HG Wells, the world's first professional futurologist
Image credit: getty images, alamy
Writer and futurist HG Wells, who was born 150 years ago in 1866, thought we should be able to predict and influence the political and technological forces shaping the modern world. How good were his own forecasts?
HG Wells, the world’s first professional ‘futurologist’, died in 1946 after witnessing many of his darkest predictions actually coming true. He warned that irrational politics was about to destroy us all, and he urged a complete reinvention of how we manage global affairs. That same summer, one of the most wayward and unpredictable political leaders we have ever encountered was born. What would Wells have made of US President-elect Donald J Trump?Herbert George Wells is celebrated for inventing ‘science fiction’, but he also wrote dozens of books speculating about the future, asking how to reach for the best outcomes. He thought we were on a path to annihilation, and this was a startling notion for readers enjoying him at the peak of his fame during the Edwardian era, when the British Empire still seemed prosperous and secure.
Soldiers at the dawn of the 20th century still thought in terms of rifle brigades and courageous cavalry charges on traditional battlefields, but Wells knew they were behind the times, and that a massively industrialised arms race was about to trigger a global war. He predicted the coming of armoured tanks (‘land ironclads’ as he called them), aerial bombing, and the mass destruction of civilian populations. He even coined the term ‘atomic bomb’ on the eve of World War One.
Throughout his prolific career as a writer and campaigner for social reform, Wells argued that the world’s problems could be solved by abandoning primitive prejudices such as nationalism, religion and tribalism, and allowing scientists and engineers to run our affairs according to rational principles. Was he right?
Wells was born on 21 September 1866, in the south London borough of Bromley. His father, Joseph, was a gardener and occasional shopkeeper who supplemented his income as a cricketer, until a broken leg curtailed his career. Wells’s mother Sarah saved precious shillings from her work as a housekeeper so Wells could obtain a basic education. He was apprenticed to a draper in Windsor, but hated it. His big break, essentially a giant leap for an impoverished lad in 1881, was winning a scholarship to the Normal School of Science (now Imperial College, London). Among a wide range of subjects, he was taught biology by TH Huxley, the scientist known as ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’ because of his championing of evolutionary theory.
After this modern and enlightened education, Wells came to believe that religion, politics, class divisions and other arbitrary constructs of society were outmoded superstitions obscuring the real story of biological and technological evolution. Only if we could harness those forces properly, we could ensure a better future.
The first ancient habit he scrapped was monogamy. Sex was a natural animal activity, he argued. “Priests have degraded this simple relationship, making it shameful.” He was a small, dumpy man with a squeaky voice, but his two brief marriages were abandoned in favour of numerous sexual entanglements, often with women as brilliant as himself.
While studying at the Normal School, Wells tinkered with short stories and essays. Among these, ‘The Universe Rigid’ (1881) anticipated some of Albert Einstein’s ideas. “The past means looking in a certain direction, while the future means looking the opposite way,” Wells wrote. “Time is merely a dimension, analogous to the three dimensions of space.” This notion fed into his first, immensely successful novel, ‘The Time Machine’ (1895).
In the story, the inventor of this device is transported to the year 802,701, and encounters an elegant, contented human species, the Eloi. They have no need to work and spend their time relaxing. Somehow, all their needs are provided for. At first, the Time Traveller thinks the Eloi have solved all the problems of existence and is delighted to catch a glimpse of a better future.
Of course there is a catch. Hiding underground live the Morlocks, a species of human as ugly as the Eloi are beautiful. The Morlocks tend machinery, possibly a remnant of a previous civilisation. This is how the Eloi’s easy life is enabled. What do the Morlocks get? They come above ground at night to prey upon the Eloi, who have become so enfeebled by luxury, they cannot fight back. Appalled, the Time Traveller clambers back into his machine and races onward millions of years, only to find that humanity has vanished, leaving no trace. Giant crabs scuttle across an earth now dying as the sun begins to fade.
Wells despised how the upper classes lived at the expense of the massed poor, working out of sight in the enormous foundries, cotton mills and coal mines that supported Britain’s status as an economic and military superpower. One day, he reckoned, the system would break, and the ‘Morlocks’ would rebel. He foresaw what many economists are telling us now. Unrestrained capitalism endangers civilisation by creating too wide a gulf between rich and poor.
If that seemed true in 1895, what about today, when, according to a report by the Credit Suisse bank, one per cent of the planet’s population controls half its wealth? At some point, the other 99 per cent might start chewing on today’s privileged Eloi.
Inspiration for Wells’s next novel came when his brother, Frank, commented about the destruction wreaked by colonists. “What if someone dropped out of the sky right here and started laying about us, like we laid about the Tasmanians?” he asked. Wells came up with ‘The War of the Worlds’ (1897), which conveyed to his complacent European readers how it might feel to be exterminated by technologically superior invaders.
Told from the perspective of a nice chap from a leafy London suburb, this terrifying story introduces us to tentacled Martians driving armoured exoskeletons, “monstrous tripods, walking engines of glittering metal,” each equipped with “an unseen shaft” of energy that vaporises anything in its path. Wells described how his Martians “generate an intense heat in a chamber of practically absolute non-conductivity. This heat, they project in a parallel beam against any object they choose, by means of a polished parabolic mirror.”
