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Around 15 years ago I went to an art installation in London called ‘HG’. It was located in what had been the old Clink prison, and the first room was set up like the remains of a Victorian dinner party that had just been interrupted by the arrival of the Time Traveller. From there we went through to a series of 20-something rooms, some brightly lit, some dim and gloomy, some crowded with stuff (hospital beds, bottles) others empty but for a suggestion of a presence. It was spooky, fascinating, inexplicable, full of some implicit but never actualised meaning.
I was reminded of that installation this weekend because I was attending the conference of the H.G. Wells Society in Canterbury, and one of the papers specifically referenced that installation. But also because I felt like I was moving between innumerable rooms of the imagination, some brightly lit, some dim.
It was an enthralling, welcoming experience. It was my first encounter with the H.G. Wells Society and I wasn’t altogether sure what to expect. What I found (despite the enervating heat) was one of the most energising conferences I’ve attended in some time. There were contributions from literary scholars, of course, but also historians, sociologists, lawyers, educationalists, medical researchers and more, a reminder of how widely Wells’s interests reached.
I’ve been getting into the habit of saying that I’ve read more about Wells than I’ve read Wells, but as the conference went on and I recognised how familiar so many of these books were, I realised that this is far from the truth. I first encountered The History of Mr Polly when it was a set book at school, and unusually I enjoyed the book I had to read. This led me on to read things like The Wheels of Chance, Mr Britling Sees It Through and Kipps. My interest in science fiction means I could not escape reading The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The First Men in the Moon, The Sleeper Awakes, The Food of the Gods, The War in the Air, Star Begotten, The Shape of Things to Come. That’s an awful lot of books from someone I’d thought I wasn’t that familiar with.
I don’t enjoy everything by Wells (The Food of the Gods, Star Begotten and The Shape of Things to Come are all pretty weak, I feel), and yet so much of what interests me now can be traced back to his work. Every time I am asked to review a book about him I find myself fascinated anew. And the breadth of what he did means that his influences touch upon so many areas. I don’t believe he single-handedly invented science fiction, that is manifestly not the case, but he single-handedly invented many of the tropes that science fiction now takes for granted. His utopian thinking popularised the idea that utopia is not the destination but the route. His light comedies like The Wheels of Chance and The History of Mr Polly are exquisite books that, unusually for similar works of the period, can be read now with just as much pleasure as they were at the time.
He undoubtedly wrote too much (from 1895 until his death in 1946 he never published less than two books a year), and the sheer quantity of his work means that you can only read it all by excluding too much other literature, and by the law of averages much of what he wrote was weak. But his best was astoundingly good. It is also too easy to fall for the modernist myth (first promulgated by his friend and enemy Henry James) that his work wasn’t real literature and therefore doesn’t deserve our attention. But although he was never a modernist writer, he was a thoughtful and intelligent writer well aware of literary technique (I have seen it convincingly argued that much of his work shares characteristics with postmodernism), and there is a great deal that any of us could learn from his example (in what is still my favourite among his books, The Time Machine, consider how much he achieves with incredible brevity, and consider also his use of an unreliable narrator in the person of the Time Traveller himself).
The last paper at the conference was a bravura comparison of Tono Bungay with The Great Gatsby, which detailed far more similarities of plot and tone and character than could be entirely coincidental. And that has just made me want to go away and find the book on my shelf. I need to keep being reminded of how important Wells was, but I really shouldn’t need to be reminded of how good he was.

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