Most everyone knows the name H.G. Wells: he is one of the founders of science fiction as a popular and accepted form of literature, thanks to his brilliant novels The Time Machine (1895), The War of the Worlds (1898), and The Invisible Man (1897), among others.
I’ve been researching Wells for my next popular science book on the history of invisibility, and was interested in finding out where the inspiration for The Invisible Man came from. Obviously, it is influenced by the discovery of X-rays in 1895, as Wells practically says in the story, but was there any additional impetus?
Wells appears to have been quite reticent in talking about the inspiration for his tales, and through multiple interviews I could find no discussion of the topic. My last hope was to look at the Preface to his collected works published around 1924, which was written by Wells himself. I did an interlibrary loan of the Preface of the volume containing The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds, hoping to learn more. The preface didn’t tell me anything about his writing process, but it did give some hilarious insight into Wells’ disappointment with all of humanity, so I thought I would share it here.
It is worth noting that Wells grew up in poverty and had a very difficult life as a young man, which led him not only to be a socialist but to advocate increasingly for massive social change and the establishment of a utopian society. In fact, his output as a writer of “scientific romances” is relatively small and largely contained in the late 1890s; by the early 1900s he was writing more works of futurism and utopias. It is with this in mind that we share most of his short preface:
This volume contains two books, “The Invisible Man” and “The War of the Worlds.” “The Invisible Man” was first published in 1897, and “The War of the Worlds” in 1898. There is very little to be said about either work. They tell their own stories.
With this, my hopes of getting deep insight into Wells’ inspirations were dashed! But he did have a bit more to say about The War of the Worlds:
“The War of the Worlds” was suggested to the writer by his elder brother, Frank, to whom the first edition was dedicated. Mr. Frank Wells is a practical philosopher with a disbelief even profounder than that of the writer in the present ability of our race to meet a great crisis either bravely or intelligently. The Great War, the Mean Peace, the Russian Famine, and the present state of the world’s affairs have but confirmed that early persuasion. Our present civilisation, it seems, is quite capable of falling to pieces without any aid from the Martians.
I found this simultaneously hilarious and depressing. Though Wells wished for a better world for all people, he clearly had no illusions about the nature of human beings. In fact, in 1933 Wells predicted that a second world war would begin in January of 1940 in his book The Shape of Things to Come; in fact, he was only off by several months, as the war started in September of 1939.
Wells was a fascinating person, and I’ll probably have more to say about his life and works going forward!