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Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre, series, or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek obsession: H.G. Wells
Why it’s daunting: It’s easy to explain why tackling Wells is a daunting prospect: He wrote more than 100 books, not to mention short stories, magazine articles, and various other works of varying significance. He’s best-known for his science fiction, but he also wrote non-fiction, realistic fiction, and stories in a variety of genres, some of which had barely even been invented in his day.
And while Jules Verne is more properly the father of science fiction, having gotten there first, most of his stories now read like quaint boys’ adventure tales, featuring technology that largely exists in our world today. (The ones that don’t, like Journey To The Center Of The Earth, now read as complete fantasy.) Wells, on the other hand, dabbled in any number of science-fiction subgenres, from dystopic fiction to alien-invasion tales to time-travel narratives to stories of mad scientists who create monsters, and sometimes become them. Much of Wells’ work is steeped in the political philosophies and ideas of his time, and his writing is often more in line with Victorian serialized adventure novels than the sorts of space operas that science fiction has become known for. In short, reading Wells means becoming immersed both in a science-fiction universe and the world of turn-of-the-20th-century England.
Fortunately, much of Wells’ prodigious output is only available to specialists studying his works. (Honestly, much of it is really only of worth to those specialists.) The science-fiction section in any good bookstore will reveal the large number of Wells titles that have been continuously in print since he was alive. Since so many of his books have become popular films or permeated the culture in significant ways, the titles alone will likely make any wannabe Wells fan feel at home almost instantly.
Possible gateway: The Time Machine
Why: Consider that before this novel, the phrase “time machine” wasn’t even in the mainstream lexicon. Consider, also, that Wells basically invented the time-travel genre with this book, though it doesn’t contain many of the things that became mainstays of the genre, like paradoxes or visits to famous historical figures. Then consider that the book does basically everything Wells did well, but also weds it to a gripping adventure yarn about a loner who travels relentlessly into the far future, then doesn’t bother stopping.
The “big idea” of The Time Machine isn’t the actual time machine, it’s the idea that in the future, humanity has split into two races, Eloi and Morlocks. The novel is, more or less, a Victorian travel romance, where the narrator journeys to a strange foreign country and reports back on what he finds there, only Wells grafts on an undercurrent of class warfare and resentment that suggests he’s really writing about the England of his time. (Well, he doesn’t really suggest it so much as come right out and say it. Wells is rarely subtle.) Wells, who often had strongly utopian ideals of how the world should be, turns his England into a world where the upper classes live in idle leisure—at least until it’s time for the lower classes to come out of their dank tunnels and feed on them. It’s an unsettling, potent metaphor whose implications Wells has thought through fairly thoroughly. (Another frequent Wells failing is that he sometimes introduces elaborate sociopolitical metaphors that make less and less sense the more readers think about them.)
It certainly doesn’t hurt that The Time Machine is also an enjoyable adventure tale, concluding with the time traveler going so far into the future as to see a world where the sun is red and dying, and the Earth is populated with crab-like creatures. Wells was fascinated by the social theory of his day, but he was also fascinated by hard science, and The Time Machine is one of the few novels to seriously grapple with the last days of Earth. And the time traveler’s adventures among the Eloi and Morlocks make for gripping action setpieces, which is why the book continues to be adapted into film after film.
Next steps: While many Wells novels remain in print, much of his reputation rests on his three most famous novels, The Time Machine, War Of The Worlds, and The Invisible Man. War Of The Worlds is the logical next step after Time Machine. It’s the other book in Wells’ bibliography that Hollywood has turned to over and over, and it’s the other novel that best bounces between Wells’ many strengths. There’s plenty of political commentary (and even more to be read into it), Martian invaders, genuinely exciting chase scenes, and an ending that should feel like a cheat, but is so unexpected that it doesn’t, even if you anticipate it.
The Invisible Man is also good, though it’s fared less well as time has gone on. The portrayal of a man who slowly goes insane as he realizes he will never again be visible is well-handled, but the novel’s portrait of 1890s England is less effective than the far-future allegorical world of Time Machine or the haunting dystopia of War Of The Worlds. Still, Wells’ conception of a man whose desire for recognition is so great that he literally disappears is another of his potent metaphors, and the central character of Griffin is one of the author’s great creations.
From there, any of Wells’ other readily available novels is a good continuing point, though intrigued readers must grapple with The Island Of Dr. Moreau at some point. It isn’t Wells’ best-written novel, but its central idea is his most horrifying, and its characters instantly compelling. In its own way, Moreau is another travel romance, heading toward a world where the class struggle again looms heavily (and in ways suggesting that Wells, for all his utopianism, had a fairly dim view of the poor) and where adventure and horror wait around every turn.
Other good, generally findable Wells novels include The First Men In The Moon, When The Sleeper Awakes, and The Shape Of Things To Come, a late-in-life utopian novel that re-imagines the world as run by benevolent scientists.
Where not to start: It’s rare to find a bookstore or library that stocks any of Wells’ non-fiction or realistic fiction. But while he wrote books worth reading in both genres, they don’t carry the immediate punch of his science fiction, and they often seem opaque to modern readers who can’t fully immerse themselves in the cultural mores of Wells’ time. Of his big, widely read novels, In The Days Of The Comet is probably the least essential: It starts with some interesting ideas, then turns them into a boring tract.