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The Shape of Things to Come

H. G. Wells

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    H.G. Wells is known, along with his science fiction novels, for his futuristic/utopian/dystopian novels also, which have an element of science fiction in them, too. Men Like Gods was one of my favorite Wells books, about a future version of Earth that had nearly perfected itself. Its focus was more on society and the way the characters in the story lived. This one, however, is more political/economic, and is a history of our present Earth written from future visions in dreams by a fictional character, a diplomat Dr. Philip Raven—a history "textbook" written in 2106. He became friends with the narrator of this story, Wells himself, he claims, who edited and compiled it from Dr. Raven's notes after he passed away suddenly. Of course none of that is true—it is just a story made up by Wells, published in 1933.
    Whereas Men Like Gods is a lively and entertaining tale, filled with typical Wellsian humor, along with his profound perceptions, this one is more challenging, written in the form of a future history. I love history now, but when I was in school, I hated it. I thought it was dull and boring. Looking back, I can see that it was my history teachers that were dull and boring, and memorizing a bunch of facts did me no good whatsoever for the enlightenment of my future. Truly, the only thing I remember from the entirety of my school days history classes is that in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
    This present novel is divided into five books, the first ending in 1933; (Wells died in 1946). A great deal of it is about World War I, or the Great War. One of the things I found confusing here, since Wells actually lived during that war, is not knowing what was real and what was fiction. So, of course, I did some research on that war, and found, to my horror, that much of it was true. I am from the Vietnam era, and I thought that was ghastly, but, Oh my! WWI, it seems was just a way to dispose of excess population.
    Wells has a lot to say about competition, economics and the need to keep the world in a state of war. And here we are today, and nothing has changed. The Wikipedia article on this book notes the predictions that Wells got right, and those where he was way off.
    A couple other things to mention: Wells was a committed socialist. Though he speaks a great deal of Karl Marx at the beginning of this book, he advocated a non-Marxist socialism, according to Wikipedia. He also clearly supported a World-State government, but nothing like the evil dictatorship associated with the current New World Order, (if in fact there is such a thing, which I doubt because of the state of global collapse in which we are now immersed). Any attempt in our current world to form a global government would be nothing but another means toward total control and suppression of the world population. I wonder, in all the science-fictional imaginations that passed through Wells' mind in his long lifetime, if he ever considered that perhaps the world was actually being run by aliens.
    This is a very long book, so I will try to limit myself in what I share. I have taken pages of notes—way too many to include, so I will just list the five books into which this piece is divided, and include highlights of each. Each book is divided into numerous chapters, but I will not list those.

Today And Tomorrow: The Age of Frustration Dawns—The history of the world up to 1933.
    After the introductory material in which Wells tells the (fictional) story of how he came by these texts (see above), he goes on to talk about the economic and social conditions which brought about the Great War, (which were true and are STILL true today, and even more so, on a level of corruption that perhaps even Wells himself could not have fathomed. "The perennial struggle of life against the creditor," he calls it, "exploitation for profit and strangulation for dominance." Remember, the "dream history" he acquired from his deceased friend speaks from the future and looks back to his present time as the past, and the money corruptions have been destroyed. Here is an interesting paragraph, referring to the "present" (2106):

There remains no way now of becoming passively wealthy. Gambling was ruthlessly eradicated under the Air Dictatorship and has never returned. Usury ranks with forgery as a monetary offence. Money is given to people to get what they want and not as a basis for further acquisition, and we realize that the gambling spirit is a problem for the educationist and mental expert. It implies a fundamental misunderstanding of life. We have neither speculators, shareholders, private usurers or rent lords.

    He goes on to talk of the situation in the early 1900s: competition, Big Business, and monopolies, "crushing out new competitors and crippling and restraining new initiatives." He also goes speaks about the suppression of free speech, and "news services had fallen into the hands of powerful groups able and willing to crush out any new types of periodical, or any inimical schools of public suggestion."
    Next he discusses the increasing production of goods, which led to higher profits and also higher unemployment. Thus, war conveniently withdrew from the available workforce a large proportion of the male population. He says:

Militarism, however, alleviated these revolutionary stresses, by providing vast profit-yielding channels of waste. And it also strengthened the forces of social repression. The means of destruction accumulated on a scale that well-nigh kept pace with the increase in the potential wealth of mankind. The progressive enslavement of the race to military tyranny was an inseparable aspect, therefore, of free competition for profits.

