The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Tag: h.g. wells

The Dawn of Algorithmic Man, or an Even Worse Death

Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus (2016) chronicles the (as he sees it) ongoing death of humanism, which Nuval sees as the “religion” that has dominated the world for 300 years. It is to be replaced by Dataism, the belief in the wisdom of algorithms, which are beginning already to know us better than we know ourselves, and which will soon be making decisions on all our behalves:

You may not agree with the idea that organisms are algorithms, and that giraffes, tomatoes and human beings are just different methods for processing data. But you should know that this is current scientific dogma, and it is changing our world beyond recognition. (429)

It is perhaps unnerving to contemplate the approaching death of human subjectivity in its familiar form. Yet I for one welcome our algorithmic overlords. This is because our subjective death at their hands will serve merely to spare us as a species from an even worse death in the long run. Ever since 19th century studies into the nature of deep time and of the universe, our inescapable doom has been present to the general consciousness. The Victorians knew, as their ancestors had not, that the sun was destined to die, and mankind along with it. This, in its novelty, was perhaps a starker reality to them than it is to us. Take, for example, Joseph Conrad’s reflection on the death of the sun, and its implications for ideologies of progress:

The fate of a humanity condemned ultimately to perish from cold is not worth troubling about. If you take it to heart it becomes an unendurable tragedy. If you believe in improvement you must weep, for the attained perfection must end in cold, darkness and silence.

Quoted in Cedric Watts, A Preface to Conrad (Longman, 1982), p. 87

Joseph Conrad: didn’t hold out much hope for humanity.

H.G. Wells, too, was preoccupied by this inevitability, and its implications for the belief in progress. In Men Like Gods (1923), for example, he writes:

[O]ur sun and planets are cooling, and there seems no hope of escape from the little world upon which we have arisen. We were born with it, and we must die with it. That robbed many of us of hope and energy: for why should we work for progress in a world that must freeze and die?

Why indeed? The death of the sun provides a more final and absolute denouement for the human race than even the impending climate catastrophe anticipated by scientific consensus. We don’t have the means to build a civilisation outside of the solar system, or even to get a single person out there. Human progress is ultimately futile. Let us leave it, then, to the algorithms. Long before the death of the sun, if Harari is correct, they will have taken over, probably reduced humanity to slaves, drones, our currently overdeveloped consciousnesses existing at subsistence level. At least, though, we are spared Conrad’s apocalyptical vision, which becomes one less thing to worry about.

It may not end in cold, darkness and silence as Conrad thought, but the death of the sun will be the obliteration of the Earth, and will be one which we will see coming long before it arrives. In this context, we should welcome the anaesthesia that will come with the dawn of algorithmic man. We can already feel the numbness taking over, as our bodies and minds adjust to lives as adjuncts to technology. The great anaesthetising is only beginning, and will take generations. Resistance is probably futile, but in any case misguided.

The Death of the Curate in Wells’ War of the Worlds and its 1953 Adaptation

Linda Hutcheon notes that when a narrative text is adapted, there is “almost always […] an accompanying shift in the political valence” (A Theory of Adaptation, 2006, p. 141). The story might be the same in its essentials, but in small narrative choices made, lines of dialogue , elements of character, etc., much food for reflection on differing ideological underpinnings, assumptions, morals, values, etc. is found. Where to locate this difference, then? In the author? The writer had a different intellectual and moral make-up to the director (assuming we can name the director as auteur). Or in the culture? Who writes a book, and an adaptation? An individual, or a culture? Considering many modern screen products, they appear to be written as much as anything by generic tropes. But are prevailing generic tropes themselves written by a culture? Surely they have a signifying purpose beyond mere cultural filler, which has enabled them to thrive in the meme pool? Perhaps the first point to be made before getting into these difficult questions is that a story doesn’t mean in the abstract. The narrative may remain the same between source and adaptation, but if the mode of narration changes, the narrative may mean, in an ideological sense, something quite different in both manifestations of the same story. If the story itself is not too saturated with evident ideological functions, just a few small changes can wholly shift the political valence. A few small crucial unargued assumptions may seem to convey a wholly different mode of considering the political.

