Technology is proof of man’s enslavement to nature – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative – H.G. Wells
A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save. – Psalm 33:17
Aside from his enduring ‘War of the Worlds’, H.G. Wells was known in his time as a savvy technologist and far sighted futurist. His areas of concern ranged from Utopian scientific government, to race purifying Eugenics, to mechanized warfare and even triumph of reason over superstition.
His short story ‘The Land Ironclads’ of 1903 predicted a war similar to The Great War, that would be settled quickly by technologically expert society over the warlike tendencies of horseback mounted warrior types. In ‘The War in the Air’, a Novel that Wells saw published in 1907, the nations fight in Zeppelins to a state of barbarism as the political systems of the entire world collapse into anarchy over a period of 30 years. Was he right? With our availability of hindsight we can examine his predictions and the success of his patterns of thought.
While being correct in their forecasts of the tank in the case of ‘The Land Ironclads’, and the ‘Zeppelin’ as well as military air power and attacks on cities in ‘The War in the Air’, the real effect of technology on these two projected conflicts was much diminished. Sadly, in the case of armored machines on land war, the real effects were years off, and managed not to shorten wars, but to eventually allow the second world war to be a rapidly moving plague that embroiled many millions as it swarmed over Europe. The real conflict did last nearly 30 years, if you consider 1915 to 1945 as the duration of hostilities commenced with the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand in Sarajevo and culminating on the deck of the USS Missouri with the Japanese surrender. The breather provided in the west of Europe by the treaty of Versailles was cancelled out by the bloody bolshevik purges that occupied the interim before the next assault by Nationalist Germany, so that the continent was devouring itself throughout the first half century of the 2oth.
In the dark time of 1916, HG Wells wrote another book, “Mr Britling Sees it Through'” which is a thinly disguised autobiography of intellectual development and the encroaching despair of the realisation of the fact of human barbarity. It was a brutal machine of politics and physical machines that was devouring men on the battlefields of 1916, and it represented the state of the art in technological sophistication and social theory as applied to conquest and defense. Wells through Britling loses his faith in the inevitability of progress to redeem mankind through an hygienic program of purposeful education. By the end of the Novel, Mr Britling is driven to the end of comprehension by the death of his son and friends in the war to write: “Religion is the first thing and the last thing, and until a man has found God and been found by God, he begins at no beginning, he works to no end. He may have his friendships, his partial loyalties, his scraps of honour. But all these things fall into place and life falls into place only with God. Only with God. God, who fights through men against Blind Force and Night and Non-Existence; who is the end, who is the meaning.”
It became clear to Wells after the apotheosis of the Great War that a new world order was imminent. He felt the world was waking from a bad dream. These ideas were widely held after 1918, and Wells once again began to believe that the conflict had been a mistake or merely incomplete application of the liberal program to the transcendent tragedy of mankind. “Men Like Gods” , published in 1923 sees HG Wells once again comfortably arranging Utopia. Utopia contains no sectarian religion, and all problems are eradicated by education. Oddly, one of Wells eradications is dogs. There are no dogs in Utopia, and ridiculously characters in this novel are serenely happy that there is no confounded barking. Bizarre but characteristic of totalitarians is this nagging problem. One man’s Utopia is another’s plastic prison.
As an articulate observer of the turn of the 19th century to the 20th Wells was an outspoken advocate of human perfectibility in all things and believed in a future that was in all ways better than the present. This places him as an anti Orwellian voice and certainly no friend of prior thinkers like Jonathan Swift or even Jules Verne and their understandings of Man’s relationship with his universe, created or not. Given the track record of his predictions, and his habitual faith in materialism lost in the face of proof and regained in the light of fancy, is there a lesson to be applied in our time as we look to technologies and social systems to make us transcendent? Transcendent of what, I ask.