This collection of strange and wonderful stories written between 75 and 116 years ago (as I write this in 2012) represents some of H.G. Wells’ lesser-known works. I found a copy in my local public library, which is one of my favorite places for finding new books, or, as in this case, old books.
There are a couple of things you may notice when you read these stories. One, of course, is how prophetic H.G. Wells was in terms of changes that occur in technology. When he talks of futures in which airplanes, superhighways, instant communication, and electronic appliances of various kinds are common, you must remember that when he wrote these stories, they weren’t.
Another is how little human society has changed in the last century. Wells was uncomfortable with the level of social and economic disparity of the late Victorian era, and his utopian novels such as ‘Star Begotten’ and ‘Men Like Gods,’ which are contained in this collection, show a bright future in which this is no longer the case.
Such idyllic societies remain a utopian dream, however. The system we have today is more like the one depicted in the dystopian view of the future provided in the novella ‘A Story of the Days to Come,’ which is also included in this anthology. This is a story of two idealistic young lovers who find themselves in virtual serfdom after borrowing against an inheritance at high interest rates. The passage below is how Wells describes the 22nd Century London they are born into:
‘The new society was divided into three main classes. At the summit slumbered the property owner, enormously rich by accident rather than design, potent save for the will and aim, the last avatar of Hamlet in the world. Below was the enormous multitude of workers employed by the gigantic companies that monopolised control; and between these two the dwindling middle class, officials of innumerable sorts, foremen, managers, the medical, legal, artistic, and scholastic classes, and the minor rich, a middle class whose members led a life of insecure luxury and precarious speculation amidst the movements of the great managers.’
This is a version of the future in which the economic conditions are very much like those of Victorian England. I won’t argue that things have not improved since, but the similarities between this dystopia and our current system are disturbingly obvious.
Of course, not all of the stories here are comments on society or economics. Some, like ‘The Magic Shop,’ are simply charming, if sometimes a bit odd. I particularly liked this story, though.
As for the collection as a whole, I highly recommend it. If you like speculative fiction, if you want to see some of the earliest and best examples of it, pick up this anthology or read any of the stories you can find from wherever you can find them.
- Men Like Gods (Novel – 1923)
- The Empire of the Ants (Short Story – 1905)
- The Land Ironclads (Short Story – 1903)
- The Country of the Blind (Short Story – 1904)
- The Stolen Bacillus (Short Story – 1894)
- The Flowering of the Strange Orchid (Short Story – 1894)
- In the Avu Observatory (Short Story – 1894)
- A Story of the Stone Age (Short Story – 1897)
- Aepyornis Island (Short Story – 1894)
- The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes (Short Story – 1895)
- The Plattner Story (Short Story – 1896)
- The Argonauts of the Air (Short Story – 1895)
- The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham (Short Story – 1896)
- In the Abyss (Short Story – 1896)
- Star Begotten (Novel – 1937)
- Under the Knife (Short Story – 1896)
- The Sea Raiders (Short Story – 1896)
- The Crystal Egg (Short Story – 1897)
- The Star (Short Story – 1897)
- The Man Who Could Work Miracles (Short Story – 1898)
- Filmer (Short Story – 1901)
- A Story of the Days to Come (Novella – 1897)
- The Magic Shop (Short Story – 1903)
- The Valley of Spiders (Short Story – 1903)
- The Truth About Pyecraft (Short Story – 1903)
- The New Accelerator (Short Story – 1901)
- The Stolen Body (Short Story – 1898)
- A Dream of Armageddon (Short Story – 1901)
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.