    (Aside: Please read the booklet War is a Racket by Major General Smedley Darlington Butler, USMC.)
    Wells then adds:

The extended use of propaganda as a weapon, and the increasing danger of social mutiny under war stress, had also its share in making the entire surface of a belligerent country a war area and abolishing any vestiges of civil liberty, first during actual warfare and then in view of warfare. The desirability of getting everyone under orders, under oath, and subject to prompt disciplinary measures, became more and more manifest to governments.

    Sound familiar, anyone? Of course, they have been playing the same game for decades upon decades. However, now the stakes are a bit higher, because in a nuclear was NO ONE wins. We start a nuclear war, and we're done. Wells never thought about that.
    Wells then makes this frightening observation, and what makes it worse is that he perceived this truth for his own era, but, (as we see later in the book), also saw the end of it by mid-century. He could not have been more wrong because this global attitude is now a potentially fatal epidemic.

In the twentieth century the scale of war expanded beyond any limit and the advantages to be won by it disappeared. But the politicians and diplomatists played their time-honored game against each other with a sort of terrified inevitability. They were driven; they had no control, or at least none of them seemed to have had the vigour and imagination to attempt a control. They were driven by the economic necessity we have explained in the previous section. They had to arm preposterously. They had to threaten. They had to go through with the business.

    As mentioned, Wells mixes fact with fiction, although in this first section, which is actual historical information, there is more fact. He speaks of Germany's sinking of the ocean liner the RMS Lusitania, killing 1,198 men, women, and children. In fact, WWI committed horrible slaughter of innocent citizens. And what is even worse, soldiers hadn't reached the point of questioning their own inevitable deaths and the killing of people with whom they bore no grudge. Wells says: "Millions of human beings went open-eyed to servitude, bullying, hardship, suffering and slaughter, without a murmur, with a sort of fatalistic pride." That blind obedience had less and less power through the century, at least in my observation, reaching a peak during the War in Vietnam.
    Wells spends quite a bit of space on Henry Ford, and his efforts to negotiate peace. Apparently that was a rather big failure, and something the histories don't want to remember. He says:

From the first there was a sustained, malignant antagonism to the project. This grew in force and vigour. The American Press, and in its wake the European Press, set itself to magnify and distort every weakness, every slight absurdity, in the expedition and to invent further weaknesses and absurdities. A campaign of ridicules began, so skillful and persistent that it stripped away one blushing celebrity after another from the constellation, and smothered the essential sanity of the project in their wilting apologies. While Ford and his surviving missioners discussed and discoursed on their liner, the newspaper men they had brought with them concocted lies and absurd stories about their host—as though they were under instructions.
    We know now they were under instructions.

    Well, that certainly hasn't changed, has it? He says more about the press:

And it was one of the strange traditions of the American Press that a newsman should have no scruples. The ordinary reporter was a moral invert taking a real pride in his degradation. No expedient was too mean, no lie, no trick too contemptible if only it helped thwart and disillusion Ford.

    That hasn't changed either. Wells goes on to criticize President Woodrow Wilson, and the League of Nations. And he contends that the purpose of war was to use up excess production. He says: "The war from the economic point of view had been the convulsive using up of an excess of production that the race had no other method of distributing and consuming." (See link above to War is a Racket.) He elaborates:

The more efficient the output, the fewer were the wage-earners. The more stuff there was, the fewer consumers there were. The fewer the consumers, the smaller the trading profits, and the less the gross spending power of the shareholders and individual entrepreneurs.

