Three of the books that you have selected to talk about today were written early in H G Wells’s career, in the 1890s. Do you think that his biggest contribution to literature has been those early scientific romances?
Yes, that’s probably right. There is a common critical line about Wells which is that he started off young and enthusiastic, writing lively, ambivalent and ambiguous works. He seemed to be delightedly thinking up new ways of destroying humanity over and over again, or perversely pointing out how we were all going to degenerate down the evolutionary scale, back into sea squids. His work of the 1890s is satirical and provocative.
Then, quite early in his career, he became a famous writer and personality very fast, and in a sense started to treat himself too seriously. He did a famous lecture in 1902 at the Royal Institution called The Discovery of the Future, where he essentially said: fiction is boring! We can scientifically predict the future! And that is what I am going to do in this lecture. Some critics of Wells say that that is what he did for the next 44 years of his life. He got increasingly didactic and uninteresting; literary people in the liberal establishment like Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster hated him; he became estranged from early fans like Henry James. After his early work, he only wrote didactic utopias and non-fiction about ‘world government’. He hectored.
I think this picture is way too simple, but it is the case that if you are interested in science fiction and popular culture, then those early works—The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau—are crucial. After that, he did write some interesting works in a bewilderingly diverse array of genres, including social realism and utopias. He even had a religious phase briefly during the First World War, but also wrote histories, textbooks, novels and endless utopias. It was a very diverse career, not easy to encapsulate.
What is the enduring appeal of his early scientific romances? Why do people still read these H G Wells books?
He is not the ‘father of science fiction’, as people sometimes say, but he was part of a generation that was beginning to think about science as a resource for literature. I think he was very lucky to be born when he was, in 1866. He got the benefit of the Education Act of 1870, which meant he could go to college and be among the first generation to be taught scientific subjects. Consequently when he became a journalist in the 1890s his frame of reference was no longer Greek and Roman and Classical literature, as it would have been if he had been to public school and university.
“The horrors are coming not from outside, but from within you”
So he was a young upstart from the petit bourgeoisie, of a generation that was relying on new kinds of knowledge. His cleverness was in being able to put them into a new kind of the old romance form and produce the ‘scientific romance’. They are a deliberate mix of new and old: romances rather than novels. They can be utopian or dystopian, but not in the style of literary utopia, established by Thomas More, which is often quite static, descriptive and boring. Instead, Wells’s fictions are dynamic and melodramatic, full of wild, disordered emotions, sensations of sublime awe, and total horror. You’re never quite sure where the sympathies lie, and that ambiguity is why I think they endure.
Writing about The Time Machine, you have identified the ‘Further Vision’—which occurs towards the end of the book—as one of Wells’s most impressive literary passages. Could you talk us through this scene?
At the end of The Time Machine, the Time Traveller escapes from the world of 802,701. He presses the lever forward, and describes himself as plunging ‘into futurity’. The description that follows is impressive. It is only about five or six pages long, but its sense of cosmic scope invents what some identify as the ‘sense of wonder’ that is a central aspect of the appeal of science fiction to many of its readers. There is a sense of the sublimity of geological time. This is a speeded-up scene of the heat-death of the universe, an entropic slowing of the sun as it moves through the sky.
The Traveller stops about 30 million years ahead on a desolate beach where he gets menaced by the feelers of giant crabs that scrabble across this scene. It is an utterly desolate vision—a fantastic vision of entropic decline, a rigorously scientific view of the end of the world. It invents the idea of far future visions that science fiction writers such as Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, or Arthur C. Clarke or Stephen Baxter, have constantly tried to achieve.
It is unusual for Wells to be straining for this kind of literary effect. After that, he wrote much more instrumentally. This is what his argument with Henry James was ultimately about. Wells claimed that he was not really a literary person, but a journalist. He called his fictions ‘abortions’. Yet that passage near the end of The Time Machine is an amazing kind of powerful literary writing and shows that he could write well.
You mentioned Wells’s scientific education. He famously studied under T H Huxley. How does that education feed into The Time Machine?
