George C. Beresford
H G Wells cycled the countryside while plotting his alien invasion novel. Rob Edwards asks how Surrey became the cradle of science fiction
Across the gulf of space, wrote HG Wells in the opening pages of his 1898 classic, The War of the Worlds, “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.”
Crashing to Earth on Horsell Common at the close of the 19th century, Wells’s Martian tripods rampaged through Woking and the Surrey countryside, before besieging London with their deadly heat rays and poison gas.
His groundbreaking novel inspired generations of authors and artists, making this Surrey enclave the cradle of science fiction.
Although already a successful writer when he moved to Woking with his second wife, Catherine in 1895, Wells made a modest home at 143 Maybury Road. The couple probably enjoyed walks across the Wheatsheaf Bridge, over the Basingstoke canal to Horsell Village and the now-famous sandpits, where the fictional invasion began.
“Horsell Common, or rather the old sandpits area, was where the Martians first landed on Earth to launch their invasion of Britain and the world,” says Professor Peter Beck, Emeritus Professor of History at Kingston University, who is giving a talk on the subject during the final month of The Lightbox Gallery’s Alien Invasion exhibition.
“It became the Martians’ base for their advance on London, the place where they revealed their technological supremacy through the heat ray and the site of the first major battle described in the novel.
“Today, battlefields prove major tourist attractions, but Horsell residents need to walk merely a mile or so to the location of the first fictitious battle fought against invaders from another planet.”
The work of the futurist author was well ahead of its time, exploring themes such as robotics, world wars, aerial bombing, use of tanks, chemical weapons and nuclear power, decades before such technologies were developed. Wells was also the first novelist to ponder time travel, interplanetary invasion, genetic manipulation and nuclear war.
His works, however, also reflect the intense social and cultural anxieties of late Victorian society, in which he penned his frequently bleak, paranoid, dystopian commentaries.
The rapid advance of industry and technology during the 19th century had utterly changed the face of the British landscape and the rhythm of daily life. Suspicion of colonial subjects and fear of invasion by rising rival powers, France and Germany, also influenced the literati of Wells’s day.
Such ‘invasion literature’ from his time included The Battle of Dorking, by Sir George Tomkyns Chesney – an important precursor to the sci-fi genre, written in 1871 – in which an unnamed power, most likely Prussia, invades England following the French defeat.
Much in the vein of Wells’s Martian advance, the British lines in Chesney’s fictitious battle were smashed by superior weaponry and cunning, as Teutonic forces swept over Box Hill.
Wells, a keen cyclist, pedalled much of the same terrain covered in Chesney’s work, mapping the likely battle lines trodden by our Martian foes. In the same year he moved to Surrey, Wells charted his picturesque outings in The Wheels of Chance, a comic novel about a cycling holiday through Ripley, Cobham, Guildford, Haslemere and Godalming, en route to the south coast.
Born in 1866 in Bromley, Kent, to parents Sarah Neal, a maid, and Joseph Wells, a shopkeeper and professional cricketer, Herbert George Wells certainly wasn’t born into wealth.
Embracing a love of books, he won a scholarship to London’s Normal School of Science in 1883. Here he studied biology and Darwinism, sparking a fascination that would make a lasting impact on his fiction thereafter. It was while recovering from a bout of tuberculosis, however, that Wells quit his job as a teacher and dedicated himself to writing.
Before his interplanetary nightmare was committed to paper, Wells had already published equally revered novels, including The Time Machine in 1895, and The Invisible Man in 1897.
Wells, however, also found a political outlet for his writing. An outspoken socialist and member of the Fabian Society, he unsuccessfully stood as a Labour candidate for Parliament in 1921 and 1922. His name was even discovered among Nazi papers, revealing him to have been a target for suppression had Britain been invaded in WWII. Wells considered this a kind of dark flattery.
Less flattering are reports of Wells’s personal life. The author cheated on his wives repeatedly and may well have fathered up to five children out of wedlock. As his friend George Bernard Shaw once remarked: “HG was not a gentleman. Nobody understood better than he what gentry means. But he could not, or would not, act the part.”
Wells pioneered alien invasion literature, today a common theme in the arts and cinema. The notion of extraterrestrial armies seeking to exterminate and supplant human life, enslave it under a colonial system, harvest it for food, steal the planet's resources or destroy the planet altogether is now grimly familiar.
In our time, this cheery scenario has also been used to draw attention to our own social and political woes. The Cold War paranoia echoed by the 1953 War of the Worlds film adaptation, and the unsubtle nod at 9/11 in the 2005 Spielberg version, suggest that Wells’s dour message for humanity still resonates.
The Lightbox Gallery’s current exhibition offers the opportunity to experience your own close encounter of the third kind. Now in its final month, it explores popular culture, television, radio and films inspired by Wells’s legacy. And, for the diehard Doctor Who fan, you can even meet an original Dalek.
Professor Beck will give his talk, HG Wells: Bringing Woking to the World, on January 16 – an educational outing not to be missed. As Wells once said: “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”
Alien Invasion runs until Jan 19 at The Lightbox, Woking. Tickets: free; 01483 737800; thelightbox.org.uk