War of the Worldviews

Wall Street Opinion Journal BY JOHN J. MILLER Tuesday, June 21, 2005 12:01 a.m. EDT

H.G. Wells was a sci-fi pioneer, but his political ideas were abominable.

If H.G. Wells had not performed poorly on an astronomical physics test and several other exams as a young man, he might have spent the rest of his life as an obscure academic rather than a popular author. He probably would not have written his most famous book, “The War of the Worlds”–a novel that’s never gone out of print since its publication in 1898 and that now serves as the inspiration for the Stephen Spielberg film reaching theaters next Wednesday.

Those lousy marks at the Normal School of Science in London’s South Kensington are perhaps one of the best things that ever happened to the original Martian chronicler. Wells himself didn’t see them that way. He bore a deep grudge. In an 1895 story, “The Argonauts of the Air,” his protagonists slam a “flying machine” into the Royal College of Science (as the Normal School had been renamed), causing explosions and fatalities. It’s difficult to interpret the episode as something other than a morbid act of literary terrorism.

Even this didn’t flush the anger out of his system. Three years later, in “The War of the Worlds,” Wells unleashed those iconic tripods and their devastating heat rays on his old stomping ground. In a letter, he boasted of “selecting South Kensington for feats of peculiar atrocity.”

Perhaps the professors got the message and began to practice grade inflation. Whatever the case, the author’s lingering resentment highlights one of the central aspects of his work: He simply couldn’t accept the world he encountered in his everyday life. Disappointments often sparked a destructive urge. The man was nothing if not a radical who yearned to reshape the fundamentals of human society through books and politics.