Herbert George was the fourth and last son born in Bromley, Kent to Joseph Wells, a former domestic gardener and at the time shopkeeper and professional cricketer and his wife Sarah Neal, a former domestic servant and occasional housekeeper. Both parents were members of the working class. They were earning a meager income that helped support their family for several years.
A defining incident of young Herbert George's life is said to be an accident he had in 1874 at the age of eight years old. The accident left him for a time with a broken leg. To spend his time he started reading and soon became a devoted bibliophile. Later that year he entered the Academy of Thomas Morley, presumably named after Thomas Morley (1557/1558 - 1602) a noted composer of madrigalss. He studied in the Academy till 1879. But in 1877 another accident had affected his life. This time it had happened to his father and left Joseph Wells with a fractured thigh. The accident effectively put an end to Joseph's career as a cricketer and his earnings as a shopkeeper were not enough to compensate for the loss.
In 1879 Joseph and Sarah had to withdraw their son from the Academy. No longer able to support their sons financially, they instead sought to set each of them as apprentices to various professionals. At the time it was a usual method for young employees to learn their trade working under a more experienced employer. In time they should be able to practice their trade for themselves. From 1880 to 1883 Herbert George had an unhappy apprenticeship as a draper. His experiences were later used as inspiration for his novel Kipps, which described the life of a draper's apprentice while also being a critique of the world's distribution of wealth. During those years he was a well-known resident of Sandgate.
In 1883 his employer dismissed him, claiming to be dissatisfied with him. The young man was reportedly not displeased with this ending to his apprenticeship. Later that year, he became a teacher at Midhurst Grammar school, until he won a scholarship to the Normal School of Science (later the Royal College of Science, now part of Imperial College) in London, studying biology under T. H. Huxley. As an alumnus, he later helped to set up the Royal College of Science Association, of which he became the first president in 1909. Herbert George studied in his new school until 1887 with an allowance of 21 shillings a week thanks to his scholarship.
He soon entered the Debating Society of his school. This years mark the beginning of his interest in a possible reformation of society. At first approaching the subject through studying The Republic by Plato, he soon turned to his contemporary ideas of socialism as expressed by the recently formed Fabian Society. He was also among the founders of "The Science School Journal", a school magazine which allowed him to express his views on literature and society. The school year 1886 - 1887 became the last year of his studies. Having previously successfully passed his exams in both biology and physics, his lack of interest in geology resulted in his failure to pass and the loss of his scholarship.
Herbert George was left without a source of income for a while. His aunt Mary, a cousin of his father, invited him to stay with her for a while. So at least he did not face the problem of housing. During his stay with his aunt, he grew interested in Isabel Mary Wells, her daughter and his cousin.
H. G. Well's first bestseller was Anticipations, published in 1901. Perhaps his most explicitly futuristic work, it bore the subtitle "An Experiment in Prophecy" when originally serialized in a magazine. The book is interesting both for its hits (trains and cars resulting in the dispersion of population from cities to suburbs; moral restrictions declining as men and women seek greater sexual freedom) and its misses ("my imagination refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocate its crew and founder at sea.")
His early novels, called "scientific romances", invented a number of themes now classic in science fiction in such works as The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, and The War of the Worlds and are often thought of as being influenced by the works of Jules Verne. He also wrote other, non-fantastic novels which have received critical acclaim, including the satire on Edwardian advertising Tono-Bungay and Kipps.
Though not a science-fiction novel, radioactive decay plays a small but consequential role in Tono-Bungay. It plays a much larger role in The World Set Free, published in 1914. This book contains what is surely his biggest prophetic "hit." Scientists of the day were well aware that the slow natural decay of radium releases energy at a slow rate for thousands of years. The rate of release is too slow to have practical utility, but the total amount released is huge. Wells' novel revolves around an (unspecified) invention that accelerates the process of radioactive decay, producing bombs that explode with no more than the force of ordinary high explosive--but which "continue to explode" for days on end. "Nothing could have been more obvious to the people of the earlier twentieth century," he wrote, "than the rapidity with which war was becoming impossible... [but] they did not see it until the atomic bombs burst in their fumbling hands." Leo Szilard acknowledged that the book inspired him and led to his discovery or invention of the nuclear chain reaction.
