The Magazine

Future Perfect

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

May 17, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 33 • By BRIAN MURRAY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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."