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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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.