His scientific education is crucial to his imagination. He went to what was called The Normal School of Science, where the first dean was Thomas Huxley. Although he was not a particularly passionate or devoted Darwinian, Huxley was famously called ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’. As Darwin was a timid man who disliked public speaking and feared the effect of his theory of evolution, Huxley went into battle for him. Huxley also had a genius for understanding that institutions played an important role in perpetuating science, and so he did not just write books or teach classes, but also set up institutions that would instruct people how to teach science. Huxley also fought to get basic science into the national curriculum, fighting the resistance of religious leaders.
So, Wells received his scientific training from important people. He eventually failed his geology exams, because he was having too much fun running a literary journal, but he was given a good training in anatomy and biology. Two of his teachers were crucial for his ideas in The Time Machine. Huxley himself wrote a pessimistic account of evolution in 1893, called The Ethics of Evolution. This was a controversial piece saying that human ethics were diverging from biological evolution. Humanity was supposedly at a point where civilisation was becoming something of a problem: it was becoming too refined, and was not going to be able to survive the brutal natural struggle of the ‘survival of the fittest’. You can see that directly influences The Time Machine.
The other key biologist who worked at The Normal School of Science was Edwin Ray Lankester. He wrote a book called Degeneration: A Chapter in Darwinism in 1880. Darwin tried to comfort us by saying: don’t worry, I know that we are descended from monkeys, but we are progressing ever upwards towards perfection, in a long line of unbroken progress. It was an optimistic, encouraging message. But biological theorists after Darwin said that if you can go up the evolutionary scale, then you can also go down it: you could degenerate and decline, falling back into earlier, more primitive forms. Of course, that is also one of the futures revealed in The Time Machine. In the end, the book is a portrait of the decline of human civilisation, and in this it is thoroughly a book of Victorian biology.
So these are the Morlocks who live underground and have degenerated?
Well, both the races depicted in the book, the Morlocks and the Eloi, have degenerated. The Time Traveller is actually rather a hopeless anthropologist. He arrives in this future terrain, and misunderstands everything. But that is what makes it an interesting book, a continual act of discovery. It is not a didactic story; you discover the implications of the future along with the Time Traveller.
He first encounters these feeble human descendants called the Eloi. They have the attention spans of five-year-olds, and lie around in effete indolence, in what is a clear satire of the communistic utopias of the time, such as that of William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890).
Then, underground, the Time Traveller eventually discovers that there is a whole other race called the Morlocks, who are always described in animalistic terms: lemurs, spiders, monkeys, and so on. He has an absolute revulsion for these figures, who are clearly the descendants of the working class. They remain able to operate machines, are vital and cunning, but are also repulsive creatures.
What tended to happen in the political discussions of the 1890s is that people used the authority of science to try and underpin their ideological beliefs. People claimed that the working class were criminal and immoral—but not only that, they were biologically so. To make such a claim supported by the authority of science meant that this view could not be contested without also taking on Darwin and Huxley, of denying the most advanced biology. These political views, filtered through biology, are what Wells was investigating in his book, but he was also ironizing them to a certain extent.
Christopher Caudwell—whom we will talk about later—suggested that Wells never escaped his petit bourgeois existence. Do you see that reflected in Wells’s depiction of the Morlocks?
I think it is ultimately too reductive to explain The Time Machine by references to Wells’s biography, but it is tempting. There are two key moments in his childhood, which are very important. His family was lower-middle class, and his father became ill, and so they slipped down the social, rather than evolutionary, scale rather suddenly. This sort of trauma—the same thing happened to Dickens—can be very formative. At fourteen, Wells had to become an apprentice to a draper. He describes very evocatively the sense of living in a basement for hours on end, working as an apprentice, and just being able to see the feet of people walking down the road above him.
Then, in order to try and support the family, his mother became the head of the servants at Uppark, a large aristocratic house, and so spent much of her time literally ‘below stairs’. So the idea of a class divide that is spatial—the working class below and the upper classes above—is very clear in these biographical ways.