An example, one that struck me recently: H.G. Wells’ classic sci-fi novel The War of the Worlds (1898) and its 1953 Hollywood adaptation. One ideologically loaded figure: the curate. Wells’ novel doesn’t give names to the characters. There’s the narrator (who never formally introduces himself) his brother, his wife, the curate, etc. Maybe it’s Wells deliberately depersonalizing humans just to hammer home his point about how insignificant we are, or would be to a hypothetical intellectually superior race. This is the point he makes in the book’s tremendous opening paragraphs, when he imagines a great race exterminating humanity, and then adds:

[B]efore we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit? (Bk. I, Ch. I)

The general reader doesn’t necessarily realize how harsh and cynical Wells is at times in his early sci-fi novels (especially The Island of Dr Moreau – the best of them in my opinion), but this passage sums up how determined he is to get people to question the notion and status of humanity. It’s a post-Darwinian, maybe post-Nietzschean outlook, and it’s not pretty.

It is predictable that given such a mood, curates are not going to be let off lightly, and Wells is unrelenting in his denigration of this character. The Curate is introduced as follows:

His face was a fair weakness, his chin retreated, and his hair lay in crisp, almost flaxen curls on his low forehead; his eyes were rather large, pale blue, and blankly staring. He spoke abruptly, looking vacantly away from me.

“What does it mean?” he said. “What do these things mean?”

I stared at him and made no answer.

He extended a thin white hand and spoke in almost a complaining tone.

“Why are these things permitted? What sins have we done? The morning service was over, I was walking through the roads to clear my brain for the afternoon, and then–fire, earthquake, death! As if it were Sodom and Gomorrah! All our work undone, all the work—- What are these Martians?”

“What are we?” I answered, clearing my throat. (Bk. I, Ch. 13)

Physical appearance is the first indice of character here: “His face was a fair weakness”; his eyes stared blankly. And then his tone of voice confirms it: it is, already, “almost a complaining tone”. As for the content of his speech: he can only regurgitate formulas from the Bible, with increasing hysteria as the book develops, demonstrating at every appearance an absolute inability to apply his intelligence to the situation, or even to face it in its empirical realities. Note, here, as well, that classically Wellsian response to the question “What are these Martians?” – “What are we?”. This is the question that resounds through his early science-fiction novels, less often in a tone of curiosity than in one of savage contempt.

The Curate does not improve on acquaintance and, ultimately, when he begins jabbering loudly and nonsensically about the Martians’ attack being a judgement from God, doing so when the Martians are just outside and thus endangering himself and the narrator, our narrator bashes him on the head with the butt of a meat-cleaver. It is unclear whether this stuns or kills him, but he is afterwards dragged away by the Martians, to die if he has not done so already. This chapter is actually called “The Death of the Curate”, but Wells seems to deliberately leave some ambiguity as to how that death came about.

But what is clear in this chapter is the contempt with which the Curate and “his vacant sham of God’s service” is viewed. In Brian Aldiss’ introduction to the book, he notes that “Wells’ curate is there to express the helplessness of organized religion when faced with the invaders” (Penguin, 2005, xviii). Not for Wells the old adage about no atheists in foxholes. Religion, he posits, is not of the least use in a foxhole, but rather a hindrance to clear thought.

So much for Wells. In the 1953 adaptation of the book, the figure of the Curate is retained, now called Pastor Dr Matthew Collins, according to IMDb. A pastor and a doctor. A man of science and a man of God. After the early establishing shots of Mars, Earth, and falling Martian rockets, Pastor Collins is present in the very first shot, and is centrally involved in the community reaction to the rockets. First, he is shown as the lone voice of community-mindedness among all the greedy businessmen who want to turn the smoking rocket into a tourist attraction. He engages in discussion of the Martians with the scientist, and later he tries to dissuade the military from shooting on the Martians without first trying to talk to them. When the military show no interest in this approach, the intrepid Pastor Matthew goes out alone to talk to the aliens.

