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H G Wells Good Story Teller but was he a Failed Intellectual

January 12, 2010

H G Wells Good Story Teller but was he a Failed Intellectual

The success of most intellectualism is often measured not by how well a writer’s novels are read but by how well their ideas influence future societies. In this regard we do have novelists like George Orwell, who was also an essayist, influencing the direction and objections to future policies. We have a similar situation with biotechnologies where the automatic question is ‘How close is any proposal to Huxley’s Brave New World?’ The influences of these two authors far outweigh the literary merit of their novel. (Who reads 1984 looking for a beautiful sonnet?)

It is not through lack of effort that H G Wells is better remembered as an entertainer than as a great thinker. He was a literary and intellectual contemporary with the likes of George Bernard Shaw, G K Chesterton and was a famed member of the Fabian Society. He considered himself to be a Socialist but was opposed to Marxism. His most influential position was with the now defunct League of Nations and often wrote about a world without wars. The saying ‘A War to End All Wars’ is ironically attributed to him. Like many of his contemporaries in the Fabian Society he envisaged a Utopian future where religion would be obsolete, where science would rule, where old class divisions would be eradicated and where Eugenics would be enforced to ensure that would remain so. He was in the midst of people who went on to be known for their radical ideas and influences on the future. Unlike Marxists, the Fabian Society was more committed to reforming the system than launching a revolution and class war. Yet whether it was by reform or revolution, H G Wells own ideas would be considered radical even today.

Like many of those that had described themselves as Socialists and Scientific Rationalists of his era, he was totally beguiled with Eugenics. The novel called ‘The Shape of Things to Come’ envisaged a perfect future where he encouraged the extermination of religious leaders to make society free. The society also offered the Hemlock Suicide alternative to those that could conform or perhaps cope. Wells saw democracy as being counterproductive to the Utopia that he visualised. He envisaged a single world government run by intellectual elites and scientists who knew better that the ordinary masses who would never be educated enough to trust with elections. He has close liaison fellow eugenics and euthanasia promoter feminist Margret Sanger. Sanger went on to set up the America Birth Control League which was eventually renamed as Planned Parenthood.

In his day Wells’ ideas did draw criticism from several of his contemporaries. Aldus Huxley wrote Brave New World in response to Wells’ blind faith in a utopian future. G K Chesterton was critical views on eugenics labelling it as the ‘Mean Science’ that ‘tries to breed humans as you would a cow for milk. The concept of world government and a new world order is often seen as an excuse for a totalitarian control over all people. C S Lewis was also incensed that Wells showed persecution of all the religions as being a good thing.

With the outbreak of WW2, the League of Nations collapsed and at the same time England found that it was at war not just with a nation but with cornerstones of the eugenic ideology. Hitler had taken Eugenics to its ultimate end in Germany and ruthlessly applied euthanasia in the hope of saving mankind from its inherited problems. The Nuremberg trials described in graphic detail what eugenics had become in Germany. It was perhaps the fitting end with a social experiment that based more on fatal pessimism than objective study. Yet H G Wells and others had bet on the wrong ideological ship and lost.

This not is a story about trying to prove H G Wells to be an evil person. Perhaps he was a person who had a blind belief in a Utopian future delivered by science and reason. Yet his determination to adhere to the losing side of the ideological battle of his age cost him the reputation of being a reliable intellectual source. He was a brilliant fictional story teller who fell in love with the fiction that eugenics was the answer. His books that are still popular are seen as well written entertainment but not as high literature. His non-fiction works are not on the required reading list of any school that I know of. Nor are people quick to describe themselves as subscribing to the ‘Wells School of Thought’. H G Well probably tried as hard as anyone to build the future that he imagined but, as often happens, he chose the wrong side of history.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. similimodo permalink
    January 13, 2010 5:07 pm

    That was an interesting and informative read.

    Plus, I loved the line, “Who reads 1984 looking for a beautiful sonnet?”

    I didn’t read 1984 or Brave New World until after school. (But I wont vent about the inadequacies of the education system, or the rubbish on the compulsory reading list). I think I was in my 30s when I read those two books. I enjoyed both of them. They certainly make my all-time favourite list of secular novels. I’ve even re-read Brave New World a couple of times for pleasure, but never really knew anything much about Wells or Huxley.

    I also liked the film adaption of 1984. I think William Hurt was in it and a pre-Brazilian-wax naked woman. (But I won’t go into how Brazilian waxing promotes paedophilia, either).

    I certainly didn’t realise Huxley wrote Brave New World in response to 1984. But it makes sense.

    In terms of literature, I think both of them achieved what a lot of writers fail to achieve when writing a novel – simplicity. I like novels by people who have a comprehensive command of langauge and yet write in a style that anyone can read. I often think it’s the height of writing. Getting to the stage where economy of words is paramount. Not that I don’t enjoy other writing, it’s just that I think it’s the style I like most.

    David …

    Like

    • January 13, 2010 6:29 pm

      David

      Thanks for your comments.
      I think I was 16 when I started to read 1984. Brave New World I remember reading in 1984. I remember that H G Wells and Jules Verne novels were on my reading list when I was about 13. Which I guess shows what level they were pitched at. The 1984 film came out ,believe it or not, in 1984. And yes it was a very post ‘Alien’ William Hurt in the lead role. Where is that nude chick today?

      Huxley actually wrote Brave New World primarily as a satire on H G Wells’ perfect futures but also in response to the embryonic research that his own brother was doing at that time. Huxley is probably the the most famous family name in science history going back to Darwins’ time (but that is another story).

      One thing I liked as much as their novels were the essays written by Huxley and Orwell. Both have a very clear way of thinking and presenting a case without the waffling on that seems so fashionable today. I still try to take Orwells advice on writing:
      Never use a large word when a small word will do;
      Never use 2 words when one will do;
      Avoid passive sentences (and look up what a passive sent is);

      It is very economical and focuses on the content as being superior to the style.

      Like

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