Monday, June 13, 2005

"Modern science fiction begins with H.G. Wells," writes Ursula Le Guin, the only science fiction author whose novels are assigned more often in schools than several by Wells.

Mary Shelley, Jules Verne and others are also often credited as starting science fiction, but Wells is certainly in the running. "With Wells, science fiction makes its debut, a new horizon for the imagination," writes Italo Calvino (who flirts with the form in several delightful books, including '>cosmicomics.)

Wells wrote science fiction before the term existed (he called these novels and stories "scientific romances.") He wrote five of the most important and best known science fiction novels of all time: '>The Time Machine, '>The Island of Dr. Moreau, '>The Invisible Man, '>The War of the Worlds and '>The First Men in the Moon. He wrote hundreds of science fiction stories. Scholar Frank McConnell notes that of the fourteen basic themes of science fiction listed by James Gunn in his history of the form, "All but two major themes include a citation from a work of Well's and that usually the earliest. (The omission of Wells from those two is debatable.)"

A glance at the appendix to '>ALTERNATE WORLDS: The Illustrated History of Science Fiction, confirms this. Gunn lists a Wells story or novel as the first illustration of the themes of WAR, CATACLYSM, MAN AND HIS ENVIRONMENT, SUPERPOWERS, SUPERMAN, MAN AND ALIENS, MAN AND RELIGION, and MISCELLANOUS. Wells furnishes the 3rd, 4th and 5th instances out of 7 of the WONDERS OF SCIENCE theme, the second of PROGRESS and MAN AND SOCIETY, and the fourth of FAR TRAVELING. He is omitted from "MAN AND THE FUTURE (similar to Progress except that the purpose which shines through is descriptive rather than satirical)" and "MAN AND THE MACHINE similar to The Wonders of Science but in this case the emphasis is upon the relationship between man and his creation." It wouldn't be difficult to make a case for Wells being included in both of these.

If this is not remarkable enough, consider that Wells wrote all of the above-mentioned novels and most of the stories in just five years--- the last half-decade of the nineteenth century. He went on to write another 150 books, and while some of these are utopian and anti-utopian novels, and many are books about the future, HG seldom returned to the science fiction form. In 1933 he published an autobiography of more than 700 pages that barely mentions these novels that have since become his most enduring, and some are not named at all.

"But whatever his later development," scholar Frank McConnell writes, "it is undeniably the case that for those years of the 1890s...he was the sole and powerful creator of a new mode of storytelling: a mode that has increasingly, in all its complexity and in all its crudity, become the distinctive mythology of our time."

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