By Dale D. Dalenberg, M.D.

August 25, 2013 

Now that science fiction has achieved respectability,
showing up regularly on the New York Times Best Seller List and filling half the
screens at the megaplex, we forget that in the early days, all we fanboys had
was H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Back then, in the 1890s, there was no category
of fiction called “science fiction” yet. The works of Wells, Verne, and a smattering of others like Arthur Conan
Doyle’s Professor Challenger stories, came to be known as “scientific
romances.” The early novels of H.G.
Wells (1866-1946) are without debate the most readable, timeless, and literate
of all the science fiction that was published before the advent of science
fiction specialty magazines in the 1920s. 

I came to these novels mostly via the old Airmont Classics
paperbacks of the 1960s. In the
mid-1960s, my mother was enamored of the idea of a required pre-college reading
list.  She was that classic mid-20th-Century
housewife who had gotten married and had babies right out of high school, lived
to be a domestic engineer, self-effacing, supporting her husband and two boys
in all their endeavors. She didn’t read
much in those days, but she ardently believed in the value of reading. She regretted not being able to go to college
herself, but she instilled in her children the notion that going to college was
expected to be in their future, and that there were a lot of important books to
read before they got there(later, in the
1980’s, Mom did start reading books, got divorced, went back to college, and
lived an entire second life as a high school librarian and English
teacher.) So, when Airmont Publishing
Company offered cheap paperbacks through the mail of the 100 greatest classic
novels, my mother subscribed to the series, and I lived the rest of my
childhood in a home containing the shelves of books I was supposed to read
before college. 

I never got through all the books, but I did have an uncanny
sense for sniffing out the science fiction, and it turned out that Airmont had
included plenty of that. The only thing
was, the books were so cheaply made—with brittle glue, yellowing paper, and
cheesy cover illustrations-—they tended to self-destruct upon first
reading. You could only read an Airmont
Classic once and then consign it to the trash, because all you were left with
was a bunch of loose pages. I remember
reading Jules Verne’s The Mysterious
and holding it together with a rubber band between reading

I’m not sure what happened to Airmont, but they ceased to
exist sometime back in the 1960s. All
the books have prefaces copyrighted about 1964-1965. Our classics series was
supposed to be a subscription with so many books arriving per month. But, before long, we just got a large box
containing about 75 of the books all at once. I suspect Airmont went out of business and honored their outstanding
subscriptions by simply cleaning out their warehouse. I still remember the day that big box of
books arrived.  I was probably 7 or 8
years old, and I already loved reading. That day was like Christmas. I spent countless hours putting the books
in alphabetical order, studying the cover blurbs and prefaces, and every now
and then, delving into the books, often years before I could really comprehend
the contents. I did a 6th
grade book report on Dostoyevsky. I read
Conrad’s Heart of Darkness years
before I would ever accumulate the life experiences that could even halfway
allow it to mean something to me. 

The Airmont Classics look today like a reading list from years
gone by. I think they might have been
created from the same reading list that formed the basis for the old Classics Illustrated comics. The Airmont Classics come from an era that
still regarded Longfellow as an important poet (children used to memorize Evangeline), when kids still read Ivanhoe in junior high school, when
Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper were the main purveyors of
Americana in literature. Hardly anybody
reads Longfellow, Sir Walter Scott, Irving, or Cooper anymore.  Because I am a curator of a collection of
antique popular literature, I have a certain enthusiasm for those old
classics.  However, the old reading list also
comes from an era when the only history of the world was the history of Europe
and North America. An era when Columbus was still a hero and it wasn’t yet
politically incorrect to celebrate his holiday. An era when the only African-American accomplishment taught to
schoolchildren was that George Washington Carver did a lot of things with
peanuts. It was an era when Rachel
Carson’s Silent Spring was considered
subversively radical rather than almost Biblical.  I enjoy the quaint nostalgia of the old
curriculum, but at the same time I try to be firmly rooted in what I believe to
be our more enlightened modern times. 

Over the years, our Airmont collection diminished. The books were either read (in which case,
they self-destructed), or they were lost. During one of Mom’s moves, several of them flew out the back of the
pick-up truck onto the highway, never to be recovered. She finally gave me the pick of what was
left, when she was culling discards from her library. I remembered the H.G. Wells novels fondly
from my childhood, so I decided to feature them here on the blog. You’ll notice that Wells’ first novel, The Time Machine (1895) is missing from
this blog page, even though Airmont had an edition of it.  That’s because I read it to the point of
self-destruction. I’ve seen it in used
bookstores since. I should probably
replace it. 

Wells wrote “scientific romances” throughout his career, but
the majority of the ones we remember are his earliest novels, starting with The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896). Popular wisdom often credits Wells with being
the originator of many of the great science fiction ideas, such as time travel
or alien invasions. I agree that Wells’ science fiction output is a fertile
vein that was mined by many later writers. 
But what interests me more these days is how Wells’ scientific romances
fit in with themes that were already popular at the time he was writing. The
Invisible Man
(1897) is fundamentally a meditation on the same Victorian
concepts of good vs. evil that interested Robert Louis Stevenson in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Much of the pre-science fiction of Wells’
day concerns future war predictions in the run-up to the destruction of the
European monarchies and the advent of World War I; that is more or less the
sub-text of The War of the Worlds (1898),
although Wells’ variation on the topic is brilliant and original. Wells expanded on his concept of “total war”
in other books, notably The War in the
(1908).  Another major concern of H.G. Wells, and
many of the pre-science fiction writers of his era, was socio-economic
extrapolation, often under the guise of utopian or dystopian fiction. Along these lines, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward had already been a big
bestseller starting in 1888, with the book starting a political movement that
lasted through the 1890’s. Wells
returned again and again in his novels to utopian/dystopian scenarios. Such
scenarios show up in The Time Machine,
The First Men in the Moon
(1901), When
the Sleeper Wakes
(1899), The Food of
the Gods
(1904), A Modern Utopia (1905),
Men Like Gods (1923), and other works. In fact, as his career went on, the science
fiction more or less disappeared from Wells’ work and was replaced by thinly
plotted stories that are mostly platforms for sociological discussion. Most of that was lost on me as a 10-year old
devouring these books.  Having read them
so young, it is fascinating to rediscover them 40 years later.