In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells (1906)

We live now in these days, when the Great Change has been in most things accomplished, in a time when every one is being educated to a sort of intellectual gentleness, a gentleness that abates nothing from our vigour, and it is hard to understand the stifled and struggling manner in which my generation of common young men did its thinking. (Chapter One)

In his earliest stories Wells stuck to describing localised events witnessed and recounted with feverish, first-person intensity by his astonished protagonists.

As he became famous he branched out. He wrote a series of non-science-fiction love stories (Love and Mr Lewisham, Kipps), often featuring whimsical social comedy satirising Edwardian manners and society.

He also began a series of factual articles and books devoted to predicting the future based on likely scientific and technological advances – Anticipations, A Modern UtopiaThe Shape of Things To Come and so on.

And his science fiction stories became more long-winded and discursive, incorporating these other elements to produce stories which were longer, less focused, and contained all kinds of material extraneous to the main plot. In The Days of The Comet is a classic example of this tendency.

In the Days of the Comet

The central event of In The Days of the Comet is easy to describe. A comet passes close to the earth, trailing a cloud of strange chemicals through the atmosphere, which leads to an abrupt and total revolution in human nature and in human affairs, referred to as The Great Change. Everyone becomes peaceful, kind, forgiving and sensible. Here is the narrator telling his contemporary, post-Change audience, about the bad old days:

You must understand – and every year it becomes increasingly difficult to understand – how entirely different the world was then from what it is now. It was a dark world; it was full of preventable disorder, preventable diseases, and preventable pain, of harshness and stupid unpremeditated cruelties; but yet, it may be even by virtue of the general darkness, there were moments of a rare and evanescent beauty that seem no longer possible in my experience. The Great Change has come for ever more, happiness and beauty are our atmosphere, there is peace on earth and good will to all men. None would dare to dream of returning to the sorrows of the former time…

Wells has bitten off a massive theme – the transformation of the entire human race from a jungle of competing individualists, a system which produces misery and exploitation, into a brotherhood of enlightened and caring citizens who treat each other as equals and set about building the Perfect Society. For the fumes of the comet bring about the great Socialist Transformation of the World which Wells and so many of his contemporaries dreamed of.

But Wells has set himself the same challenge he faced in The Food of the Gods, which is to tell the transformation of the entire human race via the tiny story of a handful of individuals – in this case via the recollections of one particular man, Willie Leadford, now aged 71.

The novel is Willie’s autobiography, or more precisely his memoir, of the months leading up to the Great Change 50 years previously, when he was a hot-tempered young man. The minutely narrow scope of the task is made clear in the book’s first line:

I have set myself to write the story of the Great Change, so far as it has affected my own life and the lives of one or two people closely connected with me, primarily to please myself.

Well, that gets Wells off the hook of having to write some kind of global history of this vast transformation. Instead it’s going to be a book about Willie.

The central thread of the novel is Willie’s mismatched love affair with the beautiful but narrow-minded young woman Nettie Stuart. They are both lower class inhabitants of the Four Towns, a region of the industrial Midlands. Here Willie has grown up in extreme poverty, raised by his mother, a devoted and tireless charlady who has almost literally worked her fingers to the bone. Their wretched hovel of a rented cottage is bitterly described numerous times, not least the leaks in the roof which lets rain into his mother’s bedroom, exacerbating her many illnesses.

Against this backdrop, and in the scenery of this grim northern industrial townscape, Willie grows up into a typical angry young man who loses his religious faith and discovers ‘socialism’. He moves in to share a flat with another young man, Parload, who is, however, more taken by the stars and astronomy than socialism.

Anyway, the central spine of the novel is Willie’s forlorn love affair with Nettie. She is the daughter of the gardener to the local lady of the manor, Lady Verrall, and so she and her family regard themselves as a notch or two above Willie and his mother in the social scale. We know from his biography that at one stage of his own adolescence, Wells’s family fell on hard times and his mother went to work as cleaner to a local landowner and Wells was obliged to give up schooling to work in a local shop in Sussex.

You cannot help feeling that the descriptions of a) his good and long-suffering mother b) his smouldering resentment at the patronising, superior attitude of the local landowners and c) his youthful sense of the crazy injustice of the entire social system, are all strongly derived from his own experiences, which he channels into this story of an earnest young working class man falling in love with a beautiful but unimaginative young woman from just a fraction above his own class.

In the hands of a genius like D.H. Lawrence this kind of thing would have been turned into an entire novel registering every flicker of the sensibilities of both the protagonists, and exquisitely marking the rise and fall of their relationship, recording:

the host of dark distressful memories, of darkened childhood, toilsome youth, embittered adolescence.

But in the hands of bumptious Mr Wells it is a good tale, some passages are intensely felt and written but… but… it always feels that Well’s real focus of attention is elsewhere…

Anyway, young Willie becomes even more embittered when he tries to share his ‘socialist’ convictions with Nettie, as well as his loss of religious faith. Being a shallow conformist, all this alarms Nettie, who not only drops him but, in a scene worthy of a Thomas Hardy novel, rejects him for the rich son of a local landowner, the elegant, drawling, upper-class Edward Verrall –

son of the man who owned not only this great estate but more than half of Rawdon’s pot-bank, and who had interests and possessions, collieries and rents, all over the district of the Four Towns.

They argue. Willie departs. He hears from local gossip that she has taken up with young Verrall. When he goes once again up to the grand house where Nettie lives with her mother and father in the gardeners’ quarters, Willie is devastated to discover that… Nettie and Verrall have eloped!

Willie is consumed with psychotic anger, focusing all his personal frustration – the fact that he’s just been ‘let go’ by his employer, Rawdon – the general misery of the industrial proletariat living in the hovels of the local towns – the injustice of the social system – the sight of his poor downtrodden mother – and the (believe it or not) fact that the country seems to be slipping towards war with Germany – all these things come together to make Willie search high and low until he finds a shop where he buys a revolver.

Willie determines to track the couple down and shoot them both, he is that demented with rage, and the remainder of part one of the book follows his efforts to establish where they’ve gone (Norfolk), tracking them to the coast, and then to a little bohemian ‘artist’s colony’ on the seaside.

The industrial Midlands

Partly I’ve thought of D.H. Lawrence because the story is set in the industrial Midlands – Lawrence’s home turf – and a lot of Willie’s youthful energy goes into being outraged by the wretched poverty of the workers and the luxurious lifestyle of the rich.

Wells can certainly write when he wants to and, as you read on, you realise he has made a big effort to capture the miserable topography and lives of the down-trodden miners and other manual workers in the tight little cluster of Midlands mining towns he takes as his setting. I wonder if he had visited the area and made notes. It reads like it. Here’s a description of Willie and his friend and flatmate, Parload, walking round the dirty industrial town of ‘Clayton’:

Then across the allotments, a wilderness of cabbages and evil-looking sheds, past a gaunt abandoned factory, and so to the high road. The high road ascended in a curve past a few houses and a beerhouse or so, and round until all the valley in which four industrial towns lay crowded and confluent was overlooked.

I will admit that with the twilight there came a spell of weird magnificence over all that land and brooded on it until dawn. The horrible meanness of its details was veiled, the hutches that were homes, the bristling multitudes of chimneys, the ugly patches of unwilling vegetation amidst the makeshift fences of barrel-stave and wire. The rusty scars that framed the opposite ridges where the iron ore was taken and the barren mountains of slag from the blast furnaces were veiled; the reek and boiling smoke and dust from foundry, pot-bank, and furnace, transfigured and assimilated by the night. The dust-laden atmosphere that was grey oppression through the day became at sundown a mystery of deep translucent colours, of blues and purples, of sombre and vivid reds, of strange bright clearnesses of green and yellow athwart the darkling sky. Each upstart furnace, when its monarch sun had gone, crowned itself with flames, the dark cinder heaps began to glow with quivering fires, and each pot-bank squatted rebellious in a volcanic coronet of light. The empire of the day broke into a thousand feudal baronies of burning coal. The minor streets across the valley picked themselves out with gas-lamps of faint yellow, that brightened and mingled at all the principal squares and crossings with the greenish pallor of incandescent mantles and the high cold glare of the electric arc. The interlacing railways lifted bright signal-boxes over their intersections, and signal stars of red and green in rectangular constellations. The trains became articulated black serpents breathing fire.

Dickens wrote a vivid description of the Midlands in The Old Curiosity Shop in 1842, and George Orwell was to describe them again nearly a century later. Wells comes in the middle of that period and is as vivid as either:

You cannot see, as I can see, the dark empty way between the mean houses, the dark empty way lit by a bleary gas-lamp at the corner, you cannot feel the hard checkered pavement under your boots, you cannot mark the dimly lit windows here and there, and the shadows upon the ugly and often patched and crooked blinds of the people cooped within. Nor can you presently pass the beer house with its brighter gas and its queer, screening windows, nor get a whiff of foul air and foul language from its door, nor see the crumpled furtive figure – some rascal child – that slinks past us down the steps.

We crossed the longer street, up which a clumsy steam tram, vomiting smoke and sparks, made its clangorous way, and adown which one saw the greasy brilliance of shop fronts and the naphtha flares of hawkers’ barrows dripping fire into the night. A hazy movement of people swayed along that road, and we heard the voice of an itinerant preacher from a waste place between the houses.

