Devil take the hindmost
- Shadows of the Future: H.G. Wells, Science Fiction and Prophecy by Patrick Parrinder
Liverpool, 170 pp, £25.00, July 1995, ISBN 0 85323 439 6
- The History of Mr Wells by Michael Foot
Doubleday, 318 pp, £20.00, October 1995, ISBN 0 385 40366 6
- A Modern Utopia by H.G. Wells, edited by Krishan Kumar
Everyman, 271 pp, £5.99, November 1994, ISBN 0 460 87498 5
Among other certain things (death, taxes etc) is the rule that no work of science fiction will ever win the Booker Prize – not even the joke 1890s version. H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine had no chance against ‘literary’ authors like Hardy and Conrad. In the twenty-five years it has been running, no SF title, as I recall, has even been shortlisted for Martyn Goff’s real thing. In 1940, T.S. Eliot struck the recurrent establishment note when he labelled Wells a ‘popular entertainer’.(Dickens was stigmatised with the same term by F.R. Leavis in The Great Tradition.) Patrick Parrinder has been opposing such anti-Wellsian prejudice for the best part of a quarter of a century. His opposition takes the form of scholarly works which patiently mount the case for critical respect. Parrinder’s contributions include the Critical Heritage volume (1972), a study of Wells’s composition methods, H.G. Wells under Revision (1990, co-edited with Christopher Rolfe), and the reissue of Wells’s scientific romances currently appearing under the World’s Classics imprint. (For copyright reasons – Wells having died in 1946 – this series will probably only be available in America.) Parrinder’s more theoretical interventions include Science Fiction, Its Criticism and Teaching (1980), a work which places Wells as ‘the pivotal figure in the evolution of the scientific romance into modern science fiction’.
Shadows of the Future (a title which plays with the equivocal initials ‘SF’) is Parrinder’s most forceful critical plea so far for the importance of Wells. He begins by staking a claim for The Time Machine as ‘one of the Prophetic Books of the 19th century’, a work which ‘casts its own shadow over futurity’. In fact, two claims are made: one for Wells as a prophet novelist, the other for prophetic fiction (PF?) as a significant literary genre. Parrinder’s own discursive method, as he tells us, is modelled on the Time Traveller’s – a series of ever further ranging intellectual explorations. Wells is praised as the Edward Gibbon of his day, and he is also celebrated for writing parodic fiction of Bakhtinian subtlety whose designs are indistinguishable from the current hypotheses of theoretical physicists like Kip Thorne and Stephen Hawking. Parrinder’s chapters take the form of free-wheeling meditations on Wellsian topoi – ‘Possibilities of Space and Time’, ‘The Fall of Empires’, ‘Utopia and Meta-Utopia’. In Part Two of Shadows of the Future, he branches out into ‘Wells’s Legacy’ – which he takes to be the whole corpus of 20th-century British and American science fiction. There is a wealth of massively informed insight in the book, but more impressive – and more convincing – is the high seriousness with which Parrinder approaches his subject.
There are, however, three problems in joining Parrinder on his high critical road to a full rehabilitation of Wells. The first is Parrinder’s advocacy of the early scientific romances (the only works by Wells which have currency nowadays) as ‘prophecy’. A prophet wanting to communicate his forecasts to mankind might engrave them on stone tablets; he might buy billboard space in Leicester Square or an advertisement on Sky Television; the last thing he would do would be to wrap his prophecies up in popular science fiction – a genre which ranks in cultural authority with the fortune cookie and the cracker motto. A second problem is SF’s appalling record in accurately predicting scientific discoveries and future events. After the usual genuflections (‘Wells foresaw the future wars and anticipated the weapons of war, notably the aeroplane, the tank and the atomic bomb’) any comparison of, say, The War in the Air with what actually happened aeronautically in the world wars, or The First Men in the Moon with Cape Canaveral in 1969, reveals how wildly wrong science fiction invariably is. Nostradamus, Old Moore and Mystic Meg have SF beat every time. (Parrinder sportingly quotes against himself Fredric Jameson’s paradox that science fiction’s role in life is ‘to demonstrate and to dramatise our incapacity to imagine the future’.) The third, and most intractable, problem is the non-fiction prophecy which Wells wrote in the early 20th century, during the period when he felt he was outgrowing scientific romance, and put novels like The Time Machine away as childish things. It is an embarrassment for Wellsians that the master should so disvalue what his admirers, and posterity generally, have seen as his masterwork.