“He was part of a generation that was beginning to think about science as a resource for literature”
But it’s not just a personal story. Lots of people were talking about this divide that was beginning to emerge in the 1890s, a literal subculture of the working classes. For instance, just before The Time Machine came out there was a huge anxiety about the coal miners who had gone on strike in 1893, and who had brought the country to a standstill. Many of the middle and upper classes thought that they were being held to ransom by these coal miners—these strange, dwarfish Welsh and northern miners—about whom they really knew nothing.
There was a famous cartoon of a bourgeois family sitting comfortably in their parlour, while underneath the coalminers were working in tunnels and shafts under the foundations. And then there was also the commonly used metaphor of the unknown ‘underworlds’ of a city as vast as London, the terrains that no respectable person had ever seen. There was a lot of discussion about these underworlds in the 1890s, which also fed into The Time Machine.
You mentioned degeneration, and I suppose nowadays, no one really believes theories about biological degeneration. Do you think it is the case that bad science can make good science fiction?
Definitely. In a way, what makes good science fiction is the ability to look at the gaps or the possibilities in science that have not quite been fixed down. Science fiction exploits these gaps: it is rarely accurate science; rather, it takes projects forward from possibilities, particularly in phases when science is going through rapid change. We probably will not be able to go faster than light, but nevertheless, it is a useful convention to have spaceships that go faster than light in science fiction stories.
In the 1890s, there was a great deal of advance in detecting ‘invisible’ energy, radio waves, radiation, ‘dark matter’, new frequencies. In neurology there were major advances in understanding the physiology of the nervous system. It was an exciting time to be a young biologist like Wells.
In The Time Machine, Wells is playing off two kinds of science. There is the biological aspect, of Darwinian and degenerationist theory. In fact, Wells was quite an ideologue about degeneration, along with many in his generation. They did believe that the race was declining and that positive interventions would be needed to be made.
But while he believes in the biological scheme, he also draws on the physics of the period. The sun, according to Lord Kelvin—a very prominent and respected scientist of the time—only had 10,000 years left. (They didn’t understand nuclear fusion yet, so they thought that the sun must burn out). Wells uses this time-scale as well. His Traveller goes 30 million years into the future—which is a very Darwinian time scheme—but he describes heat-death, which is only 10,000 years ahead, at least according to Lord Kelvin. Wells plays these two kinds of science off against each other, using the gaps in knowledge to generate his fiction.
Moving on to the next of the books by H G Wells you’ve selected, The Island of Doctor Moreau. Would you describe this as a Gothic tale?
Well, it is a book that is again based in Wells’s biological understanding of things. It is all about an evil doctor who is trying to vivisect animals so that they can advance on the evolutionary scale. What happens instead is a degeneration, and the ‘beast folk’—having reached a certain primitive humanity—steadily become ever more bestial. It ends with an amazing description of a degenerate civilisation. Edward Prendick eventually escapes the island and goes back to London, but feels that all the inhabitants are venal, feral animals that are barely civilised. He walks the streets in fear, waiting for his fellow beasts to tear him to bits.
So it is based on the science of biological regression, but, on the other hand, it is written in an exaggerated Gothic and highly sensational mode. I think it is one of the origins of the more visceral ‘body horror’ genre. It explores the horrific malleability of human form—the idea that the animal is barely hidden beneath the surface. Readers were horrified by that book, and felt that the young upstart Wells had gone too far.
It is still horrifying now.
I agree. It was filmed in 1932 as the Island of Lost Souls, a film that I recommend. It is impressively nasty—Charles Laughton’s portrait of Doctor Moreau is of a louche, camp, and utterly evil man.
The film was seen as so scandalous because it picked up on a sense that maybe the white captives on the island were going to crossbreed with the animalistic women-beasts. It toyed with the taboo of miscegenation (representations of mixed race relationships were banned by the Hollywood ‘Hays Code’). The film was instantly banned in 1932, and you could not see it in England until the late 1960s. It was banned in Australia, and given a new classification as being ‘not suitable for Aboriginal people’, because it portrays a revolution by the beast folk against the white people. Colonial audiences thought that it would foment revolution.
I am intrigued by the ‘body horror’ you mentioned. Could you say a bit more about that?
