The World Set Free


The H. G. Wells series continues while I’m off reading new stuff for review.

Raw Feed (1996): The World Set Free: A Story of Mankind, H. G. Wells, 1914.World Set Free

“Introduction”, Brian Aldiss — Introduction that emphasizes that Wells’ claim to being a prophet (a reputation he garnered in his day) rests on his prediction of atomic warfare in this novel and tanks in “The Land Ironclads”. The technological inspiration came from the work of Frederick Soddy who won a 1921 Nobel Prize for radioactive chemistry. Soddy wrote a popular account of his work in 1909. Aldiss points out the technical flaws of story construction and character in the novel.

This novel gets much credit for being the first sf story to depict atomic warfare. Wells certainly shows warfare of incredible destructiveness and long lingering effects, but those effects are not from radioactivity but from continuous explosions, in effect perpetual volcanoes where the bombs land. I’m not sure if this accurately reflects the scientific opinion of the day.

Still, like atomic warfare in our day, the introduction of atomic weapons produces social change, massive social change since the weapons are used promiscuously and, like Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come (I’ve only read the Wells scripted film and not his novel), a new social order is created and maintained by an elite group. If the descriptions of atomic warfare were not totally prescient, this may be the first sf novel to feature the atomic powered future (including cars and planes) that was common in sf until the 1960s. Here the atomic engines even have the side effect of producing gold which ruins Earth’s economy.

This is Wells’ attempt to write a mosaic (in the sense of no central characters who take us all the way through the story) future history starting with chapter one which I liked a great deal. It details the history of Man’s growing sentience and increasing use of nature’s energy to better his life. This chapter also glosses man’s social inventions to tame his animal nature.

Essentially, that is the typical Wellsian theme of this book. Man has outgrown his social inventions, including the legal system and capitalism. Wells’ replacement is, of course, his notion of a World State with socialism, scientific research, central planning, the “Dawn of Love” and ruled by self-appointed elite (here seen taking decisive steps to round up stray nukes). His narrative strategy combines memoirs, multiple viewpoint characters including a central section dealing with the war and its tactics (Wells, author of the wargaming text Little Wars, was interested in such things). The result is more interesting than the usual (for his later sf) Wells’ story of society transformed from contemporary corruption and archaism (to Wells) into a utopia.

King Egbert is implausibly good. “The Slavic fox” is plausibly bad and interesting. The social prescriptions of this novel are thinner than Wells’ A Modern Utopia.

There is some other prescience in this novel. Written before WWI and Woodrow Wilson’s intervention, this novel has the American president usher in the new world. Wells’ is enthusiastic about Americans saying they have a “gigantic childishness”, that they are a “simple peoples by whom the world was saved.”

Wells, advocator of “Free Love” seems to, in the last chapter, view sex as a young person’s distraction from the “eternal search for knowledge” (a reprise of the search for the sun mentioned in the title of the first chapter). The whole chapter is a plea to go beyond the sexual differentiation in humans. Wells aksi throws in one of his critiques of women and their fashions.


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