    And so ends Book One. Book Two follows, and here is where things get a bit goofy. In the first book, Wells spoke of real history, no doubt embellished with his own perceptions, but still mostly true. The problem that follows in the rest of the book is that he make his future too near future. Men Like Gods was set much farther ahead, making it seem more credible. Here, he is moving along the century in a totally waaaay off-the-beam future from what it really was. I was born in 1955, and America was in a state of basic prosperity then. People were happy and content. Just look at the old TV shows from that era, and so, reading this alternate history requires quite a bit more imagination. I guess it really took some balls for Wells to write what he did. He must have been pretty sure at the time that the world was going in the direction he imagined.
    Now, of course, we have our own set of impending disasters, none of which Wells could have possibly imagined, even with his science-fiction oriented mind. Government and military people systematically spraying the entire planet with poison day in and day out. The environmental devastation, the cataclysmic state of the climate? Not even Wells could imagine such human-caused horror. The probability that we are living in a simulated reality, and being controlled by an evil alien force? Nope, even that never made it into his novels, at least those I have read. The War of the Worlds came close, but those invaders died off pretty quick. Truth is stranger than fiction, so they say. In any case, if I continue on this path, I will have a book here rather than a review. So, therefore, I will just mention highlights from each of the other four sections.

The Days After Tomorrow: The Age of Frustration—1933-1960.
    I will start this section with a quote which applies just as pertinently today as in Wells' time.

The inability of the world's nominal rulers to shake off their lifelong habit of speaking to, or at, a vaguely conceived crowd of prejudiced voters, and their invincible repugnance from clear statement, frustrated every effort towards realism. They recoiled from any suggestion of definitive or novel action on the plea that their function was purely representative. Behind them all the reader feels the sprawling uneasy presence of that poor invertebrate mass deity of theirs, the Voter, easily roused to panic and frantic action against novel, bold or radical measures, very amenable to patriotic claptrap, very easily scared and maddened into war, and just as easily baffled to distrust and impotence by delays, side issues, and attacks on the personalities of decisive people he might otherwise have trusted. An entirely irresponsible Press, mercenary or partisan, played upon his baser emotions, which were so easy to play upon, and made no appeal whatever to his intelligence or conscience.

    One of the things that Wells got absolutely and totally wrong, (and that we are still getting wrong today) is that his solution to the problems was economic—put people to work and increase consumption. However, those who are even remotely conscious today realize that decreasing consumption and reducing waste is essential. Wells really had no intelligent conception of environmental issues, which becomes more apparent as the books goes on, until the last section, where his vision become preposterous. Also, and not just in this book, but others, he saw overpopulation as an imminent threat, (and it IS), but in his view, the great plague that struck the world up until the 1950s wiped out a great many people, leaving about 2 billion, and in the end, he saw 4 billion as the maximum we could sustain on this planet. 2 billion or less sounds better to me, but the point is, we are living in a finite system in which we cannot sustain unlimited growth either population wise or production wise.
     To sum up this book, another War was begun, also beginning between Poland and Germany. (Wells set up a ridiculous scenario about a Polish Jew who offended some Nazis because he was making strange faces due to ill-fitting dentures.) Whatever. But in any case, he envisioned Poland as the stronger force, and did not even get England involved in this conflict. There was a lot about Japan invading China, and biological warfare. OK, so mustard gas was real, but he also spoke of all these other lethal gasses (that I think were NOT real), but wiped out slews of innocent populations. Then a great worldwide financial depression and a plague of "maculated fever" hit and destroyed another chunk of people, and that did not end until 1960!!
    OK, well, this section, as I said was goofy to me, 'cause I was born in 1955, and those years were, if not prosperous, at least comfortable. I grew up really poor, but didn't know it because I always had an abundance of clean clothing and food on the table and the basic stuff I needed. By the way, I looked up maculated fever because I thought Wells just made it up, and he did, as far as the symptoms of people who got it were compelled to get into a crowd and drop over dead, thus leaving piles of dead people all over, (it is a science fiction novel, remember), but I did find an actual reference to it on a Google books page (it apparently was another name for typhus), and the book is called Medicine, Disease and the State in Ireland, 1650-1940. I also want to throw in the point that throughout this "history," Wells often quotes people, some real and some not, and refers to this massive set of histories from which this "dream future history" was drawn. Again, it baffles me how someone as brilliant as Wells could not have imagined the communication systems we have today—computers, the internet. Until the end of the book, people are still using the telegraph!! The other thing I found actually quite humorous was his mentioning of people who were definitely real and alive in his time, but who died long after his book was written. He makes up their death years, having them live to be in the hundreds. For instance, he gives the dates of Sinclair Lewis as 1885-1990. (He actually died in 1951.) I suppose he was being safe. I mean, it would be tacky to give the death date of a person who is actually alive when a book is published. But he also foresaw people easily living into their hundreds. In addition, (remember, he is heading towards a Socialist World-State), he saw the total disillusion of individual countries by 1966!

