H G Wells - the future seen through fiction

Described as the most important English writer of his age, H G Wells was born on September 21st, 1866, and died in 1946, shortly before his 80th birthday. His international fame is demonstrated by his appearance in the cover of Time magazine on the day before his 60th birthday.

He wrote novels, especially science fiction stories that anticipated the future. He managed to make the impossible seem believable, and his record of prediction is impressive. Writing in the late 19th and very early 20th Centuries, he anticipated space travel, aerial warfare, motor transport that led to commuting and suburban spread, changing sexual mores, world wars, and a “world brain” that held all the information. He even foresaw a federal Europe, but thought the UK would be happier to be involved with the US and the English-speaking dominions.

His science fiction novels included The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898), The First Men in the Moon (1901), and later The Shape of Things to Come (1933). The last formed the basis for the spectacular 1936 movie, Things to Come, for which Wells wrote the script. It predicted World War II, but had a group of scientists taking over the world to make it more rational.

This reflected Wells’ own outlook of an idealized socialism. He was at one time a member of the socialist Fabian Society, and twice stood as a Labour Party candidate for the University of London. He interviewed Stalin in Moscow, but mixed his praise with criticism of the USSR’s state violence and suppression of free speech. He wrote extensively on human rights, including The Rights of Man (1940), which was drawn upon heavily in the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

HG Wells was undoubtedly well-meaning. He genuinely wanted humankind to live in a kinder, cleaner, more rational world. Like many idealistic socialists, he thought other people were like himself, and did not take account of the baser, more self-serving motives that some pursue, and which need mechanisms to control and, if possible, divert to the general good. The market does this to some extend by giving rewards to those who provide goods and services that people value.

His other drawback might have been what F A Hayek called The Fatal Conceit, the supposition that one can think up a better world from scratch, using only the power of reason, rather than building upon and adapting what has been tried and tested over generations. After what we have witnessed, it seems a somewhat naïve belief.

Despite these obvious drawbacks, Wells served to inspire those who yearned for a better world, one whose imperfections were removed, and one from which men and women, now united in common cause, could go out to expand humanity's dominions into the unknown.

The closing lines from Things to Come, thrill us still. Passworthy asks, “Oh, god, is there ever to be any age of happiness? Is there never to be any rest?” And Cabal replies “Rest enough for the individual man—too much, and too soon—and we call it death. But for Man, no rest and no ending. He must go on, conquest beyond conquest. First this little planet with its winds and waves, and then all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him and at last out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time, still he will be beginning.”

It's quite an ambition.