The Empire of the Future: Imperialism and Modernism in H. G. Wells

Article excerpt

H. G. Wells's scientific romances of the 1890s are remarkably innovative in form and subject matter, and the first in the series, The Time Machine, may be the most original of them all. It virtually inaugurated the genre of science fiction, and has been shamelessly imitated by aspiring authors in the field ever since. And yet as forward-looking as Wells's first novel is, it is deeply rooted in the Victorian era. As we shall see, in The Time Machine, he takes us 800,000 years into the future, and he finds the Victorian class system still intact. Its extremes have of course been exaggerated, but, as many commentators have noted, in the Eloi and the Morlocks, we can still recognize Disraeli's "two nations," the rich and the poor of Victorian England. But another Victorian aspect of The Time Machine has not been as thoroughly analyzed--the way in which Wells drew upon his experience of the British Empire to shape his vision of the future. And yet some of the most modern and even modernist aspects of The Time Machine grow out of precisely this engagement with the very Victorian theme of empire. This theme connects The Time Machine with another of Wells's early scientific romances, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and this book in turn makes Wells's links to modernism even clearer. Comparing both Wells works with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness helps to reveal how the experience of empire played a role in the development of modernist fiction.

Wells's many false starts and the number of versions he went through before he published The Time Machine as we know it testify to the difficulty of his enterprise. (1) It is therefore understandable that when he was trying to imagine a journey into the future, he ended up modeling it on something more familiar, a journey to the imperial frontier. Imperialist narratives--either factual or fictional--became very popular in Britain in the nineteenth century, and had reached the level of a fad in the mid-1880s with the publication of H. Rider Haggard's bestsellers, King Solomon's Mines and She. Drawing upon Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, Haggard crystallized the form of the imperialist romance as a journey to a remote corner of European dominion, where a group of intrepid British explorers encounter an exotic civilization, with strange and often bizarre customs that seem the antithesis of the European way of life.

This formula would in itself have been useful to Wells, preparing as he was to create a new form of exoticism in his first science fiction novel. But Haggard prepared the way for Wells even further by adding a new twist to the imperialist romance, or at least highlighting an element that had been latent in the form. In King Solomon's Mines' and She the journey to the imperial frontier becomes a journey into the past; for Haggard space travel becomes time travel. That is, in both works Haggard's British heroes leave the world of modern Europe behind and enter what he views as a historically backward land. Haggard's British heroes are associated with modern science and technology, whereas the African natives they encounter are associated with magic and superstition. Indeed the British use their scientific knowledge and their modern weapons to awe the African natives into submission. Moreover, the British explorers represent the principles of modern politics as Haggard understands them--limited government and the rule of law--whereas the African natives represent the principles of the old regime, autocracy and the rule of priests and witches. Thus in Haggard the journey to the imperial frontier becomes imaginatively a journey into the past of Europe. That is why Haggard goes out of his way to link contemporary Africa to the ancient heritage of Europe, finding Biblical connections with the African civilization in King Solomon's Mines and Egyptian and Classical Greek connections with the one in She.

Haggard's fiction thus reveals the peculiar way in which the imperialist expansion of Europe in the nineteenth century opened up the imaginative possibility of time travel. …