Sarah Cole


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

Cover Interview of February 26, 2020


Writing this book has been the most exciting intellectual undertaking of my career so far, and also the most difficult. It was challenging for a few reasons— the need to construct my own methodology for reading and assessing Wells, as one example, and the sheer scale of his oeuvre as another— but the most pressing issue is that Wells can be as nasty as he is marvelous, as distressing as he is invigorating. Such is life, such is he: not only a flawed person, but a reminder of how motivating and progressive ideals can live in partnership with much that is ugly or misguided. Yet it was (and is) not my primary goal to judge Wells for his faults or critique him for failing to meet my own ethical standards. Rather I find myself profoundly energized by the imaginative universe that was Wells’s work, and I seek to follow those aspects of his thought that speak to my own ideals— of peace, say, or the need to protect the earth, or the ongoing b­elief that we can do better­. I have never sought heroes or saints in those I study, and Wells is by any measure an unlikely entrant into sainthood. But it is my firm conviction that what Wells offers us in his enormous and stimulating body of work outweighs his shortcomings, opening up avenues for thought that, in some uncanny (indeed perhaps Wellsian) way, have been here all along, if one only knew to look for them. Reading his work has changed my view of just about everything I read; this is a great gift and I hope my own readers will be able to partake of this transformative energy.

If nothing else, I hope my book will send people to Wells, where they will think and judge for themselves about the meaning and value of his works. This is really an infinite trove, with works of every sort (see a brief list on the next page): from the explosive, brief science fiction of his early career, which remains famous and influential today; to his brilliant short stories; to his biting, often very funny social comedy; to the realist or social issue novels of the early century that combatively entered the debates of the moment; to the meditative essay novels of the 20s; to the big books in popular history and science that represented the height of Wells’s ambition to unite the world with concepts of a shared past and future; to his many genres of war and peace writing; to his own personal storytelling, which in a way encompasses all of these myriad works and culminates in his actual autobiography, another bestseller; and of course to film, those written by Wells himself, and the endless adaptations of his works that continue to emerge each year and to influence so many other productions.

Ultimately, it is the pleasure of discovery that stands out in reading Wells, how startling, jarring, interesting and reorienting these works can be.