Pastor Matthew and the protagonist's love interest Sylvia Pastor Matthew and Sylvia, one of the film’s romantic leads.


Oddly enough, though his rationale is that no attempt has been made to communicate with the Martians, his attempts to speak to them on approach are limited to quoting the Bible: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”, etc, simultaneously holding up a Bible. They obliterate him, unsurprisingly.


Pastor Matthew comes to a similar end to Wells’ Curate, but that’s where the similarity ends. The Curate is whiny and utterly lacking in self-possession; Matthew is soft-spoken, intelligent, compassionate, and, obviously, brave. He is right at the centre of the communal effort to tackle the catastrophe. But to fully understand the religious undertones that emerge in the adaptation, one would have to take other elements beyond this character into account. Most of all, there is the climactic scene, which takes place in, of course, a church.

Wells’ story, then, proved very easily amenable to being turned to ideological purposes other than his own. Quite the reverse of his own, perhaps. This may well be because Wells’ curate is such an ideologically loaded character – he’s not essential to the plot, only to his own small section of it. He has no other characteristics beyond those that relate to the political valence of the movie. So it’s easy to change these elements without having any knock-on effect on the story as a whole. This is the irony of such a simply political approach to character. Had the Curate been a more complex character, and/or more integrated into the plot, it would have been difficult to change him without it jarring notably with other elements of the narrative. As it is, the story in the adaptation moves along quite smoothly, and the death of the Curate does not seem to be in any way out of keeping with it. A single story can, very easily with just a few simple moves, turned into an ideological opposite of itself.

H.G. Wells, In Search of Hot Water (1939)

I came across a copy of this book for a few euro in the second-hand section of Chapters bookshop in Dublin. A nice find: a first edition (paperback) from 1939 of a book I had never heard of by an author I admire. Looking the book up on WorldCat, it seems that it has only been republished once since 1939, and that was back in 1949. It made Hot Water more interesting to me to know that I was holding the first and almost only edition; and it surprised me that such a famous name as Wells could have a book that has been so long out of print. A good deal of the explanation is in the fact that Wells published a lot, and a great deal of his lesser work has been weeded out from the “selective tradition” (as Raymond Williams would say). And further, the essays that make up Hot Water are occasional, specifically about affairs of the times, and not for the ages. Most of them had appeared in newspapers in the months prior to the book’s November 1939 publication.

H.g. Wells' Wells’ In Search of Hot Water (1939), in the classic Penguin sleeve, scuffed edges and all.

The full title on the flyleaf is Travels of a Republican Radical in Search of Hot Water, but the front has only In Search of Hot Water. Note the clever double meaning in the title: firstly, Wells, a noted polemicist, is forever finding himself in metaphorical “Hot Water”, and each essay is written in expectation that he will find find himself there again; and, secondly, the traveller to the out-of-the-way places Wells visits in the course of these essays (e.g. Burma) is often, presumably, without the conveniences of Western living, such as physical “Hot Water”. The full title also sees Wells define himself politically, “A Republican Radical”.

