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Thursday Wells - the successful failure

It seems that Wells will have to be content with inventing, almost single-handedly, a literary genre that has been a source of endless pleasure for hundreds of millions of readers around the world for more than a century.

God. third. Wells
God. third. Wells
No one in Victorian England, in the last years of the 19th century, believed that human actions were watched from afar. No one even dreamed that British class society was being studied like an amoeba swimming and multiplying in a drop of water under the lens of the microscope. Few gentlemen even entertained the possibility that there were smarter people in the lower classes. And yet, across the massive class gap, a progressive and creative mind far beyond theirs gave the aristocracy a jealous look - and slowly, but surely, hatched his schemes.

Herbert George Wells was born in 1866, the fourth child of a lower-class English family. Wells' mother pushed him and his brother to find a profession at an early age so they could get by in life, but fate had other plans for young Herbert. After being fired several times from different jobs, he found work as a teacher's assistant at a school and even won an entry scholarship to a science school in London. It was a double blessing: at the science school, Wells could study for a bachelor's degree, and education was one of the few ways to leave the class ghetto into which he was born. In addition, the one who taught him in the first year was Thomas Henry Huxley, one of the best biologists of his time and one of the most prominent supporters of the theory of evolution in Britain and in general. This is where Wells' great love for science grew, and this is also where he began to write seriously - as part of the school newspaper.

But even here, Wells succeeded...not succeeding. In the third year of his studies, he failed the geology exams and flew out of school. The year was 1887, Wells was then only 21 years old - and unemployed again. Relative to someone who would become a great science fiction writer, Wells had very little future at the time. He returned to teaching and moved in with his uncles in London, where he fell in love with his cousin Isabel and the two married. The marriage to Isabel was a big disappointment for Wells, especially in the bedroom - but we'll get to that later.

Luck began to brighten his face in the early nineties. His first science fiction book (back then it was still called a 'scientific romance') was 'The Time Machine', published in 1895. Time travel was not an original idea of ​​Wells: there were writers who sent travelers to the past and the future already before him. Nevertheless, Wells' book is considered groundbreaking and more memorable than any of its predecessors. why? Because Wells exuded credibility. His writing style, even in later books, emphasizes accurate descriptions and being based on current science.

Wells jumped the time traveler far ahead, to the year 802,701. But despite all the scientific explanations, sophisticated theories and elaborate machines, what does Wells do in the story? remains deep deep within the present. You will immediately understand why.

When the time traveler lands in the future he meets a race of small, weak and stupid human beings there. The 'ilui', as the creatures are called, live in heaven. They have no diseases or wars, and they pick their food straight from the trees. The traveler surmises that the ideal that the Eloi live in has dulled their intelligence, as they have no problems or challenges to solve. Suddenly he discovers that his time machine is gone. In the process of searching for her, he discovers a race of additional human beings: the 'Morlocks'. The Morlocks live underground and are rude and violent. They maintain the hidden machines that create the paradise of the Eloi. The traveler suddenly realizes that the Eloi are the descendants of the upper class of his time, and the Morlocks are the descendants of the lower class who continue to serve their masters. That is to say, the social class differences in England became with the help of evolution real biological differences. This is a very sharp social critique, and it reveals to us Wells' true intentions. Perhaps because of the circumstances of his childhood, Wells detested the Victorian class division that was so common in England.

Then, in the book, the time traveler reveals another surprising fact. The Morlocks, it turns out, prey on the Illoy and feed on them. Wells at once turns all the previous ideas on their heads, and we understand that the relationship between the races is not that of 'master and slave', but rather 'farmer and cattle'.

The most important and famous work of H.G. Wells is undoubtedly 'War of the Worlds'. The book describes the invasion of the Martians to the Earth to conquer it and eliminate humanity.

As always, the scientific basis of the story is very solid. Several years earlier, an Italian astronomer had discovered lines on the surface of the red star that appeared to be long canals. These canals became for other astronomers the 'irrigation canals': signs of advanced intelligent life on Mars. Percival Lewis, one of the leading scientists of those days, wrote a popular book in which he presented the hypothesis that the irrigation canals were an attempt by the members of the ancient Mediterranean culture to deal with the drying up of their old and dying planet, by transferring water from the frozen poles to the equatorial region. From here to the attempt to conquer the earth to steal its natural treasures, the road was short.

But here too, the real idea for the story lay in Wells' social opinions. Wells saw British imperialism as a terrible injustice against the natives in the occupied countries. He put his explicit opinions in the mouth of the hero in the book:

"The Tasmanians, even though they are human beings like us, were wiped off the face of the earth within fifty years following the war of extermination imposed on them by the European conquerors. Are we so self-compassionate that we can complain if the Martians do the same to us?”

