I don’t think HG Wells and Raymond Chandler ever met. I don’t know that they would have had a lot to say to each other if they did. Perhaps Wells might have gloweringly reprimanded Chandler for being mean about his friend AA Milne’s detective novel. Or perhaps he might have asked for a go on Chandler’s wife, I don’t know. But I like to imagine that an interlocuter bringing them together – perhaps in 1940, Wells’ twilight and Chandler’s emergence – would have explained why they should talk.
It was HG Wells, in large part, who made science fiction into social fiction. You can trace back the roots of that movement to Mary Shelley and beyond, but it was Wells who both concretised it and gave it common currency. Science fiction is nominally about the novum, the new thing that disrupts the world of the story. But THE INVISIBLE MAN is not about an invisibility process, just as THE TIME MACHINE is not really about a time machine. The great Wells fireworks were novels about the human condition, the sociopolitical space and the way Wells saw life being lived.
In crime fiction, of course, the story is nominally about the crime: the disruptive event introduced into the world of the story. But THE BIG SLEEP isn’t about a murder, and FAREWELL MY LOVELY isn’t about a missing person. Chandler’s great leap – and of course there were antecedents and even peers, but it’s Chandler who is indelible – was to make crime fiction fully an expression of social fiction.
These became the dual tracks upon which our mediation of the 20th Century ran. Science fiction and crime fiction contextualised, explored and reported on rapidly changing and expanding modern conditions. And they did it in ways that spoke to the felt experiences of our lives, to our hopes and our fears, in ways that other fictions, or even other reportage, couldn’t approach. Science fiction and crime fiction explained to us where we really are, and where we might be going.