Steampunk Sourcebook: H. G. Wells
Fun Facts and Context
- Herbert George (H. G.) Wells (1866-1946) and his sci-fi classics of course predate the word “steampunk.” In fact, they even predate the term “science fiction.” In his own time, works like the Time Machine were called “scientific romances.”
- He was called “Bertie” by his family.
- He grew up in Bromley, a south east suburb of London. Evolution scientist Charles Darwin and John Lubbock aka Lord Avebury, the creator of bank holidays, also called this borough home.
- Wells’ writing was heavily influenced by his background in biology. In fact, the first book he ever published was a biology textbook, and he worked for the publication Nature as a young man.
- In addition to sci-fi, he also wrote extensively on history, eugenics, politics, the first World War, and social issues like Zionism. In total, he wrote more than 75 books and short story compilations on various subjects, which are in the public domain and free to read.
- He also had a special interest in art. He drew many caricatures and humoristic cartoons, which he called “picshuas.” His drawings were compiled and made into a book called The Picshuas of H.G. Wells: A Burlesque Diary which was published in 2006. Before they were compiled, many of these funny doodles were in An Experiment in Autobiography: Discoveries and Conclusions of a Very Ordinary Brain (Since 1866), which Wells wrote over only a two-year period and was released in two volumes in 1934.
- Wells first marriage was in 1891 to his cousin, Isabel Mary Wells, but the couple divorced when he fell in love with one of his students. He married the student, Amy Catherine Robbins (whose nickname was Jane) in 1895. They remained married until Jane’s death in 1927, but during that time and with his wife’s permission Wells had several affairs with notable women. The list includes writers Amber Reeves and Rebecca West, who each bore one of his four children.
- His success saw him rubbing shoulders with world leaders such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin.
- Wells himself occasionally makes appearances in Steampunk literature, television, and movies. For instance, the unnamed time traveler in The Time Machine was given his initials in the 1960 movie. He made an appearance on the Canadian detective series Murdoch Mysteries in 2010, and consistent to his real-life character he is the guest speaker at a Eugenics Society meeting (and engaging in romantic dalliances in spite of his marital status). A female H. G. Wells was an important character on the TV show Warehouse 13 even though it takes place in the present (she was “bronzed” in the 20th century after her erratic behavior led to the death of a fellow Warehouse 12 agent).
The Best-Known Works of H. G. Wells
The Time Machine (1895)
- Short Synopsis: The main character, who is only ever referred to as “the time traveler” by the narrator, invites gentlemen of note to his home to tell them the thrilling tale of his adventures in the faraway past and the distant future. While in the year 802,701, he finds the human race has changed drastically and has in fact split into two separate species. (Read my review)
- The book was published first as a serial novella in a magazine in 1895, and Wells received $100 upon completion.
- In the original serial, Wells’ editor insisted on an extra stop in time and different type of human in addition to the Morlocks and Eloi. This section was dropped when the whole story was compiled into a book, but you can still read the missing text at http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Grey_Man
- This story was the first time the term “time machine” was ever used, but not the first story Wells wrote about time travel. He published a short story seven years earlier entitled The Chronic Argonauts.
- One of Wells’ many nonfiction works was also a form of time-travel. In his 1901 release, Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life and Thought, he speculated about the world in the year 2000. Decades later he wrote another fiction book called The Shape of Things to Come that looked at events through 2106.
- Novels too wordy? You have several visual adaptations from which to choose. A faithful feature film was made in 1960, a reinterpretation starring Guy Pierce in 2002 and it has also been reproduced as a graphic novel by Terry Davis.
- K. W. Jeter, the author who first coined the term “steampunk,” wrote a sequel called Morlock Night in 1979. It combines elements of The Time Machine, the search for the lost city of Atlantis, and the legend of King Arthur.
The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896)
- Short Synopsis: The narrator is a monied drifter with a background in science. His tale starts with the sinking of his passenger ship, the Lady Vain, and his subsequent week at sea. He eventually finds himself stranded on an uncharted island populated by the experiments by the mad Doctor Moreau. (Read my review)
- This was Wells’ way of weighing in on the growing debates about vivisection (dissection of creatures while they are still alive) and degeneration (seeking explanations for social change in biological systems).
- There have been several movie adaptations, including a film directed and starred in by Tim Burton (The Island of Dr. Agor, 1971) when he was 13. The earliest film was a French silent movie released in 1911, followed by a Bela Lugosi piece in 1932 and a Filipino one in 1959. Later, Marlon Brando graced the silver screen in the role of Dr. Moreau and a hot-off-the-Batman-set Val Kilmer played his assistant in a surreal, futuristic setting (aka 2010).
