Saturday, 10 February 2018

Wells at the World's Index



Between February 2017 and February 2018 I read through the whole of Wells's published output, blogging my reactions as I did so. Now that I've finished I'm going to leave this index to the posts I wrote at the head of the blog.

It's in three parts. First are my accounts of Wells's various publications. Second, a much shorter list, are reviews I wrote of a number of paratexts: biographies, spin-off novels by other writers and so on. Thirdly: original writing. On occasion, by way of tabulating some aspect of my personal reaction to a Wellsian work, I wrote a piece original fiction, and I list these in the final section. They're short stories, but they are also ways of engaging critically with aspects of the works upon which they riff. Not all literary criticism has to take the form of the conventional lit-crit analytic essay, after all.

As I've noted at various points on ths blog, I've been reading all this Wells because I've been commissioned to write a ‘Literary Biography’ of the man. Not an actual biography, which would entail years of my life, long stretches in archives all over the world rifling through unpublished letters, invoices, catalogues and so on; but an account of his life that foregrounds his writing, his fiction and non-fiction. The image at the head of this post is by the mighty Edward Gorey, and comes from his illustrated edition of War of the Worlds.


1: Wells's works

Select Conversations with an Uncle (1895)
The Time Machine (1895)
The Wonderful Visit (1895)
The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents (1895) [short stories]
The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896)
The Wheels of Chance (1896)
The Plattner Story and Others (1897) [short stories]
The Invisible Man (1897)
Certain Personal Matters (1897)
The War of the Worlds (1898)
When the Sleeper Wakes (1899)
Tales of Space and Time (1899) [short stories]

Love and Mr Lewisham (1900)
The First Men in the Moon (1901)
Anticipations (1901) [non-fiction]
The Sea Lady (1902)
Mankind in the Making (1903) [non-fiction]
The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth (1904)
A Modern Utopia (1905)
Kipps (1905)
In the Days of the Comet (1906)
The Future in America (1906) [non-fiction]
This Misery of Boots (1907) [non-fiction]
Will Socialism Destroy the Home? (1907) [non-fiction]
The War in the Air (1908)
New Worlds for Old (1908) [non-fiction]
First and Last Things (1908) [non-fiction]
Tono-Bungay (1909)
Ann Veronica (1909)
The History of Mr Polly (1910)
The Sleeper Awakes (1910) [revised edition of When the Sleeper Wakes (1899)]

The Country of the Blind and Other Stories (1911)
Floor Games (1911) [non-fiction]
The Great State (1912) [non-fiction]
Marriage (1912)
Little Wars (1913) [non-fiction]
The Passionate Friends (1913)
An Englishman Looks at the World (1914) [non-fiction]
The War and Socialism (1914) [non-fiction]
The War That Will End War (1914) [non-fiction]
Boon (1915)
Bealby: A Holiday (1915)
The Research Magnificent (1915)
The Peace of the World (1915) [non-fiction]
What is Coming? (1916) [non-fiction]
Mr Britling Sees It Through (1916)
The Elements of Reconstruction (1916) [non-fiction]
God the Invisible King (1917) [non-fiction]
The Soul of a Bishop (1917)
War and the Future (a.k.a. Italy, France and Britain at War) (1917) [non-fiction]
Introduction to Swinnerton's ‘Nocturne’ (1917) [non-fiction]
In the Fourth Year (1918) [non-fiction]
Joan and Peter: The Story of an Education (1918)
The Undying Fire (1919)

The Outline of History (1920) [non-fiction]
Russia in the Shadows (1921) [non-fiction]
The Salvaging of Civilization (1921) [non-fiction]
The Secret Places of the Heart (1922)
A Short History of the World (1922) (New and Rev Ed. 1946) [non-fiction]
Washington and the Hope of Peace (1922) [non-fiction]
Men Like Gods (1923)
Tales of Wonder (1923) [short stories]
Tales of Life and Adventure (1923) [short stories]
Socialism and the Scientific Motive (1923) [non-fiction]
The Dream (1924)
A Year of Prophesying (1925) [non-fiction]
The Story of a Great Schoolmaster: Being a Plain Account of the Life and Ideas of Sanderson of Oundle (1924) [non-fiction]
Christina Alberta's Father (1925)
The World of William Clissold (1926)
Meanwhile (1927)
Mr. Blettsworthy on Rampole Island (1928)
The Way the World is Going (1928) [non-fiction]
The Book of Catherine Wells (1928) [non-fiction]
The Open Conspiracy (1928) [non-fiction]

