15 September 2016

H. G. Wells at 150: The Shape of Things to Come

Trade paperback, 530 pages
Published 2005 (originally 1933)
Acquired October 2013
Read December 2014
The Shape of Things to Come: The Ultimate Revolution
by H. G. Wells

One of Wells's last novels, this covers human history from 1933 to 2106. It's not really a novel in the conventional sense, but a history written from the perspective of the future, complete with a frame narrative explaining how it fell into the hands of Wells in 1933 so that he could publish it, which feels a little old-fashioned. (A lot of future narratives in the nineteenth century had this, like Shelley's The Last Man, Loudon's The Mummy!, Shiel's The Purple Cloud, Fawkes's Marmaduke, Emperor of Europe, but once the idea of the future narrative was firmly established around 1900, it largely vanished.)

So it's the not most riveting reading-- this is an entirely different kind of science fiction to that which Wells started his career with novels like The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. This is the fiction of ideas, not of sensations. If you're me, though, there's a lot of interesting stuff here. You get Wells's take on how future historians will view his own time (the first few chapters set things up with a discussion of the late Victorian era and the Great War) and then into the second World War, which Wells envisions as lasting from 1940 to 1950, followed by a devastating plague in 1956-57. From here, comes, of course, the World-State, that quixotic organization Wells spent so much of his late life advocating for. I don't love this book, but it's probably the most total depiction of the future-vision of the late Wells that I've read.

Some random points of interest:
  • As in his autobiography (I'll get to that next week), Wells disparages those who embrace war as too much like a game. He sees this type embodied in Winston Churchill, of whose writing his future historian says, "He displays a vigorous naive puerility that still gives his story an atoning charm. He has the insensitiveness of a child of thirteen. His soldiers are toy soldiers and he loves to knock over a whole row of them. He enjoyed the war" (65). It's a marked contrast to the way Wells viewed toy soldiers back when he wrote Little Wars. (What comes between the two takes was, of course, an actual war. In The War in the Air, Wells mocks those who fell victim to the nationalist vision of future war, but even he fell victim to it at times.)
  • The book suggests that after the beginning of the second World War, architecture had to belatedly adapt to the dangers of gas and aerial bombing. First there came "those usually ill-built concrete cavern systems for refuge" in Paris, Berlin, and London (60). This makes me think of the underground world of the Morlocks in The Time Machine, though Wells had no such idea of underground shelters in 1895 as far as I know. (However, the 1960 film of The Time Machine makes the Morlocks' underground world a nuclear bunker.) Additionally, towns are covered in massive carapace roofs, I guess kind of like giant domes. Basically no skyscrapers are built at all between 1945 and 2000. But in the world of 2106, "[w]e grovel no longer, because we are ceasing to fear each other. The soaring, ever improving homes in which we live today would have sent our great-grandfathers scurrying to their cellars in an ecstasy of terror" (61). Wells always has such great visuals; I wish he hadn't stopped telling stories with them later in his career.
  • Wells, as always, saw a massive catastrophe as the only possible prelude to the One World-State, which speaks rather poorly of the efforts he made throughout his life if you think about it! "Out of that medley of human distresses, out of the brains of men stressed out of indolence and complacency by the gathering darkness and suffering about them, there came first the hope, then the broad plan, and at last the achievement of that fruitful order, gathering beauty and happy assurance, in which we live today" (122). Here he's referring to the "Age of Frustration," the period after the Great War where it seemed like everything was about to fall apart because the complexity of social systems had exceeded the capacity of humans to organize them using their existing methods. (This picks up on some ideas Wells introduced in The History of Mr Polly.)
  • Wells attributes the problems of the early twentieth century to how once disparate groups were brought into close contact by technological advance: "Two or more population groups, each with its own special narrow and inadaptable culture and usually with a distinctive language or dialect, had been by the change of scale in human affairs jammed together or imposed upon one another. A sort of social dementia ensued" (198). Everyone in the world is so physically close, but they continue to insist on cultural and social separation, with disastrous results. This might be true, but it's difficult to see a way out of it: who are you going to convince to give up their culture? I guess that's why Wells envisions the One World-State beginning with an air dictatorship that just forces everyone to get in line. (He also describes hatred as a disease, and says it can be cured just like coughs can, but that was difficult to imagine in the Age of Frustration.)
  • Religion is depicted as inimical to the advancement of human happiness. In 1978, one of the first acts of the One World-State is to gas the Pope; a youthful priest is killed when he's hit in the head by a gas container, "the first killing in a new religious conflict" (346). He becomes Saint Odet of Ostia, the last saint of the Catholic Church, because the One World-State wins this war, also shutting down holy sites in Mecca and India, and closing the kosher slaughterhouses. "There was now to be one faith only in the world, the moral expression of the world community" (347). The argument is that if the new regime doesn't wipe away the systems of the old world, they will wipe it away before it has a chance to take hold.

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