of Sleeper catches any of this quality of fever-dream. I think it does. At any rate, finished to Wells's satisfaction or not, the story was serialised in The Graphic 1898-99, together with some rather fine illustrations by Henri Lanos, several of which are copied into this blogpost. Harper put out a single volume edition early in 1899.

The story itself starts with a man called Isbister, walking the Cornish cliffs and chancing upon our hero, Graham, driven to suicidal despair by his chronic insomnia. Isbister persuades him not to jump, but instead to come back to his hotel with him. There, for reasons unspecified in the text, Graham falls into a kind of coma:
He was removed from the hotel to the Boscastle surgery, and from the surgery, after some weeks, to London. But he still resisted every attempt at reanimation. After a time, for reasons that will appear later, these attempts were discontinued. For a great space he lay in that strange condition, inert and still neither dead nor living but, as it were, suspended, hanging midway between nothingness and existence. His was a darkness unbroken by a ray of thought or sensation, a dreamless inanition, a vast space of peace. The tumult of his mind had swelled and risen to an abrupt climax of silence. Where was the man? Where is any man when insensibility takes hold of him?
Graham sleeps for two centuries, during which time his own money, and certain hefty inheritances, accrue interest in the banking system. When he finally does awake he discovers that his (now) vast wealth has rendered him nominal master of the world. His sleeping form, held in a crystal cabinet, is the centre of a kind of cult, on the basis of which the ‘White Council’, a small group of men who have inherited trustee status for his estate, rule the globe. Since their power depends on the endless deferral of his waking, this Council are understandably put-out when Graham returns from the land of nod.

They plan on killing him, but before they can he is rescued by followers of a revolutionary leader called Ostrog (we later discover that it was Ostrog who woke Graham, by injecting him with stimulants). During the course of his flight from the Council Graham sees that London is now a huge domed urban space: ‘Titanic buildings, curving spaciously in either direction. Overhead mighty cantilevers sprang together across the huge width of the place, and a tracery of translucent material shut out the sky. Gigantic globes of cool white light shamed the pale sunbeams that filtered down through the girders and wires. Here and there a gossamer suspension bridge dotted with foot passengers flung across the chasm and the air was webbed with slender cables.’

Using Graham's awakening as rallying-point, Ostrog stages a revolution and overthrows the Council. He pretends to install Graham as ruler, but in fact, of course, he wants power for himself and manipulates Graham as his puppet. For a while Graham is duped, and beguiles his time exploring the high-tech future world: Britain now a land of huge automated farmlands, with the entire population living inside four huge domed cities, each powered by giant wind-vanes. He learns to fly one of the future's aeroplanes, ‘aeropiles’ Wells calls them, discovering in the process a natural aeronautical talent. He also develops tender feelings for Ostrog's attractive niece, Helen Wotton: ‘her beauty came compellingly between him and certain immediate temptations of ignoble passion’ [Sleeper, ch. 17]. Oho! It is Helen who reveals the truth to Graham: far from being the future utopia Ostrog claims, the world of 2100 is a place of misery for the masses who toil in factories, paid in food rather than money, suffering high rates of industrial disease and mortality, alienated from family life (children are raised in enormous institutions) and controlled via fake-news-spewing ‘babble machines’. Other systems of control include ‘kine-tele-photography’ and occasional visits to ‘pleasure cities’. Graham confronts Ostrog, who defends the status quo on eugenic grounds:
“Aristocracy, the prevalence of the best—the suffering and extinction of the unfit, and so to better things.”

“But aristocracy! those people I met—”

“Oh! not those!” said Ostrog. “But for the most part they go to their death. Vice and pleasure! They have no children. That sort of stuff will die out. If the world keeps to one road, that is, if there is no turning back. An easy road to excess, convenient Euthanasia for the pleasure seekers singed in the flame, that is the way to improve the race!” [Sleeper, ch 19]
Graham leads a counter-revolution against Ostrog and expels him from London; but Ostrog recruits a new police force all the way from Africa, flying them over to act as his enforcers. In a moment that has aged very badly, Graham is appalled by this development: ‘“I am the Master. I do not want any negroes brought to London. It is an archaic prejudice perhaps, but I have peculiar feelings about Europeans and the subject races. Even about Paris—”’ [ch 19] Nonetheless, the African planes are on their way, and a battle ensues between Ostrog's followers and Graham's for control of the runways, the ‘stages’ as Wells calls them, that would enable this force to land. Graham himself goes up in an aeropile to hold the Africans back until the stages are destroyed:

Ostrog is also up, and Graham attempts to engage him in air-to-air combat, although without success. But it seems his side is winning:
He passed two hundred feet or so above the Roehampton stage. It was black with people and noisy with their frantic shouting. But why was the Wimbledon Park stage black and cheering, too? The smoke and flame of Streatham now hid the three further stages. He curved about and rose to see them and the northern quarters. First came the square masses of Shooter’s Hill into sight from behind the smoke, lit and orderly with the aeroplane that had landed and its disembarking negroes. Then came Blackheath, and then under the corner of the reek the Norwood stage. On Blackheath no aeroplane had landed but an aeropile lay upon the guides. Norwood was covered by a swarm of little figures running to and fro in a passionate confusion. Why? Abruptly he understood. The stubborn defence of the flying stages was over, the people were pouring into the under-ways of these last strongholds of Ostrog’s usurpation. And then, from far away on the northern border of the city, full of glorious import to him, came a sound, a signal, a note of triumph, the leaden thud of a gun. [Sleeper, ch. 24]
That thud is Graham's people finally getting the anti-aircraft guns working. ‘“They win,” he shouted to the empty air; “the people win!”’ He doesn't get long to enjoy his triumph, though:—his craft is caught by the edge of an explosion and the novel ends with him plummeting to his death.

Wells's jumping-off point for this novel was the remarkable (indeed, staggering) success of Edward Bellamy's utopian novel Looking Backward: 2000–1887 (1886), in which a young man called Julian West falls asleep in 1880s USA and awakes 113 years later to a socialist utopia North America. Bellamy's book, dramatically inert and tediously preachy though it is, was a massive hit: over a million copies were sold, more than 160 Nationalist Clubs formed to propagate the book's ideas, and a Nationalist Party was established that looked, for a while, as if it might have a real shot at contesting the US Presidency. It's hard to think of any novel, SF or otherwise, that had such widespread and immediate an impact. One aspect of this success was a swarm of unofficial sequels and rebuttals that appeared in the decades that followed, all inhabiting the same ‘rip-van-winkle-sleeper-wakes-to-future-utopia’ trope: there are, it seems, over 150 of these, including William Morris's News From Nowhere (1890), in which a character called William Guest falls asleep and wakes in a future utopia modelled on labouring-agrarian, rather than Bellamy's technological-urban, lines. Wells's novel is also in explicit dialogue with Looking Backward—Bellamy gets name-checked early on in When the Sleeper Wakes, when Isbister is discussing Graham's case with his friend Warming: ‘“It’s Rip Van Winkle come real.” “It’s Bellamy,” said Warming’ [Sleeper, ch. 2]. The thing that makes Wells's intervention into this crowded genre new is its pessimism. His twist is different to the one preferred his friend Morris: revealing not a different mode of utopia but utopia itself as sham, actual dystopia. Instead of wandering the gleaming world amazed at its myriad wonders, Wells's protagonist discovers the grim truth beneath the veneer of technological advance: exploitation and oppression.

