One of the most searched for items that brings people to this blog is the H.G. Wells/ Alexander Korda movie Things to Come, because there’s a review of the film here. As this is the case, I figured I should pop this article up, which is about the book and short story that preceded it.
This article was originally part of our “Time Trap” series in Death Ray. Yet another highly labour intensive but satisfyingly dense article, “Time Trap” took a year and gave a brief rundown of all the important SF out then, with a couple of longer pieces like this one. This was originally published in Death Ray 10, out in early 2008.
The Shape of Things to Come
HG Wells gets on his soapbox for some good old ranting, chucking out a few scarily prescient ideas along the way, as Guy Haley tells us.
In 1933, HG Wells was boiling over with irritation at the way he saw the world being run (he left the Fabian Society for this very reason) and, like the teacher he once was, he wanted to lecture us about it. There was a better, more rational way of doing things, to him it was a self-evident truth.
The Shape of Things to Come is not a novel. It is a didactic text presented as a future history book supposedly dreamt by a certain Dr Philip Raven, passed onto his friend upon his death. (The ‘dream book’ was a very popular literary device in the early 20th Century, and can be found in the works of Lovecraft, Haggard, Ashton Smith and others). After the rather sparse introduction, entirely fictional, the book is divided into four main parts, the first detailing Wells’ reasoning behind the Great War and The Great Depression. He then ranges ahead, detailing an endless recession, a war that bankrupts the world, a brief dark age wracked with plague, from which, finally, the exhausted mankind is lifted up by airmen to begin a new era of prosperity in a scientifically governed utopia, ending “The Age of Frustration”. The book’s history concludes in 2103.
It’s a powerful work. Wells history is solid and authoritative, his speculation engrossing. Amusing in some ways – he got a great deal wrong, and the latter half of the 20th century is a launchtrack for Wells’ wishful future, but it is chillingly accurate in others . The tone of the book is set by Wells’ dry wit and, especially when he speaks of the horrors of WWI, the prose glows white hot with fury. This is not one of the expert parables of his earlier life, nor the tedious rants of his final years, but a stage between the two. Wells is still prodding his contemporaries with his favourite SF goad, the passing into history of all ways of life: “‘The infantile habit of assuming the fixity of the Thing that Is was almost universal in their day,” he said. But in The Shape of Things to Come, it has grown from a sharp observation to a manifesto. He is no longer merely pointing out that change is inevitable, but arguing for giving it a helping hand…
The Shape of Things to Come reeks of Wells’ belief in the planned society, of eugenics and social engineering, and though he had some awareness of the limitations of such – later chapters detail corrective actions needed to make the new World State viable, the book is ultimately steeped in an unswayable belief in progress, a rationale that sprang from the Enlightenment and Victorian cultural arrogance in equal parts, an arrogance he exhibits as much as he decries it.
This is progress with teeth, imposed from above. Wells realises that the mere existence of such an autocracy would bring it, by default, to tyranny, but the systems put in place by the Dictatorship of the Air lead to the autocratic second council being simply absorbed and replaced, as unrealistic a supposition as Lenin’s “withering of the state”.
But communism, which he very much saw as a failed precursor to his future regime, he says, became insular and consumed itself because of its adoption of irrational orthodoxies. What he doesn’t note is that”science” is also prone to dogmatism, and such dogmatism is dangerous. The assumption that current ideas are right did untold damage throughout the 20th century. Everything from bad town planning, through the destruction of the Aral sea to the Holocaust comes from exactly the same school of self-righteous nonsense as Wells’ controlled utopia with its “tranquility valleys” full of relaxation gasses and nature bent to man’s whim. History has shown us that any kind of mass change, even positive, brings a whole host of new problems to snap at its heels. There is not “one sole right way and… endless wrong ways of doing things,” only what seems right at that time. There is no truth but the truth, and like the monotheists idea of god, it is unknowable. Try to legislate for the “right way” and you end up with a world where bananas have a maximum legal curvature.
Wells often comes across as bombastic and self-important as he bangs his drum for technocracy. Like many men who stand up and state “This is not the way!”, Wells does not deeply question himself. He sets up counter-arguments and then refutes them, like all who are convinced of their own opinion do.
Its strident didactacism aside, there is much to enjoy in the book. Wells is still spinning yarns of tomorrow for the fun of it. Revealingly, he includes a chapter on an artist named Theotocopulos Aristophanes, clearly an analogue for himself. Aristophanes keeps a journal illustrated by sketches and falls in love with a woman named J (Wells’ referred to his second wife in this manner, and communicated with her in a similar way). It’s a tender chapter, where Wells tacitly admits how trammelling the society he yearns for would be for a man like himself as it developed. He also, reading between the lines, expresses his love for his then deceased wife. Elsewhere, he describes how romance will become less common, showing it as a distraction, and this from a notorious adulterer! Other Wellsian self-deprecations include the fading away of novels and the banning of violent entertainment. Nevertheless, his desire for a world government of enlightened technocrats was truly passionate. So bright was this future for him that it blinded him to just how faddy and imprecise the social sciences can be. He was certain, as all old men are certain, that society was collapsing, and that people needed firm guidance. Read certain passages of The Shape of Things… and he could be writing about chavs for today’s The Daily Mail. Wells was always very much under the impression that people were stupid, venal and selfish, an impression that grew as he aged. People did not know what was good for them. However, Wells, one can’t help but think, rather thought he did know.