The traditional Gothic novel dates from the 18th century. It is a form that we associate with Horace Walpole or Ann Radcliffe. They write about labyrinthine castles and women being menaced by strange and unnerving foreigners—they are always set in Spain, or Italy. The threat here is external: it is always the virtue of the woman being menaced by libertines, by nuns, by ghosts coming from somewhere else. Classic Gothic is also concerned with a religious kind of horror. It is a genre that tends to be written by northern Protestants terrified of southern Catholic Europe. It has a framework of religious transgression.
When you get to Wells, a hundred years later, there is very little religious framework. It is a biological framework, and the horrors are not coming from outside, but from within you. Although they don’t have the term ‘genetic’ yet, we could say that monstrosity is encoded in the biological history of the genes. What you come from, aeons ago, is going to erupt back, take you over from the inside. There is the idea that there is a kind of feral cannibalistic creature inside you—think of Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
“You’re never quite sure where the sympathies lie, and that ambiguity is why I think they endure”
Think of the film Alien, and that creature bursting out of your chest—that is the core of body horror. The problem has been planted inside you, and you cannot do anything about it. You cannot do anything about your genetic inheritance because this was decided millions and millions of years ago, when your ancestors unwisely crawled out of the sea.
Doctor Moreau is not the first example of body horror, but it is an influential one. You can see its influence, say, in H. P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Dunwich Horror’, in which there is a cross between man and demonic creature: tentacles and all kinds of crazy stuff thrown into one being. Stephen Asma talks about monsters as ‘mosaic beings’, made up of many different creatures. That’s what physiological body horror relies upon.
Let’s move on to the third book by H G Wells you’ve chosen. The War of the Worlds is a story about Martians invading the earth, but it was also written pretty much at the peak of the British Empire. Can it be read for its insights into colonialism?
Yes. The War of the Worlds explicitly states this in its famous opening pages. Again, it is something we need to understand in context: it is not just a science fiction novel, it is part of the ‘invasion’ genre. It is one of thousands of invasion novels that were written from the 1870s onwards, which nearly always featured an anxiety about invasion from the European continent. Usually it was the ‘damned Germans’, who under Bismarck were becoming a rival imperial power and had entered an arms race with England. These cunning blighters were going to come through and overrun England. For example, there was a very famous book of 1871 called The Battle of Dorking, in which the Germans—rather wonderfully—turn Dorking into a staging-post for their invasion. The fear prompted massive spending on military arms and new technology in the late Victorian period. It would culminate in the Great War of 1914-18.
What Wells does is take that idea of invasion fantasy but give it an astronomical scale. He turns it into what we would understand as a science fictional invasion. In terms of science, Wells was also picking up on various phenomena like a contemporary obsession with Mars. An astronomer in the 1870s called the markings seen through powerful new telescopes on Mars ‘canali’. People misunderstood this as ‘canals’, and jumped to the conclusion there could actually be intelligent creatures on Mars. They thought: what the hell are they going to do to us now? Are they more advanced? Are they as belligerent as humans? Will they invade?
“Wells takes that idea of invasion fantasy but gives it an astronomical scale”
The 1890s is a period famous for imperial expansion: for the ‘Scramble for Africa’, where the European empires agreed to divide up the terrain of Africa amongst themselves in an effort to avoid war. England annexed several dozen territories, and went to war in South Africa to defend its raw materials and strategic gains. In England, this is the era of the jingoes—and the ideology of jingoism. This was the passionate ideological commitment to create a ‘Greater Britain’ that would be a global empire.
Right at the beginning of the novel, Wells’s narrator challenges the idea that England in 1898, with its massive empire, is the top of the political and evolutionary scale. What if you turned it around and we were in fact the equivalent of the Tasmanians—a group of aboriginal people who had been notoriously eliminated by the arrival of British colonists? What if there were an even more intelligent race that were looking at us and thinking in their cold intellectual cruelty that they could take everything, all of our possessions? That is Wells’s brilliant satirical stroke of turning colonialism on its head.
Thinking again of H G Wells’s influence on later writers and books, the idea of a Martian or cosmic invasion has become very popular.