There’s a recession – Leadford and his flatmate squabble about the elementary economic causes of recessions in capitalism – some of the miners have come out on strike, there’s stone throwing and minor riots and Leadford manages to get caught up in scuffles and mobs.

This could have been an interesting novel about industrial relations circa 1905, except that… a comet is hurtling towards the earth.

It’s a bit like getting fifty pages into a promising early novel by D.H. Lawrence when the Tardis suddenly materialises and Dr Who steps out!

You are just getting into it, as a realistic novel, when Willie looks up once again to look at the strange green light of the approaching comet. For weeks now the newspapers and their ‘experts’ have been assuring the public that it will miss the earth and have no effect on all of us.

Part two – after the comet

Except that it does have an effect on all of us – a transformative impact.

The first part of the novel rises to a climax as Willie, one fateful night, tracks down the lovers Verrall and Nettie, to their beach hut hideaway, from a hiding place watches them gallivanting on the sand, then steps out and advances towards them, blindly firing his revolver (missing them both, luckily) and, as they turn and run, running after them, blind with impotent rage, anger, frustration, all the emotions of a trapped, trammelled inhabitant of the squalid little earth of 1906.

Absurdly (I haven’t brought it out enough) in the background throughout the story, we have had tips and hints that Britain is stumbling towards war against Germany. Willie has absent-mindedly been reading the newspaper hoardings at the railways stations and towns he passes through on his vengeful pursuit, and now, here on the beach, his own personal demented rage is counterpointed by a battle which suddenly starts up between huge warships taking place way out at sea, off the coast, the flares and booms of the big guns lighting up the beach as Willie chases the lovers through the dunes. All very cinematic!

And then… the green lights of the comet engulf everything. It is as if a thousand pistols are detonating all over the sky and a great mist, a green fog, sweeps in from the sea, and Willie loses consciousness.

When he awakes some hours later he is struck by the beauty of the grass among the sand. He looks up into the beautiful sky. He feels fulfilled and happy. He looks down at the gun at his feet and doesn’t understand it. He stumbles through the fields till he comes to a lane where a man has fallen and sprained his ankle and so he immediately helps him. It seems like the obvious thing to do.

And all over the world every person is waking with the same thought – feeling whole, purified, happy, content, and so brimming with good humour that they need to give of it, help others, make a better life.

In a throwaway bit of science Willie says that he later learned that chemicals in the comet’s tail reacted with the nitrogen in the earth’s atmosphere to create a new element which, when breathed in, gives new energy to blood corpuscles and gives the brain and nervous system a tremendous sense of life and calm.

Part two of the book describes the Great Change in three ways.

1. Very conveniently, the man Willie has found injured in the road turns out to be Melmount, a senior Cabinet Minister. Willie helps him to his holiday home down the coast where, incapacitated and so unable to go back to London, Melmount calls a cabinet meeting to discuss the new world and, since there aren’t any of the usual civil servant secretariesavailable, Willie finds himself being dragooned into acting as secretary and aide de camp to the Prime Minister during these first few weeks after the Change. This allows Wells:

  • to give us satirical portraits of the members of the cabinet
  • to insert his analysis of the British government of his day (it didn’t, in  his opinion, have a clue what to do with its enormous empire or about the numerous social problems at home)
  • and to convey in broad brush terms how all of its members now look back on their narrow, sheltered, blinkered, privileged upbringings and publicly express regret

The politicians set about making radical changes which begin with Wells’s personal hobby horse, land reform, namely nationalising all land and rebuilding society from scratch.

2. After witnessing all this Willie returns to Clayton, and registers the Great Change in the town, his mother, Nettie’s parents and even old Mrs Verrall the landowner. All are now peaceful and calm. The scales have fallen from their eyes. All are now determined to build the New Jerusalem. Willie describes how they knock down all the disgusting old slums, and hold huge bonfires in which they burn their smelly clothes, disgusting furniture, rubbish decorations. Now all the land is jointly owned by the ‘commune’ as it is now called which plans rationally, establishing new workplaces in the best places, rebuilding convenient railway lines to link them, building new homes which are healthy and hygienic, for everyone. In the mornings they all work together, to build a better world. In the afternoons all take place in further education designed to bring out everyone’s potential – everyone’s life becomes a combination of productive labour and creative self-fulfilment.

3. And finally the love affair. This is dealt with in three parts. In the immediate aftermath of the Great Change, Willie comes across Nettie and Verrall again, and they all apologise to each other. In a rather moving passage both Nettie and Verrall reveal their feelings and motivations for running off together: Nettie admits that to some extent, it was Verrall’s clothes: he just dressed so richly and confidently and ably, compared to Willie’s dismal, dirty, threadbare working class suit, that she was bewitched. And Verrall gives what I thought was a powerful half page or so summary of the sheer irresponsible thrill of having an affair, of running away and abandoning all his parents’ fine hopes that he’d become a politician, spurning all society’s rules about not ‘ruining’ the reputation of a virginal young woman. What larks it was!

Anyway, they all sheepishly look at each other and apologise. Nettie says she wants to remain in love with Willie, who was her earliest adult friend and boyfriend but… still wants to remain with Verrall. The two men agree it cannot be and so, regretfully, she leaves with Verrall, leaving Willie to throw himself with energy into building the New Jerusalem in Clayton.

Back in Clayton, his mother is nearing the end of an exhausting long life of hard work, and the commune (in its new enlightened form) allots her a nurse – stocky young Annie – to be her carer through her last months. Distracted with all his new duties Willie is blissfully ignorant of the fact that this devoted, loyal young woman – rather inevitably – falls in love with him. It is only on the day of his mother’s eventual death, that they burst into tears, find each other in each other’s arms, and then kissing and then passionately kissing. Oops.

They marry and have children. Willie emphasises she was always his best friend and helpmeet. But… But Nettie reappears. Nettie has heard about his mother dying and makes a visit. And here she pursues the theme she had broached back in their parting scene at the seaside resort. Here she suggests… that she can be the lover of two men, that Willie can join her and Verrall. And Annie can join them too. And so it transpires. They become a ménage à quatre.

For the Great Change has overthrown even that old shibboleth, that one man shall cleave to one women, and one woman to one man, and that they shall be each other’s all-in-all and never have any surplus love or affection to give to anybody else.

After all the heady themes the book has covered – socialism, social injustice, the squalor of industrial Britain, the unmerited privilege of the rich, the stupidity of war, the absurdity of empire, the incompetence of politicians – this is how it ends, with a hymn to Free Love, a very fashionable, if scandalous, Edwardian topic.

Anybody who knew about Wells’s own love life (i.e. all of literary and artistic and political London) knew that this was in fact a close reflection of Well’s own situation. He was married to the plain and devoted Jane Wells,who bore him several children and managed the home, but had to put up with Wells’s numerous affairs with an impressive list of younger, sexier women, with several of whom he had illegitimate children.

(Wells’s lovers included American birth control activist Margaret Sanger, writer Odette Keun, Soviet spy Moura Budberg, novelist Elizabeth von Arnim, writer Amber Reeves, novelist and feminist Rebecca West, and many more.)

And there the story ends.

Before and after

The story is a variation on the very Wellsian trope of the sleeper who awakes in the distant future.

There is a ‘before’ (the grimy present day) and an ‘after’ (utopia after the Great Change). And the narrator is able to bear witness to both worlds. Thus the narrator is able to contrast a) the social squalor and b) the psychological and emotional constipation, of Edwardian times, with the a) social harmony and b) the relaxed and open relationships, after ‘the Great Change’.

This gives rise to the odd and distinctive feature of the book which is that you can go for pages reading either a) gritty descriptions of the muddy coal-mining town and its surly inhabitants or b) the sometimes genuinely moving, sometimes rather laughable descriptions of Willie’s love affair with Nettie – and both lull you into a false sense of security that you are reading a standard Edwardian novel…

But then Wells will throw in a sentence or two reminding us that this is all before the Change, the protagonist will look up and see the eerie shape of billowing green flaring in the night sky as the comet approaches day after day, thus inviting the reader to view with ridicule the absurd economic system and social conventions of the time – and you realise you are in a completely different type of book.

Or you are in a D.H. Lawrence social realist novel which has been picked up and photoshopped into a scene from Star Wars.

This before-and-after trope explains the prominence in the text of the direct address to the reader. By which I mean that the first person protagonist, Willie, is continually stopping to address his modern readers, the young readers who have grown up since the Great Change, with phrases like ‘You who have grown up since the Change will scarcely believe the silliness of the society I grew up in…’

My point being that the ‘before and after’ trope isn’t a minor aspect of the book, it is something the narrator and Wells are constantly rubbing in our faces.

You will consider those notions of my youth poor silly violent stuff; particularly if you are of the younger generation born since the Change you will be of that opinion.

When I think of that growing proportion of readers who belong entirely to the new order, who are growing up with only the vaguest early memories of the old world, I find the greatest difficulty in writing down the unintelligible confusions that were matter of fact to their fathers.

You cannot imagine the littleness of those former times; their naive, queer absurdities!

And here again I find myself writing in an unknown language, so far as my younger readers are concerned. You who know only the world that followed the Great Change will find much that I am telling inconceivable…

All that previous life of ours had been an ill-lit marionette show, acted in the twilight. . . .

