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A love affair with science fiction – an interview with Dr. Robert Crossley



Dr. Robert Crossley is Professor Emeritus of English at UMass Boston.  He has written extensively on the subjects of science fiction and utopia, and he specializes in the writings of British science fiction authors Olaf Stapledon and HG Wells. He has published works in a broad range of journals, including Science Fiction Studies, Utopian Studies, and National Teaching and Learning Forum. Dr. Crossley recently appeared in Ridley Scott’s Prophets of Science Fiction: H. G. Wells, a Science Channel special focused on the life and ideas of H.G. Wells.

H.G. Wells is considered to be the figure who actually created the science fiction genre by removing it from fantasy and introducing hard science into it. How did his training as a scientist affect his writing?

The most obvious way in which Wells’ scientific education affected his writing is the degree to which Darwinian thinking—natural selection, the struggle for survival, evolution, and devolution—permeated his fiction, especially the early scientific romances written between 1895 and 1905. He studied biology with T. H. Huxley—popularly known as “Darwin’s Bulldog”—and Darwinian/Huxleyan scientific principles provided metaphors that animate Wells’s fictional imagination.

To take one example, in The Time Machine, Wells projects the class divisions of late Victorian England into the far future by imagining the descendants of the laboring and servant classes (the “below-stairs” workers) as the pale and hunched underground Morlocks, and the descendants of the pampered leisure class (the “upstairs” aristocrats) as the above-ground effete and playful Eloi. But the distinctive thing about how Wells imagines the Morlocks and the Eloi is that in the Darwinian struggle for survival, the Morlocks, despite their subjugation, have proven more fit, more resourceful, and more wily than the weak and witless Eloi. Roles have been reversed and the former masters are now mastered by the former servants, and, very literally, the Eloi become the food of the Morlocks. By splitting the human species into two future subspecies—the consumers and the consumed, the creatures of the night and the children of the daylight—Wells used biology to make a vivid critique of things as they were in 1895.

I like to think of what Wells is doing in fiction like The Time Machine as “biological politics.” Another revealing example is Wells’ depiction of the Martians in The War of the Worlds. The Martians’ invasion of Earth and their planned occupation and colonization of our planet fail because you can’t simply appropriate someone else’s environment; ecology exacts its revenge because the Martians have no immunity to human germs. They are defeated not by military force, but by bacteria. Here, Wells uses biology to critique British colonialism.

In others of his early scientific romances he depicts the abuses of science and the ethical failures of scientific experimenters. Both The Island of Dr. Moreau, with its scientist attempting to use surgical techniques to transform animals into human slaves, and The Invisible Man, whose title character uses his scientific knowledge to acquire power and to conduct a terrorist assault on his neighbors allow Wells to demonstrate what happens when scientific knowledge is misused and when it is unconstrained by ethical considerations.

Finally, one last thing I’d say about Wells’ scientific training is that it is important to remember that he wasn’t studying biology at Oxford or at Cambridge, but at the Normal School of Science in London. A “normal school” was a teacher-training facility. Wells was studying to be a teacher of biology (his first published book, before The Time Machine, was a biological textbook). As it turned out, he wasn’t happy teaching schoolchildren—but teaching was an important part of his writing career. In many ways he was a very didactic writer; he tried to change the way people think and behave. He always used science to instruct readers of his scientific romances.

Wells was a socialist. How did his vision of utopia differ from that of other utopians, and why did Wells feel that “Civilization is in a race between education and catastrophe”?

I think most utopian writers are socialists or have socialist tendencies. So it isn’t surprising that someone like Wells, who considered himself a socialist but not a Marxist, wanted to use his writing to improve society. He thought of humanity as a network, a global community, and he therefore resisted nationalism and ethnocentricity. One of my favorite sentences of Wells’, which tells you a lot about both his utopianism and the frustrations of his life, is this: “I am English by origin, but I am an early World-Man, and I live in exile from the community of my desires.”

To answer directly your question about what is different in Wells’ vision of utopia, I’d say that it is his emphasis on the utopian process rather than the utopian product. If you think about earlier utopian writers like, say, Thomas More or Edward Bellamy, they present their utopias as achieved states, perfect models of the ideal society. (It is that static perfection that makes utopias boring or suspect for many readers.) Wells, especially in his 1905 masterpiece A Modern Utopia, emphasized that what distinguishes a modern utopia from its predecessors is that it is tentative and unfinished; it is more a way of thinking than a fixed blueprint for perfection. He thinks of utopia, in other words, as a journey toward a more perfect society rather than an achievement that is fixed in stone. And that “modern” Wellsian conception of utopia has been an important influence on the best later twentieth-century utopian novels such as Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge, and his three masterful novels about the terraformation of Mars, Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars.