Again, Wells is not the first person to do this by a long way, but he is a very good reference point for the idea of a Martian invasion. Very soon after him, you see lots of stories about this.
It is a good measure of the difference between American science fiction and the British scientific romance that, when The War of the Worlds came out, the American writer Garrett Serviss read it and was so horrified at the human failure to get back at the Martians, that he wrote a book the following year called The Conquest of Mars. In this book, the human race gets together behind the great inventor Thomas Edison. They build a giant gun to fire rockets at Mars, take the fight to the red planet and inevitably kick their over-refined asses.
This is the ‘engineer’ paradigm. Where British science fiction can often depict scenes of devastation, collapse and decline, the American science fiction of the pulps—Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers—sets out with a ‘can do’ attitude to fix things. It’s still there to some extent. In The Martian, Ridley Scott’s film that came out recently based on the Andy Weir novel, the protagonist is a scientist who gets stranded on Mars, but he survives by improvising solutions to problems. It is classic American science fiction.
Let’s move on to the next book on your list, Anticipations[…], which you’ve identified as a possible turning point in H G Wells’s career. It was first published in 1902, and makes a series of predictions about what the world might look like in the year 2000. Was Wells right?
The interesting thing about Anticipations is what he gets right about 2000, and what he gets totally wrong. It is a turning point in his career because it kind of invents ‘futurology’, the idea of looking forward and trying to extrapolate the future from what is happening in the present. It often has a voice of absolute confidence; just as often, it is merely the reflection of contemporary prejudices. It’s the same for Anticipations.
Wells talks about transport rather well, I think. He looks at the emergent technology of the motor-vehicle, and says maybe they will be driven on asphalt, and also that the asphalt will be cambered so that the rain will run off. And you think: not bad!
“He wrote all through his life about the benefits of moving to a world state”
But then he talks about cities and says: of course cities are going to disappear. They will disappear because rapid transport will completely disperse the need for concentration. He describes London quite well when he predicts that it will stretch all the way down to the coast in Kent and across as far as Exeter. This is fairly accurate. But then he says that this conglomeration will be evenly distributed across the terrain because of transport, so there actually won’t be cities at all. He has been totally wrong about that.
In part, the problem is that his kind of futurology works by technological determinism—as if this is the only thing that drives history.
He also predicted a federal European state.
Yes, Wells’s instinct was always towards ideas of federation. He was a passionate advocate for the League of Nations after the catastrophe of the Great War, and then later the United Nations. He wrote all through his life about the benefits of moving to a world state.
In Anticipations, he also talks about class and the future of class. He gets this partly right and partly wrong. He says that the upper middle class and aristocrats are becoming ever more distant from labour and from the real world. They are finance capitalists who are just waiting for their dividends to come in. This seems, to some, to have come to pass.
But then he describes the working class in terms like ‘criminal’, ‘immoral’, and ‘parasitic’. He says that any life led in ‘the social abyss’ will be brief and brutal, and that in the end this social ‘residuum’ will end up dying out, like a biological extinction event. He wants to end inequality, but it’s not a pretty vision: it’s a Darwinian world view. This was a very common turn-of-the-century view.
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He believed that the new class that would emerge was his own class fraction: the new class of self-reliant mechanics and engineers. Basically, what needed to be done was to dismantle democracy and give it to the technocrats. In times of extremity, as fascism and communism emerged, technocracy was an attractive idea before the Second World War. Wells was on the left, but the right-wing Rudyard Kipling agreed with him on this, and wrote several stories about a technocratic world state.
The dream of an elite engineering class was a powerful one for Wells, because it was his scientifically-trained generation that could have had that kind of power. That is the vision behind Things to Come, the great Alexander Korda film of the 1930s, an adaptation of one of Wells’s utopias.
Wells had some notorious suggestions about what should be done to ‘the People of the Abyss’.
Yes, he advocated both positive and negative eugenics. He joined the Fabian Society in 1903, a reformist intellectual grouping of the left often aligned to the Labour Party. He was therefore debating issues of the decline of the human race on the liberal left. But at this point in history both the left and right shared the idea of ‘eugenics’—of controlling the breeding of the human race.