‘The War of the Worlds’ boasts no heroes. All the narrator can do is watch helplessly as everyone around him is slaughtered by relentless, unknowable weaponry. “For a time I believed that mankind had been swept out of existence, and that I stood alone, the last man alive.” Just as suddenly as the catastrophe began, it stops. The invaders turn out to have a weakness. Terrestrial microbes infect them and they die. A handful of surviving humans emerge from their shelters into a ravaged landscape.
Whatever we think of Wells’s broadly socialist ideas, no one can doubt his prescience about the effects of communications technology on our psyches. As early as 1899, in ‘The Sleeper Awakes’, set in the 22nd century, Wells introduced Babble Machines, remotely controlled speakers relaying propaganda to the masses while they are herded on moving pavements to long, mindless hours of work in the Labour Company, some kind of overarching capitalist monstrosity. He had described radio propaganda three decades before it became an essential tool for the Communists, the Nazis and, of course, the ‘Free World’.
Wells also foresaw television as a means of diverting our attention. “On the flat surface was a little picture, vividly coloured, of figures that moved, and conversed in clear, small voices.” A flickering screen depicts a drama between a man and a pretty woman, and the hapless viewer is gripped. “In a little while, he knew those two people like intimate friends.”
Even more disturbing were the technologies of ‘The War in the Air’ (1908) in which the world is embroiled in a conflict between superpowers. Traditional armies prove useless against aerial attack. In an uncomfortable scenario, Wells introduces us to massive bombing raids against cities. Some readers were dismissive, because flying machines at that time were little more than spindly kites. Three decades later, no one was laughing.
‘The World Set Free’ (1914) envisaged “atomic bombs” exploding continuously for weeks at a time, creating “a furious radiation of energy that nothing could arrest”. Although the technical details were wrong, Wells was on target when he claimed “a man could carry in a handbag an amount of latent energy sufficient to wreck half a city.”
Social engineering on a global scale was Wells’ solution. He had “a plan for the reorganisation of production and distribution, organising the transport of the world by sea and land and air as one system,” while paying “very little heed to outdated political divisions. What need is there for politicians and lawyers arguing about the way things ought to be done, merely confusing the issue?” His great mistake was a fundamental one. He failed to acknowledge that human affairs are not governed by rational choices alone.
Eugene Wigner was just one of many brilliant 20th century scientists who had been inspired by Wells’s futuristic visions, and contributed to the invention of atomic weapons because he thought it was the logical thing to do, in case Nazi Germany developed them first. Like Wells, he and many of his colleagues thought atom bombs must bring an end to war, because no one would want to risk using them. “Any other outcome would be irrational.” In his later years, Wigner saw why Wells’s thinking was flawed. “The role of reason is important, but it does not determine our goals. It only tells us how to achieve them, and at what cost.”
Wells’s Babble Machines have utterly dominated this year’s contest between Clinton and Trump. Under such an intense barrage of contradictory and misleading noise, how could any of the American electorate have known how to choose the right goals? Wells had reached the same conclusion about mass media by the time of his death in August 1946. In his last book, aptly entitled ‘Mind at the End of its Tether,’ he wondered if there could ever be “an ultimate restoration of rationality,” and said that we were entering “the harsh glare of hitherto incredible novelty”. In a startling echo of our ‘post-factual’ media maelstrom, he questioned our grip on reality itself. “Everyday reality is a story thrown upon a cinema screen. The story holds together, yet we feel it is faked. …The sceptical mind says, ‘This is delusion.’”
Instead of relying on the Donald Trumps of this world for leadership, should we take up Wells’s solution of rational rule by highly trained technological elite? He proposed “an organisation of intelligent and in some cases wealthy men, ignoring most of the existing apparatus of political control”. These days such an idea only reminds us of the undue influence (and controversial tax status) of today’s multinational tech giants, whose bosses all seem to think they are offering us a better and more efficient world. However, under their influence, the Babble Machines of our generation seem to be getting noisier and more confusing than ever. Perhaps we should heed one of Wells’s more useful maxims: “Civilisation is more and more in a race between education and catastrophe.”
Things to Come: an unwanted paradise?
Wells scripted an ambitious British science fiction film, ‘Things to Come’ (1936). After a devastating war, ragged survivors of ‘Everytown’ are led by warlords squabbling among the rubble. Unknown to them, a handful of skilled aviators have survived elsewhere and rebuilt their society along logical lines.
They arrive one day in their sleek aircraft, announcing that they represent “The Brotherhood of Efficiency, the Freemasonry of Science. We are the last trustees of civilisation when everything else has failed.” Under their guidance, technology is restored and a gleaming white underground city replaces the ruined landscape.
There are ‘televisors’ and wrist communicators and everyone shuttles around between buildings in gleaming Perspex cylinders. It all looks like a vision of wonder from a Dan Dare story, but what we now read into ‘Things to Come’ is the opposite of what Wells intended.
No one would want to live in the city that he proposed, where everything is clean and white and everyone conforms to a particular way of life. Wells had good reason to fear the chaos and violence of the real world, but we seem to like it that way. This partly explains why all but a handful of his dozens of books are out of print now, despite the huge influence he enjoyed during his lifetime.