Book Review – Men Like Gods by H.G. Wells
This novel, set in 1921 and published in 1923 is in a subgenre you don’t see much now — utopian science fiction. Yes, I did say ‘utopian.’ You may be more familiar with this subgenre’s ugly brother, dystopian science fiction. The latter has more shock value so it gets more attention, but I prefer the older, wiser sibling.
The essential difference between utopian and dystopian fiction that I see is their different perceptions of humanity. Although both begin with the premise that the human race has problems, utopian fiction posits that, in the course of time, mankind will solve them. Dystopian fiction, on the other hand, posits that humanity, if it is lucky, might survive.
I don’t read fiction to be shocked. I can get that from the news. I read fiction to be entertained. Occasionally I come across novels that also present a new thought or uncommon perspective, and I consider these welcome bonuses. ‘Men Like Gods’ provides all of these.
The protagonist, Mr. Barnstaple (no first name) is stressed and in desperate need of a holiday. The way he contrives to get away unaccompanied by wife of children, is humorous and charming, in an understated British way, as are his musings on the events of the time. He succeeds in escaping by himself in his little yellow car with no specific destination in mind but ends up much farther away than he could have imagined. A scientific experiment in an alternate dimension goes awry, and Barnstaple and a few others on the road that day find themselves in a strange land with clean air, tame animals, and beautiful people who enjoy unparalleled personal freedom. He’s obviously not in England anymore. The rest of the novel explores how he and his fellow Earthlings react to this strange utopia and how the Utopians react to them.
Considering this book was written almost a century ago, and making certain allowances for that, one thing that struck me was how relevant it remains. There are passages about droughts, famines, and fighting going on around the world that sound almost as if they could be referring to today. This description of economic concerns especially caught my attention:
‘… The great masses of population that had been blundered into existence, swayed by damaged and decaying traditions and amenable to the crudest suggestions, were the natural prey and support of every adventurer with a mind blatant enough and a conception of success coarse enough to appeal to them. The economic system, clumsily and convulsively reconstructed to meet the new conditions of mechanical production and distribution, became more and more a cruel and impudent exploitation of the multitudinous congestion of the common man by the predatory acquisitive few. That all too common common man was hustled through misery and subjection from his cradle to his grave; he was cajoled and lied to, he was bought, sold and dominated by an impudent minority, bolder and no doubt more energetic, but in all other respects no more intelligent than himself.’
The economic system he speaks of is, essentially, the one we still have; one in which common people simply trying to survive can be economically used and abused by those with wealth, power, and low morals. Although, on the bright side, we do have laws and regulations in place now to mitigate the worst examples of such things.
Then there was this about the media of the time:
‘…newspapers had ceased to be impartial vehicles of news; they omitted, they mutilated, they misstated. They were no better than propaganda rags.’
This claim especially seems appropriate to some of today’s media outlets.
What you won’t see in this novel is a detailed description of how the civilization in this alternate universe got from something like early Twentieth Century Earth to a free and peaceful utopia, although the process is said to have taken three thousand years. The point is that people not unlike us were able to overcome things like superstition, prejudice, selfish ambition, and violence. They were able to work together to build a better society in which each individual is free to think, act, and explore the mysteries of the world as they wish.
I won’t say the utopia presented here is exactly one that I would imagine or hope for, but it does seem attractive and maybe even possible. The ideas the novel presents are certainly worth thinking about, in any case, and the story is enjoyable in its own right. I highly recommend it.