The Magazine

Future Perfect

H. G. Wells and the history of things to come

May 17, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 33 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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H. G. Wells is famous today mostly -- perhaps only -- for the science-fiction novels he published in the 1890s, the first decade of his long and prolific career. Although the books owed something to Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe, Wells devised a style strictly his own to create such works as The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. He "has caught the trick," as one reviewer claimed at the time, of mixing "imagination with the technical precision of a newspaper reporter." Wells was (as the British writer Brian Aldiss more recently put it) "the Shakespeare of science fiction."

But after these early successes -- insisting that he didn't want to be remembered as a mere purveyor of "sensational" stories -- Wells began to distance himself from the "scientific romances" that had made his name. He wanted to be thought of as a serious literary artist, which drove him from 1900 to 1915 to produce several ambitious novels about class and society, including Kipps, Tono-Bungay, and The New Machiavelli. And he wanted to be thought of as a pundit and seer, which drove him in 1905 to write A Modern Utopia -- the book that his modern readers assume represents his first foray into what would become a life-long obsession: the establishment of a super-efficient "World State."

But Wells, in fact, had ventured down this road before. In 1901, he published his Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life and Thought. Now largely forgotten, Anticipations was intended as a serious prediction about the shape of human life and culture in the year 2000. It was the Future Shock of its day, widely disputed and hotly defended throughout England and America. The book's appeal came partly from its novelty. There was an entire genre of such "future histories," sparked by the turn of the century, but unlike most of them -- including Edward Bellamy's still-read Looking Backward -- Anticipations didn't present itself as a novel. This wasn't scientific fiction, or tea-leaf augury, but scientific prediction, written in a prose so assured it seemed to carry instant conviction. The world it predicted and celebrated in 1901 was clean, technological, bureaucratic, scientific -- and a whole lot like Hitler's Germany.

As a child Wells was intellectually curious and read voraciously. But his schooling was uneven, his options few. His father ran a struggling shop in Bromley, a far London suburb. His mother, a lady's maid, forced him at fifteen to start work as a draper -- a future he loathed. Determined to stick with his education, he won a scholarship to train as a teacher at the Normal School of Science in South Kensington.

Wells wasn't a notable student, tending to neglect his classes in favor of roaming London's engrossing streets. But he never missed the lectures of South Kensington's star instructor, Thomas Huxley, who was known inter nationally both for his biological research and his elegant, accessible essays on various scientific issues and social themes. Indeed, Huxley's central ideas inform virtually everything that Wells ever wrote. Huxley, known popularly as "Darwin's Bulldog," stressed that evolution didn't necessarily equal progress; that "retrogressive is as practical as progressive metamorphosis"; and that while human beings couldn't hope to escape distant cosmic calamity -- a "universal winter" induced by a cooling sun -- they could in the interim improve their earthly lot. Huxley looked forward to a worldwide "Kingdom of Man" where "the struggle for existence" is ended and enlightenment reigns.

Given his spotty record at Kensington, Wells couldn't land a good teaching job and so tried his hand at journalism. Indeed, Wells wrote with such cleverness and zest that, in later years, he could fairly point to himself as a prime example of what happens to a talented man who finds his focus and masters his will. Well's first published fiction included Poe-like tales and humorous sketches that owed a bit to Charles Dickens's Sketches By Boz. Then came the string of early, popular novels, including The Island of Dr. Moreau in 1896, The Invisible Man in 1897, and When the Sleeper Wakes in 1898.

His 1901 Anticipations caught well the hopeful mood that prevailed throughout much of the industrialized world between the 1890s and the First World War. The nineteenth century had, after all, produced major progress in manufacturing, transportation, housing, and hygiene. Even war was widely viewed as a bane of the past. The nineteenth century was, on the whole, remarkably peaceful -- "an anomaly," writes one historian, "in an otherwise continuous pattern of warfare" over the previous five centuries.

Wells himself called Anticipations "the keystone to the main arch of my work." It shows his debt not only to Huxley, but to The Martyrdom of Man, an 1872 paean to progress through "Science" composed by Winwood Reade, whose better-known uncle, Charles Reade, had previously found fame with such novels as the 1856 It is Never Too Late to Mend. Win wood Reade's own career as a novelist flopped, but The Martyrdom of Man remained steadily in print through dozens of editions, becoming one of the best selling books of the Victorian Age.