- A new version produced in conjunction by Leonardo DiCaprio and Warner Bros., and penned by the team behind Hemlock Grove, is currently in production.
- The writers of the television show Penny Dreadful have announced plans to integrate elements of the original novel into the third season.
The Invisible Man (1897)
- Short Synopsis: A scientist devises a way to make the human body refract light, rendering it invisible. Unfortunately, he is unable to find a way to reverse the effect, and in his desperation he turns to a life of crime.
- It was first serialized in Pearson’s Weekly during 1897 and came out as a novella the same year.
- Unlike Wells’ earlier novels which are told from the viewpoint of a first-person narrator, this book is in the third person.
- The first film adaptation in 1933 is hailed as one of the most important horror movies of all time. Though few of the later films follow Wells’ story, an invisible villain is an oft-used trope in scary movies, whereas in TV the protagonist sometimes uses his powers for the forces of good.
- Hawley Griffin, the mad scientist behind the formula, appears in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novels and, true to Wells’ story, he is more often a villain than a hero even though he is a member of the League. For the movie, they had to create a new “invisible man” character named Rodney Skinner due to copyright issues surrounding the 1933 movie.
The War of the Worlds (1898)
- Short synopsis: The Earth is put in mortal danger when be-tentacled Martians and their massive walking death rays land in Surrey. (Read my review)
- Serialized simultaneously in Pearson’s Magazine (UK) and Cosmopolitan (US) in 1897. Two different US magazines pirated Wells’ story shortly after it concluded in Pearson’s and changed the setting to New York and Boston respectively. A year later Garret P. Serviss wrote a sequel called Edison’s Conquest of Mars.
- Since it was first published as a novel in 1898 it has never gone out of print.
- Wells was living in Surrey with his second wife when he wrote the book. He came up with the idea while on walk in the countryside. Many of the characters were based on acquaintances from the area. A statue of a Martian tripod can be seen at the Woking train station today.
- Most people have heard the urban legend of the mass hysteria caused by a 1938 Halloween radio broadcast of the tale. In fact, the accounts were likely exaggerated by the newspaper industry in an attempt to demonize and undermine the new radio technology and protect their business interests.
- There have been three full-length, live-action adaptations made of this story. The original one was made in 1953 but it was the updated, big-budget Steven Spielberg flick from 2005 that I saw first. Within the last few years, a less-touted version called “War of the Worlds The True Story” goes back to the novel’s roots and posits the tale as the firsthand account of one Bertie Wells, the last survivor of the Martian War.
- The first film spawned a TV sequel, and in the late 1980’s a version of events set in that present came to televisions everywhere.
- There have also been several movie “sequels” (often straight to VHS jobs) where the narrators fears are realized and angry Martians return to re-ignite the fight.
- On the animated front, Adam Baldwin (Firefly, Angel) lent his voice to an film called War of the Worlds Goliath in 2012.
- There is currently a short film getting ready for production that will tell the story from the perspective of the Martians. I’ll give you the details once the Kickstarter is launched.
- The events of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Volume 2 are based on this book.
- In 2014, a Twitter user named Henry Legg live-tweeted as if he was experiencing The War of the Worlds first-hand. He later tweeted that he hopes to make it an annual event with other Twitter users adding their voices to the event.
- Short synopsis: Thanks to a revolutionary new metal, two men travel to the moon and are taken prisoner by the insect-like inhabitants of the tunnels that run throughout. (Read my review)
- During Wells’ time, astronomers already knew that the moon was made up of material similar to that of the Earth, but they also knew it was only about 1/3 the density. Their highly logical, though we know now totally wrong, conclusion was that the moon must be filled with tunnels that ran deep into the sphere. Wells also placed a massive lake at the center.
- The aliens, called Selenites after the goddess of the moon, Selena (in Greek mythology), are manipulated from birth to fulfill one very specific function each. The society is built on each member doing their single job, and if there is no work to be done, they are put to sleep to conserve resources.
- This tale has been adapted to film four times between 1969 and 2010. The most recent, and by accounts the most faithful adaptation, was a made for TV movie for the BBC and starred Mark Gatiss, co-creator and writer for BBC’s Sherlock.
Have you read any of these books? Or other works by Wells? Please share below!