Shadows of the Future: H.G. Wells, Science Fiction, and Prophecy

It’s difficult to write a bloggable review of a work of academic scholarship, given the nature of blogs and the nature of academic texts, so I’ll just note that this book provided me with a fascinating chunk of discussion on the “prophetic” feature or function of SF through a look at the work of H.G. Wells. Parrinder in this book argues that Wells, in his approach to the utopian novel, breaks with the past in how he the notion of prophecy is handled, in his attitude towards science in the context of SF, and much more.

There’s more than just that, of course. Rudy Rucker suggests, in his foreword to Wells’ last work, the pamphlet Mind at the End of its Tether (which, in the context of the book that collects it, I shall also review here soon), that H.G. Wells has something to do with the modern millenarianism of the Singularity–something I myself had figured out a little bit, though mainly just in how Wells mainstreamed speculative nonfiction, that is, created what we now call “futurism.” But Parrinder excavates enough of Wells’ earlier themes and ideas and fascinations for us to see several of the major features of the Singularity — an apprehension about supposedly accelerating change, a sense of dread concerning not just historical evolution but the fate of humanity within the continued unfolding of that Darwinian process, and a growing sense of concern with humans playing with energies and powers they could perhaps not fully understand or control — is present in some form or another all the way back into the earliest of Wells’ SF novels. Of course it is, I know, I know, but sometimes seeing it pointed out helps, and Parrinder points it out quite clearly, as well as pointing out that in an important way, in science fiction the expression of this peculiar set of interconnected apprehensions commences with Wells.

Other issues to which Parrinder turns include Wells’ literary relationship to Zamyatin and Orwell (among other later writers, and a number of earlier ones); the role of the scientific movement and Enlightenment in SF and Wells’ role in all of that; the influence of the fact that Wells was a citizen of a globe-spanning empire all his life upon his fiction and thought; and much more. The text is an assemblage, like so many themed academic books, built up from various articles on Wells that Parrinder published over a number of years, but it does not suffer for this. Well worth reading, for anyone interested in Wells the author, or in the history of SF and futurism in general.

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