10 classic books written by the master of science fiction, H. G. Wells
H. G. Wells (1866-1946) wrote dozens of books over the course of his literary career, a career which spanned over half a century. But what are the best books by H. G. Wells? As well as writing many classic works of science fiction, Wells also wrote non-fiction as well as many popular realist novels such as Kipps and The History of Mr Polly. But in this list of his best novels we’ve confined ourselves to the pick of his science fiction, since it’s for his science fiction that Wells is best remembered. As ever with our lists, we’ll start at number 10 and work our way up to what is, in our opinion, the best H. G. Wells novel of all…
10. In the Days of the Comet (1906). One of Wells’s utopian novels, this novel tells of a green comet which, when it comes into the orbit of Earth, releases ‘green vapours’ which spread peaceful feelings and a sense of contentment among the entire human population. The novel also explores Wells’s own utopian ideas (or ideals) involving socialism and free love. The idea is interesting, but the plot is meandering and not as gripping as Wells’s earlier scientific romances (see below). Still worth a look, though – but not the best entry-point for the Wells novice. Recommended edition: In the Days of the Comet.
9. The Food of the Gods (1904). Focusing on genetically modified food (of sorts), this largely forgotten Wells novel is about a synthesised foodstuff, ‘Boomfood’, that can make all sorts of animals – insects, rats, and chickens, as well as human beings – grow to many times their normal size. The book has been adapted for cinema on several occasions: the 1976 film won the Golden Turkey Award for that year and also scooped up the accolade of ‘Worst Rodent Movie of All Time’ (beating, Wikipedia informs us, such classics as The Killer Shrews, The Mole People, and The Nasty Rabbit). Recommended edition: The Food of the Gods by Wells, H. G. ( AUTHOR ) Sep-16-2010 Hardback.
8. The Shape of Things to Come (1933). This prophetic later work by Wells predicted that there would be another world war within a decade of the book’s publication (after conflict in Eastern Europe erupted onto the world stage). Wells, and the world, had to wait just six years for his prophecy to come true. Although not the most easily readable of his novels, this book has enough to interest Wells fans. Recommended edition: The Shape of Things to Come: The Ultimate Revolution (Penguin Classics).
7. The War in the Air (1908). Written just a few years after the Wright brothers made their flight at Kitty Hawk, this novel is another Wells work that would prove strangely prophetic – particularly of the aerial warfare of the World Wars. The book’s protagonist, Bert Smallways, is clearly modelled in no small part on Wells himself: Kentish by birth, of small stature (Wells was below average height), and called (Her)Bert. Recommended edition: The War in the Air (Penguin Classics).
6. The Sleeper Awakes (1910). As we discuss in our post on early dystopian fiction, this futuristic dystopian novel was Wells’s own reworking of an earlier novel, When the Sleeper Wakes (1899). The ‘sleeper’ is a man named Graham who comes out of a coma after several hundred years to find that he is the richest man in the world. Among other things, Wells predicted automatic doors in this novel, which is another little reason for seeking it out. Recommended edition: The Sleeper Awakes.
5. The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896). The idea at the heart of this, Wells’s second science-fiction novel, is vivisection: the titular doctor fashions creatures from the body parts of animals. These creatures resemble men, but are actually monsters. The novel is a bit like a cross between Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (Moreau, as the title suggests, has his own island which the novel’s narrator is shipwrecked upon) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, given a distinctive H. G. Wells twist. Recommended edition: The Island of Doctor Moreau (Penguin Classics).
4. The Invisible Man (1897). This novel might be read as Wells’s take on Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: a scientist, Griffin, succeeds in making himself invisible but finds it difficult to reverse the scientific process, just as Jekyll finds he can no longer keep his alter ego, Edward Hyde, at bay in Stevenson’s story. Recommended edition: The Invisible Man (Penguin Classics).
3. The First Men in the Moon (1901). Drawing on earlier moon-voyage novels by Jules Verne, this is another of Wells’s classic early scientific romances, though it often gets overlooked in favour of, say, The War of the Worlds or The Time Machine. But it deserves more attention. In many ways this book forms a pair with the next book on our list of the best H. G. Wells novels. Whereas The First Men in the Moon sees men travelling to another ‘world’ and meeting the alien life-forms that exist there, our next novel sees the aliens coming to us… Recommended edition: The First Men in the Moon (Penguin Classics).
2. The War of the Worlds (1898). A pioneering work of ‘invasion’ literature, this classic early Wells novel inspired countless film adaptations (as well as the infamous radio broadcast made by Orson Welles in 1938), and was undoubtedly a major influence on all subsequent films and novels about aliens coming to Earth from space. The aliens in this case, of course, are the Martians. Recommended edition: The War of the Worlds.
1. The Time Machine (1895). Wells’s first novel, based loosely on a story he wrote while still in his early twenties, ‘The Chronic Argonauts’ (1888). It is, for our money, his best, and embodies early Wells in its vision, its storytelling, and its engagement with scientific and political issues, many of which are still with us today. It also more or less invented the concept of the time machine. The short novel recounts the adventures of the Time Traveller, who builds a machine which enables him to travel into the future. He ends up in the year 802,701, and discovers that mankind has evolved into two distinct subspecies: the Eloi and the Morlocks. But what the precise relationship is between the two remains at first a mystery – until the Time Traveller discovers the horrific truth… Recommended edition: The Time Machine (Penguin Classics).
Do you agree with our list? What, in your opinion, is the best H. G. Wells novel? If you enjoyed this list, check out our choice of the best science fiction novels of all time, our pick of the best Joseph Conrad novels and the best Conan Doyle books that don’t feature Sherlock Holmes.
Image (top): Cover of The Sleeper Awakes, via Chris Drumm on Flickr, 2010. Image (bottom): Photograph of poster for 1960 film adaptation of The Time Machine.