Steven McLean, ed. H. G. Wells: Interdisciplinary Essays.
Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008. 184 pp. Cloth, $44.99, ISBN: 9781847186157.
H. G. Wells: Interdisciplinary Essays is a collection of ten essays, most of them original to this volume. Taken together, H. G. Wells's Fin-de-Siecle (reviewed in this issue) and H. G. Wells: Interdisciplinary Essays provide a comprehensive overview of recent Wells scholarship by some of the most eminent and prolific Wells scholars writing today, several of whom appear in both collections. The theme of interdisciplinarity suits Wells particularly well, as Steven McLean points out in his introduction: "From the very outset of his intellectual career, Wells was a polymath" (I). Interdisciplinary Essays originated with the 2006 "H. G. Wells: New Directions" symposium, an event sponsored annually by the H. G. Wells Society. Indeed, New Directions might have been a more fitting title for the collection since several of the articles are literary analyses and not, strictly speaking, interdisciplinary. Ironically enough, literary analysis, particularly of Wells's later fiction, is highly innovative given the common assumption in Wells scholarship over the past few decades that the quality of Wells's fiction sharply declined in the twentieth century. Hence, under any title, these literary approaches are welcome additions alongside their interdisciplinary counterparts.
The organization of the book loosely follows Wells's career, literary and otherwise, beginning with "Early Romances." In "What the Traveller Saw: Evolution, Romance, and Time-Travel," Sylvia A. Pamboukian gives a compelling demonstration of Wells's unique contribution to the time travel genre as seen within the context of evolution. Unlike other contemporaneous stories of time travel, such as Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888) and William Morris's News from Nowhere (1890), The Time Machine takes the issue of evolution seriously, projecting far further into the future than other writers had done. Moreover, Wells presents a much bleaker picture of the evolutionary process: rather than a growing perfection of the species, as found in W. H. Hodgson's A Crystal Age (1887), for example (set several thousand years in the future), Wells shows the degeneration and final extinction of Homo sapiens. Pamboukian concludes that in The Time Machine "evolution itself dominates as the only inexorable and inescapable power before which knowledge, invention, and all human endeavours are futile" (21). Steven McLean's essay "Animals, Language, and Degeneration in The Island of Doctor Moreau" (the only essay in the collection to have been previously published in its present form) examines how Wells addresses contemporary debates about "the relation between humans, animals and language" (25). Contrary to the reigning theory that human beings were the only animals who had language, espoused by experts such as Max Muller and C. Lloyd Morgan (whom Wells reviewed in 1894), Moreau can be read to suggest that in language, as in all else, no bright line divides beasts and humans; they occupy positions on a linguistic continuum, what McLean calls "a great chain of articulation" (27). Simon J. James's article, "Fin-de-Cycle: Romance and the Real in The Wheels of Chance," shifts gears, as it were, to examine Wells's views on the genre of romance as revealed in his novel about cycling. James argues that Wells both uses and subverts romance conventions in order to critique formulaic, escapist romance, which "cheaply amuses, and saps the desire to make the real world better instead" (35). Rather than the standard happy ending, the novel concludes on a somber note that emphasizes the inequities of the socioeconomic and class barriers separating the hero and heroine. In the final essay of this section, "Alien Gaze: Postcolonial Vision in The War of the Worlds," Keith Williams situates Wells's famous invasion romance within the context of the late nineteenth-century technological advances in optics coupled with the fears of an "alien gaze" such advances made possible. Williams cites the example of Professor Jadadis Chunder Bose of Calcutta, who invented an "electric eye" able to detect certain kinds of radiation. "The imaginative implications of an Eastern Professor's 'Marvelous Discovery,'" Williams writes, "disturbed the once impenetrable superiority and self-belief of the imperial homeland" (54). While Wells's story warns against the complacency and hubris of the British Empire, other writers countered with jingoistic narratives of imperial triumph, a trend that continues today in such films as Roland Emmerich's 1996 Independence Day.