Humanity, Reade predicted, would shed the main sources of its long "martyrdom" -- religious superstition and intellectual fear. Christianity is dead, he declared, Darwin having delivered the decisive blow. Reade insisted that intelligent people must simply accept the fact that "the Supreme Power" is neither approachable nor attentive, but rather an obscure "Force" knowable -- if at all -- through close study of scientific law. Man then is but an animal, however clever, forced with his fellow brutes to scrap and struggle for power, shelter, and food. "We are all of us naked under our clothes," he cheerfully reported, "and we are all of us tailed under our skins."

Although "prayer is useless," science, Reade argued, is not. The earth, "which is now a purgatory, will be made a paradise." For Reade and Wells, science represented freedom, clarity, truth. Science would end disease, eliminate poverty, and -- eventually -- propel us to bright new habitats among the stars.

Mankind will migrate into space, and will cross the airless Saharas. . . . The earth will become a Holy Land which will be visited by pilgrims from all the quarters of the universe. Finally, men will master the forces of nature; they will become themselves architects of systems, manufacturers of worlds. Man then will be perfect; he will then be a creator, he will then be therefore what the vulgar worship as a god.

But as Wells pointed out in Anticipations, science first had a few less extravagant tasks to perform, like getting rid of household dirt. Wells, reared in near poverty, was long obsessed with civic and domestic tidiness. In Anticipations, he acclaimed the array of new "solvents" that, in future years, would wonderfully simplify the "tedious cleansing and wiping of table ware," as well as the "painful rub, rub, rub" required for washing windows. Central heating, he predicted, would become universal, and "neat little" electric stoves would abolish the laborious mess that comes with cooking, making it "a pleasant amusement for intelligent invalid ladies."

Throughout his career, Wells was widely hailed for the remarkable accuracy of his various prophecies. In The World Set Free, published in 1914, Wells convincingly describes atomic warfare -- some twenty years before the Joliot-Curies artificially produced radioactive substances. Elsewhere he famously forecast the development of the army tank, and the rise of radio-like devices destined to compete with newspapers in the delivery of timely news. These, he predicted in Anticipations, would find their place "in some convenient corner" of every household, "beside the barometer, to hear or ignore."

Wells also insisted, in Anticipations, on the total triumph of automobiles and trucks; at the time, many still assumed that motorized vehicles were simply a comical craze. And he foresaw the easy availability of aviation, claiming, more guardedly, that "probably before 1950, a successful aeroplane will have soared and came home safe and sound."

But Anticipations is more about politics than technology. Wells, as he later did in his more famous A Modern Utopia, claimed a highly centralized "World State" would take shape as the flaws of democracy were more widely perceived. In this "New Republic," there would be no room for the "flushed, undignified" politician who, with "collar crumpled, hair disordered, and arms in wild activity," talks "copiously" on "tubs, barrels, scaffoldings" as the grubs for votes from untutored rubes. Rather, the New Republic's appointed rulers would autonomously supervise all forms of cultural, economic, and social activity, including education, which Wells -- the failed schoolmaster -- found in dire need of mass reform. Uncompromising forward thinkers, Wells's "New Republicans" would dump traditional curricula in favor of "contemporary literature," the "breath of civilized life." They would also recognize that "those who sincerely think and write" -- including, presumably, Wells himself -- are "the salt of the social body." "To live on classics, however splendid," Wells wrote, "is senility."

Well's New Republicans wouldn't be troubled by the demands of the old religions and traditional morality. Their God, like Reade's, is unfathomable and glimpsed only, dimly, through unfettered scientific inquiry. These New Republicans would deny then the "self-contradictory absurdities of an obstinately anthropomorphic theology"; for Darwin, they would realize, "destroyed the dogma of the Fall upon which the whole intellectual fabric of Christianity rests."

Well's new leaders would however revere one "classic" work -- Thomas Malthus's 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population. Malthus, Wells wrote, recognized that "the main mass of the business of human life involves reproduction," and that no "Golden Age" will ever be possible without controlling population. Thus Wells's "men of the New Republic" wouldn't allow careless breeding of "base and servile types," or "fear-driven and cowardly souls," or the "mean and ugly." They would permit only "the procreation of what is fine and efficient and beautiful in humanity -- beautiful and strong bodies, clear and powerful minds, and a growing body of knowledge." (Wells himself, incidentally, was plumpish and short, and had been sickly as a youth.)

