Anticipations: H. G. Wells, Science Fiction and Radical Visions
A Conference at Woking, 8-10 July 2016
Abstracts * Accommodation * Programme * Registration * Venue and Directions
Sunday 10 July 2016
9.30 Kemp Room
Ruth Doherty (Trinity College Dublin)
“Joining the Dots: Narrative Point of View in War of the Worlds and The Third Man”
“I have set forth at length in the last chapter my brother’s account of the road through Chipping Barnet, in order that my readers may realize how that swarming of black dots appeared to one of those concerned.”
“Look down there [. . .] Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving for ever? If I said you can have twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money – or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?”
H.G. Wells met Graham Greene in 1936, and met Orson Welles in 1940, two years after Welles starred in the notorious radio adaptation of Wells’s The War of the Worlds. In 1949, Welles played Harry Lime in the film The Third Man, the screenplay of which had been written by Greene. This paper is an exercise in joining the “dots” in the quotations above (the first from Wells, the second from Greene).
A famous scene in The Third Man sees Holly Martins, at the top of the Prater Wheel in Vienna, being asked to use his lofty position relative to the crowd below to negate the people within this crowd, to see them as dispensable objects. He is also being asked to reconcile his view of his boyhood friend Harry Lime with the new perspective provided by Lime’s posing of this appalling question. The viewer of The Third Man can watch the crowd from both Martins’s and Lime’s perspective, whilst also watching Martins and Lime. This vertiginous multiplicity of viewpoints, I argue, is similar to that created by H.G. Wells in War of the Worlds.
Noting various techniques utilised in the radio play of War of the Worlds and the film The Third Man to create multiple points of view, I demonstrate how successfully Wells does this using only words on a page. In the course of his story Wells provides myriad points of view on events, allowing the reader to experience the powerlessness of a microbe under a microscope and the serene confidence of a Martian with an intellect ‘vast, cool and unsympathetic’. I query whether Wells’s presentation of these viewpoints allows the reader to make up his/her own mind, or if the force of sudden changes in narrative point of view encourages the reader to pick a side in the war.
Nicholas Ruddick (University of Regina)
“HGW Adapted for the New Millennium: The Infinite Worlds of H.G. Wells”
The Hallmark Channel’s 265-minute TV miniseries The Infinite Worlds of H.G. Wells (2001) ingeniously adapts six of Wells’s short stories by posing them as six cases solved in 1893 by a fictitious “H.G. Wells”. Possibly to the chagrin of some Wellsians, the miniseries suggests how the historical HGW and his short fiction have had to be adapted almost beyond recognition in order to survive successfully in the maelstrom of twenty-first-century popular culture. The stories adapted include (in narrative order): “The New Accelerator” (1901); “The Queer Story of Brownlow’s Newspaper” (1932); “The Crystal Egg” (1897); “The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes” (1895); “The Truth about Pyecraft” (1903); and “The Stolen Bacillus” (1894). A Time Machine-style frame narrative involving the dying “Wells” in 1946 connects the episodes further. In 1893 “Wells” (Tom Ward) is a tall, lean, good-looking aspiring writer and contemporary of Sherlock Holmes who has ‘always been given to paradoxes about space and time’. His sidekick is the superficially demure but privately fiery New Woman college science student “Jane” (Katy Carmichael). Collaborative solution of each of the cases brings “Wells” and “Jane” closer together, until at last they are married and she is pregnant. Perhaps the best episode is based on the most unlikely source text, the little-known slight prophetic piece “The Queer Story of Brownlow’s Newspaper”. The action is dramatized as a temporal paradox caused by the unaccountable presence in 1893 of a future issue of a newspaper, with serious ramifications that only “Wells” has the spatiotemporal imagination to resolve. While fin-de-siècle specialists may fume at liberties taken with biographical and historical facts, the adaptors of Infinite Worlds are sufficiently knowledgeable about Wellsian scientific romance and its context to suggest how the real HGW, in horse-drawn days, could so powerfully anticipate our contemporary anxieties about science and technology. Infinite Worlds may not be a faithful adaptation, but it is reasonably respectful of its sources and surprisingly effective.
Danielle Hancock (University of East Anglia)
“Isolation, Apathy and Martians: War of the Worlds in the Podcast Era”
H.G. Wells’s fiction has inspired many adaptations and reimaginings, in cinematic, televisual, graphic and audio art forms. Perhaps of all these, the most widely known adaptation of H.G. Wells’s fictions is The Mercury Theatre on Air’s radio play, War of the Worlds (1938), based on Wells’s 1898 novel of the same title. Whilst the Mercury Theatre’s writers initially deemed Wells’s story too familiar to 1930s audiences to generate an effectively frightening or gripping narrative, director Orson Welles persisted, and the adaptation was made, albeit with significant alterations: the location was altered from London to New York, the time frame brought up to near-present day (the remake in fact, being set exactly one year into the future of its original broadcast), and the form being altered from written, “memoir” style, to a minute by minute live news broadcast. The play was highly effective, and gained rapid infamy following reports of it having spawned mass panic across New York. Whilst the veracity of these reports is now queried, the adaptation is still regarded as a pioneer moment in radio and sci fi history, revealing not only the power of live mass media, and the import and trustworthiness of radio in the run up to World War Two, but also the timeless nature of Wells’s story. Whatever the form or delivery, it seemed, Wells’s dystopic vision of Martian invasion would always strike a resonant note within Western culture.
With this in mind, this paper explores three twenty-first century podcast adaptations of War of the Worlds, texts which consciously redevelop both Wells’s and Welles’s original works. Podcasts, as pre-recorded sound files designed to be listened to on personal, privatised audio media, and on individualistic time frames, can be seen to embody modern fears regarding new audio media, in which traditional, collective and community-based broadcast values are seen to decline in favour of fragmented and antisocial “head-phone culture”. Likewise, whilst The Mercury Theatre’s War of the Worlds aired in the run-up to WWII, a time when listeners were fearful of cultural invasion, the story’s podcast evolutions emerge in an era typified by ambiguity regarding terrorist invasion. Post 9/11 Western culture is fearful of terrorist threat, yet uncertain, and often critical, of British and American overseas involvement in the “War on Terror”, and of Western colonial legacies. Thus this paper asks how Wells’s story evolves and becomes meaningful, both within such new, highly individualistic, privatised and mobile audio media, and the societal context which it inhabits. In short, it asks how does War of the Worlds work in the age of isolation, apathy and Nationalistic uncertainty?