The Old Book Conundrum: I make startling discoveries that are already well known to anyone who cares about the subject. I plant my flag on the peak, not noticing the other flags, and the little book in the tin box which has been signed by thousands of other climbers, and the little café that sells hot cocoa and strudel.
Everyone already knew, yes, that in early English science fiction much of the “science” under discussion was Darwinism? I had no idea. I guess I thought it was all about machines. The inventor in The Time Machine (1895) invents a time machine. The invading Martians in The War of the Worlds (1898) crush humanity with their ray guns and space dreadnoughts and ansibles and whatnot. Perhaps Jules Verne really is a bit more about machines? Like I know from Jules Verne.
The time machine of The Time Machine is not related to science in any way – it’s pure fantasy. Necessary, though, because H. G. Wells correctly understood the time scale of Darwinism. If he wanted big evolutionary changes, he needed millions of years. Thus, a veneer of time travel was draped over a story about advantageous evolutionary traits and natural selection. Thus, the strange decision of the time traveler to constantly push forward – I hardly see how, for the sake of the story, Wells needed the final vision of the entropic death of the Earth. But that scene, stripped of human content, is the thematic climax of the novel, and the best thing in the book.
Richard Jefferies explored new Darwinian ideas in After London, or Wild England (1885) by eliminating the machines altogether, regressing to medieval technology. He was working on the idea of the ecosystem, although he did not yet have that word. His novel was, in part, a mental experiment: remove human pressure on the environment, and see what happens to fields, forests, rivers, wildlife, and, not least importantly, humans. I’m sure a modern biologist would find it all too simple, but I was able to detect Jefferies’s excitement about the idea that it all fits together. Or perhaps the new idea was that the system is dynamic, but coherent and understandable.
Wells was studying the ecosystem, too, in The War of the Worlds, this time by introducing invasive species. I knew about the highly evolved Martians, of course, but not about the other invasive species:
[T]he seeds which the Martians (intentionally or accidentally) brought with them gave rise in all cases to red-coloured growths. Only that known popularly as the red weed, however, gained any footing in competition with terrestrial forms… It spread up the sides of the pit by the third or fourth day of our imprisonment, and its cactus-like branches formed a carmine fringe to the edges of our triangular window. And afterwards I found it broadcast throughout the country, and especially wherever there was a stream of water. (II.2.)
The red weed spreads throughout the novel, until it, too, succumbs to the clever ecological trick ending, when the terrestrial ecosystem strikes back.
I have not read any other Wells. I would guess that The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) has more of this, while The Invisible Man (1897) does not, although I am probably wrong. The novel about bicycles is presumably really about bicycles, maybe?
A day or two more, I guess, poking at the hideous corpses of the Martians.