Science Fantasy: Wells and Shiel

Science Fantasy

H.G. Wells (1886-1946)
H.G. Wells is known as the father of modern science fiction. His famous early novels, such as The Time Machine (1895), The Invisible Man (1897) and The War of the Worlds (1898) are frequently referred to as scientific romances and this perhaps gave rise to the curious sub-genre known as ‘science fantasy’; a somewhat paradoxical term. Gary K. Wolfe advocated the use of ‘science fantasy’ for fiction that employs fantasy devices in sf contexts. That is, what would normally be called fantasy is ‘explained’ in scientific or technological language. This term best fits utopian/dystopian literature: novels that look into the future or attempt to criticise some aspect of human knowledge.

Wells also wrote fantasy, social realism, comedy and supernatural fiction as well as scientific journalism, history and utopian philosophy. For example, his Men Like Gods (1923) is a vision of utopia to rival Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872) and Morris’ News From Nowhere (1890), which makes manifest Wells’ sympathy for liberal-anarchistic ideals. Extremely prolific, he wrote over one hundred and twenty books. He studied biology under Darwin’s champion, Thomas Huxley and became one of Britain’s most important visionaries and social commentators. His novels cover a wide variety of typical sf themes, including time-travel, scientific discovery, alien invasion, space travel and warfare; but what makes Wells stand out is that he accepted as a literary writer who also wrote great mainstream novels. This article acknowledges his contribution to fantasy.
One of his first novels was The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), a horror novel that owes something to Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with its depiction of another mad scientist. Edward Prendick is involved in an accident at sea and is picked up by a small boat that has come from Africa containing caged animals, where he is befriended by the dubious Montgomery whose man-servant, M’ling, is a black-faced and hairy “misshapen man”. For various reasons he is forced to set down on the island for which Montgomery is heading: Noble’s Isle in the Pacific Ocean, where he is met by Dr. Moreau who describes his home as a “biological station”.

Before discovering the true purpose of Moreau’s secret work, Prendick recalls the name of the scientist who was lauded as “a notorious vivisector” experimenting in “morbid growths”. Then when he sees a man going crawling on all fours and confronts the “Swine-Men” he suspects the doctor of vivisecting humans. Fearing for his own life, Prendick escapes and meets more of the Beast-Folk, such as a simian man, ‘a pink sloth creature’ and the enigmatic Sayer of the Law. The Beast Men seem to be developing their own primitive culture with rituals and commandments that demand human rather than bestial behaviour.

Moreau explains to Prendick that the creatures were never men, but are, in fact, “humanized animals” – surgery that includes grafting, transplants and blood transfusions. Moreau proudly explains; “It’s not simply the outward form of an animal I can change. The physiology, the chemical rhythm of a creature, may also be made to undergo an enduring modification”. He has no qualms about the ethics of his experiments that he has been undertaking for over eleven years, and willingly explains his desire to speed up the process of evolution: “I will burn out all the animal, this time I will make a rational creature of my own”. He also shows a fascistic desire to control them, but is, like Frankenstein, an irresponsible creator.

Prendick meets about sixty of Moreau’s Beast People, most of them hybrids, including a satyr and the rebellious Leopard Man who dares break Moreau’s law. The reader, along with the narrator, begins to sympathise with the Beast-Folk and despise Moreau for his unnecessary adaptations that only confuse and frighten the animals who retain their instincts to hunt and fight. This leads to the intriguing philosophical question; are the Beast-People human or animal?

The two misfits, Moreau and Montgomery become victims of their own horrific vision, leaving Prendick with the Beast-Folk, of whom he fails to gain control or respect and with his own long, matted hair and bright, alert eyes he finds himself regressing and slowly becoming one of them. Even when he is rescued he retains a “natural wildness”, and on returning to London he realises that humans still have a “bestial mark” and could easily revert back to our natural animal ways.

Wells seems to be interested in how we cope with our natural instincts and what happens when science creates a state of unnatural selection. As a student of Huxley, Wells had more than a passing interest in the theories of Darwin, particularly social-Darwinism and he has left us with this intensely horrific parable of ‘modern’ culture. Like the Morlocks in The Time Machine, the Beast-Folk seem to represent the repressed classes who do not fit in to a society that has been purposefully adapted solely to the privileged minority. It is also likely that Wells has here created an effective allegory of British Imperialism, certainly parodying the xenophobic attitudes. Even Prendick patronises and bullies the Beast People, resorting to violence, but in the end, and thankfully, he fails to replace Moreau. Instead he understands their plight and having met with them face to face on their terms, understands and sympathises, refusing to force his own attitude upon them.

Wells always writes with impeccable objectivity and sets us challenges on personal, cultural and global levels. Victorian sensibilities were shocked by this horrific vision and particularly by the idea that humans cannot control nature. The popularisation of Darwin’s theories gave rise to fears of natural degeneration and social chaos. But Wells’ novel refuses to romanticise about the noble savage, but stands as a warning to us all.

