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H.G. Wells : The Sci-fi Pioneer
by Swapna Dutta

h.g. wellsBorn on September 21, 1866, Herbert George Wells was one of the pioneers of science fiction in English. Although he was a prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction, it is his science fiction novels - The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The First Men in the Moon and The Island of Dr Moreau – that are most remembered and remain famous to this day.

Herbert, the fourth son of Joseph Wells, was born in a poor middle class family. They owned a small shop which helped them earn a very meager income. Joseph was a cricket player and also sold cricket bats and balls, among other things. Young Herbert had an accident where he broke his leg when he was just seven years old. His father got him books from the local library so that he might pass the time. That got him hooked to reading for life and he made up his mind to be a writer himself some day. The same year his father got him admitted to a private school. The teaching there was erratic. The main focus was to make the boys capable of earning their living and acquiring a legible handwriting. But young Herbert tried to learn all he could during his years spent there.

Another accident was to affect his life. His father hurt himself and was unable to work any more. So all the boys had to take up some job or the other to support the family. Herbert became a draper’s assistant – an experience later recounted in his novels, The wheels of Chance and Kipps. After he lost his job he worked as an assistant teacher in a school in West Sussex until he won a scholarship to the Normal School of Science (later the Royal College of Science, now part of Imperial College London) in London, studying biology under T. H. Huxley. He helped to set up the Royal College of Science Association, of which he became the first president in 1909. He was also among the founders of The Science School Journal. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Zoology from the University of London in 1890.

Anticipations (1901), Wells's first successful novel, was originally serialized in a magazine. Anticipating what the world would be like in the year 2000, it was considered quite remarkable and explicitly futuristic. His early novels, called "scientific romances", invented a number of themes now classic in science fiction. These include The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds and The First Men in the Moon. All of these have been made into successful films. Wells also wrote several dozen short stories and novellas, the best known of which is The Country of the Blind. It would interest you to know that his short story The New Accelerator was the inspiration for the Star Trek episode Wink of an Eye. Wells also wrote nonfiction. His bestselling two-volume work, The Outline of History (1920), began a new era of popularized world history. Wells had predicted in 1934 that another world war would begin in 1940 - a prediction which ultimately came true.

The Time Machine was first published in 1895. It was made into two highly successful films. Later came two television versions and a large number of comic book adaptations. It indirectly inspired many more works of fiction in every form of media. Several critics consider it to be one of the greatest science fiction novels ever written. The book was the first to popularize the concept of time travel using a vehicle that allows a person to travel backwards and forwards in Time. The term "time machine", coined by Wells himself, is now universally used to refer to such a vehicle.

Strangely enough, the hero of the story does not have a name and is simply called “Time Traveler”. He is an amateur inventor or scientist living in London. He is convinced that time is a “fourth dimension” and that it is possible to create an apparatus that can carry a person backwards and forwards in time. He succeeds, after many attempts, to create such a machine which is big and strong enough to carry him. He then immediately sets off on a journey into the future.

Through his eyes the reader is able to imagine what it feels like to move through time. His machine lets him observe the changes of the outside world in fast motion. He sees the sun and moon traversing the sky and how the landscape around him changes as he moves on. His journey takes him to the year A.D. 802,701 at first. Here he confronts a simple and peaceful community of people who call themselves the Eloi. They are about four feet tall. They have a pink complexion, curly hair and big eyes. They have high-pitched, soft voices and speak an unknown language. They appear to be quite child-like and live without quarrels or conflict. They live in small communities, within large and futuristic yet dilapidated buildings. Soon after his arrival the Time Traveler rescues Weena, a girl of the Eloi community, from drowning in a river. Much to his surprise, she is grateful to him and insists on following him.

The Time Traveler is greeted with curiosity and without fear by the Eloi, who seem only vaguely surprised and curious by his appearance. He follows them and tries to communicate with them. But unfortunately they cannot understand each other’s language. Then he decides to explore the world where he has landed. As the sun sets, the Time Traveler wonders where he will sleep. Retracing his steps back to the building where he had eaten with the Eloi community, he suddenly realizes that the time machine is missing. He panics and desperately searches for the vehicle. At first, he suspects that the Eloi have moved it to their shelter. After many adventures the Traveler manages to get to his machine back, reactivates it and escapes from the land of the Eloi. He then travels into the far future, roughly 30 million years from his own time. There he sees the last few living things on a dying Earth. He continues to make short jumps through time, seeing the red giant of a sun grow redder and dimmer. Finally, the world begins to go dark as snowflakes begin to fall, and all silence falls upon Earth. In the very end of the Earth, all life has ceased, other than the lichens that still grow on rocks.

Feeling giddy, he boards his machine once again and puts it into reverse. He manages to arrive back in his laboratory just three hours after he originally left. Entering the dining room, he tells his friends about his adventures. They hardly know what to make of his strange tales! The following day the Time Traveler is ready to leave again. This time he takes a camera with him. Although he promises to return in half an hour, three years pass and the Time Traveler still remains missing. What happened to him and where he ultimately went remains a mystery. One of the film versions shows him returning to Weena and supposedly living happily ever after.

A patient of diabetes, Wells passed away on August 13, 1946          

21-Mar-2010
 
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