The 1910 revision, The Sleeper Awakes, is essentially the same book slimmed down: about 6000 words are cut from the first edition (the later edition has 25 to the first edition's 24 chapters, but that's because the original's chapter 23 is cut into two; fairly long chunks are pruned from chapters 14, 16, 21 and 23). There are various smaller adjustments—for instance, Wells changes ‘aeropile’ to ‘monoplane’ throughout—and two more substantive changes. One is that, by 1910, Wells had come to regret what he called ‘the obvious vulgarity’ of ‘making a “love interest” out of Helen and Graham’. He changes this in the new edition on the, it seems to me interesting grounds, that, technically, Graham is 200 years older than the girl: ‘not the slightest intimation of any sexual interest could in truth have arisen between these two. They loved and kissed one another, but as a girl and her heroic grandfather might love.’ The other big revision is an elimination of the earlier book's political-revolutionary optimism, however obliquely that was framed: ‘I have also, with a few strokes of the pen, eliminated certain dishonest and regrettable suggestions that the People beat Ostrog. My Graham dies, as all his kind must die, with no certainty of either victory or defeat.’ Unsmiley face.

So what to say about this novel? Critics make great claims for it, at least in terms of its influence. According to Leon Stover, Sleeper ‘is the one single source inspiring all the great dystopian novels of the twentieth century, from We to Brave New World to Nineteen Eighty-Four’ [Leon Stover When the Sleeper Wakes: a Critical Text of the 1899 New York and London First Edition (McFarland 2000), 12]. In this he is following Mark Hillegas’s The Future as Nightmare: H. G. Wells and the Anti-Utopians (OUP 1967), which argues that Sleeper provides the basic template for subsequent iterations of this kind of story, famous and otherwise, with all the now-familiar story-props, conceits and settings: ‘the enclosed super-city, the disappearance of the family, the elimination of privacy, the degradation of the working class, the use of “kine-tele-photography” and “babble machines” for propaganda, pleasure cities, euthanasia, and mental surgery’. All that is certainly striking. The most obvious comparator—Brave New World—necessarily suffers in terms of its belatedness. And yet Huxley's novel, though of course chronologically epigone, seems to me much the superior piece of fiction. I think this has to do with the way Wells hoists a melodramatic plot of political machination and deceit, burgeoning love, war and aerial jousting, on his dystopian speculation. However fun this is to read, it strikes a rather more puerile note than Huxley's more considered explorations of the fascistic logic of regimented social pleasure as such. Put it this way: Brave New World adopts the form of a mature philosophical novel (all that earnest dialogue between the Savage and Mustapha Mond!) to dramatise a fundamental infantilisation of society, where Wells's novel uses the infantile form of the adventure story to attempt a more serious critique of encroaching fascism. His later en-grim-mening of the story's political moral, stressing the impotence of individuals like Graham against the oppressive political logic of figures like Ostrog, strikes me as a belated reaction to this. There's an enduring bias in our culture that dystopias, from Airstrip One to Westeros, are more ‘serious’ than utopias. I can't for the life of me think why.

I suppose it's unfair to judge Wells by a novel that was, as he published his, three decades away from even being written. Perhaps we should talk instead of the book's patent Arthurian intertext. Because of course one of the things Wells is doing in When the Sleeper Wakes is recasting Arthurian romance as science fiction. Sleeper starts on the Cornish cliffs near Boscastle; which is to say, just along the coast from Tintagel. Graham (an important politician in his own day; which is to say, a kind of national leader) sleeps, as Arthur is said to sleep in the Isle of Avalon, until his time should come again. The whole future-romance, then, is reconfigured Arthuriana: planes instead of steeds, Ostrog playing Mordred's part at the last battle that must, of course, kill them both. Helen Wotton says to Graham, ‘a faint colour [creeping] back to her cheek’: ‘“Do you know that you have been to myriads—King Arthur ... the King who would come in his own good time and put the world right for them”’ [Sleeper, ch. 18]. Graham's failure might represent the deadness of this chivalric ideal, but I prefer a different reading. Ostrog makes the comparison as explicit: ‘The day of the common man is past. The first real aristocracy, the first permanent aristocracy, came in with castles and armour, and vanished before the musket and bow. But this is the second aristocracy. The real one ... The common man now is a helpless unit. In these days we have this great machine of the city, and an organisation complex beyond his understanding.’ For all its glamour, the legend of King Arthur was a fascist fable, the military fuhrer who brings order and piece because he organically embodies the land he rules.

We could say that both Wells and Huxley recognised fascism for the socially functional puerility it is, even if I'd say Huxley found a better fictional form for expressing that core ideological truth than did Wells—better because Brave New World as novel is able to distance itself from the juvenile satisfactions of sex and soma, where Sleeper gets rather caught-up in all the surface thrills and spills, the running around and aerial dogfights. Adorno, in characteristically gloomy mood, speculated about ‘the coming extinction of art’, something he saw ‘prefigured in the increasing impossibility of representing historical events’:
That there is no adequate drama about Fascism is not due to lack of talent; talent is withering through the insolubility of the writer's most urgent task. He has to choose between two principles, both equally inappropriate to the subject: psychology and infantilism. [Adorno, Minima Moralia [1951] (translated E F N Jephcott; Verso 1974), 143]
Stripping out the sex makes Wells's story even more the young-person's adventure yarn. And though the book is full of ingenious extrapolation about modes of social control, its power politics is curiously flat and abstract: the ‘people’ mob facelessly for, or against, Ostrog; the final battle is a toy-soldiers contest between undifferentiated Londoners en masse and an entirely abstracted corps of black African ‘policeman’ flying-in. Not that this is exactly a failing in the novel. It speaks to the fascistic logic of this mode of absolutism, the reduction of the complexities and intersectional individualities of real history to heroic representative figures and abstracted quantities. ‘It is the essential abstractness of what really happens which rebuts the aesthetic image,’ laments Adorno. ‘To make this abstractness expressible at all, the writer is forced to translate it into a kind of children's language, into archetypes, and so a second time to “bring it home”...’ Ostrog is not a character; he is the embodiment of Wellsian pessimism about the likelihood of future history diverting into purely authoritarian forms—sleepwalking, we might say, into disaster. Hence the appositeness of Wells's ‘sleeper’ conceit, however shonky Bellamy's narrative device is liable to strike us now. (‘It is hard to escape the sense,’ John Clute and David Langford rightly note, ‘that the sleeper-awakes structure betrayed, even before the beginning of the twentieth century, an undue fastidiousness of imagination, and that some straightforward magic, like a time machine, might always have been a more elegant option.’) Dystopia measures the gap between the present and utopian possibilities. For Wells the body politic dozes and mutters on its uncomfortable bed, when it should awake and seize the future.

Why does Graham's adversary have so bizarre a name as ‘Ostrog’, when other people in 2100 have much more conventional names, like ‘Helen Wotton’? It's almost too obviously a cipher: ‘Ost’, German for ‘East’, in straightforward dystopian opposition to Bellamy's utopian surname ‘Julian West’; and ‘rog’ for ... who? ‘There is a queer little twist in my private vanity,’ Wells says, in the Experiment in Autiobiography, ‘which disposes me at times to parallel my lot with Roger Bacon's’. How so?
Bacon in his cell scribbling away at those long dissertations of his about a new method of knowledge, which never even reached, much less influenced, the one sole reader [but] which nevertheless in the course of a few centuries came to the fullest fruition. I play at being such a man as he was, a man altogether lonely and immediately futile, a man lit by a vision of a world still some centuries ahead, convinced of its reality and urgency, and yet powerless to bring it nearer.
And the relevance to When the Sleeper Wakes?
The thoughts of Roger Bacon were like a dream that comes before dawn and is almost forgotten again. The sleeper turns over and sleeps on. All that Roger Bacon wrote was like humanity talking in its sleep. What is happening now is by comparison an awakening.
‘Ostrog’ is the widdershins, ‘eastern’ (as opposed to Bellamyesque ‘west’-ern) embodiment of these Rogerian dreams, the bad possibilities of sheer oppression. And if I had to put it in a nutshell I'd say the limitations of Sleeper as a novel devolve upon the aesthetic blankness of those very possibilities. Last Adorno quotation for today:
The impossibility of portraying Fascism springs from the fact that in it, as in its contemplation, subjective freedom no longer exists. Total unfreedom can be recognised, but not represented. [Minima Moralia, 144]
Wells was too canny a writer not to recognise the extent to which Sleeper butts its head awkwardly against this limit. He could see it didn't really work as a novel, although its problems are closely intertwined with the grounds of its success—a success measured in terms of influence. In 1910 Wells tried reworking it, without really solving the problems. By 1934, as he wrote his Autobiography, he seems to have decided that the problem was that his mode of extrapolation had been, as it were, too flat:
The future depicted in the Time Machine was a mere fantasy based on the idea of the human species developing about divergent lines, but the future in When the Sleeper Awakes was essentially an exaggeration of contemporary tendencies: higher buildings, bigger towns, wickeder capitalists and labour more down-trodden than ever and more desperate. Everything was bigger, quicker and more crowded; there was more and more flying and the wildest financial speculation. It was our contemporary world in a state of highly inflamed distension ... I suppose that is the natural line for an imaginative writer to take, in an age of material progress and political sterility. Until he thinks better of it.
Thinking better means imagining qualitative, rather than just quantitative, change. But this does not negate the possibility that the future was indeed going to be a fascistic-authoritarian ‘highly inflamed distension’ of contemporary logics of commercialisation, authoritarianism and so on. And with ‘highly inflamed distension’ we seem to have returned to Wells's malfunctioning kidney, all the way back in 1898.


