Shapes of things. Fabian socialism. Martians sucking blood from humans for nourishment. H.G. Wells emergence as a novelist proper belongs to the period between the turn of the century and the end of its first decade, when he was able to enjoy, as only a select group of novelists have, great popularity and critical esteem. Kipps, Tono-Bungay in 1909, and the History of Mr. Polly in 1910 were his most popular and the best of his fiction.
These three are what are broadly known as “sociological novels.” Extroverted rather than introverted, concerned with the outer worlds of their leading characters. He was as individual and original as Wolf, Joyce and Lawrence were. If he satisfies us as a creator as he does here, then there is no reason why he should not also present himself as a sharp critic of the society he is describing.
Kipps and Mr. Polly succeed because they offer us two central figures, belonging essentially to the depressed end of the Edwardian lower middle class, who are touching, absurd, but not entirely unheroic in their own fashion, and quite sharply and memorably individual. Sheer creative vitality brought the two sides of Wells together in these two novels, giving us both the boradly humorous and sympathetic man and the sharp eyed critical and scientific observer.
They are both there too, in Tono-Bungay, a longer and far more ambitious novel that contains no characters as triumphantly memorable as Kipps or Mr. Polly but takes a far wider grasp of human affairs and attempts a panoramic view of society; and it represents a complete presentation of its author, prejudices, whims and all.
In 1911 Wells published The New Machiavelli, which made a great stir, partly because it was politically up to the minute and contained some rather malicious portraits of the people he had known in the Fabian Society. But considered simply as fiction, it marks the beginning of a long decline. Probably, his creative powers were not failing, he was only in his middle forties, but because he may have arrived at a wrong decision. He deliberately decided that as a novelist he must be the exact opposite of Henry James, with whom he quarreled. He was a journalist he declared, and not an artist. He would use the novel as a general receptacle for anything he wanted to offer the public which included satire, social criticism, snatches of autobiography, and portraits of those he admired or disdained. He was accused of transforming novels into “messages” and propaganda, but these elements had been there, less obvious, since The Time Machine.
What was new and damaging was the semi-journalistic rag bag idea of the novel, where he sacrificed himself to a bad formula. It is novelists and not journalists who write good novels and his turn to become a sort of world educator is where critics focus their wrath on his ideas based on social sciences; particularly his overconfidence in rationalism and enthusiasm for scientific world management; and not as an inspired and unwearying challenger of mental squalor and superstition, ignorance and fear.
II: „Scientific Breeding‟ in Wells and Shaw
We get our first glimpse of the Wellsian technocratic utopia satirized by Beerbohm in the pronouncements of the Artilleryman in The War of the Worlds (1898) and the tyrant Ostrog in When the Sleeper Wakes (1899); both characters look forward to a world „cleansed‟ of its „failures‟ and „weaklings‟. A few years later, in Anticipations, Mankind in the Making and A Modern Utopia, Wells set out in detail his vision of a coming society ruled by a scientifically trained aristocratic caste, a voluntary nobility he called „Samurai‟ in the last of these works. Wells is at his most homicidal in the final chapter of Anticipations, where he enthusiastically anticipates „good scientifically caused‟ torture as a punishment for crime, and, in order to encourage the procreation of the strong and the beautiful, the „merciful obliteration‟ of the „unfit‟ together with the total extinction of the world‟s „inferior [i.e. non-white] races‟.
Although Wells consistently uses such terms as „merciful obliteration‟ which imply involuntary euthanasia, presumably by means of the lethal chamber, he seems not to have named this device overtly. Similarly, Shaw in Man and Superman (1903
at first reluctant to specify the means by which society will „eliminate‟ alleged undesirables. „The Revolutionist‟s Handbook‟ appended to that play claims that there is only one solution: „The only fundamental and possible Socialism is the socialization of the selective breeding of Man: in other terms, of human evolution. We must eliminate the Yahoo, or his vote will wreck the commonwealth‟.
…„The sublimation of individuality‟ and the imposition of a totalitarian „new pattern of living‟ by an „aggressive order‟ of fanatics: these are precisely the things that Beerbohm warned against in his extraordinarily perceptive satires of Wells and Shaw….
…which I cited earlier when discussing Shaw‟s lecture to the Eugenics Education Society), Arnold White in an 1889 article which became part of his highly influential Efficiency and Empire (1901) implies that the „lethal chamber‟ had already begun to be discussed as a method for the involuntary eugenic extermination of human beings—something Wells would crassly describe, in the final chapter of Anticipations, as the „merciful obliteration of weak and silly and pointless things‟. Arguing that the enfranchised „unfit‟ are unlikely to approve of their own State-assisted demise, White wrote as follows:
There is no sign of a reaction against the cant that loads the dissolute poor with favours, while brave men and women who refuse to be proselytized prefer to die of hunger in a garret rather than sue for alms. In changing our present methods, however, we must carry with us public opinion. Flippant people of lazy mind talk lightly of the „lethal chamber‟, as though diseased Demos, half conscious of his own physical unfitness, but electorally omnipotent, would permit a curtailment of his pleasures or the abridgement of his liberty…. Read More:http://dl.lib.brown.edu/mjp/pdf/GibbonsBeerbohm.pdf