Tonight’s ‘Prophets of Science Fiction’ focused on the life and works of H.G. Wells. Wells is sometimes referred to as the father of science fiction and his works show an eerie ability to actually predict scientific discoveries within years before they actually were in place. Unlike the prophets Mary Shelley and Philip K. Dick, Wells actually got to see some of his predictions come true.
His novels were the epitome of steampunk. Wells took Victorian science and propelled it into the space age. Oftentimes, his ideas and concepts of science would lead to the question of what would humans do with these futuristic scientific ideas and oftentimes the answers were unfavorable. Wells would always have the question on his mind: would mankind annihilate itself with this scientific knowledge?
Wells had a lifelong love for science. In fact, in one of his scientific essays, Wells tries to describe a 4 dimensional time-space universe 10 years before Einstein published his theory of relativity. Needless to say, his essay was rejected for publication but it made Wells realize that he may be better off conveying his ideas via the world of fiction. This prompted him to write his first novel ‘The Time Machine.’
Wells would often write about science being misused by humanity and he was the first to ever conceive of the idea that human beings would bring about their own apocalyptic destruction using these scientific tools. Before the advent of World War I, Wells began to write about the brutality of war after seeing the political upheaval around him during that time. He invented the idea of the tank in a short story called ‘The Land Ironclads’ (1903) and foresees dog fights in the air in his story ‘The War in the Air’ (1908). But it wasn’t until 1914 that he foresaw the atomic bomb and wrote about it in the novel ‘A World Set Free.’
Wells would see science as a powerful tool and through his works warns readers to use it wisely because at any moment, it can be the cause of mankind’s self-destruction. He often wrote how mankind can’t always be trusted with new technology and his novels would often serve as a cautionary tale of the greatness of science and the weakness of man.
Below are some of his works and how Wells was foresaw the future:
THE TIME MACHINE
The question of whether one can build a machine to travel in time has been one that many theorists have pondered. But now physicists have answered that question with a resounding yes. One way is to develop a wormhole by bending space and time. Another way is to travel close to the speed of light. Although the concept of traveling into the future has been theoretically proven, at the moment, physicists can’t prove one can travel backwards in time. But then traveling back in time brings up the problems of paradoxes and The Butterfly Effect.
THE INVISIBLE MAN
In most of Wells novels, destruction doesn’t come from science but from humanity’s own dark nature. What if the normal constraints of society were removed? Would man turn toward good or evil? If no one was watching them become invisible, would good men become evil? In ‘The Invisible Man’, Wells explores this notion but the idea of being invisible has already come true.
The U.S. government has already put in billions of dollars to create a material that can make objects appear invisible. In Berkeley, the U.S. Air Force has funded a program for the study of meta-materials that when placed over an object like a cloak will make it invisible to the naked eye. The meta-material works by diverting the light around the object slowing and altering the speed of light rays thus making it seem that the object covered by the cloak is not there. Currently they have a cloak that is very small and can cover an object 100x thinner than the human hair but it does make that object invisible.
WAR OF THE WORLDS
In 1898, Wells wrote ‘War of the Worlds’ where humanity was on the verge of annihilation from an invasion of Martians. He described the Martians using a heat ray to defeat the humans. In the book, Wells describes the heat rays would come from rotating lenses that would focus an intense beam of light onto a target causing it to burst into flames.
19 years after the publication of ‘War of the Worlds’ (1917), Albert Einstein identified the theoretical basis of laser technology and by 1928 a working laser was made. Today, lasers have become common place and can be found in DVD players and pointers. Currently, defense contractors are still trying to develop Wells’ concept of the heat ray using laser technology. There are already lasers in use that can disable a slow moving target, but it is predicted that within 5 years a laser will be developed that can destroy any missile in mid-flight.
THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU
In the ‘Isle of Doctor Moreau’, Wells examines the idea of nature being corrupted by amoral science and where animal evolution is manipulated by a mad scientist. In the book, Doctor Moreau does experiments on animals in an effort to make them more human. This novel is Wells’ scientific take on the myth of chimeras; human-animal hybrids.
Today, chimeras are a myth no longer. Professor Zanjani is developing humanized sheep in hopes to grow animals that can produce organs which can be used in human transplants. In order to do this, he injects human stem cells into an unborn sheep fetus and the lamb is born with partially human cells. He is hoping that by increasing the amount and frequency of stem cells injected into the fetus, it will develop organs that can be placed into a human body. Physically, the sheep looks like regular sheep but biologically, they contain human blood cells. In some experiments, he partially humanizes a sheep’s brain. So far, these experiments do not show that a humanized sheep’s brain will cause it to behave in a human way; The sheep still behave as sheep. Currently, Zanjani has close to 3,000 chimeras.
THE WORLD SET FREE
In 1914 H.G. Wells predicted that in 1933, a scientist would come up with the idea of the atomic bomb. At the time, Radium was just discovered and would glow in the dark. It was theorized that the energy in this element could supply the entire world’s power. But Wells thought differently. To him, if mankind got a hold of this energy, it would be used to destroy, not create.
In the novel ‘The World Set Free,’ Wells writes about a weapon that uses this atomic energy. He even invented the term atomic bomb just for the book. His description of an uninhabitable no man’s land around the bomb site would prove to be accurate even before an atomic bomb was dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But surprisingly, this novel would be instrumental in changing the course of history.
Dr. Ziller, a physicist, was a fan of H.G. Wells’ book and found it prophetic. He wondered if it was even possible to create a reaction that could cause an atomic bomb. He finally came up with the idea that if you can find a way of splitting an atom causing a chain reaction at the atomic level, one could create a bomb of such destruction that Wells described in ‘The World Set Free.’ At the time, the Third Reich was gaining power and Ziller was fearful of what would happen if Hitler got a hold of this concept and turned it into weapon similar to what Wells had described in ‘A World Set Free.’ Ziller went to Albert Einstein for help and together they wrote a letter to warn President Roosevelt. This letter led to the Manhattan Project which led to the creation of the atomic bomb. All this because Wells had thought of the concept first.
‘THINGS TO COME’
By the 1920’s, Wells decides to dabble in the world of movie making and made a movie called ‘Things to Come.’ In it, he describes how a new war occurred by the enemy dropping bombs in London and even used airplanes to spread a plague over the population killing almost everyone and causing the collapse of civilization. In the end, it was technology that saved the human population.
Through this movie, he foreshadowed the London Blitz which occurred in the 1940’s bringing England into another World War and predicted the use of biological warfare.
It was truly amazing to learn about the entire scope of Well’s foreshadowing in his books. Unlike the prophets profiled before him, Wells’ writings were based on actual scientific theories of his time which he expounded upon in his works. This is probably the reason he was able to see some of his scientific ideas fulfilled in his lifetime. H.G. Wells has truly earned his place as a Prophet of Science Fiction.
Have you been watching this series? What did you think of Well’s predictions from his books? Next week, ‘Prophets of Science Fiction’ will look at the works of Arthur C. Clark.
If you missed the previous episode be sure to read ‘Prophets Of Science Fiction: Philip K. Dick ‘ recap.