The whole of that old history becomes more and more foreign, more and more like some queer barbaric drama played in a forgotten tongue…

Thus the novel stands in the tradition which includes all the other ‘before and after’ socialist novels of the era, such as Looking BackwardNews From Nowhere and so on.

Was Wells a socialist – or a nihilist?

Wells joined the socialist Fabian Society in 1903 and wrote numerous articles for newspapers, magazines and so on, supporting socialism. And he certainly writes eloquently about the glaring social injustices of his day, in this book giving lengthy and convincing descriptions of the miserable state of slum-dwellers in a Midland industrial town.

He also makes an effort to analyse their causes, attributing most of it to the idea of private property in land i.e. the tradition that had grown up of letting landowners acquire more land, on which mines and other factories could be built, while swarming millions of the proletariat had no land whatsoever. He is particularly upset that this tradition – the crazy, disorganised and blatantly unfair distribution of land – had continued in America which some people had hoped would be a more rational utopia but with which, by 1906, Wells was thoroughly disillusioned.

The implication of the repeated references to unfair land distribution is that nationalising all land, abolishing the private ownership of land, is the only way to creating the basis for equality.

But if you ask whether Wells was a genuine socialist, I think the answer might well be No. What comes over from all his novels is not a careful analysis of the means of production and distribution and a fictional dramatisation of how these can be seized by the working class.

What comes over from his novels are cosmic visions of vast realms of space and time against which humanity is a mere insect. The point of The Time Machine and of The War of the Worlds is how puny and petty our present-day human concerns are compared to the vastness of the solar system and the knowledge that there are countless other life forms in the universe who are completely indifferent to us, to his visions of a future planet earth on which humanity has ceased to exist, and it doesn’t matter.

I picture to myself this thing happening in space, a planetary moment, the faint smudge, the slender whirl of meteor, drawing nearer to this planet – this planet like a ball, like a shaded rounded ball, floating in the void, with its little, nearly impalpable coat of cloud and air, with its dark pools of ocean, its gleaming ridges of land. And as that midge from the void touches it, the transparent gaseous outer shell clouds in an instant green and then slowly clears again. . . .

The Fabians made sensible proposals about to how to improve the lot of the working classes through better building regulations, hygiene, water and gas and electricity provision, shorter working hours and so on. Wells paid lip service to all this but couldn’t help, wherever he turns his eye, being overwhelmed by the sheer futility of human existence. Futility is a word which rings through all these books. Love is futile. Individuals are futile. War is futile. The whole social order is futile.

The golden earth and sky seemed like a little bubble that floated in the globe of human futility.

In The Time Machine the narrator reflects on the futile effort to create civilisations which have vanished, is afflicted by the futile attempts of the pretty young Eloi he befriends to understand him, calls the entire race of Eloi ‘a mere beautiful futility’.

One of the most powerful results of the sojourn of the narrator on The Island of Dr Moreau is the way it leaves him with a crushing sense of the futility of human endeavour. ‘I lost faith in the sanity of the world when I saw it suffering the painful disorder of this island…’

The net effect of The War of the Worlds is both to make you realise what petty, powerless things human beings are, playthings before the mighty powers of the universe – but also that the Martians themselves are prey to the tiniest enemy, the terrestrial bacteria which kill them.

Wells’s fundamental worldview is the heartless, brutal materialism of Darwin, as passed on to him directly by Darwin’s bulldog, Thomas Henry Huxley, who personally taught Wells at the South Kensington Science Institute in the 1880s.

We have come into being through a tumult of blind forces.

We are made for the struggle for existence – we ARE the struggle for existence; the things that live are the struggle for existence incarnate…

This is Darwinism raw.

In The Food of the Gods, Wells helps the reader come to see the entire present order of things as a mere stepping stone to the next level of evolution, to the coming of the giants, epitomised in the character of the uneducated giant, Caddles, who has no idea why he exists or what anybody is doing. Here he is, straddling Piccadilly, looking down at the multitudes of little people, and afflicted with a sense of complete pointlessness:

None of them seemed to see, as he could do, the drink-sodden wretchedness of the painted women at the corner, the ragged misery that sneaked along the gutters, the infinite futility of all this employment. The infinite futility! (The Food of the Gods Book III, Chapter 3)

At the climax of that novel, as the protagonist Redwood argues with the anti-giant Prime Minister, Caterham, ‘The more he talked the more certain Redwood’s sense of stupendous futility grew.’ (Book III, Chapter 4)

So it should come as no surprise to find the same note sounded again and again in In The Days of The Comet. Here is young Willie’s thoughts as he leaves his childhood home:

It was my native valley, and I was going out of it, I thought never to return, and yet in that last prospect, the group of towns that had borne me and dwarfed and crippled and made me, seemed, in some indefinable manner, strange. I was, perhaps, more used to seeing it from this comprehensive view-point when it was veiled and softened by night; now it came out in all its weekday reek, under a clear afternoon sun. That may account a little for its unfamiliarity. And perhaps, too, there was something in the emotions through which I had been passing for a week and more, to intensify my insight, to enable me to pierce the unusual, to question the accepted. But it came to me then, I am sure, for the first time, how promiscuous, how higgledy-piggledy was the whole of that jumble of mines and homes, collieries and potbanks, railway yards, canals, schools, forges and blast furnaces, churches, chapels, allotment hovels, a vast irregular agglomeration of ugly smoking accidents in which men lived as happy as frogs in a dustbin. Each thing jostled and damaged the other things about it, each thing ignored the other things about it; the smoke of the furnace defiled the potbank clay, the clatter of the railway deafened the worshipers in church, the public-house thrust corruption at the school doors, the dismal homes squeezed miserably amidst the monstrosities of industrialism, with an effect of groping imbecility. Humanity choked amidst its products, and all its energy went in increasing its disorder, like a blind stricken thing that struggles and sinks in a morass.

‘Humanity choked amidst its products, and all its energy went in increasing its disorder, like a blind stricken thing that struggles and sinks in a morass.’

That is the true Wellsian note. His vision isn’t of a fair and equal society, to set alongside the utopian views of Edward Bellamy or William Morris. It is of apocalyptic wars, alien invasions, cosmic events and far futurity which make all human effort seem like ‘groping imbecility’.

Poor little angry, miserable creature! Poor little angry, miserable world!

All that said, the second half of the In The Days of the Comet – After the Change – does make a sustained effort to paint a lyrical picture of a socialist paradise in which everyone collaborates to build a better life for everyone else. It is powerfully, forcefully and lyrically described, at length, along with practical aspects of the New World, like the destruction of all the old towns and cities and the building of new, rationally laid out urban centres lined with clean, well-lit, healthy and hygienic dwellings, and the availability of free higher education to all, and the limiting of work to only what is required and only what human beings can enjoyably supply.

The second half of the book does bear comparison with the ‘After’ scenarios painted by Bellamy and Morris in their utopias. But the grip of the book, its bite and punch, come from the narrator’s anger and frustration at the glaring inequality, the poverty and misery, and the million subtle social slights which the poor and lower middle class have to endure from their hoity-toity superiors, which really drive the first half. And then the sense of the vast cosmic transformation which has undertaken mankind.

And the glaring drawback of the book is that, to get to that Ideal Future, the reader has to swallow the notion that the very air we breathe has been transformed by unknown chemicals from a passing comet. Which is not a very practical political policy.

Goodbye Fabians

All of which makes it no surprise to learn that the Fabian Society expelled Wells in 1908.

The other Fabians came to dislike his flashiness, irresponsibility and sexual adventurism. It is typical of his restless magpie mind that a book which was meant to turn into a vision of a socialist utopia instead leads up to a description of the Free Love which very much suited Wells and his philandering ways.

There is always another distraction in a book by Wells, always another shiny new idea or invention which he suddenly wants to share with you, and which leads him wandering away from the book’s ostensible topic.

In response to their criticisms of him, Wells went on to satirise the two leading Fabians, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, in his 1910 novel, The New Machiavelli but, in the event, it was their modest, top-down vision of a soft socialist nanny state which was to triumph – albeit not till after the Second World War.

And although Well’s predictions of worldwide war and disaster did come true, particularly in the inferno of the Second World War, the final verdict on the visionary inconsequentiality of Well’s vast and voluminous writings is the way almost all of them sank into the almost complete obscurity after that war.

He wrote over a hundred books and God knows how many articles. Nowadays only half a dozen of the best sci-fi and four or five of his Edwardian comedies of manners survive.

Relying on comets from outer space to bring about social change turned out not to be a very practical option.


Related links

Other H.G. Wells reviews

1895 The Time Machine – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come – set in the same London of the future described in The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love but descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1906 In the Days of the Comet – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end

1914 The World Set Free – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous with Rama a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells (1896)

‘These creatures you have seen are animals carven and wrought into new shapes. To that, to the study of the plasticity of living forms, my life has been devoted.’ (Dr Moreau, chapter 14)

The main text is a ‘lost narrative’, in this case a written account of the adventures of Edward Prendick, which is found among his papers after his death by his nephew, Charles Edward Prendick, and is now being given to the public ‘for the first time’.