His excellent utopian novel, In the Days of the Comet (1906) suggests that the only hope for humanity lies in the effects of a magical gas. This book could also be called a scientific romance, although there is certainly less science and more romance, being as it is more interested in social relationships and ethical philosophy. H.G. Wells criticises British society in In the Days of the Comet, romantically envisaging a pre-hippy unified world, although he was wary of violent revolution, so he devised a fantastical condition that might bring this ideal to realisation.

The narrator, Willie Leadford, reflects back on events leading up to “the Great Change” as a seventeen year old, surly and belligerent socialist – a working-class lad who loses his sweetheart, Nettie, to a rich young gentleman; is sick of his tedious factory job; caught up in a miners’ strike and sceptical about his mother’s religious views. Sick of the blatant corruption and inequality, he laments how the old world, which is our existing world still today, is still “full of preventable disorder, preventable diseases and preventable pain of harshness and stupid unmeditated cruelties” and sets out to destroy “the hydra of Capitalism and Monopoly”. Leadford’s personal life, so full of anger and jealousy is paralleled on a world scale by England and Germany standing on the brink of war.
All this occurs beneath the shadow of an approaching comet that seems to be heading straight for Earth. Leadford buys a revolver with the intention of killing both Nettie, and her lover who represents the repressive bourgeoisie. As he is considering suicide the world is covered in “a luminous green haze” and the Earth is recreated into a utopia, bringing with it hope, love, health and happiness: “the dawn of a new time”.

After the change, people live in communes and destroy all the symbols of the old world order in fires of purification and individuals begin to reconsider the meanings of love and relationships. By the end of the novel H.G. Wells explores what must have been a subversive idea at the time of publication as Leadford realises that he loves Nettie and another woman Anna, whilst Nettie wants both her lovers, asking “Why must I not have both?” The four of them set up a happy home together.

This novel is not really science fiction and it seems ironic that most of H.G. Wells’ novels are not sf. Another author who is not really an sf writer is M.P. Shiel.

M.P. Shiel (1865-1947)
Renowned for his supernatural fiction and science fantasy written in a flamboyant, poetic style, Matthew Phipps Shiel still has a cult following. He was born in the West Indies and after travelling extensively through Europe he was drawn to the decadence of fin-de-siécle London. His particular obsession revolved around his philosophy of the ‘overman’ or ‘superman’, as expounded by Nietszche to identify the individual who shows “the will to power”: that is he creates his own values and triumphs and understands the human condition. Shiel was a colourful character: a philosopher, multi-linguist, megalomaniac and possibly insane. His mother may well have been a freed slave and he inherited the title of King of Redonda, a small island near Antigua, from his Irish father. He is credited with coining the phrase “yellow peril” and rather unfairly denounced as anti-Semitic.

Prince Zaleski (1895) was clearly influenced by Poe’s detective tales of M. Dupin, but more exotic and atmospheric; worthy of inclusion in ‘The Yellow Book’. In these decadent short-stories the bohemian sleuth is a reclusive genius who does not have to leave his mansion or even put down his hashish-filled bhang to solve a crime. The door to his chambers is “tapestried with python skin” and he sits surrounded by antiques and curios including an Egyptian mummy.

Shiel’s acknowledged masterpiece is The Purple Cloud (1901), which follows in the shadow of The Last Man by Mary Shelley. Adam Jeffson becomes a living embodiment of the overman, triumphing in his own vitality and power. An ill-fated expedition to the North Pole unleashes a purple vapour that leaves him as the last man on Earth, marauding through cities and burning them down for seventeen years until he meets a young girl, who becomes Adam’s Eve. Adam is never an entirely reliable narrator, showing signs of madness with his confession that he hears ‘black and white’ conflicting voices, then his killing another member of the expedition, and with his later obsession with arson.

The novel’s first fifty pages are typically Gothic, with sublime descriptions and a descent into lunacy, until Jeffson awakens into the new world. The peach-smelling cloud spreads over the entire world, killing all people, animals and birds. Sailing single-handedly throughout the world, he encounters countries full of corpses and experiences “that abysmal desolation of loneliness and sense of a hostile universe”: like the pessimistic philosophy of Schopenhauer.

After crashing a train and looting a jewellers in London he sees the chance to become hedonistic and self-indulgent: “I will ravage and riot in my kingdoms”. Thus he sets out on a programme of wanton and malicious destruction. He turns into a decadent proto-hippy and takes sixteen years to build himself his perfect palace. It is in Constantinople that he meets the only other living being on Earth, a girl who becomes known as Leda, and her presence begins to change him. Whilst he is at first druel to her, she has an optimistic and noble spirit alongside an innocent faith in God. Even though he finally falls in love with her he fails to express his feelings and pushes her away. The finale seems set for tragedy, but ends with a celebration of goodness and even faith in God.

A novel of philosophy written with an expansive vocabulary and a vast imagination.

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