This is the first of my Favourite SF Authors postings, and who better than the author who started it all for me, the man dubbed the “father of science fiction”, H.G. Wells.
The first time I saw George Pal’s film adaption of The Time Machine (1960) on television was probably the first event in my life which I can definitely point to and say without a doubt that “this was when I became a science fiction fan”. I was only about five, maybe six years old at most, and that one film turned me into a crazy time-travel fanatic. A couple of years later, as a direct result of being a fan of the film, I read the original novel, which was the first time I had ever read a proper SF book. These two events (plus a growing obsession with Doctor Who) changed my life forever, and I’ve been an obsessive SF fan ever since.
Wells wasn’t the first SF author by any means. Jules Verne and others had walked that road before him. Nor was he even the most highly-regarded among his contemporaries while he was writing. But he has outlived them all, and has been by far the most enduring and influential upon successive generations of SF writers and readers. Most of the contemporary authors who were once regarded as highly as or more highly than Wells are now no longer so well known, and many of them have faded into obscurity altogether. But Wells has stayed right at the top for all these years.
What was it that made him so important? I’d argue strongly that Wells was the first to seriously cover so many of the SF themes that we take for granted these days, writing about them as SF, as opposed to fantasy. Sure, maybe Verne had done it to a lesser extent, but his scientific explorations were almost always more concerned with the technological gadgetry (submarines, flying machines, “rockets” fired to the moon out of enormous cannons, etc) rather than true exploration of SF themes, and most of his stories were pure fantasies. In contrast, Wells examined a far, far wider range of real SF themes and how they relate to human society, and on a much deeper level.
Time travel? Wells did the first “proper” story (using a time machine, not dreams or other fantasy devices), in The Time Machine, which was also a sly but strong criticism of class differences within British society. Interplanetary invasion? War of the Worlds, which doubled as a strong swipe at the British Empire and imperialism in general. Genetic engineering and the morality of biological tinkering on humans? The Island of Doctor Moreau. Invisibility and the corruption of the corruptible who attain and abuse “absolute power”? The Invisible Man. Lunar exploration and anti-gravity, with more examination of society and class structure? First Men in the Moon. Accelerated time? “The New Accelerator”. The list goes on and on.
The really remarkable thing was that Wells was writing about many of these themes well over a century ago, which is something that I find almost unbelievable. Others had written about travelling to the moon or through time before Wells did. But these previous efforts fell squarely into the “fantasy” camp (travelling through time in dreams, going to the moon in balloons, or pulled by birds, etc). Wells was the first to write about them in a way that could be termed even remotely as “real” science fiction, both philosophically and in the way he explained them in a “scientific” way. And he also wrote about many other SF themes that no writers before him had ever explored. Many of these fundamental SF themes have now been done to death over more recent decades by countless other SF authors. But Wells was the first to imagine most of these themes and write great SF stories around them.
So many of the modern core themes in SF stemmed from the work of this one man, that I don’t think we can really conceive how differently the genre would’ve developed if he’d never existed. I think that it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that he was the single most important figure in science fiction literature’s history, although there have been any number of other great writers who’ve challenged him for that position. But, in so many areas, Wells was the first to write about so many things, that I’d have to grant him “pole position”.
The rest, good as they were, followed in his giant shadow.