The Autocracy of Mr. Parham (1930)
The Science of Life (1930) – with Julian S. Huxley and G. P. Wells [non-fiction]
The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind (1931) [non-fiction]
The Bulpington of Blup (1932)
After Democracy (1932) [non-fiction]
The Shape of Things to Come (1933)
Experiment in Autobiography (1934) [non-fiction]
The New America: The New World (1935) [non-fiction]
The Croquet Player (1936)
The Anatomy of Frustration (1936) [non-fiction]
Star Begotten (1937)
Brynhild (1937)
The Camford Visitation (1937)
The Brothers (1938)
Apropos of Dolores (1938)
World Brain (1938) [non-fiction]
The Holy Terror (1939)
The Fate of Homo Sapiens (1939) [non-fiction]
Travels of a Republican Radical in Search of Hot Water (1939) [non-fiction]

The New World Order (1940) [non-fiction]
Babes in the Darkling Wood (1940)
All Aboard for Ararat (1940)
The Rights of Man (1940) [non-fiction]
The Common Sense of War and Peace (1940) [non-fiction]
You Can't Be Too Careful (1941)
The Conquest of Time (1942) [non-fiction]
Modern Russian and English Revolutionaries (1942) – with Lev Uspensky [non-fiction]
Crux Ansata: An Indictment of the Roman Catholic Church (1943) [non-fiction]
'42 to '44: A Contemporary Memoir (1944) [non-fiction]
Reshaping Man's Heritage (1944) – with J. B. S. Haldane, Julian S. Huxley [non-fiction]
The Happy Turning (1945) [non-fiction]
Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945) [non-fiction]


2. Wellsian paratexts

Brian Aldiss, Moreau's Other Island (1980)
Gabriel Tarde, Underground Man (1896/1905) [with an introduction by Wells]
Ronald Wright, A Scientific Romance (1997)
Frank Swinnerton, Nocturne (1917) [with an introduction by Wells]
Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier (1918)
A.B. McKillop, The Spinster and the Prophet: A Tale of H.G. Wells, Plagiarism and the History of the World (2001)
Goddard, Chaplin, Wells. (1935) [photograph]
David C. Smith, H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal. A Biography (1986). Some Errata


3. Original writing on Wellsian themes

The Second Men in the Moon (2017) [a sequel to The First Men in the Moon (1901)]
‘The Imposter: a Tale of the Modern Utopia’ (2017)
In the Night of the Comet: A Sequel to H. G. Wells’s In the Days of the Comet’ (2017)
‘This Joy of Boots’ (2017) [sequel to This Misery of Boots, 1907]
World Again Enchained: A Sequel to The World Set Free’ (2017)
Esau Common: the Cyclist Soldier (2017)
‘Mors Solis’ (2017) [expansion of an unwritten Wells story from 1905]
‘The Edinburgh Masks’ (2017) [inspired by Wells's ‘The Temptation of Harringay’ 1895]
Beyond the End of Mind's Tether’ (2018) [a sequel to Mind at the End of its Tether, 1945]

Friday, 9 February 2018

David C. Smith, “H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal” (1986). Some Errata



I have been reading through the whole of Wells, and recording my reactions on this blog; and I've been doing that because I've been commissioned to write a ‘Literary Biography’ of the man. Not an actual biography, which would entail years of my life, long stretches in archives all over the world rifling through unpublished letters, invoices, catalogues and so on; but an account of his life that foregrounds his writing, his fiction and non-fiction. That's a big enough task in its own right, because he wrote so very much, but at least it means I can lean, in all decency, on the proper Wells biographies written by proper biographers. There are a dozen or so of these, including one by his son, Anthony West, a fascinating but extremely partial volume called H. G. Wells: Aspects of a Life (London: Hutchinson 1984). There's also Vincent Brome's forceful but broad-brush and swiss-cheese H G Wells: A Biography (London: Longmans 1952) and the best biography I know of, Norman and Jean Mackenzie's The Time Traveller: the Life of H G Wells (London: Weidenfeld, 1973).


