We all know H.G. Wells.
That is, we all think we know him. He’s the author of science fiction novels that seem to have been designed with the express purpose of being made into films. One might almost think he foresaw the invention of movies, too–but films were actually in the process of being invented when Wells wrote his most famous books–The Time Machine in 1895, and War of the Worlds in 1898.
When Wells was alive, he was considered by many to be far more than a mere spinner of tall tales, entertaining though those tales might be:
In his lifetime and after his death, Wells was considered a prominent socialist thinker. In his book The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek, one of the twentieth century’s most famous proponents of laissez-faire capitalism, held up Wells in particular as an example of the idealist intellectuals who believed in “the most comprehensive central planning” and could “at the same time, write an ardent defence of the rights of man”.
The Fabians believed that social reform could be achieved by a new political approach of gradual and patient argument, ‘permeating’ their ideas into the circles of those with power: ‘the inevitability of gradualism’ was an early slogan.
As Sidney Webb wrote to the Fabian Edward Pease in 1886, “Nothing is done in England without the consent of a small intellectual yet political class in London, not 2000 in number. We alone could get at that class.” The Fabians were especially active in London local government. The Fabians aimed for democratic socialism. Believing that voters could be persuaded of socialism’s justice, they sought to achieve reform by education, stimulating debate through lectures and discussions initiated by democratically accountable and educated professionals.
Wells flirted for a time with the Soviets, but he quickly learned that his aims and theirs were antithetical:
Although Wells had many reservations about the Soviet system, he understood the broad aims of the Russian Revolution, and had in 1920 a fairly amiable meeting with Lenin. In the early 1920s Wells was a labour candidate for Parliament…In 1934 he had discussions with both Stalin, who left him disillusioned, and Roosevelt, trying to recruit them without success to his world-saving schemes. Wells was convinced that Western socialists cannot compromise with Communism, and that the best hope for the future lay in Washington…In THE HOLY TERROR (1939) Wells studied the psychological development of a modern dictator exemplified in the careers of Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler.
Wells was clear-eyed enough to understand tyranny, and he had no use for it.
Why am I writing about Wells? He was a fascinating combination of amazing foresight about scientific discoveries, unrealistic idealism about human nature, and pessimism about that very same human nature.
I came across some astounding excerpts from his novel The World Set Free (written in 1914) in the November 28, 2005 issue of the New Yorker (yes, indeed; that magazine again!), which amply illustrate the first and last of these Wellsian characteristics. They are part of an article by Tom Reiss entitled “Imagining the Worst: How a literary genre anticipated the modern world,” about futuristic science fiction and its relation to reality.
In his book The World Set Free, Wells had the distinction of foreseeing nuclear war. His vision was not of some generalized and unspecified sort of apocalyptic weaponry; it was of nuclear weapons themselves, including an excellent description of a chain reaction. He even seems to have used the term “atomic bombs.”
When the book appeared, no physicists thought that an artificially induced chain reaction–which Wells called “the disease of matter”–was possible. Wells based the science in his story on research by the British physicists Frederick Soddy and Ernest Rutherford, both of whom dismissed the idea (Rutherford called it “moonshine.”) In 1932, however, Leo Szilard, a Hungarian physicist working at the Institute of Theoretical Physics, in Berlin, read the novel in a German translation. The following year, while on a walk in London, Szilard had an epiphany in which he conceived how a nuclear weapon might actually be built. He subsequently sent the first chapter of Wells’ book to Sir Hugo Hirst, the founder of British General Electric, accompanied by a letter in which he wrote, “The forecast of the writers may prove to be more accurate than the forecast of the scientists. The physicists have conclusive arguments as to why we cannot create at present new sources of energy…I am not so sure whether they do not miss the point.”…
The book’s main character is the nuclear chain reaction itself;: a phenomenon portrayed in such intimate and creepy detail that it seems almost like a living thing…The last part of the book takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where…[m]ost of the capital cities of the world were burning, millions of people had already perished, and over great areas government was at an end.
