Is science fiction our most important narrative genre? Whilst other forms of literature may present “art for art’s sake,” some have argued that science fiction is unique because it can achieve real social change by presenting visions of better worlds. In his new book, Simon J. James shows how H.G. Wells saw literature as a vehicle for improving the world.
It certainly seems as if science fiction is undergoing a renaissance at present. Writing on this blog, Adam Stock has suggested why George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has been repeatedly reinvented for our times. Elsewhere, the science-fiction writer Damien Walter has argued that science fiction is a kind of international language that transcends cultural differences. Recent films such as The Hunger Games and The Avengers have visualised the problems of an unstable society, and the desire for simple, heroic solutions to global concerns. Far from being a niche genre, science fiction plays a central role in culture. Indeed, because it may motivate us to create a more utopian future, science fiction may even be said to be the most immediately “useful” of all narrative forms.
In this context, a timely new book revisits one of the founding fathers of the genre. Maps of Utopia: H. G. Wells, Modernity and the End of Culture, by Simon J. James, shows how Wells tried to affirm that literature, like the sciences, should play an active and functional part in establishing a better society.
“assuredly refocuses attention on the scientifically motivated aesthetic programme that governed Wells’s writing”
Emelyne Godfrey, Times Literary Supplement [Subscription only]
Although Wells is best-remembered as a science fiction writer, his interest in science informed his views on writing generally. Wells formulated a literary aesthetics based on scientific principles. Wells was not content simply to let literary art be, for its own sake: he wanted to make art instrumental in improving the lives of its readers, and to play an active role in imagining a new political state.
Wells’ career began during a publishing boom of the late nineteenth century, that followed the mass literacy of the 1870-71 Education Acts. Cheap books, magazines, and advertisements saturated culture. With this came a pervasive fear that civilization was undergoing an inexorable decline. The Time Machine, for example, imagines humanity several millennia in the future. Significantly, books have become withered relics and high art museum curios. Wells believed that a kind of Darwinian natural selection was at work, and that literature should be functional if it was to survive and avoid this fate of pointlessness.
As Maps of Utopia explains, in expressing this belief Wells turned to many genres besides the science fiction for which he is now best known. In a long writing career over six decades he also produced popular science, educational theory, history, politics, prophecy, and utopia, as well as realist and experimental fiction. As the first detailed study of Wells’ aesthetic principles, Maps of Utopia shows how Wells’ diverse body of work was united by the belief that art should help to establish the World State that, he predicted, was man’s only alternative to self-destruction.