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What HG Wells has to say about the shape of things to come

HG Wells gave us some of the most important works of the last century, and there’s still more to learn from the master of science fiction

Herbert George Wells is best known by his initials HG and as the author of the science fiction classics The Time Machine, The Invisible Man and TheWar of the Worlds, but their success and their impact on popular culture has overshadowed his even more prescient work.

While the BBC’s The War of the Worlds begins this month, starring Rafe Spall and Poldark’s Eleanor Tomlinson, The Shape of Things to Come festival in Folkestone is digging deeper into his legacy, looking at many of the issues facing the world today from the perspective of a writer at the turn of the 20th century.

“Wells was ahead of his time in his thinking about how we should, indeed must, live on this planet,” says one of the festival’s curators, Liam Browne. “He wrote: ‘History is a race between education and catastrophe’, and his thinking leads directly to today’s activists such as Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion.”

Co-curator Seán Doran adds: “It is remarkable, at times very chilling, to reacquaint ourselves with Wells’ prognostications in the lead-up to the two world wars of the 20th century and recognise how relevant and resonant they are to our lives in today’s world. ‘Our true nationality is mankind,’ he said. It doesn’t require explanation yet says everything about being human.”

The speakers at the festival are riffing on how Wells’ ideas relate to our times. Here are what they think he had to say about the shape of things to come.

“So many of his ideas have come to pass, I hope that his The Rights of Man, that formed the basis for the UN Declaration of Human Rights, will be better upheld by future societies.”
Gaia Vince, science and environmental journalist

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“With the current world order falling apart, we need to revisit some of The League of Nations principles that Wells, together with Leonard Woolf, outlined when they were trying to rebuild a world system based on mutual obligation, not superpower dominance.”
Paul Mason, political commentator

“Confused though it is, Wells’ 1899 novel When the Sleeper Wakes [rewritten in 1910 as The Sleeper Awakes] was the first great blueprint for the dystopian genre. The futuristic mega-city, the extreme inequality, the secret police, the propaganda machines, the mass censorship: his ‘nightmare of capitalism triumphant’ set the ball rolling.”
Dorian Lynskey, journalist

“In being a keen cyclist HG Wells was a practising futurist. Before the age of the internal combustion engine, he recognised the fun and utility of human power. Now the bike is back.”
Nicholas Crane, geographer and presenter of BBC’s Coast

Folkestone’s book festival having a Wellsian rebrand is tied to its unique geographical position and the fact the writer lived there for 13 years.

“This is where the tunnel comes up and so we are really in the quickest route possible to continental Europe. We represent something,” says Creative Folkestone’s Alastair Upton. “It probably becomes totemic to discuss the political changes Brexit brings this close to the sea, and to France and continental Europe.”

The town is undergoing a Wellsian experiment, transforming its fortunes through investment in arts.

“Folkestone was a fishing village until tourism came, and that’s what built its economy,” Upton says. “As a seaside town it suffered the decline that hit many, if not all, coastal towns in Britain. Our port closed too when the Channel Tunnel opened.” But recently, Creative Folkestone obtained 90 buildings for use by a range of creatives from fashion designers to filmmakers. “It’s creating a new economy but also an identity and community,” Upton says.

Wells reminds us to imagine the impossible, so given the chance where would you go in a time machine?

Gaia Vince: “I think I’d be happiest travelling back just far enough to visit people I’ve loved who are now dead. I’d go back 15 years to have another conversation with my grandfather.”

Paul Mason: “If I had a time machine I would not go back far: just to Paris in 1871 to experience the Commune, the first workers’ government in history.”

Dorian Lynskey: “I would love to attend the New Year’s Eve party at Stephen Crane’s house in 1899, alongside HG Wells, Joseph Conrad, Henry James, George Gissing, H Rider Haggard and Ford Madox Ford. A generation of great writers gathered together on the cusp of a new century. I would also ask why they hadn’t invited more women.”

Nicholas Crane: “I have a time machine. It’s called a bicycle and I’d ride into the future on the low-carbon cycleways of car-cleansed cities.”

The Shape of Things to Come runs until November 24

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