This is a time-honoured old literary convention but it always makes me perk up, as it promises a certain kind of text, an old-fashioned adventure narrative, much as Conan Doyle’s story The Horror of the Heights transcribes the ‘blood-stained notebook’ belonging to a Mr. Joyce-Armstrong, or the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is told through letters and diaries, the kind of textual fragments which also throng the Sherlock Holmes stories.

Shipwrecked

The story is simple enough in outline. Prendick describes how the schooner he’s a passenger on in the South Seas (The Lady Vain) hits a wreck and sinks. He scrambles into a dinghy with two others. After days without food or water, the two sailors he’s with attack each other and fall overboard. It is in this state, alone, half delirious and drifting in an open boat, that he is picked up by another schooner, the Ipecacuanha, and nursed back to health by a passenger on this boat, Montgomery, a former medical student.

The captain of the second boat is a disreputable drunk (John Davis) who argues incessantly with Montgomery and his strange, malformed manservant, not least about Montgomery’s cargo of wild animals – a pack of savage hounds, a caged puma and loads of rabbits.

When they reach their destination, a remote island, the drunken captain unloads Montgomery’s animals into a waiting launch steered by an aloof man who is obviously Montgomery’s boss – but then drunkenly insists that Prendick leave the ship, too. Montgomery refuses to take him, and so the drunk captain gets his men to manhandle Prendick into the boat’s dinghy which he sets adrift. Seeing all this, Montgomery and his boss reluctantly turn around their launch and come back for him.

The captain of the launch now introduces himself as Doctor Moreau. He is a big strong, grey-haired man who makes it quite plain to Prendick that he is an unintended and unwelcome guest, but that they couldn’t leave him to drift and die. Now he accompanies them in the boat which docks at a primitive quayside, where the animals are unloaded by yet more men who are strange and almost animal-like in appearance.

The island

And thus Prendick arrives on the island of Dr Moreau, and slowly realises that the good doctor is practicing vivisection – ‘performing operations on live animals for the purpose of experimentation or scientific research’ – before going on to make the horrific discovery – that he is operating on men, too.

I picked myself up and stood trembling, my mind a chaos of the most horrible misgivings. Could it be possible, I thought, that such a thing as the vivisection of men was carried on here? The question shot like lightning across a tumultuous sky; and suddenly the clouded horror of my mind condensed into a vivid realisation of my own danger. (Chapter 10)

Thus there is a secret at the heart of the island, which involves physical danger, and is potentially horrific – and Wells’s task as storyteller is to share Prendick’s slow unravelling of the secret, and to punctuate the narrative with scenes of jeopardy and horror.

Terror

For example, the day after he’s taken in and given a spare room in the ‘compound’, Prendick finds himself deeply disturbed by the sound of the screams of the puma. Moreau is clearly operating on it, with no anaesthetic, all day long. So Prendick goes for a wander around the island which, of course, is a bad idea, because, once he is in the forest, he becomes alert to strange sounds and snufflings, and realises that any number of horrible, misshapen half-men, are loping around it. In one shocking scene he glimpses one of these half-men go down on all fours to slurp water from a stream – just like an animal!

I read this scene late at night and, as I followed Prendick’s realisation that he is lost at night in a tropical jungle filled with half-human beasts – the hair literally stood up on the back of my neck. I read on in genuine fear as Prendick blunders through the darkness, realising he is being followed by something he can’t see, but whose inhuman gruntings and snufflings he can hear getting closer and closer.

A twig snapped behind me, and there was a rustle. I turned, and stood facing the dark trees. I could see nothing – or else I could see too much. Every dark form in the dimness had its ominous quality, its peculiar suggestion of alert watchfulness. So I stood for perhaps a minute, and then, with an eye to the trees still, turned westward to cross the headland; and as I moved, one among the lurking shadows moved to follow me.

My heart beat quickly. Presently the broad sweep of a bay to the westward became visible, and I halted again. The noiseless shadow halted a dozen yards from me. A little point of light shone on the further bend of the curve, and the grey sweep of the sandy beach lay faint under the starlight. Perhaps two miles away was that little point of light. To get to the beach I should have to go through the trees where the shadows lurked, and down a bushy slope.

I could see the Thing rather more distinctly now. It was no animal, for it stood erect. At that I opened my mouth to speak, and found a hoarse phlegm choked my voice. I tried again, and shouted, ‘Who is there?’ There was no answer. I advanced a step. The Thing did not move, only gathered itself together…

It was some time before I could summon resolution to go down through the trees and bushes upon the flank of the headland to the beach. At last I did it at a run; and as I emerged from the thicket upon the sand, I heard some other body come crashing after me. At that I completely lost my head with fear, and began running along the sand. Forthwith there came the swift patter of soft feet in pursuit. I gave a wild cry, and redoubled my pace. Some dim, black things about three or four times the size of rabbits went running or hopping up from the beach towards the bushes as I passed.

So long as I live, I shall remember the terror of that chase. I ran near the water’s edge, and heard every now and then the splash of the feet that gained upon me. Far away, hopelessly far, was the yellow light. All the night about us was black and still. Splash, splash, came the pursuing feet, nearer and nearer. I felt my breath going, for I was quite out of training; it whooped as I drew it, and I felt a pain like a knife at my side… (Chapter 9)

Exciting, eh? Note the (generally) short sentences. Aspects of Wells’s prose occasionally betray his Victorian background (‘forthwith’ and other such ornate phraseology) but for the most part you can see how the need to convey heightened sensations and terror force the prose into shorter, pithy sentences, like outbursts of panting.

Chapter titles

Even the titles of each chapter are designed – with their insistent use of ‘the’ to start each one – to convey a sense of primitive and elemental experience.

The Man Who Was Going Nowhere
The Strange Face
The Evil-Looking Boatmen
The Locked Door
The Crying Of The Puma
The Thing In The Forest
The Crying Of The Man
The Hunting Of The Man
The Sayers Of The Law

The wrecking outsider

There must be a generic name for the kind of story in which a stranger, an outsider, blunders into a fairly stable situation or society, misunderstands and disrupts it, and sets off a train of events which lead to its destruction. Happens in loads of science fiction and adventure stories.

This is a classic example. In chapter 10 of this 22-chapter text, Prendick, overcome with panic that Moreau and Montgomery might be about to experiment on him, breaks free of the compound, running away from Montgomery, and finds himself being befriended by the strange – the really strange – motley of vivisected half-humans and hybrids which Moreau has let run loose on the island.

Prendick discovers that there are far more of these mutants, these ‘beast men’, than he’d imagined, maybe hundreds (Moreau later tells him there are some 67, plus a fleet of 60 or so smaller half-animals). And is inducted into their strange religion, led by a deranged Beast-Man prophet, and reinforced by rhythmic chanting and swaying:

Not to go on all-fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
Not to eat Fish or Flesh; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
Not to claw the Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men?

Moreau and Montgomery track him down to the village of the beast-men, in order to rescue him but Prendick, in his ignorance and panic – still convinced that they mean to operate on him – yells out to the Beast Men that Moreau and Montgomery are just men like them, that they can be easily overcome and defeated, that they are not gods.

In other words – he plants the seeds of The Revolt of the Beast-Men.

Moreau’s justification

Moreau and Montgomery finally persuade Prendick they mean him no harm by handing over their revolvers to him and saying he can keep them. Reluctantly, he agrees to go back to the compound with them. It is here that Moreau makes his Big Statement, justifying  his work to Predick, mixing together contemporary knowledge about vivisection and evolution, into a horrifically amoral quest to mould and create new species.

‘I wanted – it was the one thing I wanted – to find out the extreme limit of plasticity in a living shape.’

He explains that none of the things Prendick saw in the village of the Beast-Men was human. All of them were animals who Moreau had extensively experimented on to give new craniums, larger brains and, above all, larynxes with which to utter sounds. His amorality, his unflinching heartless willingness to inflict unspeakable pain are meant to horrify us.

And Wells sense the mythic necessity for the story of describing Moreau’s anger and frustration at continually failing to create a man from a beast. No matter how subtle his knife and his anatomical knowledge, something is always lacking. The creatures always relapse, the bestial part reawakens.

Neither Moreau nor Wells names it, but Wells is gesturing towards the idea of a soul, as somehow separating man from the beasts, and therefore incapable of any surgical intervention.

This notion that the beast in the vivisected animals rises especially at nightfall, when they dare to do things they would never do during the day, reminded me of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a full-length novel devoted to describing creatures which can only live at night, which was published the year after Moreau, in 1897.

(Interestingly, Wells had already published the factual core of Moreau’s speech as a scientific article about the limits and possibilities of vivisection in the Saturday Review in January, 1895. An example of the close linkage between current scientific debate, and Wells’s scientific ‘fantasies’.)

Blood is spilt

The catastrophe is slow but remorseless in building up. A rabbit-like creature is discovered which has been killed and eaten. Now, eating meat and tasting blood are against ‘the Law’ which Moreau has been at such pains to instil into his monstrous creations.

He, Montgomery and Prendick go armed with revolvers, whip and a big hunting horn to the Valley of the Beast Men, where Moreau blows the horn and assembles the mutants. The Beast-Men listen while Moreau repeats the law about not tasting flesh, and then repeat it like surly retards. But as Moreau pushes his questioning about who has broken the Law and tasted blood, the Leopard-Man betrays his guilt by suddenly bounding at Moreau, pushing him over and fleeing.