As for Wells’s famous warning that we are in a race between education and catastrophe, I think this comes out of his profound worry that modern human beings have progressed much more quickly in advancing scientific knowledge (and especially applied science, technology) than they have in making moral progress. The result is that we risk destroying ourselves unless we can educate ourselves in how to use the new knowledge we are acquiring. (There’s the didactic Wells again!) To take a very specific example: Wells loved flying, and took his first airplane ride very early in the history of aviation—I forget the exact year. He found the experience exhilarating and he saw the airplane as potentially liberating—one of the technological advances that might dissolve national boundaries and hasten the development of a world government. But he worried about the destructive uses to which the airplane would be put. In his novel The War in the Air, he imagined the military uses to which the airplane might be put, and there’s a terrific scene in that novel in which he visualizes the destruction of New York City by aerial bombardment. There’s a sentence in Wells’ late scientific romance Star-Begotten (1937) that captures very nicely his sense of the schizophrenia of human nature and the education vs. catastrophe problem in the context of aviation: “The superman invents the aeroplane, and the ape gets hold of it.”

In recent years, there have been several biographies on Wells from David C. Smith, Warren Wagar, Michael Sherborne, former Labour Party leader Michael Foot, and Norman and Jeanne McKenzie. Why does Wells, who died in 1946, remain such a captivating figure?

There are some real paradoxes about Wells’ reputation. He has never figured into the literary “canon” of twentieth-century writers. His books are rarely taught in university courses, except in science fiction courses—a great shame, I think, because he was a gifted writer, and the scientific and cultural themes he took up in his scientific romances are crucial to contemporary society. But there remains an academic bias against science fiction as literature, and while science fiction specialists are tolerated in English departments, it is a rare English department that actively recruits an expert in science fiction for its faculty. I would like to see the day when Wells is taught in Modern British Fiction courses and not just in science fiction courses. In addition, he had a very broad range of genres in which he wrote, and the science fiction is mostly confined to the first ten years of his 50-year writing career.

Having gotten that off my chest, let me just point out that most of the biographers you listed in your question to me (Sherborne is the exception) are historians and political scientists. I find that a revealing fact. These history-based biographers have recognized Wells’ importance to twentieth-century social thought and have seen not only his early scientific romances as important but also his utopian fiction, his social-problem fiction, his sociological and political writings, his work as an historian and educational theorist, his travelogues, his journalism as widely-read and influential barometers of twentieth-century culture. Of course, Wells also led a somewhat scandalous private life which accounts for some of the biographical interest in him too.

In terms of predicting the future, how accurate was Wells?

I may have a peculiar take on Wells’ predictions. I think a lot of people focus on some things that Wells “got right”: his forecast of the use of tanks in warfare, his invention of the term “atomic bomb” in a 1914 novel, 30 years before the first atomic tests, the formation of something like the European Union, and so forth. But of course, Wells also got a lot of things wrong: calling World War I “the war to end wars,” for example, or the prediction that space travel would be accomplished by shooting capsules out of gigantic guns. For me it has always been less important to focus on Wells’ predictions of specific events and future technological innovations than to consider his impact on our attitudes towards the future. Many people aren’t aware that until relatively recently the future was off-limits to speculation.

The first novel in English to be set in the future wasn’t published until 1826; Mary Shelley set The Last Man in the twenty-first century, and depicted the extinction of the entire human species from a plague. But her novel didn’t really get much attention at the time. The problem was that the future belonged to God, and it was assumed that it was impertinent, at the very least, for human beings to speculate about what would happen in the future. The Book of Revelation was the only significant futurist text in the Christian era. If you look back to the Middle Ages, Dante in the Inferno put soothsayers in the eighth circle of hell where they were condemned to walk with their heads twisted 180 degrees on their shoulders; as punishment for looking forward into the future they would for all eternity have to stare at their own asses. Or take the case of Macbeth and what happened to him when he asked the witches to tell him what lay in the future for him. And in Paradise Lost, when the angel Michael shows Adam visions of one of his two sons murdering the other one, of massacres during future wars, and of the near-total annihilation of life in the Great Flood, Adam cries out, “Better had I / Lived ignorant of future.” So Wells is being quite revolutionary when he insists that the future is a legitimate and necessary site for human speculation.

He always wants to insist that the future isn’t simply something that happens to us, but that we create the future by the choices we make in the present. That is the prophetic value of The Time Machine. His point there is that the Eloi and the Morlocks of the far future are the product of choices about the division of the social classes in Wells’ own era. So, my inclination is to think of Wells not simply as a predictor of future developments, but to see him as a prophet in the more old-fashioned sense of an Isaiah or Jeremiah who warns and chastises his readers about the implications and the dangers of their behaviors in the present.

H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon both outlined detailed histories of the future, Wells with “The Shape of Things to Come” and Stapledon with “Last and First Men.” How are their visions of the future similar and how are they different?

Wells and Stapledon belonged to different generations and came from different social backgrounds, Wells having been born in 1866 to lower-middle class parents (his mother worked as a servant) while Stapledon, born in 1886, had a father who had built a small fortune working his way up through a Liverpool shipping firm. Wells was trained as a teacher of biology, but hated teaching and moved into journalism and fiction writing. Stapledon studied history at Oxford and psychology and philosophy at the University of Liverpool, but ended up supporting his family tutoring working-class people through the Workers’ Educational Association. I mention these backgrounds because they offer some partial explanations for the divergence between their two ways of conceptualizing the future.

