Wells and Cultural Prophecy: “The Shape of Things to Come” (1933)

by Mark Wallace

H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come (1933), isn’t really a novel, whatever the blurb of the recent Penguin edition (2005) might say. Its closest predecessor thematically may be a work of cultural prophecy such as Carlyle’s Past and Present (1843), but within a frame structure similar to Sartor Resartus (1833-34). What Wells calls it is “a history of the future”.

The main body of the text is from the files of one Dr Philip Raven, recently deceased. He presents it as based on his own dreams or visions of the future. The dreams don’t constitute an action-based narrative, but a very long and detailed historico-sociological textbook. Later, the editor (identified as HGW – Wells himself, or a version of him) whose comments frame Dr Raven’s writings, suggests they should be read as a “general thesis […] about the condition of things to come” (447).

The framework, then, is very similar to that of the thesis on “things in general” by Prof Diogenes Teufelsdrockh, as presented in Sartor. Both books are offering a thesis on the grandest and most important of subjects, but within a slightly fictionalized framework, which allows the authors to play with ideas and put forward ideas they do not quite wish to take full responsibility for. For Wells, this means he can provide for the regeneration/ rebirth of society through the instrument of a totalitarian Modern State, whose aim is “to rule not only the planet but the human will” (346), and who thus impose themselves by martial law and precisely 47, 066 executions! (see page 358) But while this may appear draconian, Wells creates a scenario where the end is seen to justify the means, because crime is ultimately abolished, as well as “hunger, fear and other primary stresses” (439). This is achieved through Discipline, Education, and the jettisoning of Democracy, Monarchy, Capitalism, Nationalism and Religion, the five great bugbears of 20th century society, as Wells saw it. There isn’t even any need for medical eugenics, just selective breeding (along with its corollary, selective sterilization) and right education, et viola:

[I]t is particularly evident in Bengal and Central China. There we find the direct descendants of shrill, unhappy, swarming, degenerate, undernourished, undereducated, underbred, and short-lived populations among the finest, handsomest, longest-lived and ablest of contemporary humanity. (430)

Things to Come demonstrates in one sense a very optimistic view of the human condition, a limitless faith in the powers of good education to eradicate “abberant motives” (413) and unite all the world as one race. But to reach that state, a couple of things have to happen: there’s the whole totalitarian bit, but even before that, to create the conditions for Wells’ Aristocracy of Talent to create their World State, the majority of the world’s population had to be wiped out by a Great Pestilence. This questionable deus ex machina is characterized as “not the disease but the harvest of a weakness already prepared” (226). It is the Carlylean schema of the phoenix death-birth of society in Sartor. As the early 19th century for Carlyle, the 1930s was the period for Wells in which society had become exhausted; caught in a stranglehold of old, worn out beliefs, customs and institutions, unable to extricate itself, unable to work up the will to extricate itself, unable to appreciate the need for extrication. What was needed was the descent into chaos, in which shams could finally be burned up, and men could realize their true standing with regard to nature and Things That Are. This was a workers’ revolution for Carlyle, for Wells it was this pestilence.

The pestilence, though, is a big stumbling block for Things to Come as a prescriptive – and, if we want to call it a work of cultural prophecy, it has to be prescriptive. It’s a deus ex machina, a fictional device. Either Wells is suggesting that something of this kind should be arranged, or all the detail of his plan for a new society is worthless, because the conditions under which it can be implemented are, more or less, impossible. Yet it’s only really as cultural prophecy the book makes sense – it sure as hell isn’t a novel. Still, there’s  a lot to appreciate about The Shape of Things to Come: there’s breadth of knowledge and depth of commitment, and a basically disinterested attempt to ameliorate the lot of mankind. Despite the impression that this post might have given, Wells’ approach is still fundamentally humane – his description of the horrors of WWI is powerful, for example. Yet in his impatience with his society, he went rather over the top, and his cultural prophecy, like Carlyle’s (which he had read as a teen/ 20-something), is based on an idealistic view of leadership. If he had been writing a few years later, maybe he could have taken Orwell’s Animal Farm (1944) into account. That book now seems a much more realistic account of how power is obtained and maintained. But Wells was no Orwellian, or indeed Foucauldian, and believed that power would fade when its job was done – and, who knows, maybe it will.

H.G. Wells, The Shape of Things to Come, ed. by Patrick Parrinder (London: Penguin, 2005)