This gives rise to a mass hunt, with the howling yowling beast-people chasing alongside the three men, until they corner the Leopard-Man in a thicket. Here Prendick is overcome by the horrible futility and pointlessness of all of it. If Moreau had some noble purpose in mind, was curing some disease, the pain he inflicts might be acceptable. Instead he creates one botched hybrid after another, releasing them onto the island to live lives of pain and fear, plagued by human thoughts, but without human traditions or feelings to contain them.

Prendick shoots the Leopard-Man to put it out of its misery, but this is just the latest in a long line of his mistakes, which are giving the Beast-Men ideas that the men are no the strong gods they have been whipped into believing.

Many had noticed that when Prendick had sought refuge in their camp, he was bleeding, he was hungry, he was weak. Then, when Moreau and Montgomery had him at bay in the sea, he deliberately shouted to the Beast Men that the white men were just men after all, vulnerable and exposed.

All these seeds which the outsider Prendick has sown now finally bear fruit in a Revolt of the Beast-Men.

The crisis

The actual spark is struck when the puma which Moreau has been operating on for six weeks suddenly breaks free. By now it is half-monster enough to be able to tear its fetters out of the wall, fling Prendick aside (breaking his left arm) and rush for the jungle.

Moreau pursues with a revolver. Montgomery and Prendick follow with Montgomery’s loyal servant, M’ling tagging along. They hear shots and crash through the jungle to find the puma shot dead – and Moreau’s dead body next to it!

Devastated, Montgomery lets slip the words, ‘He’s dead’, but the Beast-Men – who have quickly gathered round – ominously begin to repeat this. Prendick, seeing the danger, steps forward and says in his loudest voice that Moreau is not dead, he has merely cast off this body and gone to heaven to watch over them.

Still, the Beast Men fall to muttering among themselves. Only mindless repetition of the Law, combined with terror of ‘the House of Pain’ (Moreau’s laboratory) have kept them in line. With Moreau dead – what next?

Montgomery, Prendick, M’ling and some of the Beasts carry Moreau’s body back to the compound. The beasts leave. The white men burn Moreau’s corpse, and then lock themselves in.

The next thing is that Montgomery gets drunk and tells Prendick the story of his life. Because of some obscure scandal at medical school he was forced to pack in his career and leave London. He drifted around the South Seas. He was taken in by Moreau and has been living on the island for ten years. His only friend is the mutant M’ling.

Montgomery now gets really drunk, pushes Prendick out of the way and staggers across the beach to find M’ling to persuade him to join him in a drink. Prendick watches figures of some Beast-Men emerge from the forest around the stumbling man, apparently joining in with him, and they all go off together, Montgomery singing.

Prendick realises he has to escape the island. He goes back into the compound to search for things he can pack into the launch, planning to set sail the next day. But then he hears shouting. Looking out the windows he sees that someone has built a fire on the beach and the drinking has turned to violence.

Then he hears shots. He runs towards the fire only to discover that a hairy-grey Beast-Man has mortally wounded Montgomery. M’ling has been savaged and killed. Three of the beasts are dead. Montgomery just has time to say ‘Sorry’, before he dies. And, as the sun rises, Prendick looks round the beach and realises that Montgomery and M’ling, in their nihilistic drunkenness, had chopped up the dinghies and set them on fire. The stupid fool must have drunkenly thought that, if he couldn’t go back to ‘civilisation’, then no-one could.

Still dazed by this realisation, Prendick hears bangs and flares. Looking round, he sees the compound alight, flames climbing higher into the dawn sky. All his plans to flee are crushed.

Among the Beast-Men

There follows what is, in a way, the most enthralling part of the story. Prendick decides to take his courage in his hands and marches to the village of the remaining Beast People. With some of their more rebellious members hot dead, the remnant are, initially, cowed by Prendick. But it soon becomes clear that he is hungry, tired and thirsty. By slow degrees, over the course of days and weeks, he loses his rank as Ruling White Man and, step by step, declines until he is little better than one of them.

So in solitude I came round by the ravine of the Beast People, and hiding among the weeds and reeds that separated this crevice from the sea I watched such of them as appeared, trying to judge from their gestures and appearance how the death of Moreau and Montgomery and the destruction of the House of Pain had affected them. I know now the folly of my cowardice. Had I kept my courage up to the level of the dawn, had I not allowed it to ebb away in solitary thought, I might have grasped the vacant sceptre of Moreau and ruled over the Beast People. As it was I lost the opportunity, and sank to the position of a mere leader among my fellows. (Chapter 20)

Prendick is forced to spend the next ten months among the beasts and during this period, something awful and awe-inspiring happens. Slowly, one by one, he watches as they degrade and decay, reverting to their bestial origins. One by one they forget how to speak, forget how to walk upright, forget about fire, and revert to all the behaviour banned by Moreau’s ‘Laws’ – such as going on all fours and slurping water from streams.

None of them threaten him, but Prendick nonetheless lives in mounting terror.

He keeps a lookout on the horizon. A couple of times he sees what he thinks are sails and lights fires to attract their attention but nobody comes. He makes a series of half-cocked attempts to build a raft, but he is no engineer or handiman.

Finally, one day Prendick sees a dinghy drifting slowly towards the reef. When he swims out to inspect it he finds two well-rotten corpses in it. He tips them out and moors it, fills the empty kegs with fresh water, collects sacksful of fruit – and then pushes off, drifting with the waves, eating and drinking sparingly – in such an abandoned state of mind that he doesn’t really care whether he’s rescued or not. Just to be away from the Island of Beasts is enough.


Degeneration theory

To quote Wikipedia:

Towards the close of the 19th century, in the fin-de-siècle period, something of an obsession with decline, descent and degeneration invaded the European creative imagination, partly fuelled by widespread misconceptions of Darwinian evolutionary theory.

Only a few years before Moreau, in 1892, the German physician and social critic Max Nordau had written a book – Degeneration – arguing the case that Western civilisation was in irreversible. It struck a nerve and become a surprise bestseller.

This cultural trend sprang to mind, particularly as I read the penultimate chapter of The Island of Dr Moreau – the description of Prendick’s ten months among the Beast-Men which is, in effect, an extended fantasia describing the decline and degeneration of Moreau’s half-men back into a state of complete bestiality.

It is horrible to read Prendick’s vivid descriptions of their slow loss of all mental powers and reversion to crude animal behaviour. It is Nordau’s notion of degeneration given fictional flesh.

But the point is really rammed home when Prendick finds himself eventually rescued by a passing ship, and then returned, eventually, back to England, and back to London.

Here he experiences a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder for, as he walks the streets, he cannot see the passersby as people, but only as beasts-in-waiting, each on the verge of that horrible degeneration, such as he saw on the island.

When I lived in London the horror was well-nigh insupportable. I could not get away from men: their voices came through windows; locked doors were flimsy safeguards. I would go out into the streets to fight with my delusion, and prowling women would mew after me; furtive, craving men glance jealously at me; weary, pale workers go coughing by me with tired eyes and eager paces, like wounded deer dripping blood; old people, bent and dull, pass murmuring to themselves; and, all unheeding, a ragged tail of gibing children. Then I would turn aside into some chapel – and even there, such was my disturbance, it seemed that the preacher gibbered ‘Big Thinks’, even as the Ape-man had done; or into some library, and there the intent faces over the books seemed but patient creatures waiting for prey. Particularly nauseous were the blank, expressionless faces of people in trains and omnibuses; they seemed no more my fellow-creatures than dead bodies would be, so that I did not dare to travel unless I was assured of being alone. And even it seemed that I too was not a reasonable creature, but only an animal tormented with some strange disorder in its brain which sent it to wander alone… (Chapter 22)

Politics

Wells was left-wing from the start, joining the Fabian Society in 1903 and going on to write numerous works promoting socialism.

As early as The Time Machine he gave his fable of the future a political slant by speculating that the two races of sylph-like Eloi and underground ape-like Morlocks might be the remote descendants of the increasingly differentiated classes of his day – a terrifying but logical extrapolation of England 1895, when the nation’s cities seemed to be ever-more starkly divided between a luxury-enjoying bourgeoisie and a degraded, half-bestial proletariat.

The same issue winks out at us from Dr Moreau, though not so centrally as in Time Machine. The first time he discovers the Beast Village, a crevice in volcanic rock into which the pitiful results of Moreau’s vivisection experiments have excavated sordid little alcoves, Predick finds himself comparing the skulking creatures who turn from his gaze, to inhabitants of the worst slums of London.

I say I became habituated to the Beast People, that a thousand things which had seemed unnatural and repulsive speedily became natural and ordinary to me. I suppose everything in existence takes its colour from the average hue of our surroundings. Montgomery and Moreau were too peculiar and individual to keep my general impressions of humanity well defined. I would see one of the clumsy bovine-creatures who worked the launch treading heavily through the undergrowth, and find myself asking, trying hard to recall, how he differed from some really human yokel trudging home from his mechanical labours; or I would meet the Fox-bear woman’s vulpine, shifty face, strangely human in its speculative cunning, and even imagine I had met it before in some city byway.

