ENGLISH SCIENCE FICTION & THE FINAL YEARS OF H.G. WELLS
When I came to Fleet Street in 1941 Wells was at the height of his fame and prestige, aged seventy-four and with five more years to live. His casual journalism was in perpetual demand and a week rarely passed without some effort of his turning up somewhere. In addition, a book or two came out every year almost until the end. I doubt if any other literary man, even Shaw, has had so lively and productive an old age.
Wells had been increasingly a journalist, and rather less of a novelist, ever since 1914, and during this phase came the critical joke that he had "sold his birthright for a pot of message." His powers of story-telling were as strong as ever - "Men like Gods" (1923), "The Dream" (1924), "The Croquet-Player" (1937) and many others all prove this, but he used them less often. It is true that his books all became didactic and opinionated, whatever they were about - and in any case, Wells declared he thought himself more of a journalist than anything else.
The publication of "The Outline of History" in 1920, coinciding as it did with the emergence of the League of Nations, established him beyond all doubt. as the guide and tutor of the modern world. No other author before or since gained anything like Wells' status in this respect. However, the main appeal of the book lies in its power as a political manifesto, and therein lay a weakness. Wells had none of the qualities of character necessary to a practical politician and had no capacity for initiating policy, or even influencing policy-makers. Throughout his illustrious old age, with much of the world crying out for his guidance, he remained a "fringe" politician who could do nothing better than preside at public meetings and write letters to the papers. Caring nothing for personal adulation, he never bothered to cultivate a following or encourage emulators, and when he died not a soul was left to carry on the work.
Wells died in 1946, leaving behind him an immense following of admirers, all of them agreeing - and many of his detractors agreed, too - that he was an immortal of literature. Yet among all the successful writers who flourished then and since, there has not been one who could take up the themes of radical idealism and scientific humanism embodied in his name The need for an adequate successor to Wells is acute. Someone *must* follow.
Wells was the greatest socialist writer of this century, yet he took Socialism so much for granted that he never thought to work out and expound a coherent socialist philosophy. It was the greatest failure of his life, for he alone in his time had the necessary vision for such a task. It is appalling to realise that no other writer, either, has settled down to work out the philosophy of Socialism, in intelligible humanistic terms.
The philosopher who would attempt this project must begin with Wells's own school of literature, to wit, "science-fiction," as the jargoneers still insist on calling it. Such a philosopher must also be, in practice, a political journalist, and if he is also a filibuster in this line, so much the better.
By temperament Wells was pugnacious and courageous. He had little understanding of patriotism - his knowledge of English history was too slight - and none at all of the life militant. He could collaborate with a few colleagues on a work of research (i.e: The Science of Life) but his concept of team-spirit went no further than that. Whatever interest he had in sports and games was lost after the dangerous accident at football in his boyhood, though he retained a worthy pride in his father's prowess as a cricketer. His professional career was launched and vitalised by tremendous artistic visions, but his knowledge of literature and the arts never became great - in contrast to his friend Shaw, who made his career out of such knowledge.
The moving impulse in all his romances is the love of knowledge, and the continuing eager search for it. Though his protagonists encounter dangers these are never willingly risked, and the heroic virtues of courage and hardihood are displayed only incidentally. Hence these tales, marvellous as they are, often lack the under- current of true romance; the marvels overshadow the protagonists.
In his old age Wells became obsessed with politics. It was not a very constructive obsession, being more of a continuous diatribe against the League of Nations, the Labour Party, the Trade Unions and other agencies that might be supposed to be doing something to fulfil his ideals but disappointed him because they failed to do so on the spot. His attitude was that of a clever but exasperated schoolmaster, always lecturing, scolding and belabouring the boys, however hard they tried. Like most journalists of the post-Northcliffe era he was better at denunciation than anything else. Matters of policy became matters for mere argument, and eventually for mere bickering.
In such an atmosphere he lost interest in current literature, perhaps because his own heyday as a novelist was over and most of his eminent contemporaries were dead. He is said to have charged Hugo Gernsback pretty high fees for the reprinting of his tales in "Amazing Stories," but he never seems to have looked at the magazine, nor to have appreciated that Gernsback, in his own way was trying to carry on Wells' own work. Apparently he took no interest in "science-fiction," the literature of which he was a founding giant, and to the last he remained unaware that a definite literary movement was growing in this field, and growing, perforce, without his help.
