H.G. Wells: Using Utopia in Science Fiction

From the Lecture Series: Great Utopian and Dystopian Works

By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut

We don’t have a novel called Science Fiction that addresses most of the main topics and strategies we now associate with the genre of science fiction. But we do have a person who is often called the father—or one of the fathers, along with Jules Verne—of science fiction. H.G.Wells was pretty devoted to the utopian project.

Arrangement of clock gears, numbers and fractal elements.
In The Time Machine, time travel isn’t mysterious or supernatural; it’s a result of technology. (Image: agsandrew/Shutterstock)

Wells: The Prolific Writer

Herbert George Wells, usually known as H.G.Wells, wrote numerous novels, short stories, and non-fiction pieces on all kinds of topics. He produced such classics as The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, and that wonderful tale that was adapted into perhaps the best radio hoax of all time, The War of the Worlds. He was nominated four times for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Wells followed up on the potential tapped into by Samuel Butler in Erewhon, to use utopia as a space for exploring the possible futures of technology. Of his 50 plus novels, most fit broadly within the genre of science fiction, and many contain utopian or dystopian overtones.

Six are generally considered straight-up utopias. These are A Modern Utopia, In the Days of the Comet, The World Set Free, Men Like Gods, The Shape of Things to Come, and, strangely titled, The Holy Terror. Two are closer to dystopias: The Time Machine and When the Sleeper Wakes.

This is a transcript from the video series
Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Utopia in Science Fiction

Wells is the perfect writer to help us ask a question that comes up in the late 19th century. What is the impact of placing utopian imaginings within the context of science fiction? And, relatedly, is there a way to see utopia as being inherently part of the science fiction project?

To answer these questions, we should start by defining science fiction, which is actually a little harder than it looks. We generally think science fiction is fiction about science. But what exactly is science? Science fiction might be the genre fiction with the most contentious set of definitions.

Learn more about how authors decide to use science in their stories.

Defining Science Fiction

The author Damon Knight’s definition from 1952 is pretty famous, or maybe infamous: science fiction is what we point to when we say it. There’s a very broad range of texts that we consider science fiction, partly because there’s a very broad range of disciplines that we consider science, from natural sciences like physics, chemistry, and biology, to applied sciences like engineering and medicine, to social sciences like sociology, psychology, and economics.

Now, the critic Darko Suvin had a definition—1972—that is still pretty highly respected and discussed, and it’s also a little harder to memorize: science fiction is a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.

There’s an interaction between estrangement—the feeling that you’re in a strange space, that you don’t quite know what’s going on—and cognition: learning.

When we’re reading or watching sci-fi, that’s one of the things many of us enjoy, the fact that we’re thinking hard, learning, all because we’re presented with something unfamiliar. Is that also true of utopia?

The Time Machine

Let’s take a look at one of Wells’s most acclaimed novels in considering that question. In The Time Machine from 1895, let us look especially at what happens to utopia when we engage fictionally with three different topics in science: time travel, the scientific method, and evolution.

The time travel is really interesting. This is a euchronia, like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, in which the visitor to the utopia is going to a different time instead of a different place.

A portrait of H.G. Wells.
Of Wells’s 50 plus novels, most fit broadly within the genre of science fiction, and many contain utopian or dystopian overtones. (Image: Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science/Public domain)

But in Wells’s hand, the time travel isn’t mysterious or supernatural; it’s a result of technology. The main character, known only as the Time Traveler, has built a time machine that allows him to travel forward and backward in time. Wells, by the way, is generally credited for inventing the term time machine.

The frame for the utopia is that, one night at a weekly dinner of scientific-minded friends, the traveler gives a lecture on time as the fourth dimension and reveals that he has built this machine that can move through the dimensions.

Utopia in The Time Machine

The discussion is not particularly scientific, and that’s something Jules Verne, who really sweated the science details, faulted Wells on, just kind of throwing out new technologies without giving some sort of plausible explanation for how they work.

That’s a split we see in science fiction that might remind us of a similar difference in approach for utopian writings. Some writers will focus on specifics—science, tech, governmental practices—while others will just say,  “Here’s a new technology,” or a high-functioning utopian society, and use the narrative to explore its impacts. Wells is clearly in the latter camp.

The Time Traveler tells his companions about this wonderful machine one day, and one week later he tells them, “Hey, I’m back from this voyage through time,” in which he witnessed an intriguing future. It’s that tale that makes up most of the narrative, and that provides, in a sense, a utopia within a science fiction frame.

Learn more about science fiction in the 19th century.

Analyzing the Utopia in The Time Machine

What’s the impact of giving a scientific explanation—even if it’s not that detailed—for the euchronia instead of just leaving it as an unexplained phenomenon of the Rip Van Winkle or Edward Bellamy persuasion? Perhaps the most important thing is that it connects the genres, repositions utopia within sci-fi. It also provides us with a scientist as a main character, which becomes important to how the utopia works.

This is a really different kind of euchronia from Bellamy’s or from the many utopian imitators spawned from the success of Looking Backward. The Time Machine, it isn’t set a century in the future—it’s set in A.D. 802,701. What’s the point of such a long time gap?

On a basic story level, the gap shows that evolution is a slow process, since the people the Time Traveler meets are different from us, but still recognizably related to humans.

Now on a rhetorical level, the gap removes the story from the realm of political activism. There is nothing we can do right now to impact a future over 800,000 years away. This novel is not about joining your local Bellamy Club and lobbying for the Nationalist Party. This is a utopia whose relationship to turn-of-the-century England is strictly figurative.

Common Questions about H.G. Wells: Using Utopia in Science Fiction

Q: What is Darko Suvin’s definition of science fiction?

Science fiction is a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.

Q: What is the relationship of The Time Machine with the England of 1895?

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells is a utopia whose relationship to turn-of-the-century England is strictly figurative.

Q: How did H.G. Wells use utopia in his works?

H.G. Wells followed up on the potential tapped into by Samuel Butler in Erewhon, to use utopia as a space for exploring the possible futures of technology.