Yet every now and then the beast would flash out upon me beyond doubt or denial. An ugly-looking man, a hunch-backed human savage to all appearance, squatting in the aperture of one of the dens, would stretch his arms and yawn, showing with startling suddenness scissor-edged incisors and sabre-like canines, keen and brilliant as knives. Or in some narrow pathway, glancing with a transitory daring into the eyes of some lithe, white-swathed female figure, I would suddenly see (with a spasmodic revulsion) that she had slit-like pupils… (Chapter 15)

Predominantly The Island of Dr Moreau is a horror story. But it also invokes the great political issue of the day. By the 1890s the appalling state of the working classes was on everyone’s lips, in the form of ‘the labour problem’, ‘the employment problem’ or ‘the population problem’, which dominated the newspapers a bit like Brexit does today.

Either side of The Island of Dr Moreau were published countless novels, newspaper articles and factual studies exposing the poverty and squalor at the heart of Britain’s large cities and especially London. The Sherlock Holmes novels revel in it. An entire new genre of lowlife novels, by authors like George Gissing and Arthur Morrison, described it with bitter anger.

Underlying the political issues, though, is the deeper anxiety about individual and cultural degeneration. What if the wealthy, educated élite will, in time, be swamped by the wretched poor? What if we are all just animals lifted beyond out natural sphere and the entire race will, eventually, revert to bestial incomprehension and violence?

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) is all about the moral degeneration of the privileged central character, a narrative which takes the hero to squalid opium dens in the East End and unmentionable depravities. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) is a really obvious expression of the theme, with the cultivated Dr Jeckyll reverting to the ape-like brute, Hyde. Charles Marlow, narrator of The Heart of Darkness, points out that London, too, was once one of the dark places of the world. And, by implication, it could become so, again.

The final chapter of the Island of Dr Moreau, describing Prendick alone among the decaying Beast-Men, really taps into this anxiety with a biting sense of horror and premonition.

Futility

When you’re a teenager, it’s a common temptation to feel that everything is pointless, futile and stupid. Much science fiction gives that feeling point and definition. If you adopt the Wellsian, materialist perspective, then human beings are just one among millions of life forms currently inhabiting the planet, themselves descended from countless billions of ancestor species, and our planet is itself one among unknown billions filling an infinitely large universe which is an inconceivable 15 billion years old.

The incorporation of these vast and thrilling perspectives into his stories gives Wells ample opportunity to have his narrators or protagonists reflect, at some point, on the pitiful triviality of their own – and by extension – all human lives.

Thus, at the height of the chase of the Leopard-Man, Prendick – watching Montgomery and Moreau lead their pack of mutants across the rocks towards the poor victim – is suddenly overwhelmed by the horrible arbitrary futility of it all.

The Beast People manifested a quite human curiosity about the dead body, and followed it in a thick knot, sniffing and growling at it as the Bull-men dragged it down the beach. I went to the headland and watched the bull-men, black against the evening sky as they carried the weighted dead body out to sea; and like a wave across my mind came the realisation of the unspeakable aimlessness of things upon the island. Upon the beach among the rocks beneath me were the Ape-man, the Hyena-swine, and several other of the Beast People, standing about Montgomery and Moreau. They were all still intensely excited, and all overflowing with noisy expressions of their loyalty to the Law; yet I felt an absolute assurance in my own mind that the Hyena-swine was implicated in the rabbit-killing. A strange persuasion came upon me, that, save for the grossness of the line, the grotesqueness of the forms, I had here before me the whole balance of human life in miniature, the whole interplay of instinct, reason, and fate in its simplest form. The Leopard-man had happened to go under: that was all the difference. Poor brute!

Poor brutes! I began to see the viler aspect of Moreau’s cruelty. I had not thought before of the pain and trouble that came to these poor victims after they had passed from Moreau’s hands. I had shivered only at the days of actual torment in the enclosure. But now that seemed to me the lesser part. Before, they had been beasts, their instincts fitly adapted to their surroundings, and happy as living things may be. Now they stumbled in the shackles of humanity, lived in a fear that never died, fretted by a law they could not understand; their mock-human existence, begun in an agony, was one long internal struggle, one long dread of Moreau – and for what? It was the wantonness of it that stirred me.

Had Moreau had any intelligible object, I could have sympathised at least a little with him. I am not so squeamish about pain as that. I could have forgiven him a little even, had his motive been only hate. But he was so irresponsible, so utterly careless! His curiosity, his mad, aimless investigations, drove him on; and the Things were thrown out to live a year or so, to struggle and blunder and suffer, and at last to die painfully. They were wretched in themselves; the old animal hate moved them to trouble one another; the Law held them back from a brief hot struggle and a decisive end to their natural animosities.

In those days my fear of the Beast People went the way of my personal fear for Moreau. I fell indeed into a morbid state, deep and enduring, and alien to fear, which has left permanent scars upon my mind. I must confess that I lost faith in the sanity of the world when I saw it suffering the painful disorder of this island. A blind Fate, a vast pitiless mechanism, seemed to cut and shape the fabric of existence and I, Moreau (by his passion for research), Montgomery (by his passion for drink), the Beast People with their instincts and mental restrictions, were torn and crushed, ruthlessly, inevitably, amid the infinite complexity of its incessant wheels.

‘I lost faith in the sanity of the world when I saw it suffering the painful disorder of this island…’

To a certain kind of mind, or to the mind in a certain mood, these ideas are really powerful, and Wells’ nihilism takes its place in a long line which stretches from Gulliver, revolted by humans at the very end of  his travels, through to the oppressive misanthropy of Wells’s contemporary, Joseph Conrad.

The way the tale ends with Prendick incapacitated by revulsion on the streets of London, really rams home the horror of what he has witnessed, and imprints his haunted vision of a universal human degeneration into bestial animality.


Related links

Other H.G. Wells reviews

1895 The Time Machine – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come – set in the same London of the future described in The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love but descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1906 In the Days of the Comet – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end

1914 The World Set Free – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895)

Why is this, Wells’s first novella, such a classic? At least in part because it is short, pacy and vivid.

Short 

Barely 90 pages in the Pan paperback version, at 33,000 words The Time Machine is comparable to the first Sherlock Holmes novels or The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (25,000 words). It gets in, makes its sensational statement, and is all over while you’re still reeling. It takes as long to read as the average movie to watch.

Pacy 

Not only is it short, but it moves at a cracking pace, the opening words introducing us to the (anonymous) Time Traveller in conversation with his dinner guests. We are plunged straight into a discussion of the theory of time before, a few pages later, he shows them a small time machine (p.13), before then (p.16) exhibiting the nearly completed full-size machine itself, and then – a mere week, and three pages, later (p.19), his friends, assembled for the usual Thursday evening dinner, gasp as he staggers dramatically through the door, and tells the assembled guests his extraordinary story.

Given that the Pan paperback text starts on page seven, it’s gone from nothing to details of his time travelling adventures in twelve swift pages.

Vivid 

And nobody who’s read it can forget the tremendous scenes he conjures up –

  • the idyllic, sunny world of the Eloi
  • the horror of the underground world inhabited by the filthy, white ape-like Morlocks
  • the Time Traveller wandering, accompanied by the elfin Weena, through the ruins of a vast abandoned Natural History Museum
  • the fire in the forest as the Morlocks attack him and Weena
  • and then the climactic scene as the Morlocks swarm all over him as he struggles to reattach the levers to the time machine which make it work and let him escape

And I have never forgotten being entranced, as a boy, by the coda to the main adventure, his visions of the world millions of years hence, when the dying sun has stopped rising or setting, the moon has disappeared, and the world is a vast beach lapped by a thick oily sea, inhabited only by monstrous crabs.

‘I stopped very gently and sat upon the Time Machine, looking round. The sky was no longer blue. North-eastward it was inky black, and out of the blackness shone brightly and steadily the pale white stars. Overhead it was a deep Indian red and starless, and south-eastward it grew brighter to a glowing scarlet where, cut by the horizon, lay the huge hull of the sun, red and motionless. The rocks about me were of a harsh reddish colour, and all the trace of life that I could see at first was the intensely green vegetation that covered every projecting point on their south-eastern face. It was the same rich green that one sees on forest moss or on the lichen in caves: plants which like these grow in a perpetual twilight.

‘The machine was standing on a sloping beach. The sea stretched away to the south-west, to rise into a sharp bright horizon against the wan sky. There were no breakers and no waves, for not a breath of wind was stirring. Only a slight oily swell rose and fell like a gentle breathing, and showed that the eternal sea was still moving and living. And along the margin where the water sometimes broke was a thick incrustation of salt—pink under the lurid sky. There was a sense of oppression in my head, and I noticed that I was breathing very fast. The sensation reminded me of my only experience of mountaineering, and from that I judged the air to be more rarefied than it is now.

‘Far away up the desolate slope I heard a harsh scream, and saw a thing like a huge white butterfly go slanting and fluttering up into the sky and, circling, disappear over some low hillocks beyond. The sound of its voice was so dismal that I shivered and seated myself more firmly upon the machine. Looking round me again, I saw that, quite near, what I had taken to be a reddish mass of rock was moving slowly towards me. Then I saw the thing was really a monstrous crab-like creature. Can you imagine a crab as large as yonder table, with its many legs moving slowly and uncertainly, its big claws swaying, its long antennæ, like carters’ whips, waving and feeling, and its stalked eyes gleaming at you on either side of its metallic front? Its back was corrugated and ornamented with ungainly bosses, and a greenish incrustation blotched it here and there. I could see the many palps of its complicated mouth flickering and feeling as it moved.’

