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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: January 2012

Chapter Two - The Utopian Underground of H. G. Wells


Bank-clerks […] were heard to declare, as they sped home from the City, that the Underground Railway was beautiful from London Bridge to Westminster, but not from Sloane Square to Notting Hill Gate.

Max Beerbohm, ‘1880’

In his 1902 book Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought, H. G. Wells declared that the ‘People of today take the railways for granted as they take the sea and sky; they were born into a railway world, and they expect to die in one.’ For Wells, the underground was the epitome of this railway world as it brought together all the components of his reforming vision. George Gissing's visionary underground was anchored in a securely realistic setting, developing a number of literary perspectives for an entirely new mode of travel in the capital. Wells, on the other hand, adopted many of Gissing's conventions but redefined them first through science fantasy and then, especially after 1900, in reforming journalism and social fiction. In Wells' scientific romances of the 1890s, the underground is projected into the future as the mechanized, enclosed city of a far-distant period. Contemporary developments in electrically powered technology and underground tunnelling are presented as part of a deterministic process of human evolution. A more utopian vision is revealed in Wells' campaigning journalism with non-fictional polemics such as Anticipations and A Modern Utopia (1905) in which the underground appears as the key underpinning of the planned metropolis.

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