There is another reading of this novel with which I want, briefly, to conclude; one I think it likely Wells knowingly included in his story, although one that has been, so far as I can see, entirely neglected by the critics. So: we can of course read Sleeper as a representation of one possible future world extrapolated from Wells's own time into the twenty-second century. But we can also read this novel as Wells consciously Pincher-Martining his own fantasia. This would explain why Wells opens with his long, rather halting first chapter in which Isbister chances upon a suicidal Graham, loitering on a Cornish clifftop. Sleeper starts with Graham contemplating jumping to his death below, and ends with Graham plummeting precipitously to his death. What happens in between can be read as either the results of Graham sleeping for two centuries and waking to spend time in a future world, or else as a mode of vivid hallucination experienced by a dying man.

To be clear: it doesn't seem to me that either of these readings needs to drive out the other. Wells has written the book, carefully, so that either is viable. In the latter case, the series of revolutions in which Graham is involved in future-London—first by waking, then overthrowing the Council and installing Ostrog, and then overthrowing Ostrog and fighting off his counter-revolution—can be read as fantastical iterations of Graham literally tumbling as he falls (as Isbister leads him back to the hotel, supposedly having foiled his suicide, Graham complains of dizziness: “Spin, spin into the darkness ... It goes round. Spin, it goes—spin—”). Nor should it surprise us that Graham's fevered, dying mind turns literal revolutions in the air into metaphorical revolutions in the world. From Isbister (notionally old, now, as Graham has slumbered for decades) we learn that
he [Graham] was a man of considerable gifts, but spasmodic, emotional. He had grave domestic troubles, divorced his wife, in fact, and it was as a relief from that, I think, that he took up politics of the rabid sort. He was a fanatical Radical—a Socialist—or typical Liberal, as they used to call themselves, of the advanced school. Energetic—flighty—undisciplined. Overwork upon a controversy did this for him. I remember the pamphlet he wrote—a curious production. Wild, whirling stuff. There were one or two prophecies.
Grahams's Pincher Martin-y vision naturally elaborates his politically-prophetic obsessions, fleshing them out (as Golding's Martin's also do) into a whole slice of lived-experience. When he wakes in 2100, Graham is initially unsure where he is, and hears ‘a noise rise and fall, like the murmur of breakers on pebbles’ [Sleeper, ch 3]. This turns out to be the distant sound of the great crowd that has gathered at the news of the waking sleeper; but it, and later mighty susurrations, like the spinning of the great wind vanes, could be the sound of Cornish surf infiltrating itself into Graham's dying consciousness, just as the winged ‘monoplanes’ could be seabirds, and the domed cities the sky itself: Graham's first words to Isbister are an instruction to ‘Look at that sea that has shone and quivered there for ever! And this blue vault, with the blinding sun pouring from the dome of it. It is your world.’ In this reading the sleep from which we sleepers need to awaken is life itself. Wake up! the novel is saying. Abre los ojos!

Friday, 17 March 2017

The War of the Worlds (1898)

1: The Coming of the Blogpost

A giant metal cylinder crash-lands near Woking. Out of it emerge tentacled Martians to make war upon humanity from towering mechanical tripods, laying waste to South East England before eventually succumbing to Earthly bacteria against which (we are told) they have no natural defence. But you already know the story. The War of the Worlds is, I suppose, Wells's most famous novel. It has had a greater influence on the development of twentieth-century SF than any other Wells title, and possibly than any other novel (save, perhaps, Frankenstein). It's still a really great read: Wells at his most vivid and economical, thought-provoking and chilling and mind-expanding and exciting. And it's been very extensively discussed by critics, scholars and fans. All of which makes it rather hard to know what to say about it in something as fundamentally disposable as a blog post.

So what I'm going to do is divide the post into two; to make a few rather over-obvious observations about War of the Worlds in part one, toss-in some wilder speculations in part two, and then scurry away into less influential Wellsiana in subsequent posts as hastily as possible. Had I but world enough and time, and leisure, I could write a whole book on this slim novel. As it is I'm afraid you'll have to make do with this hasty brevity. If you are less than satisfied, I'll be happy to refund your entrance fee at the end of the blogpost. Ulla!

Ulla? Anyone?

So: there are a couple of obvious starting points. One is to note how organically this novel grows out of the writing Wells was doing earlier in the 1890s. Physically, the Martians are essentially ‘Men of the Year Million’: ‘enormous brains, soft, liquid, soulful eyes. Their whole muscular system, their legs, their abdomens, shrivelled to nothing, a dangling, degraded pendant to their minds; the irrational fellowship of man will give place to an intellectual co-operation, and emotion fall within the scheme of reason’. This essay Wells reprinted (as ‘Of a Book Unwritten’) in Certain Personal Matters (1897), to be followed the following year by:
To me it is quite credible that the Martians may be descended from beings not unlike ourselves, by a gradual development of brain and hands (the latter giving rise to the two bunches of delicate tentacles at last) at the expense of the rest of the body. Without the body the brain would, of course, become a mere selfish intelligence, without any of the emotional substratum of the human being. [War, II.2; ‘What We Saw from the Ruined House’]
And the novel's famous opening paragraph:
No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same.
... is so close to the paragraph with which the ‘Through a Microscope’ essay, from the same volume, ends, it it's tempting to think Wells deliberately re-used it:
And all the time these creatures are living their vigorous, fussy little lives; in this drop of water they are being watched by a creature of whose presence they do not dream, who can wipe them all out of existence with a stroke of his thumb, and who is withal as finite, and sometimes as fussy and unreasonably energetic, as themselves. He sees them, and they do not see him, because he has senses they do not possess, because he is too incredibly vast and strange to come, save as an overwhelming catastrophe, into their lives. Even so, it may be, the dabbler himself is being curiously observed.... The dabbler is good enough to say that the suggestion is inconceivable. I can imagine a decent amœba saying the same thing. [‘Through a Microscope’]
In my post on Wells's cycling idyll The Wheels of Chance (1896) I note that it goes over, with human cyborgs, and in comic mode, pretty much the same territory that War of the Worlds goes over with Martian cyborgs, as martial tragedy. In the Experiment in Autobiography Wells says as much, recalling his first cycling holiday: ‘there I planned and wrote the War of the Worlds, the Wheels of Chance and the Invisible Man. I learnt to ride my bicycle upon sandy tracks with none but God to help me ... Later on I wheeled about the district marking down suitable places and people for destruction by my Martians.’