Positive eugenics involves trying to encourage the strong population—which usually means the middle classes—to breed. Negative eugenics involves trying to stop the weaker, residual classes—and particularly those perceived to be morally or physically ‘weak’—from breeding.
One key context at this point is that the British Army had gone to South Africa and fought the Second Boer War, from 1899 to 1902. The British—who thought that they had the greatest and most advanced army in the world—were absolutely trashed by a bunch of farmers in the first months of the war. There was a huge convulsion of panic in Britain, and a lot of the blame was laid on the poor quality of the army recruits, many of whom came from working class areas of the big cities. There was a major government report that investigated the ‘physical deterioration’ of the race, and rang alarm bells about the decline of the working classes.
The recruits were deemed not healthy enough, and people started talking about a dwarfish race being brought up in the inner cities (shades of the Morlocks again!). Wells was thinking about this along with the whole political class. How should breeding be controlled to ensure the survival of the fittest race? You get many questions being asked that are very difficult for us to countenance these days. For example: will ‘the yellow races’ take over? Do we need to kill off ‘the brown races’, or will they decline by themselves? What will allow ‘the white races’ to survive?
When the Traveller says in The Time Machine that the race has ‘committed suicide’, this phrase is a very common one amongst those fearing decline: If nothing is done, the superior white race will commit suicide. These are problematic ideas, but common on both the left and the right in the Edwardian period. The political classes all shared in what was called the new quest for ‘National Efficiency’.
A lot of this came out of Darwin. Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton coined the term ‘eugenics’. His ideas had been totally off the map from the 1870s onwards, but he lived until 1911. At the turn of the century, with the panic about the working class, his ideas came back into vogue. He helped establish The Eugenics Society—one of many that flowered across Europe—which lived on doing active work into the 1970s. Giving out free contraception had been illegal in the nineteenth century, but in the twentieth century it was advocated as a means of controlling the breeding of the wrong kind of people. Marie Stopes, the great hero of the birthcontrol movement, was a Eugenicist. There was a whole shift of ideas.
Why did you choose Christopher Caudwell’s Studies in a Dying Culture?
Christopher Caudwell is an extraordinary figure. He died in the Spanish Civil War at the age of only 29, but he had already had an amazing career. He was a polymath: someone who wrote poetry and crime novels, someone who was a publisher, and an expert in aeronautics. He wrote books on physics and consciousness and poetry, and then was killed fighting the Fascists after he joined the volunteers of the International Brigade. I chose him because he wrote an incredibly insightful essay on H G Wells, which I think really nails his contradictions.
His portrait of Wells is very critical. We tend to think of H G Wells as a Socialist: he believed in utopia, and in the idea of a World League or a World State. We might be tempted to think of him as a Communist: he wanted to get rid of democracy and replace it with a rational technocracy, which is not all that far from what happened in the Soviet Union. Wells travelled to the Soviet Union and met with Stalin. However, Caudwell, who joined the Communist Party in 1935, argued that Wells was far from being an ally of the left.
For Caudwell, the problem with H G Wells was that he was petit bourgeois. As a strict Communist in the 1930s, Caudwell believed—following Marx—that there were two agents of history in capitalist society: the working class and the bourgeoisie. Caudwell was on the side of the working class against the capitalist bourgeoisie, the owners of the means of production. It was an era of extremes, where one had to choose sides. But the problem with H G Wells was that he did not belong to either of these classes. He suffered in this interstitial, lower middle-class, petit-bourgeois condition. He flip-flopped on every single issue because he had no class roots for his convictions.
I do think that Caudwell helps identify some of the problems we have reading H G Wells. Wells started out in the lower-middle class, and then slipped down the social scale as a child. He was alternately anxious and belligerent about his ‘uppity’ class position. He was a member of what has been called the ‘intellectual proletariat’ that emerged in the 1890s. Like George Gissing and other friends, they were not gentlemen of independent means but had to write professionally to live.
