Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
The Waste-Land, T.S Eliot
Wells understood better than most the nature of Darwinian evolution and natural selection, and in the great early novels he popularises these ideas for the general public. In The Time Machine, for example, Wells suggests that the society in which he lived, even at its best, would in fact not be the ideal environment for the ascendancy of a superior race. The time-traveller finds in the year 802, 701AD that mankind has made the inevitable evolutionary split into the chubby, infantilised Elois, gorging on fruit in palatial gardens, while the Morlocks, nocturnal creatures dwelling underground, feed by night on Elois-flesh. The Eloi tribe, it turns out, were once the ruling class. The Morlocks were the labouring classes – the work-force of the industrial revolution. Any hopes of progress engendered by the technological advances of Liberal capitalism are dashed by this rather ugly outcome. Be careful what you wish for.
Ugliness is often an indicator in Wells’s fiction that societal and evolutionary progress have not turned out to be axiomatically good. The Martians of War of the Worlds, repulsive to behold, are intellectually superior to the humans. However, Wells seems to make this point in reverse order: for all the intellectual advantages of the Martians, they are disgusting to look at. They are ‘crab-like’, and communicate with ‘tentacular gesticulations’. They appear to exist without a digestive system, instead living off the blood of other animals which they simply inject into their veins. Their flimsy bodies do not require any musculature, because the protections of their armoured pods are superior to sinew. All they really require is pure intellect: and, as a result, they are ‘merely heads,’ with large, round eyes in ‘flinty sockets,’ working twenty-four hours around the clock without the need for sleep or sex. If the narrator describes these creatures as the summit of an organism’s ‘suppression of the animal side’ by its own intellect, the reader doesn’t wish the same fate for his own species.
Perhaps the only person in these fictions who would admire the Martian form is Doctor Moreau himself, who attempts to ‘burn out the animal’ in his subjects. Instead, disappointed, he sees nothing but the ‘upward striving’ of vanity and sexual emotions in these creatures.
Fortunately for him, he is not able to return to London with Prendick. For it is there Prendick, blinkered by his encounter with the doctor’s hybrid creations, is given a new, startling glimpse into his own kind, in the heart, the centre, of human civilisation; of people ‘baring the stamp of our lowly origin,’ in Darwin’s famous phrase. Now, women seem to ‘mew’ like cats, and workers trot wearily past like wounded deer; preachers gibber their litanies; elderlies murmur; and packs of children gibe in the streets. The people of London, on trains and omnibuses, sit ‘with blank expressionless faces… [seem] no more like my fellow creatures than dead bodies would be’.
Each of these fictions in one way or another envisage the extinction of humanity as we like to understand it. In another early journal article, ‘On Extinction,’ Wells marks the egotism of the human animal by its inability to imagine its own extinction. ‘”A world without us!” as a heady young Cephalaspis might have said it in the old Silurian sea’. Once again we are in the presence of the Silurian fish; once again, says Wells, our ancestors have much to tell us about our own fate.
His fictions tell us much more. Entropy, as described in The Time Machine, was an inevitability of nineteenth-century geology; invasion by Martians a popular fear. Such an invasion should be regarded, suggests Wells, as no different to how we have treated lesser breeds. In War of the Worlds, humans are dethroned and debased by Martians, forced to drink from the stream like animals, and compared to algae, monkeys, lemurs, dodos, ants, bees, rabbits, and all kinds of vermin. Look, says Wells, at our massacre of the Tasmanians: how then can we object to the ferocity of the Martian invasion?
In Intellectuals and the Masses, John Carey is rather unfair to Wells when he says that the obliteration of towns and suburbs in Worlds are an exercise in loathing the masses. In the passages describing the survival of giant crabs and of the world-ending entropy in The Time Machine, Carey argues that Wells was merely showing one way in which fiction could ‘get rid of people’. But the popularity of these novels suggests that the public was eager to know as much.
Arguably, then, Wells was one of the early popularises of Darwinian evolution and some of its darker implications. Wells evokes scientific ideas with sublime imagery that seems not to have dated. In The War of the Worlds, the best of the novels, Wells indulges in the literary and aesthetic pleasures of the apocalypse. There is a kind of awe in anticipation of the event. ‘Few people realise,’ says the narrator, ‘the immensity of vacancy in which the dust of the material world swims’.
Once the Martians land, the text is invaded by alliteration and repetition, and by Miltonic phrases: the ‘palpable darkness,’ the ‘confusion indescribable,’ and so on. After the Martians perish completely from an unanticipated onslaught of microscopic germs, the narrator stalks the empty streets, overgrown with Martian moss. All that is left of mankind are ‘phantasms in a dead city, the mockery of life’. Wells’s fate for us is that of the waste-land; a spent force, demoralised and ghosted. Not defeated, that is, but never to be regarded in quite the same way by the reader. In the final part of this essay, I shall consider Well’s importance in our own time.