Wells was particularly interested in the impact of scientific and technological changes on society and on the development of global perspectives and world government. And Wells tended to frame his visions of the future—in books like A Modern Utopia and When the Sleeper Wakes and in the 1936 film Things to Come—within compelling stories; Wells was a gifted storyteller and understood how to use narratives effectively to get his message across to a large public. Stapledon was much more philosophical in his approach, and Last and First Men (1930) is famously almost plotless in its account of the next two billion years of human evolution. Stapledon acknowledged Wells’ influence on him, and he shared Wells’s interest in gauging the impact of scientific advances on human culture and behavior, but he was also much more interested than Wells in spiritual concerns (which annoyed Wells in the letters he exchanged with Stapledon in the 1930s), and in repeated patterns of rises and falls, catastrophes and near-extinctions throughout the eighteen iterations of humanity he imagined stretching from Earth in the twentieth century to the last human outpost on Neptune two billion years from now. Last and First Men is one of the most astonishing and original pieces of fiction ever published, but because it is not anchored in traditional storytelling, it doesn’t offer the usual rewards of fiction and has always had a relatively small audience of readers. It’s an absolutely mind-stretching experience to read Last and First Men, and it challenges us to think about what will be new and what will be repeated in the future since one of Stapledon’s concerns is the persistence of human nature and the recurring problems of the human condition over time.

Mars is a subject that you’re obviously interested in, and you have written about the literary history of Mars. What is it about the red planet, our closest planetary neighbor in the solar system, that we find endlessly fascinating?

For the past 15 years, a major focus of my research has been on the relationships between scientific understandings and literary images of Mars in the four centuries since the invention of the telescope. That research culminated in the publication of Imagining Mars: A Literary History in 2011. The project originated in the mid 1990s, when I noticed that my syllabus for an undergraduate course in the history of science fiction included four texts that dealt with Mars. That was unintentional, but once I noticed that fact it awoke my curiosity about why Mars has been so intriguing not only to writers of fiction but to scientists and the general public. (The fascination with Mars, of course, goes way back before the telescope when people could see with their naked eyes that that planet—or star, as they often thought—had a different color and a puzzling movement in the night sky. There were already many myths about Mars before Galileo first trained his primitive telescope on the planet.)

My interest in science fiction has always been both literary and cultural. I look for a high standard of writing and imagination, but I also look for fiction that is not escapist but operates as a lens through which we can view and better understand real terrestrial issues. Studying fiction about Mars, particularly in the context of astronomical investigations of Mars, turned out to be a perfect opportunity to pursue my interests on a large scale—a very large scale, since once I began, I discovered that there was far more writing about Mars than I had ever guessed. This project also drew me back to archival research which had been a key feature of my earlier work on Wells and Stapledon. I had spent years working in the Wells and Stapledon archives and in related special collections in both the United States and the U.K. The Mars project got me into the Percival Lowell Archive at his observatory in Flagstaff as well as to archival materials at the Library of Congress, the Harvard-Smithsonian Observatory, and the Wellesley College Observatory and in the substantial newspaper collections of the Boston Public Library and the New York Public Library. My work on Imagining Mars also carried me back to some of my earliest scholarly interests. One of my first published articles in the mid-1970s was on the debates over literature, science, and culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Since I’m not trained as a scientist, one of the challenges of writing Imagining Mars was that I had to educate myself in the history of astronomy so that I could understand and write knowledgeably about the relationships between scientific Mars and literary Mars. The relationships haven’t always been straightforward. Sometimes the literary community made concerted efforts to base fictional imagining on the current state of scientific knowledge about Mars; at other times the literary and scientific imaginations were completely out of sync. I wanted to understand what accounted for this fluctuation over time. And it is not only the literary writers who have been guilty of wishful thinking about Mars. One of the crucial events in the cultural history of Mars is the mistake made by Giovanni Schiaparelli in Italy and Percival Lowell in the United States in their claims to have seen canals on the surface of Mars. That error led to some of the most famous literary treatments of Mars—and the myth of Martian canals and civilization persisted in the literature long after science had disproved the canals.

I’m pleased with the responses the book has gotten so far, particularly from scientists, and from some of the still-living literary figures who have written about Mars. And it has been a real pleasure for me to guide readers through some of the true masterpieces of Martian writing—by people like Wells, C. S. Lewis, Ray Bradbury, Frederick Turner, and Kim Stanley Robinson—as well as to uncover other long-forgotten books which are not masterpieces, but nevertheless contribute to our understanding of the tradition of how Mars has been imagined. Reviewers seem to agree that Imagining Mars is the most complete study so far written about how the “two cultures” of literature and science have interacted in shaping popular interest in Mars, and how that interest has reflected the cultural preoccupations of different eras.