Of course keeping close watch on the reproductive habits of large populations was going to be no easy matter. But Wells's strapping supermen would be plainly up to the task. For starters, they would "rout out and illuminate urban rookeries and all places where the base can drift to multiply." The "base" would apparently include alcoholics and chronic depressives, as well as the "undersized, diseased little man" who is "incapable of earning a decent living for himself," and is probably married to "some under-fed, ignorant, ill-shaped, plain, and diseased little woman," and "guilty of the lives often or twelve ugly, ailing children."

Wells's New Republicans would sterilize and, he implied, simply eliminate those who, ignoring ready contraception, chose instead to reproduce. But, he added optimistically, at least some of these losers would depart voluntarily, through suicide, "a high and courageous act rather than a crime." "Most of the human types," Wells mused, "that by civilized standards are undesirable, are quite willing to die out if the world will only encourage them a little."

"And how," Wells wrote, "will the New Republic treat the inferior races?" -- in whose ranks he appeared to include Asians, Africans, and "that alleged termite in the civilized wood work, the Jew." Wells insisted that he could not understand "the exceptional attitude people take up against the Jews." And yet he gratuitously listed some of those prejudices before noting hopefully that, through social pressure, intermarriage, and "a common language and a common rule," Jews would" cease to be a physically distinct element in human affairs in a century or so." And for the rest -- "those swarms of black, and brown, and dirty white, and yellow people, who do not come into the new needs of efficiency?" "Well," Wells wrote, "the world is a world, and not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go. . . . So far as they fail to develop sane, vigorous, and distinctive personalities for the great world of the Future, it is their portion to die out and disappear."

Only after the success of Anticipations were Wells's books widely discussed by Britain's leading "progressive" intellectuals, among them Bertrand Russell, Beatrice Webb, and the ubiquitous George Bernard Shaw. Sales of Wells's books steadily increased -- bringing him the sort of wealth and influence that, among his contemporaries, only Rudyard Kipling and perhaps Arnold Bennett enjoyed. For example, Well's 1916 novel, Mr. Britling See It Through, became an international success with its elegiac portrait of Britain's homefront during a time of war. Mr. Britling concludes with a call for world peace that features some of Well's most powerful rhetoric, including one lyrical line -- "At a thousand points the light is shining through" -- that seems to have found its way, albeit altered, into George Bush's 1988 acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.

Between 1900 and 1930, breezy talk of eugenics was in the air. As John Carey documents in his superb 1993 The Intellectuals and the Masses, many of this century's most admired literary figures -- including D. H. Lawrence and W. B. Yeats -- voiced the belief that to make the future safe for artists and intellectuals, society must be cleansed of the hopelessly vulgar, the chronically coarse. Bernard Shaw, for instance, bluntly suggested that "if we desire a certain type of civilization and culture, we must exterminate the sort of people who do not fit into it." Of course Friedrich Nietzsche -- the era's most influential philosopher -- railed frequently and famously against the "rabble," as Carey notes. "The great majority of men have no right to existence," Nietzsche proclaimed, "but are a misfortune to higher men."

So, to an extent, Wells wasn't exceptional. And yet, on some occasions, he made the right calls. In 1927 Wells attacked Italian Fascism for its "bloodlust" and "puerile malignity." He didn't cheer the passing of a Eugenics Sterilization Law in Berlin in 1933. Wells didn't condone the Nazi genocide that killed millions in the next decade. And his later works are neither full of racist rants nor obsessed with human breeding.

Still, Wells has much to answer for, particularly in his stereotyping of the Jews. And despite his demands for global community, Wells seemed to forget that the world is not exclusively European and white. "Presumably," as Anthony Burgess once observed, "both blacks and Jews have opted out" of Wells's "great biological experiment; the laboratory is an Anglo-Saxon preserve." Writing in 1916, one critic called Wells "a world figure" and noted that "his books were in the window of every important bookshop in Germany," where "he was studied rather than read."