These essays were written in 1938-39, when Wells was over seventy, and had been a prominent intellectual for almost 40 years. The time itself is significant, as it was just before the outbreak of World War II. This was a war which Wells, along with many others, saw coming, and it haunts the pages of Hot Water. There’s an essay in the book called “Prophecy of 1939”. Cultural prophecy was of course one of Wells’ long-standing specialities (witness Anticipations, A Modern Utopia and The Shape of Things to Come). However, he opens “Prophecy” with a characteristically blunt warning:

Let me be perfectly frank about what this Forecast amounts to. I know no more than you about what is coming. I have no magic crystal. All this sort of thing is guessing; an estimate of trends and possibilities. (17)

Disclaimer issued, he gets down to business. He predicts, accurately, that the greatest threat to the world order is coming from Germany. He postulates that “The German people are an orderly, vain, deeply sentimental and rather insensitive people” (18). Wells was rather fond of making huge generalizations about national character; which is odd, because he wanted nothing more than a single World State and constantly and effectively ridiculed provincialism and insularity among his compatriots. But his problem is not with the German people, but their leaders, “a triumvirate of lunatics”. He is loudly against Chamberlain’s appeasement policy:

[Hitler] and his chief friends ought to now be rendered harmless and put away as soon as possible. I appeal to his open record, his published speeches, his role in the present pogrom, to establish the fact that he and his two friends are suffering from delusions of grandeur and a contagious form of homicidal mania. (19)

The fence on which Chamberlain wishes to sit, in Wells’ metaphor, is becoming more and more a knife-edge. What is needed is…

 [A] Radical-minded union of the English-speaking states. Such a consolidation could say effectively “Stop the fighting”. It has to be said, arms in hand. Peace is not a foolish, faceless thing; it is not the retreating aspect of humanity. It is something more difficult than war, more exacting of human energy. (27)

It is typical of Wells to frame peace in such warlike terms, though perhaps in this case justified.

It was not his reflections on Chamberlain’s foreign policy which caused most upset. Rather, it was a fairly mild passing swipe at royalty in the essay which earned the author a rebuke in the pages of the Sunday Dispatch. Hot Water reprints said rebuke appended to “Prophecy”, further appending Wells’ own response – a response which, he wrote, “I have found impossible to reprint in any British or American periodical” (32). In this response he reiterates yet again his rejection of monarchism, preferring “the high republican and intensely English tradition of Cromwell, Milton, George Washington and so forth” (35). The invocation of Cromwell is interesting – undoubtedly Carlyle’s Great Man theory and the Carlylean construction of Cromwell was somewhere in the mix. “Prophecy” starts with a critique of Great Man politics in general and Hitler in particular, but the appeal to Cromwell shows Wells’ loyalties were never really to the democratic tradition, but to the tradition of rule of the best, the class identified as the Samurai in A Modern Utopia. His writings mix a scrupulous rationalism with a contempt for mediocrity and a love of conquest and good old Hero-worship, though not in the unequivocal Carlylean manner. Equivocality is part of Wells’ manner at all times, expressed in his humour, often at his own expense. In the descriptions of himself and his literary avatars (such as “the whitish plump man” at the beginning of A Modern Utopia), it is always clear that Wells finds himself a little ridiculous, both in his person and in the strength of his opinions – but still, he can’t help having very strong opinions.

Taken in isolation, some of Wells’ formulations of his opinions may be objectionable to contemporary sensibilities. Taken together, they show a writer who never stopped going over the problems of his society, who was never happy with formulae or with the received opinions of his time, and who always maintained a measure of open-mindedness, even if prone to excesses. Reading Wells remains bracing. There is an everyman quality to his indignant reactions to the stupidity and self-servingness of those in power, his deeply ingrained hatred of cant and hypocrisy; but it is allied to an intelligence and breadth of knowledge beyond most and an unerring dedication to ameliorating the muddle of worldly affairs, with the final end of bringing all of humanity together in one harmonious World State. His prose style is brisk and lively in this late book, he ‘s still hopeful and still spoiling for a fight. But now, almost seventy years after  his death, the Wellsian Utopia is as far away as ever, so perhaps he was an imperfect prophet, or perhaps the world hasn’t caught up with him yet.

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

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, for example, Carlyle’s 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, in Wells’ scenario 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 Wells’ equivalent to 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 to work up such a will. 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 the nature of things. This was to be achieved through a workers’ revolution for Carlyle, for Wells it was 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 certainly isn’t a novel.

