Saturday 9th July 2016
11.15 Kemp Room
Patrick Parrinder (Emeritus, University of Reading)
“Alchemy and Anarchy: The Tragicomedy of Wellsian Science”
Wells’s first two scientist-protagonists, the Time Traveller and Dr Moreau, seem at first sight to be polar opposites: the detached, keen-eyed observer of the future and the demonic, fraudulent vivisector who claims to transform beasts into men. Yet the Time Traveller has a certain reputation as an amateur conjuror, while Moreau’s attempts to reshape zoological species can be seen as an anticipation of present-day genetic engineering.
In his 1933 “Preface” to The Scientific Romances, Wells emphasised that, far from offering a realistic picture of modern science, his science fiction draws heavily on the traditional figures of the magician and the alchemist. Time travel and invisibility, for example, are “magic tricks” made palatable to a modern audience by an “ingenious use of scientific patter”. But, in the later scientific romances, the scientist’s magical sleight-of-hand is increasingly undermined by another aspect of his character, his farcical incompetence. The grotesque reversion of Dr Moreau’s Beast Folk is succeeded by the absurd misadventures of Griffin in The Invisible Man, the cartoonish eccentricity of Cavor in The First Men in the Moon, and the health-and-safety nightmare of the “experimental farm” in The Food of the Gods. Not only do Wells’s scientists usually end up as the victims of their own inventions, but the anarchy they have created may or may not have lasting consequences. This tragicomic element in Wellsian scientific romance is deeply at variance with his later insistence that the world could and should be rebuilt on scientific lines. It is what makes him a great entertainer as well as a literary prophet, and it suggests that his science-fictional successors include Karel Čapek as well as Olaf Stapledon, and Douglas Adams as well as Arthur C. Clarke.
Genie Babb (SUNY Plattsburgh)
“Embodiment and Alienation in the Wellsian Search for Intelligent Life”
In the final decades of the nineteenth century, technological advances in the field of astronomy coupled with Darwinian theory made credible the possibility of intelligent life having evolved on other planets. Much debate centred on how intelligent extra-terrestrials might be and what physical form they might take. Robert Crossley traces the “Mars mania” of this time to a several sources, including the eminent French astronomer Camille Flammarion, who published scientific treatises on astronomy as well as imaginative fiction. One of Flammarion’s most influential works, Uranie (1889, 1890), depicts the mystical experiences of a young astronomer who, on dream journeys through the universe, encounters a variety of benign, beautiful, ethereal, and often immortal extra-terrestrials. Coexisting peacefully, these otherworldly beings nourish themselves simply through respiration, and they condemn materiality—in particular the “murderous” act of eating—as the original sin of all Earth’s inhabitants. They preach spiritual purification as the only means by which human beings can transcend their bodies and commune with other enlightened beings. As if to rebut this view, H.G. Wells’s scientific romances challenge the notion that the core of our humanity, and what we prize most, is the sort of transcendent, disembodied rationality championed by Flammarion. Wells’s romances show the propensity of intelligent life forms to affiliate on physical rather than intellectual grounds, to think through the body rather than rise above it. In The Time Machine, the Time Traveller identifies, not with the arguably more intelligent Morlocks, but with the Eloi because they “kept too much of the human form not claim my sympathy.” In The War of the Worlds the relationship between Martians and human beings is antagonistic: the narrator repeatedly expresses disgust at the Martian body, and the Martians have so little concern for human intelligence that they feed on the blood of still-living humans. The First Men in the Moon, however, complicates this pattern by presenting two responses to alien bodies: Bedford’s unscientific, unsympathetic, knee-jerk loathing of the Selenites versus Cavor’s repugnance tempered by scientific curiosity and empathy. In this paper, I first establish Uranie as an intertext for Wells’s scientific romances, and then focus on the increasing sophistication of Wells’s depiction of interactions between intelligent species differently embodied across the three texts mentioned above. Cavor is the only character able to transcend his disgust, and that only imperfectly and for short periods of time. The hard-won “transcendence” he achieves is enabled by a scientific frame of mind and poses a pointed contrast to the easy transcendence celebrated in Flammarion.
Caroline Rutter (Artist/Historian)
“H.G. Wells and the Scientists”
H.G. Wells the graduate scientist, teacher, Nature reviewer and pioneer futurologist was a true man of his time. Even while living in Woking he was within striking distance of London’s scientific elite and was in an ideal position to take ideas from the cutting edge of science and think through its possibilities. 1896, the year when the world saw the body become invisible to X-rays, was the perfect time to imagine The Invisible Man, though he chose to make it chemistry rather than physics which made Griffin disappear. In the same year his Martians had to have ray weapons, but by using heat Wells was taking the energy of the cathode rays, X-rays and uranium rays and combined them into one. When he imagined atomic weapons he was picking up on hints dropped by Pierre Curie on his visit to London where Wells was in the audience at the Royal Institution. He lived through the embarrassment of the scientific community discovering that they had been generating X-rays for years before their discovery, that radioactivity had been first observed in 1852, but not investigated and in 1903 N-rays were discovered despite the fact that they do not exist. He knew that scientists were fallible and vulnerable to believing things because they were of the moment.
From his intimate knowledge of the scientists and their society Wells knew that many of them were intrigued by the world of spiritualism and spiritualists. Eusapia Palladino intrigued many including Oliver Lodge, Sir William Crookes and the Curies. The spirits could be interpreted as vibrations and emanations in the ether as could the various phenomenon in the laboratories. Many clearly thought that they would find the scientific explanation for how the dead were able to come back and speak to us. In The Science of Life which Wells published with his son and Julian Huxley (a grandson of Darwin’s Bulldog) he made short shrift of de-bunking fraudsters, showing that even scientists were all too vulnerable to tricks of the trade. His photographs of “apparitions” which are clearly poor quality drawings on card or paper drove the nail into the coffin of the heyday of spiritualism. That his adult life covered the period from the introduction of domestic electricity to the use of atomic weapons in Japan shows that he was a man of his moment and his Time Machine was derived from his (extremely well-informed) imagination.