Like a lot of thinkers who believe in enlightened despots, he never asks himself who will choose those who would rule, even if neatly sidestepping the issue that people who find themselves in power are those that seek it, and they’re the last people you want in charge. This conundrum led Churchill, who is gently mocked in the book, to say: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried.” The Shape of Things to Come shows us that this is a sentiment Wells would have found easy to agree with, albeit for all the wrong reasons.
But perhaps it is not about the future at all. On the one hand, Wells was the supremely civilized Victorian, a lover of science, a hater of violence. On the other, he was a flighty amorist, a wargamer. Wells might have seemed willing to sacrifice much to progress to get his utopia, but in the end its attainment was as unlikely as Wells’ striking out the more playful sides of his personality. This book, as fascinating an SF story as it is, is shot through with the dichotomies of one of the 20th century’s finest minds. Not so much The Shape of Things to Come, but The Shape of Wells that Was.
The Shape of Things That Were
Arthur C Clarke has nothing on HG! Wells got a fair bit right in The Shape of Things to Come. Though he also got some things wrong, as you read this list, remember it’s 96 years until the book’s history runs out…
Submarines that can venture far from base intensify the war. Armed with aeroplanes and “air torpedoes”, “these vessels made London vulnerable from Japan, Tokio vulnerable from Dublin; they abolished the last corners of safety in the world.”
He calls them air torpedoes, and though the ultimate payload is gas, not nuclear warheads, the effect is much the same. They can even direct themselves to their targets.
Hitler remains a petty thug on the world stage, his nation under-developed and technologically inferior to the Polish.
Wells makes much of the loss of “non-combatant”, something he saw as getting worse with the introduction of aerial and submarine warfare. You can’t help but think what he’d make of today’s low-intensity wars and their collateral damage.
World War II
It starts in 1940, the flashpoint is the Polish Corridor. The Poles beat the Germans eventually, though the war drags on until 1949 and engulfs much of Europe. A separate war goes on in the east, with Japan attacking China, and America eventually declaring war on Japan.
Many world economies are exhausted by the war, never receiving payment for the armaments they have sold. The US, like the European empires, eventually disintegrates under the relentless pressure of endless recession.
A side benefit to war-research by China yields a mutagenic gas that can be used in genetic engineering. After the establishment of the World State, this is used to create all manner of new food crops. Wrong method, but…
Wells campaigned vigourously for the League of Nations, but grew disappointed by its toothlessness. In the book it is wound down in the 1940s. In real life it was replaced by the slightly tougher United Nations in 1945.
Wells’ Dictatorship of the Air came about initially by aviators plying trade routes after the war and plague, and banding together for protection. It’s interesting to see trade play a part – the formation of large economic power blocs in our world has been precipitated by commerce.
Wells states that the cycle of war is determined by military industrialists, led by an overcapacity in world production. It’s an early version of the sinister military-industrial complex beloved of Left-wingers and conspiracy theorists. He says that once these industrialists do not get paid, the whole system would collapse. He did not foresee that consumerism would take up the slack.
The Shape of Things To Come has tanks as a military dead end, vulnerable to air attack.
A scare in Wells’ day, and scare now. The difference being that Wells had lived through the horrendous ‘Flu epidemic of 1918-19, which killed perhaps as many as 100 million people. Interestingly, the worst disease in the book, maculated fever, leaps over from baboons, and this cross-species transmission is what worries scientists so much now…
Though we don’t have the society envisaged by Wells, there are several striking parallels between his Dictatorship of the Air and modern China. That had social collapse, a revolution, a stern dictatorship, then a lessening of control. It’s run entirely by a cadre of scientists and engineers…
WATCH THIS SPACE
More things to come…
H.G. Wells was a prolific chap, and explored the themes of The Shape of Things to Come more than once.
There are two more Wells projects connected thematically and by title to The Shape of Things to Come. The first, and most obvious, is Alexander Korda’s 1936 film Things to Come, which was written by Wells. It takes a boiled down version of the book’s story and updates it a touch. All the action takes place in one place, Everytown, which we see go from a happy town of stone and brick to an underground utopia via a bombed-out ruin. The film clumsily deals with the fall of the tyrannical council in the 21st century by way of a romance and a moonshot. It concludes with a speech on progress. Otherwise, the themes remain the same. Somewhat ponderous and preachy, it is nevertheless full of impressive visuals. It is more optimistic than the book, though like its paper counterpart it is shamelessly playing the doom-monger. It was the only screenplay Wells produced.
Wells also wrote a short story entitled “A Story of The Days to Come”. Published in 1897, it tells of a 22nd century where mankind lives in giant hive-like cities. The novella, which starts off with another attack on Victorian complacency, details a forbidden love affair between middle-class Mr Mwres (Morris – spelling has been rationalised) and a wealthy woman. The two escape into the countryside, fail to live off the land, and then experience various layers of their society’s rigid social structure before they are rescued. In this story, Wells anticipates skyscrapers, motorways, mass air transport, and travelators. Though society is run along the planned, socialist lines he extols in The Shape of Things to Come, its class system, an attack on contemporary mores, provides nothing but a barrier to the lovers.