Wow. Just wow. What a scene! How many teenage imaginations have been inflamed by Well’s vivid vision of a bleak and otherworldly futurity.

The scientific perspective

Underpinning the grip of the narrative is Wells’s aura of scientific knowledgeability. The idea of a world divided into gladsome nymphs cavorting in the sunshine and vile cannibal apes living underground is one thing. What gives it depth is the narrator’s thought-provoking speculations about why this future world has come about. His initial theory is proven wrong, but is interesting nonetheless. He speculates that intelligence is required by creatures that have to cope with changing and dangerous circumstances.

‘It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. An animal perfectly in harmony with its environment is a perfect mechanism. Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers.’ (Chapter 13)

In other words he applies a purely Darwinian worldview to the world that he encounters. There is no Victorian sentimentality about God or religion or ‘the spirit’. From the get-go Wells is an adherent of Darwinian materialism and comes up with materialist explanations for everything he sees – lacking big animal predators or external threat, mankind has dwindled to four-foot, happy, brainless elves.

But when presented with new evidence, like a good scientist he abandons theory one and comes up with his theory two, although confessing to his listeners that it might still be wrong. Now he speculates that the two races – the Eloi and the Morlocks – represent the very long-term outcome of the trend already visible in Victorian times – the division of society into two classes, an insouciant, privileged upper class, and a grunting, toiling underclass, increasingly consigned, literally, to a subterranean existence.

This theory itself strikes me as being crude as an explanation for the society he finds in the year eight hundred and two thousand, seven hundred and one. The scientific worldview of the book is created less by this big speculation, than by his understanding of countless little details. For example, the way he speculates that the big, flat eyes and white coloration of the Morlocks are a result of living in underground darkness – and mentions the Victorian naturalists who had found the same qualities in fish which live in the depths of the oceans.

Or his knowledge of the solar system, of the movements of the earth, moon and other planets around the sun, which he brings to bear in his speculations about the way the night sky of earth in the far distant future, millions of years hence, is so radically different from our time.

George Orwell paid tribute to Wells by saying that he showed adolescents and young adults of his generation that the world was not going to be as their stuffy, hidebound, stiflingly Anglican parents thought it would be. It wasn’t going to be all boy scouts and British Empire forever. Wells showed that vastly bigger forces were at work on all humankind. The future was going to be something altogether weirder and more uncanny. It was going to be strange and wonderful. And this, Orwell says, was experienced as a huge imaginative liberation from the restrictions of Edwardian society.

Over and above this, Wells repeatedly hits the note, beloved of adolescents, of the futility of human life, especially of contemporary polite society. The perspectives he opens up, the vast realms of astronomy and evolution, the epochs and distances, dwarf out petty concerns.

I suppose this is one of the key notes and comforts of science fiction as a genre.

‘Looking at these stars suddenly dwarfed my own troubles and all the gravities of terrestrial life. I thought of their unfathomable distance, and the slow inevitable drift of their movements out of the unknown past into the unknown future. I thought of the great precessional cycle that the pole of the earth describes. Only forty times had that silent revolution occurred during all the years that I had traversed. And during these few revolutions all the activity, all the traditions, the complex organisations, the nations, languages, literatures, aspirations, even the mere memory of Man as I knew him, had been swept out of existence. Instead were these frail creatures who had forgotten their high ancestry, and the white Things of which I went in terror.’

Wonder 

And this, I think, accounts for the enduring success and influence of the early Wells science fantasias – their sense of wonder! They capture a profound sense of awe and amazement. They are astonishing and astounding. You can feel your imagination being stretched and extended in previously undreamed-of ways.

It’s that ability to amaze which marks Wells out, and the speed with which he gets to the amazing bits, with the minimum of Victorian etiquette and bombast and narrative machinery. Within minutes of opening the book we are there in the room as the time traveller tests his time machine, and all the early books are like that. Immediate.

The anchor of the mundane

The story was so fantastic and incredible, the telling so credible and sober. (Chapter 16)

I’d forgotten that The Time Machine is set in Richmond-upon-Thames. That’s where the house of the unnamed time traveller is situated, on a hill overlooking the river Thames, where a half dozen or so professional chaps meet up every Thursday for dinner and intelligent conversation.

Since the time machine doesn’t move in space but only in time, that means that the eerie statue of the sphinx, the ruined hall where the Eloi eat and sleep, and the nearby air shafts up which the Morlocks climb to seize their prey – all are, or more accurately, will be situated, in Richmond. Weird thought.

Similarly, the porcelain palace, as he calls it, an immense ruined building which turns out to be a kind of natural history museum, is off in the direction of Banstead, which he has to get to by passing through what was once Wimbledon. From the heights on which the palace is built he can look north-east and see a creek or inlet of the Thames where ‘Battersea must once have been’.

For a Londoner (and most of Wells’s early readers were from London’s literary circles and readerships) these incongruous references to banal and everyday locations add another layer of frisson and excitement – to see places you know and travel through and are thoroughly bored with, described as they will appear in an inconceivably distant future, is strange and marvellous.

The mundaneness of the settings – the glimpses of the traveller’s bustling servants and the dinner guests fussing with their pipes – and the drabness of these suburban place names, perform two functions:

  1. they anchor and root the stories in the real actual everyday world, lending the astonishing stories a patina of plausibility
  2. at the same time, the banality of place names and domestic habits are like velvet backgrounds against which he sets the wonderful jewels of his imagination

Related links

Other H.G. Wells reviews

1895 The Time Machine – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come – set in the same London of the future described in The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love but descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1906 In the Days of the Comet – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end

1914 The World Set Free – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed

Adapt to Survive: Notes from the Future @ Hayward Gallery

Hayward Gallery revision notes

Hayward Gallery is a part of the Southbank Centre. Opened by the Queen in July 1968, the gallery is one of the few remaining buildings of its style i.e. concrete Brutalism. It was designed by a group of young architects, including Dennis Crompton, Warren Chalk and Ron Herron, and is named after Sir Isaac Hayward, a former leader of the London County Council.

In 2015 the gallery shut down for a few years ago for a complete refurbishment. It re-opened in this, its fiftieth birthday year, with a massive retrospective of German photographer Andreas Gursky. It is now hosting a major retrospective exhibition of Korean artist Lee Bul (which I’ve also reviewed).

These blockbuster shows are held in the massive main galleries, five rooms on split levels reached by spiral staircases and ramps. But in the main foyer of the building is the doorway to Hayward’s other exhibition space, the much smaller HENI Project Space.

HENI Project Space

Whereas the main gallery hosts only two or three big shows a year, the HENI Project Space space is much more flexible and fast, typically presenting six to eight exhibitions a year. The space comprises a short corridor turning into one large room, lined with the building’s characteristic dark grey concrete.

Originally opened in 2007, the HENI Project Space – like its parent gallery – underwent a comprehensive refurbishment and re-opened in January 2018 in its new, bigger, ground floor location (on the right as you enter the Hayward’s main glass doors).

Importantly, whereas entry to the main exhibition generally costs around £14, entry to the project space is FREE (although be aware that the whole Hayward complex doesn’t open till 11am and is closed on Tuesdays).

Adapt to Survive

Adapt to Survive: Notes from the Future brings together one or two artworks each by a group of seven international artists on the common theme of imagining how our world might look and feel in the future.

Ann Lislegaard – Time Machine (2011)

A box about waist-high is made of four mirrors attached by hinges. Two have been unfolded to swing out across the floor. The other two remain closed to form two sides of the box and onto them is projected a ‘cartoon’ fox. The fox is speaking a monologue which is continually interrupted by computer glitches, echoes and buzzing interference. Something is wrong with its programme.

The fox is reciting part of H.G. Wells’s novel The Time Machine (1895) in which the scientist-narrator ponders on the nature of time. The broken narrative by a computer-generated animation reminds us of hundreds of similar glitchy programmes in modern science fiction film, a trope indicating that the future will be heavily technological but that that technology will be flawed.

Having worked on government websites and in government IT for the past eight years, I don’t need anyone to tell me just how flawed and accident-prone modern digital technology can be. This is a visually striking and quite humorous reminder.

Installation view of Adapt to Survive at Hayward Gallery, featuring Time Machine by Ann Lislegaard © Ann Lislegaard. Photo by Thierry Bal

Installation view of Adapt to Survive at Hayward Gallery, featuring Time Machine by Ann Lislegaard © Ann Lislegaard. Photo by Thierry Bal

Julian Charrière – Metamorphism (2016)

Charrière imagines what the world might look like many millennia in the future, when the products that characterise our era have been buried under sediment and re-incorporated into the Earth’s strata. To make his futuristic ‘samples’ Charrière poured 20 tonnes of molten rock over a pile of broken consumer electronics, later applying a chemical wash to the cooled forms to simulate the effects of acid rain. Solid, disturbing.