Part 2, "From Romancer to Novelist," centers on Wells's attempts to establish himself as a serious novelist. According to the three authors included in this section, Wells succeeded in producing complex, thought-provoking works that are worthy of study as literature. In his essay "Love and Mr Lewisham: Foundations and Sources for a First Social Novel" Bernard Loing demonstrates Wells's development as a writer through comparing the novel (published in 1900) to an 1894 story "How Gabriel Became Thompson" (discovered by Loing himself). Loing details how Wells transforms "Gabriel" into Lewisham through tracing "the essential qualities of the novel, conspicuously absent in the short story," namely, "the sense of perspective and narrative technique ... the introduction of social considerations," and the ability to convey "tenderness" in his portrayal of Lewisham's process of maturation (81-82). John R. Hammond continues the examination of Wells through a literary lens in "Wells and the Discussion Novel." Hammond assesses five novels from Wells's later career (published from 1924 to 1941) with the aim to "illustrate how Wells was far more experimental than he is traditionally given credit for" (87). Hammond contextualizes each novel with its literary and reception history while also evaluating its aesthetic merits. He concludes that these five novels succeed because they keep Wells's "imaginative power ... at the forefront" and his didactic tendencies in abeyance (97). The final essay in this section, Patrick Parrinder's "Island of Fools: Mr Blettsworthy on Rampole Island and the Twentieth-Century Human Predicament," returns to a more overtly interdisciplinary approach. Parrinder reads the novel within the context of three types of intertexts: literary precursors (Utopia, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver's Travels); discourses of island evolution as found in Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, and Wells himself; and Freud's psychoanalytic theories. For Parrinder, the novel embodies the warring philosophies within Wells, as it "balances different visions of the utopian and dystopian "human island," reminding us how closely the imaginative form of utopia itself is linked to the symbolism and mentality of islands" (109).
Part 3, "Wells and His Interlocutors," situates Wells in relation to three of his contemporaries. In her essay "'Buildings of the New Age': Dwellings and the Natural Environment in the Futuristic Fiction of H. G. Wells and William Hope Hodgson," Emily Alder gives a detailed analysis of the relationship between human habitation and the natural world in Wells's and Hodgson's fictions about the future. For both authors, Alder argues, "wilderness" figures as the inexorable cosmic and evolutionary process against which humankind must fight in order to stave off "retrogressive metamorphosis" (119). Human dwellings are the bastions necessary for this fight against the wilderness. The variety in these man-made structures as envisioned by Wells and Hodgson signifies different approaches to containing Nature to ensure the continuation of the human race. Sylvia Hardy, in "H. G. Wells and William James: A Pragmatic Approach," demonstrates in exhaustive detail the impact of James on Wells. Most significantly, Hardy shows how James's ideas about genius illuminate Wells's "repeated insistence that he did not regard himself as a literary artist" (138). James contrasted the scientific method of reasoning, which extrapolates, generalizes, and synthesizes, with the aesthetic process, which relies on intuition and focuses on the particular. Thus, Hardy concludes, Wells's increasingly didactic fiction could reflect "the conflict between his belief in the effectiveness of the novel as an agent of social change, and his equally strong conviction that the fictional mode exemplified a 'lower' form of reasoning which precluded the logical presentation of general relationships and system [sic]" (140). In this context, Wells's didacticism is not an aesthetic failing but a philosophical choice. The final essay in the collection, "H. G. Wells and Winston Churchill: A Reassessment" by Richard Toye, examines the widely held assumption that Wells and Churchill (the "dreamer" and the "doer") were at political odds with each other (147). While the two men differed on many issues, they also held much in common. Toye argues that Wells influenced Churchill, particularly in the early years of the twentieth century. To illustrate, Toye details at some length the impact Wells's A Modern Utopia (1905) had on Churchill. Toye argues that the influence on Churchill persisted throughout his life, though in less obvious forms.
The volume contains a well-organized and extensive bibliography and a detailed index that cites numerous references to utopia and utopianism. Indeed, reviewing Interdisciplinary Essays and H. G. Wells's Fin-de-Siecle for Utopian Studies makes one acutely aware of the pervasive theme of utopia in Wells. Almost every chapter references the topic in one way or another, as I have tried to indicate in my summaries of both collections. Thus, in addition to being wonderful compendiums of recent scholarship by some of the most knowledgeable and respected Wells scholars, these collections are also important contributions to utopian studies.
Reviewed by Genie Babb, University of Alaska, Anchorage
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2010|
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