There's another specific starting point for this novel: the reports in 1894 of sudden bright lights observable upon the red planet. They were recorded first in an unsigned article in Nature [August 2, 1894, p. 319], then at greater length in E. S. Holden's ‘Bright Projections at the Terminator of Mars’, Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (December 1894), 284-5. Nature's report reads:
Projection lumineuse dans région australe du terminateur de Mars observée par Javelle 28 Juillet 16 heures Perrotin. This relates to an observation made at the famous Nice Observatory, of which M. Perrotin is the Director, by M. Javelle, who is already well known for his careful work. The news therefore must be accepted seriously, and, as it may be imagined, details are anxiously awaited; on Monday and Tuesday nights, unfortunately, the weather in London was not favourable for observation, so whether the light continues or not is not known.
Could they be signs of communication? Perhaps evidence of the launching of projectiles into space? If so, then what kind of life? We know Wells read at least the Nature paragraph, because he makes reference to it in the first chapter of his novel: ‘during the opposition of 1894 a great light was seen on the illuminated part of the disk, first at the Lick Observatory, then by Perrotin of Nice, and then by other observers. English readers heard of it first in the issue of Nature dated August 2’ [War, 1.1]. We can picture Wells chewing this metaphorical cud through 1895, and writing it up in 1896-97. The story was serialised in Pearson's Magazine April-Dec 1897, with some rather nice illustratations by Warwick Goble, and then published as a single volume by Heinemann in 1898 in the rather underwhelming livery pictured at the head of this blog.

There's another sense in which War of the Worlds grows organically out of its context: it is an example of that crowded late 19th-century sub-genre, ‘future invasion of Britain’ tales. The vogue for this kind of story was kicked-off by Chesney’s Battle of Dorking (1871), in which a small but efficient German army invades Britain and defeats in humiliatingly short order the poorly-organised, -trained and -armed British reserve troops. The intrinsic interest of this tale is small, for it is a thinly-written first-person narrative into which is kneaded quantities of annoyingly hectoring Tory militarism: ‘a little firmness and self-denial, or political courage,’ laments its narrator, ‘might have averted the disaster’, the cause of which he ascribes to the fact that ‘the lower classes, uneducated, untrained in the use of political rights’ had usurped the powers of ‘the class which had used to rule ... and which had brought the nation with honour unsullied through former struggles’. But there's no denying the tremendous contemporary popularity it enjoyed, and the chord of British Imperial anxiety it touched. Blackwood’s Magazine, where the story was first published, reprinted six times to meet demand. Issued as a pamphlet it sold 110,000 copies in two months. Gladstone, the Prime Minister, attacked it in the House of Commons as alarmist. It was translated into most European languages, and other authors rushed to write plagiarisms of or counter-blasts to Chesney’s slim tale. Dozens appeared over the following years: I F Clarke provides a survey and sampler in his Voices Prophesying War (OUP 1992).

Wells deserves credit for the brilliant idea of replacing human adversaries with alien ones; but in other respects The War of the Worlds follows the template established by these kinds of stories. As per, the narrative centres on the life of an ordinary Englishman, and then dramatises the extraordinary erupting into it, including scenes of national military inadequacy and civilian panic. Instead of the Germans or the Chinese it is Martians that invade:
Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of their appearance. The peculiar V-shaped mouth with its pointed upper lip, the absence of brow ridges, the absence of a chin beneath the wedge-like lower lip, the incessant quivering of this mouth, the Gorgon groups of tentacles. [War, 19]
Lacking digestive tracts of their own, these beings simply ingest the oxygenated and nutrient-rich blood of others. This vividly visualised icon of monstrous and horrific alien-ness is what the other now-forgotten invasion fantasies from this period lacked, and it is key to the cultural endurance of The War of the Worlds. It also represents one of those odd synchronicities of literary culture: Wells started publishing his tales of Martian-alien vampires mere weeks before Bram Stoker published his desperately famous novel of aristocratic-foreigner vampires, Dracula (1897). This new myth, a way of representing the sense of something simultaneously other and superior, coming here to feed on our ordinary blood responded, clearly, to something in the air (the two men weren't friends, didn't swap story ideas or anything like that). The difference I suppose is that Stoker's predator actualises the crushing power of the past, of class privilege bolstered by all that is old and traditional and deep-rooted; where Wells's predators both represent an in-story future and actualise a wider sense that technology, especially the connected technologies of motility and warfare, are going to sweep away all that old class-historical inertia. Not hard to see which of the two was the more prophetic.

And actually, saying that makes me realise that a can of worms, labelled Martian Vampires, is shuddering on the table, waiting to be opened. Because the differences between Wells's and Stoker's versions of the vampire have to do with more than just opposing the technologically-unleashed future and the inertial past. There is also an erotic component to the discourse of post-Stoker vampires that surely isn't there for Wells's Martians. But we're getting sidetracked.

Re-reading The War of the Worlds I was struck by just how well made it is, as a piece of writing. There's a really impressive control and expressiveness to the prose. Rarely in his writing did he again match the desolate beauty he evokes in a London emptied by the Martian threat and overrun with the red weed they have brought across space. At this point in the book the last Martian is ceasing its weird cry and dying.
Abruptly as I crossed the bridge, the sound of ‘Ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla’ ceased. It was, as it were, cut off. The silence came like a thunder-clap. The dusky houses about me stood faint and tall and dim; the trees towards the park were growing black. All about me the red weed clambered among the ruins, writhing to get above me in the dimness. Night, the mother of fear and mystery, was coming upon me. But while that voice sounded the solitude, the desolation, had been endurable; by virtue of it, London had still seemed alive, and the sense of life about me had upheld me. Then suddenly a change, the passing of something – I knew not what – and then a stillness that could be felt. [Wells, War, 159]
This quasi-Islamic cry of ‘ulla ulla’, the call from an alien muezzin out of a metallic minaret, is an interestingly suggestive touch when it comes to ‘othering’ the Martians, adding-in flavours of exoticized orientalism (though it has always struck me as a kind of sound it would be extremely hard to make with a beak-shaped mouth). The War of the Worlds, like the other invasion-fantasy books of the 1880s and 1890s, captures a fundamentally xenophobic fear of foreign-ness. Are the Martians merely ciphers for racial and national otherness? Darko Suvin thinks so:
The Martians from The War of the Worlds are described in Goebbelsian terms of repugnantly slimy and horrible ‘racial’ otherness and given the sole function of bloodthirsty predators (a function that fuses genocidal fire-power – itself described as an echo of the treatment meted out by the imperialist powers to colonized peoples – with the bloodsucking vampirism of horror fantasies). [Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (New Haven: Yale University Press 1979), 78]
Wells’s novel symbolically distilled the concerns of its age. His Martians are of course imperialists, using their superior technology to invade a nation (England) which had been accumulating its own Empire throughout the century largely because of a superior technological sophistication. In other words, the arrival of the Martians and their mechanised brutalities are the symbolic forms Wells chose to explore a deeper set of concerns about the violence of Empire-building, and about the anxieties of otherness and the encounter with otherness that Empire imposes on the Imperial peoples. But it misses the power of this book to reduce it to a political message, as this sort of analysis tends to do. What works so well in this absolutely gripping book is the minuteness of Wells’s grasp upon the detail of his imagined drama. There are many features of this novel that look, in hindsight, extraordinarily prescient—not prophesy (many of Wells’ imagined futures get core things quite wrong) so much as a Jamesonian future dialectical antithesis working upon the historical and contemporary theses with which Wells engaged to produce a synthesis of both. The alien’s heat-ray anticipates laser technology; the lethal ‘black smoke’ they use looks forward to the use of mustard gas in World War I.

