Visionaries of the future: H.G. Wells

onthisdeity pictureHerbert George Wells (1866-1946) considered himself more a social critic and historian than a fiction writer. At times he seemed convinced of the idea that humans would eventually annihilate themselves with advanced technology. But at other times he would point out technology’s possibilities to overcome for example racism, sexism and other things.

His most famous novel is ‘The war of the worlds’ (1898). Although it deals with aliens and high-tech weaponry, it is actually based on his brother’s stories about the British

empire’s genocide on native Tasmanians. His brother supposedly said to him: ‘What if someone dropped out of the sky right here and started laying about us like we we laid about the Tasmanians.’ That gave Wells the idea his war of the worlds.In this tale, Martians invade earth, starting with the countryside in Greater London. They indiscriminately start killing people with their deadly heat rays. These heat rays are now known to us as lasers.

19 years after the publication of his book, Einstein identifies the theoretical basis of laser technology. Today lasers are everywhere: pointers, dvd player, industrial and surgical cutting tools. And laser weapons are not out of the question, technology companies are working on them already.  To zap incoming missiles or mortars from the sky, for example.

But in ‘War of the World’ it’s our biology that eventually defeats the Martians. H.G. Wells is telling us: advanced technology does not necessarily equal invincibility. One can still suffer annihilation from the unsuspected. In most of his tales, Wells provides destruction not coming from an alien force, but from man’s own dark nature.

In 1881 Wells writes the essay ‘The universe rigid’. In it he attempts to describe a four dimensional time-space universe. This concept of ‘Time as a fourth dimension’ was published by Wells 10 years before Einstein published his theory of relativity. However, he seems to be ahead of his time and his essay is rejected. Instead, his idea becomes the basis for his novel ‘The time machine’. In it he presents us with the idea of man travelling through time. Dr Michio Kaku explains that this is also theoretically possible:

The Time Machine (also made into a movie) is considered one of the greatest works of science fiction of all time.  It leads to thousands other movies and books about time travel. The book poses the question: what if human kind was not a prisoner of time? But not only did H.G.Wells think like a physicist, he also critiqued the social hierarchy of his time: In the book, a man journeys many millennia into the future. There he discovers that humans have evolved into two distinct species: the idle Eloi pursue a carefree existence. The subterranean Morlocks breed eloy like cattle for their own consumption. For Wells the story is a comment on Britain’s widening gap between the social classes.

The invisible manAnother social issue is addressed by H.G. Wells in ‘The invisible man’. In this book a man becomes invisible and starts terrorizing his neighbours. Wells  himself was a ‘scandalous’ figure who had many romances and affairs despite of being married. Wells  asks the question: When free from the normal constraints of society: will man turn towards good or evil? Today, scientists are working on a synthetic material that may make invisibility a reality, as reported by the Huffington post in 2012

Whether technology is good or bad depends on its user, and Wells seems to be convinced that man will take the darker path. His concerns about medical science are inspiration for ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’.  He wrote it in 1896, not long after Darwin introduces evolution-theory and the selection of species. Dr Moreau flees to a remote island and vivisects animals in order to make them more human. In the story of Dr Moreau, the animals have transformed into animal-human hybrids. It is important to stretch that Wells does not seem intent on discouraging research per se, but wants to ask: to what end?

In the beginning of the 20th century, when tensions between industrialised nations is rising, Wells starts fearing mankind to bring about it’s own destruction. In his stories he begins to foresee the brutalities of mechanized war. In ‘The land ironclads’ (1903) he came up with the idea of the tank. In is 1908 book ‘The war in the air’ he foresees the dogfights of WWI. In the 1914 book ‘The world set free’ he had what is probably the biggest ‘prophetic hit’ in science fiction. He predicts that in 1933 a physicist will come up with the idea of an atomic bomb. The decay of radium was only just discovered.

In 1939, H.G. Wells starts fearing what will happen if the Third Reich will produce and atomic weapon. He and Albert Einstein write a warning letter to President Roosevelt and thus initiated the beginning of the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb. In 1945 America drops two atomic bombs on Germany’s ally Japan.

Things to comeBack in 1936 H.G. Wells had seen the premier of his vision of the future on film in ‘Things to come’. The film was a reaction to Fitz Lang’s Metropolis, by which Wells was not impressed. In the movie, Wells predicts an enemy air force dropping bombs over London in 1940, causing the outbreak of a new world war. His vision comes eerily close to the BlitzKrieg that lead to the origins of WWII.

In his story, eventually the enemy uses airplanes to spread a plague that annihilates most of humanity. With this Wells foresaw the capability of modern biological weapons. It leads to decennia of global war and the collapse of civilisation. But just like technology creates destruction, eventually it also provides a solution. Within a century, a council of engineers and scientists establishes a one-world government. And earth’s population thrives.

Wells hopes for a technocracy. He sees technology as humankind’s most powerful tool, but also warns us for what happens if we not use it wisely

Source: Discovery Channel: Prophets of science fiction


About Silke de Wilde

I am a foresight-expert and practitioner. As a freelancer, I help organisations think about the future and how to get there, for example by trendanalysis and scenarioplanning. As a facilitator I give workshops to inspire and help people think out of the box. I'm one of the co-founders of the Dutch Future Society. I also organise training in foresight at the School for Foresight. And in the time that's left I like getting into science fiction and working on my phd-research: Cities constructing futures. Yes, you might say I'm a future-fanatic, and I'm grateful that I'm able to make a living out of doing what I love. Thank you for visiting Futurista and please don't be a stranger!
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