When Queen Victoria died, H.G. Wells once remarked, it was as if a giant paperweight had been removed from men’s minds, allowing the thoughts that swirled around inside them to take flight into the ether. Clearly, in Wells’s particular case the paperweight had scarcely been a burden, for half a dozen of his early books—“scientific romances” such as “The Time Machine” (1895) or “The Island of Dr. Moreau” (1896)—were written in advance of the old queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and the Wells project was gathering pace long before the 19th century’s close.
In “Inventing Tomorrow: H.G. Wells and the Twentieth Century,” a spirited attempt to rescue Wells (1866-1946) from a certain amount of 21st-century neglect, Sarah Cole is keen to stress her subject’s universalism, his monumental output, his omnipresence in the intellectual debates of his time. And doubtless Wells’s staying power, his almost chronic persistence, is the thing that sets him apart from his descendants. The torrent of books that streamed from his pen was quite unprecedented, even by the garrulous standards of the Edwardian age. A shelf-full of novels; the best-selling “Outline of History” (1920) in two fat volumes; economic primers and chats with Stalin : Ms. Cole’s bibliography lists some 60 items, but even this barely conveys the sheer immensity of a professional life that ran into its sixth decade.