Most insightful of all is the twist at the novel’s end: the inverted fable of Western colonial aggression defeated not by military force but by microbes. It was not until many decades later that historians of the European empires made plain the extent to which it was precisely such agents that made colonisation possible in the first place: Jared Diamond’s study Guns, Germs and Steel (1997) brilliantly explores the way it was European resistance to certain diseases, and the lack of those same microbes in the rest of the world, that laid the grounds for Europe conquering America and Africa rather than, as might have happened, America and Africa conquering Europe. There's a version of Wells in the critical literature that reads him as the prophet of social as well as individual hygiene, broadly contemptuous of the weaker sections of bumbling, decadent, sniffling humanity. When he tells us in this novel that ‘Martian sanitary science eliminated illness ages ago. A hundred diseases, all the contagions and fevers of human life, consumption, cancers, tumours and such morbidities, never enter into the scheme of their life’ [Wells, War, 131] we might even read his tone one of admiration. But the end of The War of the Worlds makes plain that too ruthless a pursuit of social cleanliness is a weakening rather than a strengthening thing. Disease, like empire, is a more complex matter than that, and Wells’ genius in his fiction (if, perhaps, not in his non-fiction) was always with the messy complexities rather than the clean simplicities.

These Martians travel between worlds in a cylinder fired out of an enormous canon, a Wellsian nod towards Verne’s De la terra à la lune (1865) in which men fly to the moon by such technology. But even in the 1860s Verne's contemporaries derided the notion that his astronauts could have survived such a rapid acceleration. Verne took note. Belatedly, in the book's sequel, Verne addressed the scientific and engineering implausibilities of his mode of launching: for in Autour de la Lune (1870) that Verne mentions (for the first time) an elaborate system of ‘tampons … cousins d’eau … cloisons brisantes’ (‘buffers, water cushions, collapsible partitions’) specifically designed to dampen the effect of ‘cette vitesse initiale de onze mille mètres qui eût suffi à traverser Paris ou New York en une seconde’ ‘this initial velocity of 11,000 metres which was enough to traverse Paris or New York in a second’, [Verne Autour, 20]. The impractability of such extreme acceleration would be, if anything, much more debilitating for the soft-bodied Martian beings; and Wells never again proposed launching spacecraft by such a means in his fiction—First Men in the Moon (1901) for instance posits a craft powered by antigravity. I suppose that, as with Verne, the point is that The War of the Worlds is as much metaphorical fiction as rational extrapolation, and that the many touches of carefully observed verisimilitude in the novel reinforce rather than contradict this metaphoricity. Big guns are explosive. Big guns are the technology of big war, and war, bigger even than the one Lieutenant-Colonel Chesney foretold, was the coming thing. We can, in other words, take seriously the ‘war’ in Wells’ title, here. It’s yet another way in which he was surprisingly prescient, treating war not as warriors meeting on a battlefield but as massed tides of refugees. As civilians terrorised and massacred, living under bombardment and gas-attack. The final chapter of the novel’s first book (16: ‘the Exodus from London’) is not only one of the first but also one of the most powerful representations in fiction of the way war would come to figure in the 20th-century: huge crowds of non-belligerents flooding away from the fighting in fear of their lives. War in The War of the Worlds is no longer a horizontal interaction between two armies. It now has a terrible vertical vector—something the 20th-century world would come to know only too bitterly, from shells and bombs to V2s, cruise missiles and drones plummeting down from on-high. When the narrator says ‘suddenly, like a thing falling upon me from without, came fear [Wells, War, 24] he is describing the Martians s externalisations of a state of mind. Indeed that, in a crucial sense, is what The War of the Worlds is about.

One of the most powerful portions of this short novel is its subtle and allusive representation of post-invasion England. From the hints Wells drops, we can intuit a Britain profoundly changed. Some of these changes are obvious: the red weed the invaders brought with them from Mars, the ‘almost complete specimen’ of a dead Martian ‘in spirits in the Natural History Museum’. More haunting, though, are the artfully throwaway references in the novel’s early chapters:
I was at home at that hour and writing in my study; and although my French windows face towards Ottershaw and the blind was up (for I loved in those days to look up at the night sky), I saw nothing of it. [Wells, War, 10]
‘In those days ...’ Presumably, as at the point of writing this narrative, those days are long past: the night sky now a venue of fear instead of wonder. A few pages later the narrator notes that ‘few of the common people in England had anything but the vaguest astronomical ideas in those days’: in those days again, pointing to a now in which everybody knows about the solar system and the dangers it poses. Most strikingly of all, it seems to me, is a sentence towards the end of the opening chapter:
People in these latter times scarcely realize the abundance and enterprise of our 19th-century papers.
It’s never been clear to me why the aftermath of the Martian invasion should have so reduced the provision of news. Perhaps the implication is that a shattered infrastructure cannot support such things: but I read a different significance into this reference—that the disasters have cured humanity of its passion for news. The news is a way in which we tell stories about ourselves to ourselves, and one of the more radical things about The War of the Worlds is, paradoxically enough, its suspicion of storytelling. Wells’ narrator falls in with a curate, whose narrative of the invasion (that the Martians are agents of God’s judgement against a sinful world) is shown to be inadequate to events. Later he meets an artilleryman who spins a Utopian future narrative with humanity creating a new high-tech subterranean civilisation. But he is shown to be an ineffectual dreamer, his storytelling irrelevant to the grim reality. The irony of this repeated device is that The War of the Worlds is itself, of course, a story, a narrative we are invited to distrust. The narrator more-or-less says so:
Perhaps I am a man of exceptional moods. I do not know how far my experience is common. At times I suffer from the strangest sense of detachment from myself and the world about me. [Wells, War, 30]
The narrator’s quixotic mood is integral to the story: sometimes he is rationally dedicated to self-preservation, at other times strangely suicidal moods overcome him (‘an insane resolve possessed me. I would die and end it’). Sometimes he travels over the landscape of the novel with purpose—to investigate the cylinder, to find his wife. At other times he moves passively, or even randomly. He is enough of an everyman to convey Wells’ point: that the human species is inconstant, passive and easily overcome.

2. The Earth under the Blogpost

Despite the title Wells gives to Part 2 of his novel, ‘Earth Under the Martians’, we don't actually get to see what Earth looks like under the Martians; partly because they only invade a small portion of England, and mostly because they are defeated before they can get very far. But that shouldn't prevent us from wondering how things might have looked, had the Martian invasion been successful.

Let's consider the situation. The global population in the 1890s was somewhere between 1.6 billion and 1.8 billion people. This was what the invaders needed to overcome and subdue.

In Wells's novel, ten Martian cylinders land at seven locations: Horsell Common; Addlestone Golf Links; Pyrford; Bushey Park; Sheen; Wimbledon and Primrose Hill. Reading the text closely we can deduce that each cylinder contains five Martians, a similar number of the bipedal creatures upon which the Martians feed, the component parts for five Tripods ready for assembly, as well as a smaller number of Handling Machines, and the materials to build at least one Flying Machine. As to why no more than ten are sent, Wells's narrator isn't sure:
Why the shots ceased after the tenth no one on earth has attempted to explain. It may be the gases of the firing caused the Martians inconvenience. Dense clouds of smoke or dust, visible through a powerful telescope on earth as little grey, fluctuating patches, spread through the clearness of the planet's atmosphere and obscured its more familiar features. [War, 1:1]
It's not clear whether this is the entire expeditionary force, or the vanguard of a larger army that never materialised, or perhaps only a preliminary group sent to reconnoitre. Maybe the Martians planned to send scores, or hundreds, of cylinders straight away, but as Wells's narrator speculates, the exhaust from the guns stopped them doing so. Maybe they only ever planned a small force to begin with, and intended sending more when this advance guard had subdued the territory. At any rate, there's no doubt this is war, and that the Martians are invading.

So what is their longer term plan? It cannot be genocide of the human population, since we are their food, and if they kill us all they will starve. It's hardly conceivable the Martians mean to ship over a breeding stock of the bipeds species on which they feed. I mean, think of the logistics: it would be impractically laborious, and only small amounts could be transferred anyway. And why should they put themselves to such bother when we are so eminently edible?