The protagonist of the story is not explicitly identified, but the writing style and chapter titles are deliberately journalistic. The places Wells chose to describe in the book also contribute to his credibility: he landed the Martians in Woking, his own city, in an area known as 'Horsell Common' which Wells cycled through every day and knew well. Wells also modeled the various characters in the book around his Woking acquaintances. The picture that is painted is a realistic and reliable description of contemporary England, which Wells (with great pleasure, as he later recounted) let the Martians destroy and destroy. The town of Woking, by the way, erected a large three-legged statue in Welles' honor, a very generous gesture considering that Welles pretty much completely destroyed it in the story.

In 1938, Orson Welles wrote a radio drama based on 'The War of the Worlds'. The incident was in a quasi-documentary format: a regular radio broadcast into which reporters burst in with descriptions from the field about the invasion from Mars. He put it on the air the following night and the result was one of the most famous mass hysterias in radio history.

It is difficult to know how widespread the panic that gripped the listening public really was. The press of the time claimed that hundreds of thousands of people believed that the aliens were really invading the earth, ran away from their homes, called the police stations and so on. More recent estimates claim that the true number of those terrified was much lower and that many of the press accounts were greatly exaggerated. There is no doubt that it was very easy to be mistaken and think that the broadcast was completely real since the production and acting were very realistic. Moreover, a program featuring Don Amici and other big stars was played at the same time on a parallel radio station. It was only during the break of this show that people switched to Orson's station, so they listened from the middle of the screen and didn't hear the intro that said it was all imaginary and there was nothing to worry about.

There are quite a few stories about the reactions to Orson's tragedy. It is impossible to know which of them really happened and which is just an urban legend. There were citizens who thought an old water tower was three-legged and shot it. Others rushed to the reported landing site of the aliens and gathered there. The police came to investigate the commotion, and the flashing police lights made people believe that *really* creatures from Mars had landed there. In one of the towns there was a widespread power outage just as the Reds on the radio started destroying power plants, and the panic sent entire families fleeing to the hills.

Orson was heavily criticized for his irresponsibility. Even Hitler referred to the event as evidence of the moral and ethical collapse of American democracy. Orson claimed in his defense that he did not believe that there was anyone who could take seriously such a well-known and well-known story as the 'War of the Worlds' by H.G. Wells.

It is interesting to note that the same hysteria also occurred in Quito, Ecuador following a similar drama broadcast there in 1940. There the army and the police even came out in armored vehicles to welcome the invaders. But when the hoax was revealed, the mob attacked the radio station and killed six of its employees. Apparently the trick is to know who can be stretched and who can't.

Beginning in the early twentieth century, Wells began to gradually abandon science fiction in favor of writing more conventional novels and science books for the general public. The move turned out to be a successful one: the history books in particular were a huge success and sold even better than his science fiction books. Many of the fictional books were concerned in one way or another with drawing a future utopian society, devoid of social gaps and class differences.

His status as a famous writer also revealed to the general public his love life, which was - as we say - unconventional. His marriage to his cousin lasted only four years, and after the divorce he married Jane, his student. Although the second marriage lasted many years and the couple had two children, Wells had many love affairs - with the knowledge and approval of his wife! Two more children were born to him following these affairs, and Wells received quite a bit of criticism for this very un-Victorian lifestyle. At one point, one of his books was even confiscated due to 'excess permissiveness', which only helped him become even more popular among the youth.

Reality, however, did not agree to play by Wells' rules. His optimism about how science will help humanity reach the longed-for utopia turned over the years into pessimism and anxiety about the future. "Human history," he wrote, "becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe." In the preface to one of his later books he wanted to write on his tombstone: 'I told you, damned fools.' And they didn't even do that for him - after his death in 1946, his body was burned and his ashes scattered in the sea.

So if we judge Wells's contribution to human culture in terms of social prophecies, he probably won't rank high among historians. Even in everything that concerns technological prophecies that have come true, there is room for improvement: he had some accurate shots but also quite a few misses.

It seems, then, that Wells will have to be content with inventing, almost single-handedly, a literary genre that has been a source of endless pleasure for hundreds of millions of readers around the world for more than a century. That's something too, isn't it?

[Ran Levy is a science writer and hosts the podcast 'Making History!', about science, technology and history.]

3 תגובות

  1. Does anyone know why they did not fulfill his request regarding the burial and headstone?

  2. Another anecdote about Wells.
    In 1908, five years after the Wright brothers' flight, Wells wrote a book called "The War in the Air". In 1940, while Britain was under attack from the air by the Luftwaffe, a new edition of the book was published whose preface by Wells can be roughly summed up with the words "I told you so!"

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