Vol. 18 No. 1 · 4 January 1996
It is monstrous that John Sutherland should have concluded his diatribe against H.G. Wells with the speculation that ‘if he had lived to witness it … he might have disbelieved the evidence of what the Nazis did’ (LRB, 14 December 1995). He did witness a good deal of what the Nazis did, and he condemned it more consistently, more comprehensively and at least as soon as any other English writer of the age. Aneurin Bevan used to ask in similar circumstances: why read the crystal-ball when you can read the book?
Just before he makes this baseless suggestion, Professor Sutherland offers a feeble pretence that he understands the opposite case. Wells’s defenders, he notes, ‘are at pains to point out that he was an early critic of Mussolini’. Indeed, we have every right to do so, since his full-blooded attack on Mussolini and his methods dates from the Twenties, and never faltered thereafter. When another, kindred breed of Fascism made its appearance in Spain, Wells was among the most prominent to denounce the craven appeasement on the part of the Western powers which condemned Spanish democracy to defeat.
But it was the Nazi religion, as he called it, which offered ‘the most urgent challenge the human mind will have had to face. Nazi Germany may well bring down our species.’ He wrote of ‘the spectacle of evil in the world during the past half-dozen years – the wanton destruction of homes, the ruthless hounding of decent folk into exile, the bombing of open cities, the cold-blooded massacre and mutilations and, above all, the return of deliberate and organised torture, mental torment and fear to a world from which such things had been well-nigh abolished’. This is what he wrote in his Fate of Homo Sapiens, published just before the outbreak of the Nazi war; and just after the outbreak, he led the protest against the British Government’s previous suppression of the evidence about the Nazi persecution of the Jews. All this proof of Wells’s longstanding, unrelenting fight against Fascism is reported, no doubt tediously, in my book. It should have been enough to forbid for ever any repetition of the libels.
Instead, Professor Sutherland seems to prefer to receive instruction from strange quarters. He takes seriously the conversation between Malcolm Muggeridge and Michael Coren, when Coren, according to Sutherland, ‘enterprisingly interviewed’ him, and when Muggeridge ‘muses’ whether Wells had read some of the works of ‘the Anglo-German race-theorist, proto-Nazi and anti-semite, Houston Stewart Chamberlain’. Indeed, if Professor Sutherland had read my book carefully he would have discovered that Wells himself had denounced that particular proto-Nazi anti-semite in his own book, Boon, published sixty years before the Muggeridge outburst. Future readers beware. The nearer Muggeridge reached the Pearly Gates, the less his musings should be trusted by serious readers or writers. He reserved a special venom for famous writers – like Hazlitt, Swift or Wells himself – whose sexual activities were not belatedly suppressed as were his own.
More seriously, some part of Professor Sutherland’s hostility to Wells seems to derive from a distaste for the whole genre of science fiction. Once Wells had stooped so low, he should not be allowed to conquer elsewhere. Real prophets who want to be taken seriously, Sutherland insists, should stick to stone tablets or bill-boards or Sky Television; an austere doctrine, which, however, would seem to exclude not only the whole inferior breed of science fiction writers but some of the greatest novelists and poets, ancient or modernist, who found in the end that they could not disentangle one great theme from another. The prophet Job was one, and Jonathan Swift was another, and Wells learnt from them both. But, according to the Sutherland decree, all such overlapping and rough edges must be forbidden. A special pity in Wells’s case, since it would mean that we could not take seriously a book such as The War of the Worlds, since it weaves into the general tapestry the theme of his horror of British Imperialism.
No race was fit to rule another race; no nation was fit to rule another nation. Wells preached that doctrine in many of his earliest writings, and he went on preaching it until his dying day. One of his first such excursions or prophecies was made in The War of the Worlds. He compared the way the Martians behaved with the way the British behaved in Tasmania or South Africa or Ireland or India. This was the true Wellsian doctrine, much more significant than any deduction to be drawn from his youthful excursions into the debates about eugenics so prevalent in the intellectual world of that age. Even on Sutherland’s grudging estimate, he had abandoned these ideas by the turn of the century, and so the rambling accusations from Muggeridge eighty years later can hardly be allowed to weigh in the scales.