Ah, but what holds for food also holds for colonists. At five travellers per cylinder, and with the launch of each cylinder causing (it seems) grievous pollution on the homeworld, just how many craft do the Martians envisage sending, overall? Say the advance guard were to be followed by more cylinders, once the territory is subdued: how many? Hundreds? That would result in a Martian population of Earth in the multiples of hundreds. To rule a planet of over a billion souls.

Now it is, of course, true that a small force can subdue a much larger population: that was how we British ruled our empire, after all. Take India: a few thousand officials and a some tens of thousands of British troops ruled and policed a population of over two hundred million people. And it's true that we managed this, in part, through our superiority in the technology of war. The British empire went through a particularly precarious period in the 1880s, with the imperial army suffering serious military defeats in Africa at the battle of Isandhlwana (1879) and in Afghanistan at the battle of Maiwand (1880); two defeats that caused sensation in the British media and among the population. That neither proved the start of massed uprisings against British rule was, really down to one exigency: better guns. First the use of the Gatling gun in the early 1880s and then replacing the old single-charge rifles with the Maxim, the first fully automatic weapon, in 1884. These were used over and over against Zulus, Mahdists, Matabele, Afghans and Indians, and never failed. Wells, a citizen of the imperial power, knew that much. His Martians are certainly armed with vastly superior ordnance than the Earthlings.

But guns are not enough, on their own, to hold down an empire. The British fought two costly wars in Afghanistan in the nineteenth-century, both aimed at securing the northern border of British possessions in India against Russian expansion. But this aim was actually achieved by soft rather than hard power: in David French's words, ‘in Kabul a mixture of diplomacy and bribery usually worked well enough. In 1857, £220,000 helped ensure that Afghanistan remained neutral while the British crushed the mutiny. That was security at a bargain basement price.’ Divide and rule, paying off some local Indian rulers and warring down others, the judicious use of bribery, flattery, treaties of mutual advantage and the like, was much more important than brute force in controlling the huge populations of empire.

We have to assume the Martians longer-term plans include something like this. Even a steady fleet of cylinders, fired from the red planet,  each bringing only a handful, or tentacle-clutch, of new individuals, would only very slowly build a population of colonists: it would still only be in the thousands even after many decades. A tiny elite to govern billions.

Wells's novel, of course, concerns the initial stages of the invasion, when shock and awe is the strategy. But, had they not succumbed to their microbe nemesis, we have to assume the Martians would not have continued on a strategy of mere destruction and massacre. The invasion, having cowed the earthlings, would have had to set up imperial structures: client rulers to keep the rest of the population in check, to ensure that the Martians were kept supplied with food (our blood) and left in peace to build whatever structures and technologies they desired.

We must remember one thing above all about the Martians: though they are horrific and monstrous to human eyes, and though Wells's novel draws on the literary conventions of Gothic horror to represent them for our excitement (as per the Dracula parallel I discussed above), the Martians themselves are super-rational beings, highly intelligent and quite removed from the bestial substrate of mere emotion. For them the invasion is a rational and intellectual project.

Perhaps they do view us as cattle, and surely they aim to exploit us. But, having observed us so minutely for so long, they would know that we are clever cattle, capable of impressive feats of farming, engineering and urbanisation. Though they would inevitably consider us inferiors, they would nonetheless plan to talk to us, to negotiate a settlement, on terms of rationally conceived mutual interest, under the aegis of their overwhelming advantages in military might and technology.

Which brings me to my final speculation. To talk to us, they must know our language. It would make sense to gather as much information as possible before the military landing. What if the Martians had sent a lone cylinder at some earlier point in human history, to scout the territory? For a species millions of years ahead of us, evolutionarily speaking, and functionally immortal, this first contact might have been many centuries ago. Let us say they observed human life starting to build great cities, long walls, clearing forests for farming. Say they sent a scout to investigate, and that this individual stayed long enough to learn something of human society, luckily escaping human illness. Say this Martian returned to his homeworld with reports of the structures under which human life is organised, and something too of its language. The Martians are a pinnacle civilisation who have remained effectively the same for hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of years. They would not expect the passage of a couple of thousand years on Earth to alter such things as the language in which earthlings communicate with one another.

We tend to assume the invader's cry of ‘ulla ulla’ is one Martian trying to communicate with another:
“Ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla,” wailed that superhuman note—great waves of sound sweeping down the broad, sunlit roadway ... “Ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla,” cried the voice, coming, as it seemed to me, from the district about Regent's Park. [War, 2:8]
But what if it's not? What if it is the Martians trying to open channels of communication with us, using their best guess as to our language, Latin? Are they saying ullus: but the vocative plural, since they are addressing all of us, and neuter since the Martians have no gender?—‘ūlla’. Which is to say: could it be the Martians are striding about England calling to us: ‘anyone? anyone?’ And being puzzled, in their emotionless and rational manner, that nobody is answering them?

I know, I know. You are not convinced. I'm well aware the chances of anyone believing my speculation are a million to one, they said. But still ...

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Certain Personal Matters (1897)

A collection, this, of thirty-nine occasional pieces, varying in length from a few hundred to two thousand words, and selected from a much larger body of work published between 1893 and 1896 in various magazines and journals. The volume presents as a series of drolly whimsical bulletins from the life of an idle writer, a fictionalised version of Wells himself: his habits, his work, his likes and dislikes, his wife ‘Euphemia’, his domestic situation and so on. I read it in the edition pictured above; which is to say, not the Lawrence & Bullen 1897 first edition but rather the 1901 ‘cheap’ reprint. As you can see, at some point in the book's history a hungry reader appears to have chewed upon it.

So toothsome a volume has Wells produced! Unwin, publishers of this 1901 reprint, added this little note at the end of it:

Wit and wisdom, then, were considered the selling points. Wells explains how he came to this mode of writing in his Experiment in Autobiography. ‘When I had been at Eastbourne [holidaying, in 1891] for two or three days, I hit quite by accident upon the true path to successful freelance journalism. I found the hidden secret in a book by J. M. Barrie, called When a Man's Single [1888].’ That secret is to write short, comical meditations on quotidiana: pipes, umbrellas, flower-pots, cheese, that sort of thing. Wells had tried writing journalism before, ‘seeking rare and precious topics. Rediscovery of the Unique! Universe Rigid! The more I was rejected the higher my shots had flown. All the time I had been shooting over the target. All I had to do was to lower my aim—and hit.’ He immediately wrote ‘an article On Staying at the Seaside scribbled on the back of a letter and on its envelope.’ This he sent to his cousin Bertha Williams at Windsor ‘for her to typewrite’. He posted it to the Pall Mall Gazette and received a proof almost by return. ‘I was already busy on a second article,’ Wells recalls, ‘which was also accepted.’ Norman and Jean Mackenzie comment:
Wells had found the knack, at the moment when a whole new market was opening for just this kind of sketch. Even an incomplete list of his output in 1893 shows how quickly he learned to exploit the new situation. At least thirty articles are traceable. Their titles range from ‘Out Banstead Way’, ‘Angels’, ‘The Coal Scuttle’ and ‘Noises of Animals’ to ‘The Art of Being Photographed’ and ‘The Theory of the Perpetual Discomfort of Humanity’ [Norman and Jean Mackenzie, The Time Traveller: the Life of H G Wells (Weidenfeld 1973), 95]
By 1893 he was earning £10 a month from these sorts of essays alone; a pretty substantial sum, and one that doesn't include the money also coming in from short stories, reviews and novels.

They are, really, emphemera:— pieces, in David Smith's words, ‘which can be read in half a dozen minutes, but which will pique a reader's attention and ultimately allow him to think, “How true. I have done that myself”, or to make some similar remark.’ Smith goes on to speculate that the essays Wells collected in volume form, as here, are only the iceberg's tip:
Most of Wells's occasional pieces have not been collected, and many have not even been identified as his. Wells did not automatically receive the byline his reputation demanded until after 1896 or so. Some journals had a policy of giving only one byline an issue, no matter how many pieces an author contributed to it ... As a result, many of his early pieces are unknown. It obvious that many early Wells items have been lost. [David C. Smith, H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal: A Biography (Yale Univ, Press, 1986), p. 35]
This raises the intriguing possibility that there are various, conceivably a great many, early original Wells works sitting unidentified in the back issues of the Pall Mall Gazette and other such magazines. Wells himself suggests as much in the Experiment in Autobiography ‘I do not now recall the order of the various sketches, dialogues and essays I produced in that opening year of journalism. They came pouring out. Some of the best of them are to be found collected in two books, still to be bought, Certain Personal Matters and Select Conversations with an Uncle. Much of that stuff was good enough to print but not worth reprinting.’ Then again there are Wells scholars who think he's being suspiciously offhand here; and there's plenty of evidence that Wells curated his own output quite carefully. He certainly took pains to reprint what he could, and so extract the maximum income from his labour, which is understandable enough. Robert Philmus and David Hughes have usefully pulled-together some of these uncollected pieces in a volume they called Early Writings in Science and Science Fiction (1975); but there may be a lot more work to do here.

As for Certain Personal Matters itself: the volume is ... hmmm. Hmmm is the syllable that most precisely captures the effect it had upon me. Most of the essays here manifest a kind of leaden drollery, sometimes more and sometimes less amusing, more or less forced. To call them dated must appear egregious, because of course they are dated: the mode of living, the small establishment with servants and all the paraphernalia of 1890s life has fallen into the backward and abysm of time. The thing is, plenty of comic writing from this epoch still works. Of course it's always a partial game, recovering the hilarity of a past age. Even the best humorous prose comes down to us foxed, as it were: lines and passages that made contemporaries roar now strike us as musty and unfunny. Dickens's gags sometimes misfire nowadays; but the difference is he still has long stretches that can make me laugh aloud. Jerome K Jerome, whose Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow (1886) helped create the vogue for the sort of book Wells writes here, was as fine a writer of comic prose as any in his generation, but not all his stuff still sparks. Some, though, does: the ‘boots’ section in Three Men on the Bummel (1900) may be the single funniest thing written by any Victorian, and there's a reason why Three Men in a Boat (1889) is still read and loved today. The bald fact is that Wells was just not as accomplished a writer of comic prose as was Jerome. A large proportion of Certain Personal Matters is wincing, or actively bumptious, stylistically-speaking:
My old cricketer was seized, he says, some score of years ago now, by sciatica, clutched indeed about the loins thereby, and forcibly withdrawn from the practice of the art; since when a certain predisposition to a corpulent habit has lacked its natural check of exercise, and a broadness almost Dutch has won upon him. Were it not for this, which renders his contours and his receding aspect unseemly, he would be indeed a venerable-looking person, having a profile worthy of a patriarch, tinged though it may be with an unpatriarchal jollity, and a close curly beard like that of King David. He lives by himself in a small cottage outside the village—hating women with an unaccountable detestation—and apparently earns a precarious livelihood, and certainly the sincere aversion of the country side, by umpiring in matches, and playing whist and “Nap” with such as will not be so discreet and economical as to bow before his superior merit. [‘The Veteran Cricketer’]
I mean, I don't want to overstate things. A couple of the later pieces raised a smile, either because Wells manages from time-to-time to make the clockwork of this prose spin without catching, or else, perhaps, by a process of readerly stockholm-syndrome. So for example I rather warmed to ‘The Coal-Scuttle: A Study in Domestic Aesthetics’. It begins:
Euphemia, who loves to have home dainty and delightful, would have no coals if she could dispense with them, much less a coal-scuttle. Indeed, it would seem she would have no fireplace at all, if she had her will. All the summer she is happy, and the fireplace is anything but the place for a fire; the fender has vanished, the fireirons are gone, it is draped and decorated and disguised. So would dear Euphemia drape and disguise the whole iron framework of the world, with that decorative and decent mind of hers, had she but the scope. There are exotic ferns there, spreading their fanlike fronds, and majolica glows and gleams; and fabrics, of which Morris is the actual or spiritual begetter, delight the eye. In summer-time our fireplace is indeed a thing of beauty, but, alas for the solar system! it is not a joy for ever.
The shifts to which the narrator's wife are put to try and hide the fact that she supplies her fire with coal are wittily described, and this paragraph actually made me laugh aloud:
At first she would feign there was no such thing as coal. It was too horrible. Only a Zola would admit it. It was the epoch of concealment. The thing purchased was like a little cupboard on four legs; it might have held any convenient trifle; and there was a shelf upon the top and a book of poetry and a piece of crackled Satsuma. You took a little brass handle and pulled it down, and the front of the little cupboard came forward, and there you found your coal. But a dainty little cupboard can no more entertain black coal and inelegant firewood and keep its daintiness than a mind can entertain black thoughts and yet be sweet. This cabinet became demoralised with amazing quickness; it became incontinent with its corruptions, a hinge got twisted, and after a time it acquired the habit of suddenly, and with an unpleasant oscillatory laughing noise, opening of its own accord and proclaiming its horrid secret to Euphemia's best visitors.
This is funny; something T. Fisher Unwin recognised when they selected it as the essay that would be dignified with a frontispiece illustration.

But moments like this a relatively few.

It doesn't help that Wells presses so hard upon the ‘comic paradox’ pedal. ‘Thoughts on Cheapness and My Aunt Charlotte’ is built around the notion that cheap furniture is better than expensive furniture. There are plenty of statements pitched at a level of sarcastic irony: ‘I dislike most people; in London they get in one's way in the street and fill up railway carriages, and in the country they stare at you—but I hate my friends’ [‘The Trouble of Life’]; polite conversation ‘is the very degradation of speech’ [‘Of Conversation: An Apology’] and so on. It's an interesting question, actually, as to why Wilde's paradoxical epigrams still shine, and Chesterton's still provoke thought, where Wells's just clang dully. ‘Unless it is the face of a fashionable beauty, I know of nothing more absolutely uninteresting than a morning paper.’ Oh my aching sides. Presumably the problem here is not only that Wilde's wit is sharper; it's that Wilde's paradoxes speak to something genuinely significant. Both Wilde and Wells, we might say, lived lives of public sexual clandestineness; but Wilde's wit repeatedly reveals his homosexuality, as a function of his love for the unexpectedness of beauty, where the wit in Certain Personal Matters repeatedly reverts back upon Wells's cover-story—bourgeois domestic conventionality—rather than upon his hidden life of ployamorous sexual incontinence. The Importance of Being Earnest hides its gayness, brilliantly, in plain view. Certain Personal Matters is a volume that only pretends to be personal, offers little certainty, and ultimately doesn't matter. The central paradox of Wilde, that levity is the way to apprehend the most serious matters of life, love and death, doesn't really interest Wells, I think. My sense is that the truth always seemed obvious to Wells, where it always seemed beautifully perverse to Wilde; but where Wilde worked hard to reveal that aspect of himself that he had to keep most secret, and to do so on his own terms—that is, as something wittily and beautifully paradoxical—Wells was four decades away from even the partial revelations of his Experiment in Autobiography (1934), and the sexual stuff collected by his son in H G Wells in Love had to wait for posthumous publication. ‘If one tells the truth, one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out’, was how Wilde put it; and what's enduring about his wit is its dedication to truth.

This, though, is hardly a fair comparison; I mean, who is so witty as Wilde? And sometimes Wells does come closer to the proper apothegmatic style. I liked, for instance: ‘the fundamental and enduring grace of womanhood goes down to the skeleton; you cannot have a pretty face without a pretty skulll’ [‘On the Choice of a Wife’]. Some of his drollery is actual, not ersatz. He achieves a nice alliterative faux-pomposity with the idea that the temperance campaigners of the 1890s will, once alcohol is banned, turn their ire against other stimulant beverages: ‘the Sir Wilfrid Lawson of some near generation may find it his duty and pleasure to make the silvery spray of his wisdom tintinnabulate against the tea-tray’ [‘Of a Book Unwritten’]. That's a sentence worth reading twice; baroque (possibly over baroque) but delightful nonetheless. And there's something fun in the gusto of his animus against the typewriter, using the term both for the machine itself, and for the individual paid to type-up manuscript:
As for a typewriter, you could no more get an essay out of a typewriter than you could play a sonata upon its keys. No essay was ever written with a typewriter yet, nor ever will be. Besides its impossibility, the suggestion implies a brutal disregard of the division of labour by which we live and move and have our being. If the essayist typewrite, the unemployed typewriter, who is commonly a person of superior education and capacity, might take to essays, and where is your living then? One might as reasonably start at once with the Linotype and print one's wit and humour straight away. And taking the invasion of other trades one step further one might, after an attempt to sell one's own newspaper, even get to the pitch of having to read it oneself. No; even essayists must be reasonable. If its mechanical clitter-clatter did not render composition impossible, the typewriter would still be beneath the honour of a literary man. [‘The Writing of Essays’]
Still, it's the exception rather than the rule.

As with his short stories, the essays in Certain Personal Matter that have, as it were, legs are the ones that do more than comically rib the platitudes of bourgeois living. They are the ones that engage the ideational or metaphorical resonances of science fiction. You'd expect me to say so, I know, but it's true. The account of the odd little creatures visible under magnification in ‘Through a Microscope’ is diverting enough, but the essay really only strikes home at its end, with this anticipation of the opening image from the following year's War of the Worlds:
And all the time these creatures are living their vigorous, fussy little lives; in this drop of water they are being watched by a creature of whose presence they do not dream, who can wipe them all out of existence with a stroke of his thumb, and who is withal as finite, and sometimes as fussy and unreasonably energetic, as themselves. He sees them, and they do not see him, because he has senses they do not possess, because he is too incredibly vast and strange to come, save as an overwhelming catastrophe, into their lives. Even so, it may be, the dabbler himself is being curiously observed.... The dabbler is good enough to say that the suggestion is inconceivable. I can imagine a decent amœba saying the same thing. [‘Through a Microscope’]
A Martian chill hovers over this which lifts it out of the ordinary. I hate to be pompous, but this does the Nietzschean ‘look into the abyss and the abyss looks into you’ all the more effectively for being comical. And the stand-out piece in the whole volume is Wells's speculative ‘Of a Book Unwritten’, a reworking of an earlier piece called ‘Man of the Year Million’. Here Wells cast the notion as excerpts from The Necessary Characters of the Man of the Remote Future deduced from the Existing Stream of Tendency ‘by one Professor Holzkopf, presumably Professor at Weissnichtwo’. Yes, alright: ‘Professor Lumberhead of the University of Dunno’ is a creaky-enough joke. But the speculations themselves are glorious:
Then what is not needed disappears. What use is there for external ears, nose, and brow ridges now? The two latter once protected the eye from injury in conflict and in falls, but in these days we keep on our legs, and at peace. Directing his thoughts in this way, the reader may presently conjure up a dim, strange vision of the latter-day face: “Eyes large, lustrous, beautiful, soulful; above them, no longer separated by rugged brow ridges, is the top of the head, a glistening, hairless dome, terete and beautiful; no craggy nose rises to disturb by its unmeaning shadows the symmetry of that calm face, no vestigial ears project; the mouth is a small, perfectly round aperture, toothless and gumless, jawless, unanimal, no futile emotions disturbing its roundness as it lies, like the harvest moon or the evening star, in the wide firmament of face.” Such is the face the Professor beholds in the future. ... A man who could not only leave his dinner to be cooked, but also leave it to be masticated and digested, would have vast social advantages over his food-digesting fellow. This is, let me remind you here, the calmest, most passionless, and scientific working out of the future forms of things from the data of the present. ... Is there any absolute impossibility in supposing man to be destined for a similar change; to imagine him no longer dining, with unwieldy paraphernalia of servants and plates, upon food queerly dyed and distorted, but nourishing himself in elegant simplicity by immersion in a tub of nutritive fluid?

“There grows upon the impatient imagination a building, a dome of crystal, across the translucent surface of which flushes of the most glorious and pure prismatic colours pass and fade and change. In the centre of this transparent chameleon-tinted dome is a circular white marble basin filled with some clear, mobile, amber liquid, and in this plunge and float strange beings. Are they birds? They are the descendants of man—at dinner. Watch them as they hop on their hands—a method of progression advocated already by Bjornsen—about the pure white marble floor. Great hands they have, enormous brains, soft, liquid, soulful eyes. Their whole muscular system, their legs, their abdomens, are shrivelled to nothing, a dangling, degraded pendant to their minds ... The animals and plants die away before men, except such as he preserves for his food or delight, or such as maintain a precarious footing about him as commensals and parasites. These vermin and pests must succumb sooner or later to his untiring inventiveness and incessantly growing discipline. When he learns (the chemists are doubtless getting towards the secret now) to do the work of chlorophyll without the plant, then his necessity for other animals and plants upon the earth will disappear. Sooner or later, where there is no power of resistance and no necessity, there comes extinction. In the last days man will be alone on the earth, and his food will be won by the chemist from the dead rocks and the sunlight.

“And—one may learn the full reason in that explicit and painfully right book, the Data of Ethics—the irrational fellowship of man will give place to an intellectual co-operation, and emotion fall within the scheme of reason. Undoubtedly it is a long time yet, but a long time is nothing in the face of eternity, and every man who dares think of these things must look eternity in the face.” Then the earth is ever radiating away heat into space, the Professor reminds us. And so at last comes a vision of earthly cherubim, hopping heads, great unemotional intelligences, and little hearts, fighting together perforce and fiercely against the cold that grips them tighter and tighter. For the world is cooling—slowly and inevitably it grows colder as the years roll by. “We must imagine these creatures,” says the Professor, “in galleries and laboratories deep down in the bowels of the earth. The whole world will be snow-covered and piled with ice; all animals, all vegetation vanished, except this last branch of the tree of life. The last men have gone even deeper, following the diminishing heat of the planet, and vast metallic shafts and ventilators make way for the air they need.” [‘Of a Book Unwritten’]
Again, it's clear from whence Wells drew his ideas about the appears of his soon-to-be-published Martian invaders.

It might look paradoxical, or perhaps merely self-serving, of me to insist that the best of this collection of Wells's drollery is its science fiction. But the connection is less arbitrary than you might think. As I argued in my account of The Stolen Bacillus and Other Stories (1895), the science fiction novum necessarily embodies a metaphorical logic, and structurally speaking all metaphors entail an unexpected, illuminating and delightful leap from one element to another. Metonymy is different; it works according to logical connections from one thing to another (Jakobson's original distinction between metaphor and metonymy was predicated upon his observation that children we would now describe as being ‘on the asperger's spectrum’ could follow the sequential progression of metonyms but found the sudden leaps of metaphors baffling). The best SF always does more than simply extrapolate logically from the present into the future; it leaps, according to some quasi-poetic expressive logic, in a new and (sense-of-) wonderful direction: the apeman's bone suddenly transforms into a spaceship; the Asimovian sun sets after a thousand years of daylight to reveal, quite unexpectedly, stars. And this formal structure is precisely that of the joke: that knight's-move shape, that draws the reader, or listener, so far by metonymic connection and then, abruptly, takes her in an unexpected, quasi-metaphorical direction. Formally speaking (and setting aside the matter of content, where the connection is much more tenuous)—formally speaking, Jokes and SF have a great deal in common. Wells was skillful enough at the former to make himself a lot of money; but his real genius was in the latter.