Preface to The Scientific Romances of H.G. Wells

I was transcribing this for my notes, and I was trying to pick out a quote to share, and I couldn’t settle on just one. So, here it is, in its entirety.

 

“Mr. Gollancz has asked me to write a preface to this collection of my fantastic stories. They are put in chronological order, but let me say here right at the beginning of the book, that for anyone who does not as yet know anything of my work it will probably be more agreeable to begin with The Invisible Man or The War of the Worlds. The Time Machine is a little bit stiff about the fourth dimension and The Island of Dr. Moreau rather painful.

“These tales have been compared with the works of Jules Verne, and there was a disposition on the part of literary journalists at one time to call me the English Jules Verne. As a matter of fact there is no literary resemblance whatever between the anticipatory invention of the great Frenchman and these fantasies. His work dealt almost always with actual possibilities of invention and discovery, and he made some remarkable forecasts. The interest he invoked was a practical one; he wrote and believed and told that this or that thing could be done, which was not at that time done. He helped his reader to imagine it done and to realise what fun, excitement or mischief would ensue. Many of his inventions have “come true.” But these stories of mine collected here do not pretend to deal with possible things; they are exercises of the imagination in a quite different field. They belong to a class of writing which includes the Golden Ass of Apileius, the True Histories of Lucian, Peter Schlemil and the story of Frankenstein. It includes too some admirable inventions by Mr. David Garnett, Lady into Fox for instance. They are all fantasies; they do not aim to project a serious possibility; they aim indeed only at the same amount of conviction as one gets in a good gripping dream. They have to hold the reader to the end by art and illusion and not by proof and argument, and the moment he closes the cover and reflects he wakes up to their possibility.

“In all this type of story the living interest lies in their non-fantastic elements and not in the invention itself. They are appeals for human sympathy quite as much as any “sympathetic” novel, and the fantastic element, the strange property or the strange world, is used only to throw up and intensify our natural reactions of wonder, fear or perplexity. The invention is nothing in itself and when this kind of thing is attempted by clumsy writers who do not understand this elementary principle nothing could be conceived more silly and extravagant. Anyone can invent human [vii] beings inside out or worlds like dumb-bells or a gravitation that repels. The thing that makes such imaginations interesting is their translation into commonplace terms and a rigid exclusion of other marvels from the story. Then it becomes human. “How would you feel and what might not happen to you,” is the typical question, if for instance pigs could fly and one came rocketing over a hedge at you? How would you feel and what might not happen to you if suddenly you were changed into an ass and couldn’t tell anyone about it? Or if you became invisible” But no one would think twice about the answer if hedges and houses also began to fly, or if people changed into lions, tigers, cats and dogs left and right, or if everyone could vanish anyhow. Nothing remains interesting where anything may happen.

“For the writer of fantastic stories to help the reader to play the game properly, he must help him in every possible unobtrusive way to domesticate the impossible hypothesis. He must trick him into an unwary concession to some plausible assumption and get on with his story while the illusion holds. And that is where there was a certain slight novelty in my stories when first they appeared. Hitherto, except in exploration fantasies, the fantastic element was brought in by magic. Frankenstein even, used some jiggery-pokery magic to animate his artificial monster. There was trouble about the thing’s soul. But by the end of last century it had become difficult to squeeze even a monetary belief out of magic any longer. It occurred to me that instead of the usual interview with the devil or a magician, and ingenious use of scientific patter might with advantage be substituted. That was no great discovery. I simply brought the fetish stuff up to date, and made i as near actual theory as possible.