Installation view of Adapt to Survive at Hayward Gallery, featuring Metamorphism by Julian Charrière © Julian Charrière. Photo by Thierry Bal

Installation view of Adapt to Survive at Hayward Gallery, featuring Metamorphism by Julian Charrière © Julian Charrière. Photo by Thierry Bal

Rainer Ganahl – I Hate Karl Marx (2010)

A TV set is on a plinth showing a film or programme. There are a couple of headphones available so you can listen to the video which turns out to depict a young German woman yelling at a bust of Karl Marx. Except that she’s yelling in Chinese. Because the film imagines a future in which China is the dominant political and economic power and has taken over Europe where all the countries are now communist and everyone speaks Chinese.

If this really were a repressive communist state I suspect a young woman shouting at a statue of Marx would be grabbed by the security police pretty quickly.

You can view the entire video on YouTube.

I like where she calls Marx ‘a fat, dumpling-throwing corrupt Chinese pig’, probably the first time he’s been called that. But quite quickly I started wishing that she’d run off-screen and return with a damp birch branch and start whacking the statue, like John Cleese whacks his Morris 1100 in Fawlty Towers. That would show him!

Unintentionally, perhaps, this piece is quite funny.

Marguerite Humeau – Harry II (2017)

Humeau has created a big and elaborate sculpture which takes inspiration from the ancient myth of the sphinx and then goes way beyond to put it in an eerily modern context.

The three savage-looking sphinxes’ heads now sit atop a weird kind of futuristic fencing, with some worrying organic but prickly bayonet devices down at ankle level. Up close the installation gives off a disconcerting hum like the low hum of electronic surveillance devices. Spooky.

Installation view of Adapt to Survive at Hayward Gallery, featuring Harry II by Marguerite Humeau (2017) © Marguerite Humeau. Photo by Thierry Bal

Installation view of Adapt to Survive at Hayward Gallery, featuring Harry II by Marguerite Humeau (2017) © Marguerite Humeau. Photo by Thierry Bal

Bedwyr Williams – Tyrrau Mawr (2016)

Hanging on the wall is a widescreen monitor showing what at first looks like a glossy photo or artist’s creation of a futuristic cityscape. Only if you watch carefully do you realise that the sun glinting off the skyscrapers is moving very slowly, and then that tiny street lights are flickering on as dusk falls.

This is Bedwyr Williams’s vision of an imaginary mega-city situated in rural North Wales. Put on the headphones and you can hear Williams himself reading out short fictional vignettes describing the lives of the inhabitants of this ideal new metropolis. I’m not giving anything away if I reveal that they are uniformly unhappy and listless. The future is bored and alienated (pretty much like the present, then). Dazzling.

Installation view of Adapt to Survive at Hayward Gallery, featuring Tyrrau Mawr by Bedwyr Williams (2017) © Bedwyr Williams. Photo by the author

Installation view of Adapt to Survive at Hayward Gallery, featuring Tyrrau Mawr by Bedwyr Williams (2016) © Bedwyr Williams. Photo by the author

Youmna Chlala – The Butterfly Already Exists in the Caterpillar (2018)

Artist and writer Youmna Chlala is working on a project titled The Museum of Future Memories. She imagines the city of the future as being a place in flux, a zone of rising sea levels, where seasons have ceased to exist and the remaining inhabitants have forged new ways to live.

Sounds quite drastic and devastated but it in fact turns out that the inhabitants of this future world write neat and poetic graffiti on the concrete walls of their ruins, alongside colourful crayon-style imagery of wildlife. Pretty.

Installation view of Adapt to Survive at Hayward Gallery, featuring The Butterfly Already Exists in the Caterpillar by Youmna Chlala (2018) © Youmna Chlala. Photo by Thierry Bal

Installation view of Adapt to Survive at Hayward Gallery, featuring The Butterfly Already Exists in the Caterpillar by Youmna Chlala (2018) © Youmna Chlala. Photo by Thierry Bal

Andreas Angelidakis – The Walking Building (2004–6)

In the plate glass frontage of the gallery is a TV monitor showing a video portraying a fantasy imagining of a contemporary art museum of the future, a ‘shape-shifting structure that adapts to different environments and needs’. In the video, the museum comes alive, crawling like an animal through the streets of Athens.

The work is inspired by Archigram, an avant-garde architectural collective who championed radical, adaptable urban structures such as The Walking City (1964), and three of whose founding members were involved in the design of the Hayward Gallery. It’s quite fun in a sci-fi special effects kind of way.

Installation view of Adapt to Survive at Hayward Gallery, featuring The Walking Building (2004–6) by Andreas Angelidakis © Andreas Angelidakis. Photo by Thierry Bal

Installation view of Adapt to Survive at Hayward Gallery, featuring The Walking Building (2004–6) by Andreas Angelidakis © Andreas Angelidakis. Photo by Thierry Bal

Thoughts

I grew up reading science fiction in the 1960s and 70s.

After going through phases of reading traditional sci-fi by the likes of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein and Olaf Stapledon, I stumbled in the 1970s across the novels and short stories of the English writer J.G.Ballard who gave the entire genre of science fiction a completely new and profoundly disillusioned twist.

Ballard deliberately abandoned the style of sci-fi known as ‘space opera’ – all rocket ships and laser guns – in favour of concentrating on the alienated, estranged lives of people living more or less in the present, but a present distorted by the unnerving reality of concrete high rise buildings, motorway flyovers, multiple vehicle pile-ups on motorways

He titled his stories about the psychological damage being done by the inhuman environments of the present ‘myths of the near future’.

In a similar spirit of disillusion he threw cold water on the boyish fantasies of all those sci-fi writers and film-makers who think mankind will one day colonise other planets and travel to the stars. It’s really simple. No, we won’t. Not only do we not have the money or the technology or the power sources to do any of that, but at a deeper level, people don’t want to. That whole tribe of sci-fi visionaries don’t seem to have noticed that we are having a lot of trouble just surviving on this planet.

Ballard made the controversial assertion that the Space Age ended in about 1973, when the ratings for I Love Lucy were higher than for that year’s Apollo moon landing. Most people weren’t bothered anymore. Seen it. Done it. Got the t-shirt. Of course the Americans went on to build the space shuttle and the international space station and the Indians and Chinese are now sending rockets into space. But do you care? Do I care? Does the population of war-torn Syria care?

Science continues to be done on the international space station and probes are regularly fired off into the solar system and beyond, but humanity will clearly never leave this planet.

Ballard’s fiction paints a vision of physical entropy and emotional accidie which nothing can shift. It is full of empty swimming pools and abandoned motels. And of mannequin-like people talking at cross-purposes. He died before mobile phones intensified the alienation and distance from each other which he had been predicting for so long.

And then he swept the rug from under his own oeuvre by revealing that all those decades of science fiction stories were in fact workings-though in fictional form of his terrible childhood experience of being imprisoned by the Japanese during World War Two, which he revealed in the entirely factual autobiography Empire of the Sun, published in 1984, so powerful it was made into a movie by Steven Spielberg. He wrote more books but – having made a public confession – none of them used the form or language of science fiction, and they were never so good. Like a magician who shows how his tricks are done, the magic had evaporated.

But in the thirty years up to Empire of the Sun, Ballard so comprehensively deconstructed and undermined science fiction’s settings, tropes and assumptions, that there didn’t seem anywhere left to go. Although science fiction has gone on to have a steadily increasing presence in movies and television, it mostly seems to me to deal in themes which I find disconcertingly old-fashioned. Much science fiction seems to me – paradoxically – to be achingly nostalgic.

Take the potentially endless series of Star Wars films which Disney are now going to churn out on an annual basis. Ray guns and space ships? These are themselves redolent of the classic space opera comics and movies George Lucas watched in the 1950s. But on another level all the fans who flock to see these blockbuster movies really just want to see the relationship between Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher recreated – and so are doomed to disappointment.

And so for me, coming from this perspective, it was symptomatic that the first work in this little collection supposedly about the future is in fact based on the story which invented the concept of time travel over 120 years ago. Like so much of science fiction, the animation of the stuttering fox didn’t seem at all new but felt to me old, old, old.

The notion that the big shiny cities of the future will in fact house unhappy, alienated populations (Williams), segregated by menacing razor fencing (Humeau), and that our civilisation will one day decline and fall to be reclaimed by nature (Chlala), the scorched ruins eventually becoming buried under sediment to survive only as fossils (Charrière) – these ideas aren’t just familiar, they are the almost-exhausted superclichés of the genre.

The notion that buildings, or even entire cities, will in the future be able to move to more optimum locations, is at least as old as Christopher Priest’s classic sci-fi novel Inverted World, from 1973, and is about to be blasted into everyone’s consciousness by the forthcoming ‘major motion picture’, Mortal Engines, based on Philip Reeve’s brilliant series of novels about moving cities in a post-apocalypse future, scheduled for release this Christmas.

So influenced by Ballard as I am, I tend to think that if there is any mileage in science fiction, it is in the now, just not in quite the same ‘now’ that most people are looking at. It is in glimpses and intuitions of how human nature is being changed by technology, that are hard to see and even harder to express.

Conclusion

I enjoyed this exhibition, and the opportunity to see samples of the kind of work being made by youngish contemporary artists. But I don’t think it told me anything at all about the actual future which we are all going to live through…


Related links

Reviews of other Hayward exhibitions

Science fiction reviews

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