Wells also wrote non-fiction. His classic two-volume work The Outline of History (1920) set a new standard and direction for popularised scholarship. Many other authors followed with 'Outlines' of their own in other subjects. Wells followed it in 1922 by a much shorter popular work, A Short History of the World. The 'Outlines' became sufficiently common for James Thurber to parody the trend in his humorous essay An Outline of Scientists.
From quite early in his career, he sought a better way to organize society, and wrote a number of Utopian novels. Usually starting with the world rushing to catastrophe, until people realize a better way of living: whether by mysterious gases from a comet causing people to behave rationally (In the Days of the Comet), or a world council of scientists taking over, as in The Shape of Things to Come (1933), which he later adapted for the 1938 Alexander Korda film, Things to Come. This depicted, all too accurately, the impending World War, with cities being destroyed by aerial bombs.
Wells contemplates the ideas of Nature vs Nurture and questions humanity in books like The Island of Dr. Moreau. Not all his scientific romances ended in a happy Utopia, as the dystopian When the Sleeper Awakes shows. The Island of Dr. Moreau is even darker. The narrator, having been trapped on an island of animals vivisected (unsuccessfully) into human beings, eventually returns to England; like Gulliver on his return from the Houyhnhnms he finds himself unable to shake off the perceptions of his fellow humans as barely civilised beasts, slowly reverting back to their animal natures.
He called his political views socialist, and with his fondness for Utopias, he was at first quite sympathetic to Lenin's attempts at reconstructing the shattered Russian economy, as his account of a visit (Russia in the Shadows 1920) shows. But he grew disillusioned at the doctrinal rigidity of the Bolsheviks, and after meeting Stalin grew convinced the whole enterprise had gone horribly wrong.1
In 1927, Florence Deeks sued Wells for plagiarism, claiming that he had stolen much of the content of The Outline of History from a work she had submitted to Macmillan & Sons, his North American publisher, but who held onto the manuscript for eight months before rejecting it. Despite numerous similarities in phrasing and factual errors, the court found Wells not guilty.
In 1938, he published a collection of essays on the future organization of knowledge and education, titled World Brain, including the essay The Idea of a Permanent World Encyclopaedia.
In his later years, he grew increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for humanity, as the title of his last book, Mind at the End of its Tether suggests. His later books are often thought to do more preaching than storytelling or lack the energy and invention of his earlier works. One critic aptly complained: "He sold his birthright for a pot of message" 2
A partial listing of his works:
- The Time Machine (1896)
- The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896)
- The Invisible Man (1897)
- The War of the Worlds (1898)
- Love and Mr Lewisham (1900)
- The Food of the Gods (1904)
- Kipps (1905)
- In the Days of the Comet (1906)
- Ann Veronica (1909)
- Tono-Bungay (1909)
- The History of Mr Polly (1910)
- The New Machiavelli (1911)
- Marriage (1912)
- The World Set Free (1914)
- The Outline of History I, II 1920, 1931, 1940 (1949, 1956, 1961, 1971)History of Life and Mankind
- Men Like Gods (1923)
- The World of William Clissold (1926)
- Mr Blettsworthy on Rampole Island (1928)
- The Open Conspiracy (1928)
- The Shape of Things to Come (1933)
1 For examples of his contemporaries' wilful disregard of the failings of the Soviet Union, see the book Political Pilgrims by Paul Hollander.
2 I thought Theodore Sturgeon had coined the "pot of message" remark, but on rereading the source (a Sturgeon short story from 1948 entitled Unite and Conquer) find that a character in the story was quoting a "Dr. Pierce" with that remark. Wherever it came from, it's a perfect description of why his later books weren't as good as the early ones.
This needs a lot more yet...