Wells had a solution for the problem, too–at the end of the book, nations abandon their nationhood and form a world government that ends war. It was the only solution that seemed possible to him; but even then, it came at the end of nuclear catastrophe, not in time to prevent it.
Here’s Wells in The World Set Free (and as you read this passage, remember that it was written and published at the beginning of World War I):
All through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the amount of energy that men were able to command was continually increasing…Destruction was becoming so facile that any little body of malcontents could use it; it was revolutionizing the problems of police and internal rule. Before the last war began it was a matter of common knowledge that a man could carry about in a handbag an amount of latent energy sufficient to wreck half a city. These facts were before the minds of everybody; the children in the streets knew them. And yet the world still, as the Americans used to phrase it, “Fooled around” with the paraphernalia and pretensions of war.
I think it’s a truly impressive prediction in light of today’s talk of suitcase bombs. And of course there’s that phrase “any little body of malcontents;” Wells foresaw, if not the exact identity of Islamicist terrorists, then the general phenomenon of a small group of angry people gaining incredible destructive power and being willing to use it.
Wells was stellar at foreseeing the march of science and the problems to which it would lead. What he didn’t have was a solution–although he wanted to find one, and tried to find one. His idea of a world government banning war was certainly attractive, and is difficult to give up even today, when it has proven untenable.
The idea was a hope born of desperation. Towards the end of his life, Wells seems to have abandoned it to despair. It was his fortune–or misfortune; I’m not sure which–to have lived to see the end of World War II, and even the beginnings of atomic war (although not the out-of-control worldwide atomic war he foretold and feared). He died almost exactly one year after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while working on a project on the dangers of nuclear war.
In his preface to a 1923 edition of The World Set Free, Wells still retained hope, although it was fading and tenuous:
[T]he question whether it is still possible to bring about an outbreak of creative sanity in mankind, to avert this steady glide to destruction, is now one of the most urgent in the world. It is clear that the writer is temperamentally disposed to hope that there is such a possibility. But he has to confess that he sees few signs of any such breadth of understanding and steadfastness of will as an effectual effort to turn the rush of human affairs demands. The inertia of dead ideas and old institutions carries us on towards the rapids. Only in one direction is there any plain recognition of the idea of a human commonweal as something overriding any national and patriotic consideration, and that is in the working class movement throughout the world. And labour internationalism is closely bound up with conceptions of a profound social revolution. If world peace is to be attained through labour internationalism, it will have to be attained at the price of the completest social and economic reconstruction and by passing through a phase of revolution that will certainly be violent, that may be very bloody, which may be prolonged through a long period, and may in the end fail to achieve anything but social destruction. Nevertheless, the fact remains that it is in the labour class, and the labour class alone, that any conception of a world rule and a world peace has so far appeared. The dream of The World Set Free, a dream of highly educated and highly favoured leading and ruling men, voluntarily setting themselves to the task of reshaping the world, has thus far remained a dream.
Wells was both a man of science and a dreamer. But he was enough of a realist, I believe, to sadly renounce his dream in the face of evidence that it wasn’t tenable. His final book, World at the End of its Tether (compare that to the optimistic title of his earlier work, The World Set Free), was utterly despairing about the prospects for the future. My suspicion is that the abject failure of the League of Nations, the horrors of Stalin’s USSR, and the conflagration of World War II made Wells recognize that salvation did not lie in working class internationalism. That realization was probably nearly unbearable for him.
Would Wells have been encouraged or dismayed if he had somehow taken a time machine and found himself in our present world? I don’t know. But I like to think he’d be pleasantly surprised to find, at least, that the world has lasted as long as it has without total nuclear destruction. I also like to think he would have given up–albeit reluctantly–on the old but unrealistic dream of international bodies such as the UN solving the problem. I like to think he’d see a certain amount of hope in the spread–however tenuous–of democracy in areas of the world which have never seen it before.
And I like to think that he wasn’t so very prescient after all, and that his vision of destruction never comes to pass–and that, at least in that respect, life does not imitate art.