31 January 2014

Review: The Last War: A World Set Free by H. G. Wells

Trade paperback, 166 pages
Published 2001 (originally 1914)

Acquired October 2013
Read January 2014
The Last War: A World Set Free
by H. G. Wells

This is a kind of retro-future history, giving the great sweep of events leading to the Last World War (a nuclear one), the collapse of society, and the creation of a scientifically-organized utopia. It dips in and out of indviduals' perspectives in a way that's kind of neat: this inventor here, this soldier there, this king somewhere. Bits of it are interesting; the last segment, as the utopia gets put together is not. Wells's earlier novels of apocalypse-becoming-utopia (The War in the Air and The Sleeper Awakes) were much more circumspect about the details of the utopia, and I think that was the better move.

Folks will tell you that Wells was the first to depict nuclear bombs in fiction. He got it wrong (not sure if that's because he was wrong or contemporary science was), using the idea of the half life pretty strongly:
What the earlier twentieth-century chemists called its half period was seventeen days; that is to say, it poured outpouring half of the huge store of energy in its great molecules in the space of seventeen days, the next seventeen days' emission was a half of that first period's outpouring, and so on. As with all radio-active substances this Carolinum, though every seventeen days its power is halved, though constantly it diminishes towards the imperceptible, is never entirely exhausted, and to this day the battle-fields and bomb-fields of that frantic time in human history are sprinkled with radiant matter and so centres of inconvenient rays.... (59-60)
How cool is that (from a fictional perspective)-- bombs that go on forever in ever-diminishing amounts. It's a frightening, but fascinating image.

(For some reason this Bison Frontiers of the Imagination edition retitles The World Set Free to The Last War: A World Set Free. Ugh. Why? Who knows, because there's no editorial matter other than Greg Bear's introduction, which specifically rejects the retitling in a footnote.)

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