Nevertheless, 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.

James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933)

When I first encountered it, aged about 7 or 8, H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man inspired in me feelings which I would now, thanks to my later readings of Dr Freud, understand to belong to that realm of sensation called The Uncanny. It appeared in a children’s version, illustrated and much abridged, in my local newsagent, an establishment not given to stocking works of literature. I vowed to purchase and read this intriguing work, and soon did, but I don’t remember the actual reading of it so much as just seeing it before me in the shop, and being deeply discomfitted and fascinated by that illustration of a man-shaped suit of clothes and the glasses floating above them where the eyes should be, but there were no eyes, nor a face. I don’t even remember what particular reflections this notion of the invisible man provoked in me, just that I found it greatly fascinating.

The Invisible Man arrives in Iping.

The Invisible Man is a product of the Victorian era, first published in 1897. The 1933 Universal Studios adaptation is very much a product of that studio and of director James Whale, sharing quite a few features with, especially, Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein. Both foreground the notion of science being a danger to sanity and the human spirit. “He meddled in things men should leave alone”, says Kemp early in the film and Griffin (The Invisible Man) himself repeats the phrase much later on. Like Victor Frankenstein, too, Griffin is given a love interest (not in Wells), and again he seems to have been faced with a binary choice – marriage to Flora and domesticity, or devotion to the expansion of human knowledge. And like Victor F., he made what is coded in the film as the wrong choice.

The love interest aside, the film is a lot less interested in gaining sympathy for Griffin than Wells. Wells gave him a substantial back-story that’s omitted. The film’s Griffin is motivated by a megalomania and lust for power so excessive as to be parodic:

Don’t you see what it means? Power. Power to rule, to make the world grovel at my feet… Power! I said. Power to walk into the gold vaults of the nations, into the secrets of kings, into the holy of holies, etc.

Griffin is the evil and dangerous Other, and it is in the community response to his incursion that the film locates morality and fellow-feeling.

"Power! I said."

The film also locates considerable humour in the community response to Griffin, and in Griffin’s own Puckish pransterism. For, only minutes after expounding on his lust for power, Griffin is skipping down a country lane, appearing as a disembodied pair of trousers, singing “Here we go gathering nuts in May” for the purpose of alarming a middle-aged woman out walking. Such incongruities are characteristic of Whale’s movies and much in evidence in The Invisible Man.

The coming of the disembodied trousers

In the documentary on my DVD of the film, one of the contributors puts the popularity of The Invisible Man and its several sequels down to the fact that “it’s about nudity”. Because, of course, his clothes aren’t invisible, so to stay unseen he must remain naked. There may be something in this, though voyeurism must be at least an equally large component, if one wants to ponder the psychosexuality of invisibility. Of course, neither Wells nor Whale does ponder this. But in Whale, especially, Griffin’s motives are weak and, in fact, nonsensical. If one’s desire is world power and glory, invisibility is hardly the best course. Griffin’s plan is as follows:

I shall offer my secret to the world with all its terrible power. The nations of the world will bid for it, thousands, millions. The nation that wins my secret can sweep the world with invisible armies.

I’m not so sure of the efficacy of an invisible army. Rather than sweep the world, wouldn’t they be constantly falling over each other? And, of course, to remain invisible they’d have to be naked and unarmed, hardly an ideal state for an army. Admittedly, Griffin is clearly mad with his power-lust at this point, so maybe the stupidity of his idea is the point, but by making this somewhat absurd lust for worldly power central, the film is perhaps avoiding dealing with issues of nudity and voyeurism, though there are a couple of sly references to Griffin’s naked state. Could it be time for a modern update on this classic tale, one in which the perviness of the urge for invisibility is laid bare? Only time will tell.

Side-note: This shot comes in right after the studio logo.

It says:

Universal Picture.

NRA member US.

We do our part.

First time I’ve noticed this.


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