HG Wells was the great modern prophet of apocalypse.
He was the son of a failed grocer, and he grew up, bored out of his mind, in Victorian lower middle class suburbia in Kent.
Then he won a scholarship to the Normal School of Science — now Imperial College — in South Kensington, founded by Thomas Huxley (Aldous’ grand-father).
Huxley was the most famous scientist in Victorian England, and the man who more than anyone transmitted Charles Darwin’s new vision of human existence into mainstream culture.
The Earth, he taught, is very, very old — far older than the 4000 years taught by Christians, more like 4.5 billion years. Humans are a very recent arrival — we evolved from other primate species just 200,000 years ago.
Nothing is certain in this evolutionary vision of existence, everything is up for grabs. Humans could evolve into a new species, or go extinct.
Thomas Huxley’s evolutionary vision fired up young Bertie’s imagination. In five fecund years, from 1895 to 1900, he wrote 12 books, including the ‘scientific romances’ that made his name and laid the foundations of modern science fiction — The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Island of Dr Moreau, The Invisible Man. He paved the way for so much of what came after — the sci-fi of Huxley, Orwell, Olaf Stapledon, Arthur C. Clarke, JG Ballard and Michael Crichton, and his books have inspired over 30 films, with The Invisible Man set for another remake this year.
You can see why he’s had such an impact on pop culture. War of the Worlds especially, which I read this Christmas, had me absolutely gripped. Out of the stately dullness of Victorian literature it burst like a laser beam, blowing apart all the chintz and marble.
There’s a scene where the narrator is hiding in the ruins of a house, and a Martian sends in one of its tentacles to look for him. The tentacle gropes around and touches his foot, and I thought, wow, all of modern sci-fi horror is in this scene, from Ripley hiding from the aliens to the kids hiding from the raptors in Jurassic Park.
His books — both fiction and non-fiction — are tales of apocalypse, which in the ancient Greek etymology means ‘the unveiling or unfolding of things not previously known and which could not be known apart from the unveiling’.
What you meet in Wells’ books, again and again, is the violent uncovering of the new, the ripping back of the lace curtain of Victorian customs. Like Ballard, Wells had a sense of how suddenly and utterly things can change, how long familiar and ingrained customs can disappear in a moment. Victorian England must have seemed like it would stay the same forever and ever. And then, suddenly, Queen Victoria is removed ‘like a great paperweight’, and everything is in flux.
Australians are learning that today — how everything we take for granted — homes, food supplies, electricity, water, clean air, even law and order — can be taken from one in an instant. Likewise, The War of the Worlds gave complacent imperial Victorians a sudden sense what it’s like to be conquered and humiliated, to be scrabbling for survival. ‘I felt a sense of dethronement, a persuasion that I was no longer a master, but an animal among the animals, under the Martian heel’.
Like William Blake, he roots his apocalyptic visions in the familiar and suburban. He is great at taking familiar settings — South Kensington, London Bridge — and making them strange and terrible. This is a classic technique of utopian or dystopian visions of the future. You take a familiar landmark and show it somehow over-run or destroyed by nature — think of the Statue of Liberty at the end of Planet of the Apes, or the White House blown up in Independence Day, or Las Vegas turned into a wasteland in Blade Runner 2049. That’s what it’s like for us today, seeing Sydney under an orange sky.
Wells is excited by his apocalyptic visions. Reading War of the Worlds and following the Martians as they lay waste to English suburbia, you feel he has some sympathy with the aliens. There is a resentment of the status quo in his almost gleeful visions of destruction (as there is in some contemporary leftists’ prophecies of the total collapse of capitalism).
In his visions of suburban apocalypse, he reminds me of David Bowie. Both were aliens from the future, growing up in suburbia (they both grew up in Bromley) and longing for apocalypse — bring on the future, bring on the atomic age, bring on the sexual revolution, bring on the internet, bring on the Super-Humans. As Bowie sings: ‘Gotta make way for the Homo Superior’.
