Last year for Christmas, someone gave me a collection of H.G. Wells’s work — one of those Barnes and Noble seven novels kind of deals. It’s purple. There’s a tripod shooting lasers at unsuspecting British folk on the cover. I brought it with me to grad school, along with about 50 other books I haven’t read yet but keep meaning to. Since moving in, I’ve read The Time Machine and The Island of Dr. Moreau, which are both thought-provoking in fun, possibly ethically relevant ways.
This should be fairly evident, but beware. Here be spoilers. (Can I spoil novels that were written over a century ago?)
Wells is considered one of the granddaddies of science fiction and for good reason. The Time Machine and War of the Worlds, despite being prone to mediocre movie adaptations of late, are especially seminal works.
The premise for The Time Machine is simple: an inventor creates a time machine, invites a group of friends over for dinner to show them the prototype, and a week later decides to test his new machine. He returns, bedraggled and haggard and relates the story of his adventures through time to a second dinner party. It’s indicative of the late 19th fascination with new technologies and the vast potential of the human race.
Of course, as the time traveler continues through time, he witness the rise and fall of mankind. When he finally stops to have a look around, humanity is well into a decline, separated into two distinct races, one indolent and childish, the other . . . well, creepy and apparently cannibalistic.
Prior to this dissolution of civilization, however, Man learned to assume control over the Earth’s nature forces. All plant-life is cultivated above ground, while industry is relegated to the subterranean. It struck me that we’re always trying to assert ourselves over natural forces. Even fairly positive endeavors like harnessing renewable energy or rehabilitating destroyed habitats are based on the assumption that we can harness the unpredictable natural forces of our planet and make them do what we want them to do. Now, Wells’s two groups achieved this control prior to their decline — but it ultimately does them little good because after they’ve achieved what they wanted, they become inarticulate and unambitious, lacking any industry or ingenuity. Our determination to advance the race eventually collapses into apathy and decay.
Amusing side note: Wells’s mentions that this later incarnation of the world is considerably warmer than what the time traveler is accustomed to (being British, you know). Part of me immediately went, “Climate change!” But even Wells wasn’t far-seeing enough for that. The sun was just expanding.
In turn, The Island of Dr. Moreau presents an interesting view of science and also asks the question of what it means to be human. Our narrator, Prendick, is a shipwrecked biologist who is rescued by Moreau’s associate, Montgomery, and transported to a tropical island. Moreau is a surgeon who pioneered blood transfusion, but has been following the dark paths of science — namely the vivisection (what we commonly call dissection) and reshaping of animal flesh. Because of that, he is banished from England (see: the civilized world). Basically, Moreau cuts up creatures and turns them into humanoids, further asserting his will over them by forbidding the consumption of flesh and countless other animal behaviors.
Prendick is wholly repulsed by these creations and Moreau’s cold reasoning for their creation. He has no humanistic purpose; he simply experiments in the name of Science and Discovery. Of course, everything goes horribly wrong and Prendick has to fight for his own survival as the man-beasts slowly backslide into their original forms and instincts. This isn’t altogether different thematically from The Time Machine (or The Invisible Man, which I am currently reading). The early modern interest in science was coupled with an extreme unease — in fact, the notion of vivisection in general produced a public outcry.
I don’t think Wells is preaching anti-science, however. I think he is advocating for morality among scientists. Scientific theory is, at its purest form, completely removed from moral concerns so it falls to the scientist to bring humanity and ethics to the process. This is reflected best in the stringent regulations for psychological and pharmaceutical testing. It’s important to prevent abuse of power.
As a literary genre, I think science fiction has enormous potential to reflect our social concerns, particularly in the discussion of technological advancement. Note: this is different from having an agenda. I don’t think Wells ever proposes a solution or prescribes any course of action. It’s simply commentary.
In cinema, there have been some ham-handed attempts in the past decade to use this strategy in the realm of environmental science fiction (see: The Day After Tomorrow and Avatar). I have to think we can do better than these films in relaying the nuanced and complicated issue of environmental preservation. I would certainly like to see something a little less preachy and a little more thought-provoking.
So, read any good science fiction lately? Did it have an interesting/socially relevant message?