English writer whose science
fiction stories played an important role in influencing popular conceptions of
the nature of extraterrestrial life. The first novelist of his genre to receive
a thorough scientific education, he held a bachelor's degree from the Normal
School of Science (later renamed the Royal College of Science) in London, and
had been tutored by none other than the biologist Thomas Huxley, famed for his epic public
encounter with the creationist Bishop Samuel ("Soapy Sam")
Wilberforce at Oxford in 1860. Huxley had been a close friend of Charles Darwin. Now, following Charles's death
in 1882-the year that Wells first began attending Huxley's lectures-he was the
new chief standard-bearer for Darwinism. Wells, therefore, could not have found
a better teacher from whom to learn about the theory of evolution and all that
For Wells, as for
his contemporaries, evolutionary theory was at the hub of biological thinking.
It dominated much of what he wrote, both in the form of fiction and science
journalism. In essay after essay, especially in his first decade of
professional writing from 1887 to 1896, he attacked the traditional
anthropocentric viewpoint that man was somehow special and that nature was
teleologically oriented toward our species. What was Homo sapiens but
just another, accidental episode in the panoramic sweep of history? That was
Wells's fundamental premise, and from it he went on to contemplate the
precariousness of man's tenure on Earth. In an early piece, "Zoological
Regression," he writes:
There is . . . no guarantee in
scientific knowledge of man's permanence or permanent ascendancy. . . . [I]t
may be that . . . Nature is, in unsuspected obscurity, equipping some now
humble creature . . . to rise in the fullness of time and sweep homo away . . .
The Coming Beast must certainly be reckoned in any anticipatory calculations
regarding the Coming Man.
But the threat to
humankind, Wells realized, might come not only from some lower species which
subsequently evolved to take our place. In The Time Machine, the
"Coming Beast" is man himself, or at least a bestial form of Homo
that, in the far future, has diverged from a gentler, feebler strain of
humanity that represents the other extreme end-point of our development. Then
again, perhaps the challenge to humanity would come from beyond the Earth and
from a creature that was our intellectual superior.
On April 4, 1896,
Wells's article "Intelligence on Mars" appeared in the Saturday
Review. It begins by referring to a "luminous projection on the
southern edge of the planet" seen by Javelle at Nice. The report of
Javelle's sighting in Nature, some eighteen months earlier, had led to a
flurry of speculation that the light was an attempt by Martians to signal to us
(see Mars, changes on). Wells went on in his article to
ask what sentient life on Mars might be like. He was scornful of earlier
suggestions that the inhabitants might resemble ourselves.
No phase of
anthropomorphism is more naive than the supposition of men on Mars. The place
of such a conception in the world of thought is with the anthropomorphic
cosmogonies and religions invented by the childish conceit of primitive man.
The Martians, he
concluded, "would be different from the creatures of earth, in form and
function, in structure and in habit, different beyond the most bizarre
imaginings of nightmare." A year later, he gave full reign to such
speculation in The War of the Worlds.
explored the variety of forms that extraterrestrials might take in his writings
on silicon-based life and his 1901 novel The First Men in
See also science fiction
involving extraterrestrials, before 1900; science fiction
involving extraterrestrials, 1900-1940.