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Columns

September 21, 2012

Column: H.G. Wells launched our love of science fiction

Dale McFeatters

Few foreign writers have influenced American popular culture as much as Herbert George Wells, who would be celebrating his 146th birthday this week if only he’d actually built a time machine rather than simply written about one.

Americans have made uncounted billions from the vast science fiction industry that he — more than anyone else — created.

Wells was born Sept. 21, 1866, to a blue-collar family in the small English village of Bromley, near London. He learned to love fiction while bedridden at age 7 with a broken leg. He won a scholarship to the Normal School of Science, now the Royal Academy of Science, and studied under the famed biologist Thomas Henry Huxley.

Like many writers, Wells was dogged by poverty. But his fortunes improved in 1895 with the publication of his first novel, “The Time Machine,” a vision of a not-too-optimistic future for humanity. It was an immediate sensation.

In rapid succession, Wells produced other classics like “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” “The Invisible Man,” “First Men in the Moon” and, in 1898, his masterwork, “The War of the Worlds.”

Google three years ago celebrated Wells’ birthday by depicting on its search page a flying saucer hovering over a farmland dotted with crop circles.

Dale McFeatters writes for the Scripps Howard News Service.

The Internet giant issued the mysterious numbers “51.327629, -0.5616088” — the geographic coordinates for the small village where Wells’ Martians first landed.

Although he was a serious social commentarist who authored more than 100 books, Wells’ lasting legacy was the popularization of science fiction as a serious art form.

Today, about a third of Hollywood’s top-grossing movies have sci-fi themes, as do many of our top-grossing novels. Almost all of Wells’ major novels were produced into major films, although it’s James Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi blockbuster “Avatar” that holds the record as the world’s top-grossing film with receipts topping $2.8 billion.

Actor and movie director Orson Welles famously interviewed Wells in 1940, six years before his death, and joked about the panic his radio production of “The War of the Worlds” produced two years earlier.

“Are you sure there was such a panic in America or wasn’t it your Halloween fun?” Wells asked.

Happy 146th birthday, Mr. Wells.

Dale McFeatters writes for the Scripps Howard News Service.

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