Imagine the Imperial freshers of the past; ponder where their college career led them. Research is probably first to mind – medicine, teaching, banking… Arts? We’re scientists, not robots! Great academics are often churned out, but our university also produced one of the fathers of science fiction, H.G. Wells.
A famous student who studied under famous professors, Wells joined the Royal College of Science in 1884. He especially enjoyed the subjects of zoology and biology during his first year, and did well. These were taught by T.H. Huxley, “Darwin’s Bulldog,” who passionately supported the theory of evolution. And yet student life wasn’t entirely plain sailing. – Wells struggled with other subjects, work-life balance and money (despite receiving a scholarship).
Imperial must have made an impact on the young writer as its surroundings earned a place in his 1985 novel, The War of the Worlds. It is upon the narrator’s arrival in South Kensington that the climax of the novel begins. It could be questioned whether the location was featured through pride or the joy of seeing it in disarry, but it is no less entertaining to meet a character who considers breaking into the Natural History Museum. Wells’ role as a scientist also reflected upon the narrator and his astronomer friend. While it’s true most of his characters have academic backgrounds, The War of the Worlds also drew upon real scientific debates. The story begins with an observation of “strange lights” on Mars, a phenomenon described in the journal Nature a year before the novel’s release. The existence of aliens was a hot topic of the time, but Wells was the first to write about an invasion. The first page of the novel establishes the eerie, unsettling nature of the subgenre and is well worth a read.
Before his novels, Wells’ began his writing career while he was still studying and published a short story, The Chronic Argonauts, in a college magazine. Science Schools Journal was created during his final year and he took the role of its first editor. The paper would later become known as Phoenix which is still printed today. The Chronic Argonauts centred on a young inventor and his marvellous machine. The tale would later be developed into a novel that began an entire sub-genre – it was called The Time Machine. Quite fittingly, Wells was honoured in a 1985 episode of Doctor Who in which it is revealed that one of the Doctor’s companions is a young version of the author.
Wells was a true genius of science fiction with so many more common tropes of today appearing in his novels: superhuman abilities, dystopia, apocalyptic utopia, and space travel to name a few. The use of a familiar setting to aid the reader’s suspension of disbelief is known as “Wells’ Law.” Even the term “science fiction” is all thanks to Herbert George.
And still Wells remained a proficient academic. In addition to fiction, the author published many essays and textbooks. One remarkable book titled The World Brain describes the vision of a global communication system and encyclopaedia – spookily similar of the world wide web of today. He believed he had earned himself a fellowship with the Royal Society for his contribution to “human ecology.” While this was not one of his many achievements, Wells can be commended as a reviewer for Nature and his doctorate he earned at age 78.
Wells’ legacy can be found in even in some of the most unlikely places; he founded the Diabetes Association, invented the first recreational war game, and is said to have inspired the first liquid fuelled rocket. His fame is truly deserved as a master of science and science fiction alike.