It was his internationalist doctrine which Wells preached from the housetops when he had the chance, according to the best Sutherland prescription, but otherwise also in the novel, the new novel of the 20th century, which, whatever else it was, should never be bound by such barren confinements. Often Wells failed by his own tests, but sometimes he succeeded. At the height or depths of the 1914-18 War, Mr Britling flaunted the anti-imperialist, pro-international community banner in the face of the world. No one who had read that book could call him a racist in any sense whatever. It was a proclamation for all humanity, hailed as such not only by such observers as Thomas Hardy or Maxim Gorky, but by the great mass of common readers across the planet. Precious few of them could have recognised the élitist Wells of John Carey, another of his modern critics, or the science fiction vulgarian of Professor Sutherland. Anyhow, he could hardly have been both at the same time.
However, on one matter at least, I must not question Professor Sutherland’s jocular sincerity. He puts the point thus: if Michael Foot, with his terrible Wellsian ideas, had become prime minister, he and others ‘would be walking round without testicles’. I would not wish to make light of such a prodigious hazard. But if the aforesaid Wellsian-Foot regime had been in existence, he and his friends, male and female, would have the compensation that they could choose their lovers without fear or favour. Moreover, they would have escaped one world war and possibly two, and the nuclear explosion which might still blow us all into Muggeridge’s kingdom come.
Vol. 18 No. 2 · 25 January 1996
I respect the warmth of Michael Foot’s enthusiasm for H.G. Wells and admire the polemical vigour and wit of his letter (Letters, 4 January). But he has not engaged with the central point in my review. It was that Wells advocated concentration camps and/or mass sterilisation for categories of the population who, in a moderately liberal society, would scarcely merit probation. He put this forward speculatively in A Modern Utopia (1905) and privately as his personal opinion in his notes to the Galton essay, which Daniel Kevles quotes. It is worth requoting that passage, which Michael Foot evidently finds very uncomfortable: ‘The way of Nature has always been to slay the hindmost, and there is still no other way, unless we can prevent those who would become the hindmost being born. It is in the sterilisation of failures and not in the selection of successes for breeding that the possibility of the improvement of the human stock lies.’ Foot dismisses this comment as being in any way relevant with airy encomiums of ‘the true Wellsian doctrine, much more significant than any deduction to be drawn from his youthful excursions into the debates about eugenics so prevalent in the intellectual world of that age’. In 1905, Wells was 40. ‘Youthful excursions’?
University College London
Vol. 18 No. 4 · 22 February 1996
The ‘smoking gun in Wellsian scholarship’ which John Sutherland has now quoted twice in your columns (LRB, 14 December 1995 and Letters, 25 January) is actually nothing of the sort. Sutherland claims (1) that Wells’s comments on the ‘sterilisation of failures’ in 1904-5 were not meant for public consumption; (2) that they put their author ‘in the minority on the ultra-hard wing’ of the eugenics movement; (3) that Wells scholars have overlooked these comments; and (4) that they leave social policy with an inescapable choice between the ‘gas chamber’ and the ‘castrating shears’. He is wrong on all four points.
Sutherland has no need to cite Wells’s comments by their file number in the UCL Galton Archive, since they were made at a public meeting and then published together with Galton’s essay in Sociological Papers (1905). Far from being ‘intended for Galton’s eyes only’, they would have been read by everyone following the eugenics debate. If, therefore, Wells had moved from the soft wing to the hard wing of the movement, someone would have noticed. In fact, the Oxford philosopher F.C.S. Schiller, reviewing A Modern Utopia in Nature, spoke of Wells’s ‘distrust of eugenics’. Wells’s recent biographer David Smith quotes from the same passage as Sutherland, and describes it as ‘fairly tame’ in the 1905 context. This is not to say that it is easily defensible today. In 1905 the intellectual world was gripped by a full-scale moral panic about the ‘rapid multiplication of the unfit’ – now we have other sorts of moral panic. What Wells was doing was to reject Galtonian eugenics while calling for further research (not for immediate action) on the possible effects of the ‘sterilisation of failures’ about which he had expressed many qualms. When he spoke of ‘Nature’s way’ as being to slay the hindmost, he was referring to the human effects of Natural Selection; if we find this objectionable, as I’m sure we should, we ought to look at the facts of comparative life-expectancy in our own society rather than starting a proto-Nazi witch-hunt. (As for the ‘castrating shears’, I imagine that Sutherland has by now noticed that there is a distinction between castration and sterilisation. Would he maintain that, in contemporary Britain, nobody is ever compulsorily sterilised?) Wells wrote many thousands of words about eugenics and, for the most part, they had a salutary effect in turning people against the Galtonian vision of selective breeding. Unfortunately, Wells maintained that deliberate breeding to improve the race was physically impossible and likely to be disastrous in practice – not that it was unthinkable in a liberal society.