But what does the future hold? What hope can we have, if not a Christian hope for the Second Coming and the resurrection of the body? Wells made a career as a futurologist — in fact, Peter Bowler argues in a recent book that Wells pretty much invented that field. And he made a series of remarkable predictions during his career.
He recognized that one of the key questions facing humanity was the question of how to get as much energy as possible with as little waste. His book The World Set Free predicted the atomic age, and inspired one of the inventors of nuclear fission reactors, Leo Szilard.
Like Leonardo Da Vinci, Wells was a remarkable imaginer of future forms of warfare, prophesying tanks, air warfare, and the atomic bomb, in the first decade of the 20th century. He was an educational innovator, and proposed the creation of a ‘World Brain’, containing all information readily available for all people (or Wikipedia, as we call it today).
He also predicted the sexual revolution of the last 50 years, and his own sex life was worthy of a Carry On film. There would come to pass, he predicted, a general relaxation of sexual morality and the evolution of new forms of partnership beyond monogamous heterosexual matrimony. He predicted the boom in inter-cultural marriages that we see happening today, which would have been unimaginable for most people in 1900. That’s what’s fun about his prophecies — religious prophets tend to predict a new Puritanism. He (like Aldous Huxley) predicts sex is going to get a lot more fun. Which it did.
What can he teach us about our present moment? How can we survive and endure the apocalyptic unravelling of hydrocarbon capitalism, which is what (I suggest) we vividly see happening today. The most important lessons he gave us are (1) take the Long View and (2) don’t turn away from technological innovation, however dangerous and unsettling it is.
1) Take the Long View
Wells’ vision, like that of Thomas Huxley, is a vision of Deep Time. He had a very developed capacity to step out of the present and imagine possible futures — this capacity is at the heart of being human, and is not evenly distributed. Wells possessed it in spades. He could imagine not just a few years or decades into the future, but thousands and even millions of years. He tried to transmit this Long View to others through his stories and his Outline of History, which was the first book in the genre of ‘Big History’, which tries to tell the story of homo sapiens from a global, planetary and cosmic perspective (rather than just, say, the parochial history of English kings and queens).
This vision of Deep Time gave him a sense of how quickly humans have developed astonishing technological powers, and how much we could potentially change over the coming decades, centuries and millennia.
When you are in a very difficult time, as we are now, it is helpful to have a sense of Deep Time, to recognize that our species has been through numerous crises in its short history, and that our civilization has been changed utterly and repeatedly by technological innovations like the domestication of fire or the discovery of agriculture. Our species will hopefully keep changing, in ways we can barely imagine, far into the future.
We can get so caught up in the painful present, in the latest disaster or outrage, that it can be helpful to breath and take a long-term cosmic perspective on our species’ journey. His disciple, the philosopher Olaf Stapledon, gives us an extraordinary, billion-year-view of human development in his books, Star Maker, and The Last and First Men. Reading them is a form of spiritual contemplation.
2) Don’t turn away from technological innovation
We need to find the right relationship to science. There are two risks in this relationship — blind worship, and blind rejection.
Wells was guilty of the blind worship of science at the start of his career. Rather like Dominic Cummings, he called for a new class of ‘Samurai’ — scientific technocrats who would run the world more effectively than MPs. This was a very popular idea in the 1920s and 30s — Aldous Huxley also despised parliamentary democracy, at this time, and called for a scientific dictatorship.
Both were enthusiastic adopters of eugenics — the idea that scientists could intervene in human breeding to make the human race stronger, smarter and fitter. How? By getting the fittest to breed more, and by sterilizing or killing off the weak. Wells chillingly preaches this sort of mass killing of the weak in his 1901 book Anticipations:
For a multitude of contemptible and silly creatures, fear-driven and helpless and useless, unhappy or hatefully happy in the midst of squalid dishonour, feeble, ugly, inefficient, born of unrestrained lusts, and increasing and multiplying through sheer incontinence and stupidity, the men of the New Republic will have little pity and less benevolence…. The men of the New Republic will not be squeamish…in facing or inflicting death, because they will have a fuller sense of the possibilities of life than we possess.