The more advanced student of history finds it necessary to work out in detail the local variation of the process by which the great patchwork of empires and nationalist states, set up during the Age of European Predominance, lost its defining lines, lost its contrasted cultures and its elaborated traditions, and ceased to divide the allegiance and devotion of men of goodwill. It was still standing—a hollow shell in 1933; in 1966 it had gone. It had crumpled up, it broke down; its forms melted together and disappeared.

    OK, so I have some real issues here. I would never EVER voluntarily submit to Socialism. Nor the breaking up of countries and their diverse cultures, art, religions, ways of perceiving the world. We can all get along without war, slavery, and invasion if governments would just mind their own business, especially the U.S. Government. Our diversity is what makes us interesting. In Wells' novel, in the end, everyone gets along and is prosperous because they are required to be the same. YUK! NEVER!! The world's problems are not caused by diversity, they are cause by corruption of our leaders and banking institutions, and other established institutions, but ALL CORRUPT!! That has nothing to do with cultural diversity.

The World Renaissance: The Birth of the Modern State—1960-978.
    So now, I am getting WAY beyond the word count of a normal review, so I will just mention a few more points out of the pages and pages of notes I have taken.
    One of the main forces behind the "success" of this World-State is the function of money and credit. He says "every form of gambling and credit had to be major offenses under a criminal code." Banking could no longer be for profit. Ahhh. If only . . . .
    Now here . . . does this sound familiar or what?? Wells was spot-on in many respects.

Against every directive body, every party in power, sat another devoting itself to misrepresenting, thwarting, delaying, and spoiling, often for no reason or the flimsiest reasons, merely for the sake of misrepresenting, thwarting, delaying and spoiling what the governing body was attempting to do, in the hope of degrading affairs to such a pitch of futility as to provoke a change of government that would bring the opposition into power. The opportunities of profit and advancement afforded in such a mental atmosphere to a disingenuous careerist were endless.

    One of the things I found particularly annoying and distracting, especially beginning in Book Three was the habit of Wells to keep going back and forth in history, sometime WAY back, like ancient, or 1700s. I guess he was making comparisons and attempting to create a historic timeline, tracking the changes but it only caused confusion.

The Modern State Militan—1978-2059
The Modern State in Control of Life—2059 to New Year's Day 2106.
    These are the last two books, and rather than continue with my pages of "notes 'n quotes," I will just summarize what eventually happened.
    The Modern State Society formed a group of controls, like the Air and Sea Control, the Supply Control, and the Food Control. which seemed like a dictatorship at first, which it really was, but according to Wells, people had to be made to comply because society would not have survived the problems they faced otherwise. Religion was wiped out, and anything reeking of "nationalism" was forbidden. But as things began to improve and the people clinging to the old ways died out, populations began to become accustomed to the new ways of operation, especially since now people were not starving. In the end, it was education that brought about the end of the "World-State," but not by violence or revolution. It was proven that the Central Council had done its work, but now the various Controls were showing it less and less regard. "It was the Education Faculty of the Control of Health and Behavior that had at last provoked the gathering." And that was the Declaration of Mégève, which officially ended the World-State in 2059. Wells says:

In those days the need for concentrated leadership had prevailed over every other human consideration. It had been necessary to fight and destroy for ever vast systems of loyalties and beliefs that divided, misled and wasted the energies of mankind. It had been necessary to replace a chaos of production and distribution for individual profit by an ordered economic world system. But once this vast change-over was made and its permanence assured by the reconstruction of education on a basis of world history and social science, the task of a militant World-State was at an end.

    The last book takes us to the "current" date when the paper was supposedly written, which Raven dreamed of, the year 2106, and praises how far humanity has come and how happy and contented everyone is.
    Well. Maybe. I don't buy it. But in all, an extremely interesting work by Wells. I don't recommend it to everyone. It is very long, and reading it on my tablet required many, many battery charges from beginning to end.

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