The visit of H.G. Wells to Australia in 1938–39 provides a spectacle of provocation under difficulties. The provocations were mostly Wells’s; the difficulties he shared with his hosts. The outcome was disappointment all round.
In mid-1938, Wells accepted an invitation from the Congress Organising Committee of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS) to participate in their Jubilee meeting in Canberra in January 1939. His acceptance was a coup for the Committee, which was implementing recommendations from the preceding Auckland Congress that ANZAAS should pay more attention to the social relations of science. The Organising Committee, led by David Rivett of Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research, was influenced by British writers on this theme, notably J.B.S. Haldane and J.D. Bernal. Rivett and his colleagues were appalled that science had become so implicated in mass killing and devastation, especially from the air, in China – where the blanket bombing of Canton in July 1938 was particularly murderous – and also in Spain and in Abyssinia. Wells, more than any other author, had predicted this catastrophe of modern science even before Bleriot flew the Channel. Weeks before Wells’s Australian landfall, Orson Welles’ broadcast readings from the War of the Worlds had alarmed thousands on the eastern seaboard of the USA. Days before Wells arrived in Perth, Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn announced their discovery of uranium nuclear fission.