Hitler formed his monstrous, half baked ideology from diverse sources, including Darwin, Machiavelli, Wagner, and Wagner's son-in-law, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, whose anti-Semitic tracts contributed infinitely more to Nazism than anything H. G. Wells wrote. But, like the Nazis, Wells exalted eugenics and "the strong arm of the state" (as he puts it in Anticipations). Furthermore, it's difficult not to think of the ideas that Wells helped make acceptable when, in Mein Kampf, one finds Hitler asserting that stopping the "procreation" of "the physically degenerate and mentally sick" will purge "the germs of our present physical and hence spiritual decay."

In "Hitler, Wells, and the World State," published in 1941, George Orwell traced the fascistic thread that runs through much of Well's work. "If one looks through nearly any book" written by Wells "in the last forty years," Orwell observes, one finds:

the same idea constantly recurring: the supposed antithesis between the man of science who is working towards a planned World State and the reactionary who is trying to restore a disorderly past. In novels, Utopias, essays, films, pamphlets, the antithesis crops up, always more or less the same. On the one side science, order, progress, internationalism, aeroplanes, steel, concrete, hygiene: on the other side war, nationalism, religion, monarchy, peasants, Greek professors, poets, horses. History as he sees it is a series of victories won by the scientific man over the romantic man.

"Modern Germany," Orwell adds, "is far more scientific than England, and far more barbarous." Ironically, "much of what Wells has imagined and worked for is physically there in Nazi Germany. The order, the planning, the State encouragement of science, the steel, the concrete, the aeroplanes, are all there, but all in the service of ideas appropriate to the Stone Age." Wells had to face the fact that his vaunted "science" was, as Orwell points out, "fighting on the side of superstition."

Early in his career Wells was often hailed as Charles Dickens's true heir. Wells's social novels Kipps and Tono-Bungay display certain clear Dickensian traits. Panoramic, humorous, satiric, rather loosely structured, they feature vivid characters making their way amidst assorted social climbers and rogues. In his 1910 review of Wells's The History of Mr. Polly, H. L. Mencken noted that Wells had "staked out for himself the English lower middle class that Dickens knew so intimately and loved with such shameless sentimentality" -- that "tea swilling grade du corps of all the more disgusting virtues, traditions, superstitions and epidemic diseases of the Anglican people."

But as the bilious Mencken recognized, Wells and Dickens were, in fact, vastly different. Dickens loathed the sort of self-aggrandizement that one finds in so much of Well's work. As characters from Mr. Bumble to Edward Murdstone to Thomas Gradgrind reveal, Dickens deplored those who relish dictating terms to their weaker or less fortunate fellows. And it's impossible to imagine Dickens approving of Wells's belief in selective breeding. Rather, he would have endorsed G. K. Chesterton's Eugenics and Other Evils, published in 1922. Chesterton mocked "the idea that to breed a man like a cart-horse was the true way to attain that higher civilization, of intellectual magnanimity and sympathetic insight, which may be found in cart-house."

Dickens never believed that social problems would end as government became more powerful; he repeatedly insisted that only more goodness more widely displayed could advance human life in a permanently flawed -- or "fallen" -- world. Dickens wasn't much of a churchgoer. But unlike Wells he never abandoned his Christian faith, and never ceased promoting in his fiction such simpler and vastly more difficult virtues as humility, generosity, forbearance. As novelists, then, Dickens and Wells were, as Mencken recognized, "as far apart as the poles." Dickens "regarded his characters as a young mother regards her baby; Wells looks at his as a porkpacker looks at a hog."

In fact, if they were somehow transported to Wells's New Republic, many of Dickens's most memorable characters would find themselves fearing for their lives. Would, say, Wilkins Micawber or Betsey Trotwood meet the state's "new needs of efficiency"? The hopelessly melancholic Mrs. Gummidge would be urged to end her troubles with an over does of opiates, and chronic debtors like old John Dorrit would join Sairey Gamp and Mr. Dick among the ranks of the disappeared.

In the end, Dickens from the start knew one vital truth Wells never quite grasped: that hubris and grand plans for the "perfectibility" of the human race are as plentiful as tea leaves, and that simple decency regularly practiced remains, alas, the rarest thing in the world.