“As soon as the magic trick has been done the whole business of the fantasy writer is to keep everything else human and real. Touches of prosaic detail are imperative and a rigorous adherence to the hypothesis. Any extra fantasy outside the cardinal assumption immediately gives a touch of irresponsible silliness to the invention. So soon as the hypothesis is launched the whole interest becomes the interest of looking at human feelings and human ways, from the new angle that has been acquired. One can keep the story within the bounds of a few individual experiences as Chamisso does in Peter Schlemil, or one can expand it to a broad criticism of human institutions and limitations as in Gulliver’s Travels. My early, profound and lifelong admiration for Swift, appears again [viii] and again in this collection, and it is particularly evident in a predisposition to make the stories reflect upon contemporary political and social discussions. It is an incurable habit with literary critics to lament some lost artistry and innocence in my early work and to accuse me of having become polemical in my later years. That habit is of such old standing that the late Mr. Zangwill in a review in 1895 complained that my first book, The Time Machine, concerned itself with “our present discontent.” The Time Machine is indeed quite as philosophical and polemical and critical of life and so forth, as Men like Gods written twenty-eight years later. No more and no less. I have never been able to get away from life in the mass and life in general as distinguished from life in the individual experience, in any book I have ever written. I differ from contemporary criticism in finding them inseparable.

“For some years I produced one or more of these “scientific fantasies,” as they were called, every year. In my student days we were much exercised by talk about a possible fourth dimension of space; the fairly obvious idea that events could be presented in a rigid four dimensional space time framework had occurred to me, and this is used as the magic trick for a glimpse of the future that ran counter to the placid assumption of that time that Evolution was a pro-human force making things better and better for mankind. The Island of Dr. Moreau is an exercise in youthful blasphemy. Now and then, though I rarely admit it, the universe projects itself towards me in a hideous grimace. It grimaced that time, and I did my best to express my vision of the aimless torture in creation. The War of the Worlds like The Time Machine was another assault on human self-satisfaction.

“All these three books are consciously grim, under the influence of Swift’s tradition. But I am neither a pessimist nor an optimist at bottom. This is an entirely indifferent world in which wilful [sic] wisdom seems to have a perfectly fair chance. It is after all rather cheap to get force of presentation by loading the scales on the sinister side. Horror stories are easier to write than gay and exalting stories. In The First Men in the Moon I tried an improvement on Jules Verne’s shot, in order to look at mankind from a distance and burlesque the effects of specialisation. Verne never landed on the moon because he never knew of radio and of the possibility of sending back a message. So it was shot that came back. But equipped with radio, which had just come out then, I was able to land and even see something of the planet. [ix]

“The three later books are distinctly on the optimistic side. The Food of the Gods is a fantasia on the chance of scale in human affairs. Everybody nowadays realises [sic] that change of scale; we see the whole world in disorder through it; but in 1904 it was not a very prevalent idea. I had hit upon it while working out the possibilities of the near future in a book of speculation called Anticipations (1901).

“The last two stories are Utopian. The world is gassed and cleaned up morally by the benevolent tail of a comet in one, and the reader is taken through a dimensional trap door with a weekend part of politicians, into a world of naked truth and deliberate beauty in the other. Men like Gods is almost the last of my scientific fantasies. It did not horrify or frighten, was not much of a success, and by that time I had tired of talking in playful parables to a world engaged in destroying itself. I was becoming too convinced of the strong probability of very strenuous and painful human experiences in the near future to play about with them much more. But I did two other sarcastic fantasies, not included here, Mr. Blettsworthy on Rampole Island and The Autocracy of Mr. Parham, in which there is I think a certain gay bitterness, before I desisted altogether.

“The Autocracy of Mr. Parham is all about dictator, and dictators are all about us, but it has never struggled through to a really cheap edition. Work of this sort gets so stupidly reviewed nowadays that it has little chance of being properly read. People are simply warned that there are ideas in my books and advised not to read them, and so a fatal suspicion has wrapped about the later ones. “Ware stimulants!” It is no good my saying that they are quite as easy to read as the earlier ones and much more timely.

“It becomes a bore doing imaginative books that do not touch imaginations, and at length one stops even planning them. I think I am better employed now nearer reality, trying to make a working analysis of our deepening social perplexities in such labours as The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind and After Democracy. The world in the presence of cataclysmal realities has no need for fresh cataclysmal fantasies. That game is over. Who wants the invented humours of Mr. Parham in Whitehall, when day by day we can watch Mr. Hitler in Germany? What human invention can pit itself against the fantastic fun of the Fates? I am wrong in grumbling at reviewers. Reality has taken a leaf from my book and set itself to supersede me.”

H.G.W.

Wells, H.G. The Scientific Romances of H.G. Wells. London: Victor Gollancz, 1933. Print.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *