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Literature & poetry

An intimate of the heart and the heavens

Anna Veronica; The First Men in the Moon; The History of Mr Polly ; The Invisible Man; The Island of Dr Moreau; Kipps; Love and Mr Lewisham; A Modern Utopia; The New Machiavelli; The Shape of Things to Come; The Sleeper Awakes; The Time Machine; Tono-Bungay; The War in the Air; The War of the Worlds

Introductions by Margaret Drabble, China Mieville, John Sutherland, Christopher Priest, Margaret Atwood, David Lodge, Gillian Beer, Francis Wheen, Michael Foot, John Clute, Patrick Parrinder, Marina Warner, Edward Mendelson, Jay Winter & Brian Aldiss

H.G. Wells knew well the perils and promise of the human spirit and the universe, says Arthur C. Clarke 

The two greatest names in science fiction are Jules Verne (1828-1905) and Herbert George Wells (1866-1946). Though they now seem to belong to different ages, their careers overlapped; Verne was still alive when Wells published his finest tales. Even allowing for the fact that Verne has been appallingly translated into English, it can hardly be denied that Wells was a much greater writer, blessed with almost all the gifts that a novelist can possess. On second thoughts, he had too many gifts; if he had not been so interested in politics, history and society, he might have written fewer but better books. (In a 50-year career, he produced some 150 titles, of which perhaps 20 are remembered today.) Wells grew up in poverty and squalor: his father, Joseph, had been a gardener, his mother a lady's maid, but before he was born his parents had sunk their small resources in an unsuccessful shop, which was saved from bankruptcy by Joseph's earnings as a professional cricketer.

He escaped this pathetic environment by a combination of luck and genius. He won a scholarship to the Royal College of Science, Kensington, where he studied biology under the great T. H. Huxley and took his degree in zoology. When he was 21, an accident on the football field destroyed one kidney and made him a semi-invalid for a while, with the result that he had both the opportunity and the incentive to write for a living.

Wells was successful from the very start with short stories, articles and humorous sketches. The Time Machine , his first novel and still his masterpiece, appeared in book form in 1895, and thereafter his fame spread swiftly through the world. Even the miseries of his early life were turned to good account in such novels as Kipps , Tono-Bungay and The History of Mr Polly . These sagas of ordinary people in turn-of-the-century England belong to the best tradition of Dickens and would have assured Wells's fame even if he had never trafficked with Martians so brilliantly in The War of the Worlds (1898).

The War of the Worlds is in some ways Wells's most remarkable tour de force, and contains passages whose relevance is even greater today than when they were written. This astonishing novel contains what must be the first detailed description of mechanised warfare and its impact on an urban society. Yet Wells wrote it not only before the First World War, but even prior to the Boer War. The account of refugees streaming out of London before the assault of the Martians must have seemed unbelievable fantasy to the comfortable Victorians; to us, it is not only past history but, all too often, shown live via satellite in our own living rooms.

Every generation can reread The War of the Worlds in the light of its own experience and gain something new from it. In the 1920s, it was impressive because it described poison gas in action and suggested that aircraft could be used for warfare. It made a still greater impact on the 1930s, when the famous Orson Welles production of Howard Koch's radio script - broadcast on CBS's Mercury Theater on the Air on October 30, 1938 - caused panic over much of the eastern US.

Koch (with whom I worked on a never-produced science-fiction movie while he was a McCarthy exile in London during the 1960s) wrote the script in a week, receiving just $75 in payment. I am happy to say that he later sold the few dozen tattered pages of his original manuscript for a six-figure sum. His story of the whole episode, The Panic Broadcast , still makes amusing reading.

Though one cannot blame Wells for all the latter excesses of interplanetary warfare, perhaps he merits some criticism for propagating the creed that anything alien is likely to be horrible (and hostile). Compare his unflattering description of the Martians with the passage in C.S. Lewis's Perelandra , where the hero meets a much more imposing monster in a Venusian cave and, after initial revulsion, sees it merely as something strange, not in the least hideous. The underwater explorers of today have been through the same process while making friends with octopuses, and astronauts of the future may have similar problems.

The tradition started by The War of the Worlds will not help them, but perhaps Steven Spielberg's E.T. may have started a new and less paranoiac trend. (In fact, Wells himself depicted a much more benign Mars, with more attractive inhabitants, in his short story "The Crystal Egg".) It is also amusing that Spielberg should take up the latest movie adaptation of The War of the Worlds . He has now covered the full spectrum of aliens, from benign to malevolent...

Wells wrote his second interplanetary romance, The First Men in the Moon , in 1901. This is perhaps the most famous of all stories of space travel; few later writers ever came near to matching its mood of extraterrestrial awe and wonder, and no one has surpassed it.

Soon after the appearance of The First Men in the Moon , Wells was involved in a controversy with a now-forgotten Irish writer, Robert Cromie, author of A Plunge into Space (1890). This tale also employed "the secret of gravitation" to power a spherical spaceship on a journey to Mars, so the two novels certainly had some points in common. Wells's reply to the indignant Irishman's accusations was the single sentence: "I have never heard of Mr Cromie nor of the book he attempts to advertise by insinuations of plagiarism on my part."

Although there is no reason to doubt Wells's statement, both he and Cromie were heirs to the 19th-century tradition of anti-gravity stories, notably Percy Greg's Across the Zodiac (1880). Anti-gravity "screens" of the type so plausibly described by Wells have been out of fashion for more than a century because a simple thought experiment will show that they cannot possibly work.

If they had been really good businessmen, Wells's characters Bedford and Cavor should have started selling electricity instead of bothering to go the moon. For a piece of Wells's mythical substance "cavorite" placed under one side of a dynamo could make half the rotor weightless, so that it would start to rise upwards and thus generate power - indefinitely. But nature never gives something for nothing, which is why builders of perpetual motion machines are doomed to perpetual disappointment.

However, there is no objection in principle to an anti-gravity device powered by some external source of energy, and from time to time one hears of such an invention. However, none has yet reached the Patent Office.

Verne was quick to point out that, as opposed to "cavorite", the space-gun that propelled his travellers ( From the Earth to the Moon , 1865) was based on sound scientific principles and detailed calculations of escape velocity and transit times. True enough - as long as one neglected air resistance and the minor problem that would-be astronauts would be converted into instant wall-to-wall carpet by the initial acceleration. Perhaps Wells took Verne's criticism too seriously: our fledgling British Interplanetary Society protested to him when he reverted to using a space-gun, instead of a rocket, in the classic film Things to Come (1936).

I doubt if even Wells imagined that, only two decades after his death, men would actually be preparing to go to the moon. He would certainly have been delighted to know that when Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins returned to Earth, the book recording their personal stories would be called First on the Moon (1970). I had the privilege of writing the epilogue to that book.

For more than 20 years after his Tales of Space and Time , Wells virtually abandoned the genre that had brought him fame, returning to it only towards the end of his life in Star Begotten (1937). His last book, Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945), was a sad and despairing work published only two years before his death at 80. It did his reputation little good, and in the postwar period there was a definite slump in Wells stock.

Happily, this mood has now passed. There is a flourishing H.G. Wells Society, and critical books on Wells have been appearing in increasing numbers. This may be due partly to the shame-faced realisation in literary circles that Wells's scientific romances were not youthful aberrations or escapist fantasies, but works of art with unique relevance to our times. It is entirely appropriate, therefore, that Penguin should release several of Wells's classics in paperback form this summer - just when Spielberg's remake of The War of the Worlds reaches a cinema near you. Each Penguin edition is accompanied by a detailed introduction by a noted writer or researcher of science fiction, and supported by further historical and literary endnotes. (Interestingly, The First Men in the Moon is introduced by China Mieville, who recently won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for the second time for his novel Iron Council .)

Those who are reading Wells for the first time may be surprised to find that his work is full of poetry and contains passages that catch at the throat. Wells tried to pretend that he was not an artist, and stated: "There will come a time for every work of art when it will have served its purpose and be bereft of its last rag of significance." This has not yet happened for the best of Wells's science fiction, though it has done so for all but a few of his realistic and political novels. These have suffered the fate of most "topical" writing, while his so-called fantastic tales are still fresh and enjoyable.

I think that people are rereading Wells because they are tired of ever-more-minute dissections of neurotic egos and worn-out repetitions of eternal triangles and tetrahedra. Wells saw as clearly as anyone into the secret places of the heart, but he also saw the universe, with all its infinite promise and peril. He believed - though not blindly - that men were capable of improvement and might one day build peaceful societies on all the worlds that lay within their reach.

We need this faith now as never before in the history of our species.

The accolade that Arthur C. Clarke cherishes the most is to be called the successor to H. G. Wells. A signed photograph of Wells looks down from his study wall in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Anna Veronica; The First Men in the Moon; The History of Mr Polly ; The Invisible Man; The Island of Dr Moreau; Kipps; Love and Mr Lewisham; A Modern Utopia; The New Machiavelli; The Shape of Things to Come; The Sleeper Awakes; The Time Machine; Tono

Author - H. G. Wells
Publisher - Penguin
Pages - 313; 213; 227; 139; 361; 229; 281; 470; 530; 252; 104; 414; 296; 199
Price - £7.99; £7.99; £7.99; £6.99; £8.99; £7.99; £7.99; £8.99; £8.99; £8.99; £6.99; £8.99; £7.99; £6.99
ISBN - 0 14 144109 7; 0 14 144108 9; 0 14 144107 0; 0 14 144102 X; 0 14 144110 0; 0 14 144105 4; 0 14 144112 7; 0 14 143999 8; 0 14 144104 6; 0 14 144106 2; 0 14 143997 1; 0 14 144111 9; 0 14 144130 5; 0 14 144103 8

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