Sarah Cole


On her book Inventing Tomorrow: H. G. Wells and the Twentieth Century

Cover Interview of February 26, 2020

The wide angle

One of the biggest questions that has animated modernist studies in the last two decades has been, what were others (not just Woolf, Joyce, Eliot, Yeats, Conrad…) saying: who, where, how, and why? Inventing Tomorrow goes further, attempting to change the conversation altogether, and to revivify this period in literary history by taking seriously its own readers’ predilections, exploring a genuinely alternative literary and imaginative project. The book was born out of modernist studies—my own field—and yet, I hope it may speak to readers beyond this area, and for several reasons. Wells himself is a figure who roams and ranges across a huge multitude of issues and ideas. Popular culture cannot do without him (new Time Machine, Invisible Man, and War of the Worlds adaptations are being aired and/or produced even as I write). He is, of course, one of the originators of science fiction. Technology and Wells belong together, and his creative envisioning of all manner of devices (some of which have become normal parts of our lives, others of which remain prime figures of fantasy) brings his works into essential dialogue with contemporary issues around technology, especially since the key point for Wells was never simply, what can or will we invent, but rather, what can and should we do with our inventions? Wells was world famous as a predictor and futurist, and such a style of thought touches a chord today, when climate change has brought a new urgency to the idea of futurist thinking. During Wells’s life, he went way beyond these topics, and readers interested in more or less anything from the first fifty years of the 20th century—such as war, education, science, history, sex, economics, or the authority of the layperson to speak on any or all of these—will find Wells in the fray, a voice being heard by his contemporaries, in many media and over many decades.

Yet the potential interest of this story goes beyond Wells: ultimately, it is about rethinking the way literature can interact with its world(s), and about how received convention—here the absolute dominance of modernist aesthetic values—can obscure all kinds of rich and fascinating imaginative and cultural achievements. As one example of how this works in the book, I argue that in order to read Wells to best effect (in such a way that the particular accomplishment of his body of writing can be assessed, and to align ourselves with his contemporary readers) one must jettison essential habits of literary reading, such as assuming that each work stands alone. Wells’s writing lived as a moving, changing sea of texts and ideas, rather than as a list of discrete works complete in themselves, and this amorphous formation, in turn, existed in constant contact with its interlocutors. The reading scale for Wells simply differs from received literary norms.

Or, we might consider another way that Wells can provide a jolt of recognition for other texts and periods: despite decades of expansion in modernist studies, certain criteria remain stubbornly at the center, and these continue to dominate literary appraisal, such as the doctrine that a writer must never explain himself. Yet Wells’s construction of a style in which he makes and then explains his own figures enabled him to reach a mass readership; and there are other aspects of his writing, shunned by academics, that also worked to invite, and in a sense guide, his audience. Another commonplace that Wells challenges is that the most important element in a novel is character, and especially depth of character; Wells was after something different in the human relation to her worlds. The important point is to be able to recognize that these are strategies and priorities, with their own rich outcomes, rather than failings.

Or what about the future? Attempting actually to envision what will come, at a variety of points in time, is out of tune with most of the writers esteemed from the first half of the 20th century, whose meandering in time almost always involved backward travel, but it suggests a certain trans-historical cast of mind, aligning with others at different historical moments who operated along a creative, flexible time scale, oriented as much to the future as the past. Or, again, in the case of scale, a big topic in current literary studies, Wells was one of the most innovative and provocative figures of this period, drawn to huge spans of space and time.

In short, Inventing Tomorrow is a book about Wells, but it also a book about the rich and pulsating sphere of ideas and experiments that constellates around this most polymathic of writers.