Wells became very successful very quickly. He made lots of money from writing after 1895, and had even designed and built his own house by 1901. However, he was aware that he was not really a member of the literary classes. He knew Henry James, but Henry James found him in the end rather vulgar. Aldous Huxley in the 1920s called Wells a ‘horrid, vulgar little man’. Virginia Woolf also thought of him as this brutish, blunt writer who was not of her intellectual class. None of the Bloomsbury group much liked him.
Wells did not go to Cambridge; he did not get trained in Classics. When he travelled to Rome he did not fall into ecstasies, but hated the weight of redundant history there. He wanted to get rid of it, to clear out the rubble and address the future. He wanted to think about science and progress, and not about the awful past that was lingering and rotting around him.
Because Wells was not embedded in his class identity, he shifted his stance on many issues all the way through his career. In the middle of the First World War, he thought that Christianity might actually be a good idea, and so wrote several books about that. Then he stopped, and thought that the Soviets were great. Later he thought—once an understanding of Stalin’s rule became clearer in the 1930s—that they were awful. Caudwell in the 1930s is able to identify one of key problems with Wells: his class ambiguity. He is a victim of it, rather than ever fully in control.
You sound sympathetic towards Caudwell. Of Wells’s plans for the future, Caudwell writes: ‘These bourgeois dream-Utopias with their standardisations . . . their characterless, commercialised, hygienic, eugenic, Aryan-Fascist uniformity not only do not allure us—they revolt our minds’. Do you agree?
I agree with Caudwell on that. What he is objecting to there, I think, is Wells’s arguably fascistic vision that you need to dismantle democracy and give it to a rational and technocratic elite.
This is the problem with the utopias of the twentieth century, both on the right and the left. They are top-down and elitist, and involve imposing a complete vision. You have to be prepared to eliminate the recalcitrant elements of society who do not agree with you—foreigners, Jews, Communists, liberal democrats, the old, the weak, the disabled, the mentally ill.
After the disasters of the Third Reich or the Cultural Revolution, our age is much more cautious about asserting total plans. There are those who imagine only flawed or ‘compromised’ utopias. This is the idea that you cannot plan everything out to the last curtain and pelmet because you need to give space for accident, for history, for development, for liberty, and for the unforeseen. That is perhaps why we do not write utopias so much anymore, and why we are so interested in dystopia.
We have the advantage after 1945 of seeing that any planned utopia—and particularly a eugenic one—is a catastrophe. It results in the death of millions of people. We now know what Stalin was doing in the 1930s, and what Hitler was doing in the camps.
One of Wells’s last books, Mind at the End of its Tether, was written in 1945. He lived long enough to hear about the atomic bomb, and the revelations about concentration camps. He realised that all of his plans for trying to rationalise and control the world through world government were ruined. After George Orwell’s 1984, we have the advantage of being able to understand the catastrophe of utopia. But of course Wells did not have that: he was writing in a fervour of genuine optimism in a totally different era.
One final question. We have not so far discussed the fiction that Wells continued to write after Anticipations. Is any of it worth reading?
Totally, yes. He is most famous for those early scientific romances, but after that he went through a very interesting social realist phase. Although they are fairly conventional Edwardian realist novels, Kipps and Tono-Bungay are very good. Ann Veronica is a very lively novel. It is exasperating because it is a defence of feminism and women’s rights, but told from a hilariously masculine and macho point of view. Nevertheless, it gives a great insight into sexual politics at the turn of the century.
As well as his fiction, his short books on a World State are provocative. He even wrote textbooks on biology. His other great book is Experiment in Autobiography, which he wrote in the 1930s. It is an experimental book of self-examination. In the more liberal 1960s, a little postscript was added about his extraordinary sex life.
Wells was short and had a ridiculous high piping voice, yet he must have been possessed of extraordinary personal charisma, because he seemed able to have sex with virtually anyone he met! He ended up in relationships and had affairs with a whole host of people, and had children by many of them. He examines this part of his self in a very modern way, pointing out his various flaws and his peculiar psychological compulsions. It is an amazing book, a kind of late flowering. It complicates the idea that Wells was an anti-Modernist. He was just a man in a great deal of hurry.
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