In that later phase Wells often showed a partiality for "elites" - surprising indeed for a man of known democratic sentiments who also talked as much of the Open Society and the "open conspiracy." To what extent was Wells an elite figure himself, and how much did it detach him from the Open Conspiracy?
His professional success gives some of the answer. It would be ridiculous, of course, to claim that success had spoiled him, let alone made a snob of him, yet it is a fact that professional success in any line tends to confine a man to the society of his professional equals, generally to the exclusion of those outside. He loses touch with the lower ranks of society, and thereby loses touch with the currents of democratic opinion. Inevitably he develops something of an "elite" mentality, with its exclusiveness, its ingrowing, its bickering and fatal decay. It is to be feared that Wells, to some extent at least, fell victim to all these misfortunes.
All the same, the Open Conspiracy he talked and wrote about was and is a reality. It is true, as he maintained that government by elites was dwindling all over the Earth, and is still dwindling. By the end of the century it may have perished. But he did not seem to understand the democratic processes at work in the world, or even to know if there were any. In fact, he showed no enthusiasm for anything except the denunciation of other men's failures; yet this man had been a great idealist, and a fountainhead of other men's idealism.
Up to 1951 no other novelist, with the possible exception of Olaf Stapledon, had made a reputation as a writer of science-fiction. In that year, however, came John Wyndham's ”The Day of the Triffids and with the success of this fine work the Movement had arrived. Several other authors have made their names in the field nearly all of them from our network. By now there is an extensive market for science-fiction writers in the paperback publications, and their commercial success is forcing even Fleet Street and Broadcasting House to take an excited interest in their work, and it all stems from my first encounter with Steve Frances, and the recruiting of Ted Carnell....
When we gathered around the tea-tables in that summer of 1936 no sort of market for STF or any kindred subject existed in this country. Only one of our number was a professional journalist, and he the only one in all of Britain who took an active interest in STF. The periodical trade had been in a state of depression since about 1930, and by now it was in a state of entropy - the publishing establishment simply did not want any fresh ventures or renewed hopes for the future, emphatically they did not want to hear about new writers or writings, and above all, they did not want to know about STF at any price. That there was still a reading public for good popular magazines was proved by the success of the Hulton Press from 1937. Yet in nearly twenty years of publication Hultons were never good enough or strong enough to exert any influence on periodicals as a whole, though the trade often hoped for leadership from that quarter.
In the upshot, the first regular STF magazine in Britain was founded in 1946 by Steve Frances, myself, and Ted Carnell, in that order of appearance. We had neither the resources nor the personal ability, let alone influence in the trade, to make a big commercial success of the venture; yet we made a small success, a lasting success, and now after eighteen years - the lifetime of Picture Post - New Worlds is to take on a new lease of life (1964).
It was ironical that about 1948 Hultons were rumoured to be bringing out their own STF magazine. The thing failed to materialise, undoubtedly because there was no writing talent available outside our own network, and since they were not willing to do a deal with us their project failed. It was five years later that another company, much smaller, much better and much more enterprising, offered Ted the fair deal that put New Worlds on the publishing map once and for all - three years later still, Hulton went out of business.
The foundation and development of New Worlds has been, in short, a Network job. A network such as ours is a fine and durable thing because it is open and free to every newcomer who cares to pay us a visit. He finds it an Open Society, not an elite. Once arrived he is free to make his own way, to settle in if he like, or depart if he prefers - he is not scrutinised, summed up, "tested," taken in or tried out in any way. Snobbishness, "exclusiveness," purse-pride or class-conceit - these have no place among us. That is why we have flourished through the years while so many other groupings have perished by the wayside.
For, of all groupings possible in human society, there is nothing so perishable as an elite. Members of an elite are always profoundly satisfied with themselves and disdainful of outsiders. Newcomers are rarely admitted and never welcomed, and those allowed the privilege are tested to see if they fit in with the pre-conceived notion of fitness. In time the elite becomes so exclusive that nobody wants to join it anyway, and as the original members age, wither and drop off the books, the elite becomes extinct. No thanks, it's not good enough for us.
- Frank Arnold, 1964/66.
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