You can see in him, I’m afraid, the risk inherent in Darwinism — that it overturns Christianity’s 2000-year-old moral sanction to see every human soul as sacred, and creates a new readiness to segregate or exterminate those you see as unfit or impure.
But Wells thankfully soon moved away from eugenics, and indeed in his fiction you often meet the figure of the mad scientist who has lost all sense of compassion, like Dr Moreau, who builds human-animal hybrids (as geneticists are attempting to do today).
Wells came to see the existential risks posed by new technologies like the atom bomb, but he insisted we mustn’t turn away from science and technological innovation. He wrote:
if the dangers, confusions and disasters that crowd upon man in these days are enormous beyond any experience of the past, it is because science has brought him such powers as he never had before. And the scientific method of fearless thought, exhaustively lucid statement, and exhaustively criticized planning, which has given him these as yet uncontrollable powers, gives him also the hope of controlling these powers. Man is still only adolescent. His troubles are not the troubles of senility and exhaustion but of increasing and still undisciplined strength.
There is a risk, during this awful unravelling of hydrocarbon capitalism, that we shut down technological innovation and collapse into irrationalism and primitivism. I see that tendency somewhat in Extinction Rebellion, Dark Mountain, in Joanna Macy’s work and other aspects of spiritual environmentalism. I see it in the return of magic and magical thinking (Gail Bradbrook, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, had the idea for XR on an ayahuasca trip, while environmentalist Joanna Macy touts the End Times ‘Shambhala Prophecy’ — a medieval Tibetan prophecy of violent genocide which she has reinterpreted as a hippy eco-revolution). I see it in some Greens’ fetishization of indigenous culture and condemnation of ‘technophilia’. I see it in some Greens’ irrational conspiracy-theory opposition to vaccination, or 5G mobile phone technology, or atomic energy, or genetic editing, or geoengineering.
All of these technologies have serious risks, for sure. But the future of the human race is forward, in new scientific discoveries and technological innovations, not in going backwards and trying to become indigenous shaman.
At every technological advance in our species’ history there was something in our nature that shrank in terror from our new power and warned of nemesis and divine punishment. And it’s true — each new discovery does utterly change or even threaten our existence and there’s a reoccurring tendency to hubris in our nature. We have faced setbacks for years, decades, even centuries. But we have always got back on our feet and pressed forward again.
Civilization, HG Wells said, ‘is a race between education and catastrophe’. The race is between technological innovation and emotional / spiritual development. We develop a new technology — the atom bomb, say — but we still bring to it our semi-primitive nature, and this misfit creates the possibility of great damage. The same thing has happened with the internet — there’s a misfit between a new technology and our still simian nature, which bears its teeth and snarls at anyone who looks like an outsider.
The race is always to develop new structures of governance, to rein in our simian tendencies. Wells preached global governance. He was an early champion of the League of Nations, although he soon lost faith in it, and he saw the need for global organisations like the International Atomic Energy Agency. He even drafted an early version of the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights, with his 1930 book The Rights of Man.
But more than global bureaucracies, we need an emotional and spiritual education to help us grow up, to help us recognize our shadow (Wells was a friend and pen-pal of Carl Jung), to help us expand our sense of self to include all beings.
That is very hard. But Wells had a vision of a united human race, increasingly ethnically mixed and joined together in a common culture — like Aldous Huxley, he even wrote a bible of global wisdom to try and bring us together.
This cosmopolitan vision couldn’t be less fashionable today, as the tide ebbs back from several decades of globalization, as great powers step away from global agreements, as nationalism and nativism revive once more.
But remember the Long View. Keep hope. We can develop a new civilization which celebrates the incredible power of new technologies and recognizes that such technologies are like giving guns to chimpanzees unless we develop our capacity for wisdom and love.