The Mackenzies' Life is both the best written and (I think) most psychologically acute account of Wells there is, but David C. Smith's H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal: A Biography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), imaged at the head of this post, occupies a special place in Wellsian scholarship, simply by virtue of its scope and capaciousness. 496 pages of dense text are followed by a whopping 140 pages of tiny-font endnotes, recording and summarising the prodigies of reading Smith undertook in Wellsian archives from Bromley to Illinois, Boston to the LSE. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of unpublished letters, many recording the intricate to-and-fro of Wells's contract and business dealings. For me Smith's volume has proved, and certainly will continue to prove, absolutely invaluable, as I navigate Wells's literary output.

But although it is an amazing resource, Smith's is not actually a very good biography. It's flatly descriptive, piles up large amounts of data without offering very much by way of steer, is disposed into parallel sections that treat aspects of Wells life in ways that necessitate quite a bit of repetition (‘Student’, ‘Author’, ‘Teacher’, ‘Prophet’, with his relations with women folded away into two discrete chapters ‘Women and Fiction I’ and ‘Women and Fiction II’) rather than simply narrating it all chronologically, and is weakest on the very thing that makes Wells worthy of biography in the first place, his writing. Smith mostly limits himself to brief summaries of the various books Wells published, analyses very little, and reads critically or theorizes not at all. An historian rather than a literary critic by training, perhaps he felt more comfortable with just the facts. But it makes his book something of a Fact Pudding.

Which is fine: there are a lot of facts here, and that's useful to any scholar of Wells. But there are various errors too, and that's a bit more worrying. Below I list a few of those errors, particularly those places where (since it's my brief) Smith's accounts of Wells's books go wrong. Some of these are noted by David Y. Hughes in his (largely positive) review for Science Fiction Studies [14:3 (Nov. 1987), 392-399]; some of them are howlers I spotted myself as I worked through


[9] Wells was at Byatt's school for one year, not (as Smith says) two.

[65] The War of the Worlds (1898). ‘Martians land near London .... the insect-like being  buried in the top layers of the earth, now begin to construct machines in which they can travel in their desire for conquest’. But the Martians are not ‘insect-like’ (Smith is perhaps confusing this novel with First Men in the Moon). They are octopus-like, ‘the size of a bear’ and they glisten ‘like wet leather’.

[68] Smith thinks the descriptions of ‘weightlessness in space’ in First Men in the Moon (1901) are ‘a good description of what travellers later experienced’. They're not, though. When Cavor and Bedford close all the anti-gravity shutters they float, but if they open the one facing Earth they drift down to that window and if they open the one facing the Moon they drift in that direction. Wells has not grasped that the capsule is in free fall and its passengers with it, and that they would be weightless the whole way (as the Apollo astronauts were). I don't much blame Wells for getting this wrong, but I do blame Smith, a little, for thinking he got it right.

[152] Gissing can't have read the proofs of The War of the Worlds, since he stayed with Wells and his sister in Spring 1897 (not 1898 as Smith says) when there were no such proofs to read.

[163] ‘Conrad read The Time Machine in translation while travelling in Turkey’. David Y. Hughes points out that the neither the time and the place for this assertion are correct.

[170] Smith thinks Boon (1915) is ‘clearly set in [Henry] James's garden’. But the novel is very particular as to its setting. It is set in the “Classical Villa” in which Mallock’s New Republic (1877) is also set. Quiet a lot of the early part of this book is given over to the party locating and renting this specific villa. Has Smith not read the book?

[205] ‘The Wonderful Visit (1898) describes the descent to earth of an angel with whom a curate falls in love’. Wrong on two counts: Hilyer is a Vicar, not a curate, and he doesn't fall in love with the (male) angel—in fact the angel falls in love with Delia, the maid.

[247] Smith thinks that Joan and Peter, in Joan and Peter (1918), study science in ‘the South Kensington laboratories’. Not so: they both go to Cambridge.

[301] Of The Autocracy of Mr Parham (1930), Smith says that the character Bussy is a portrait of Winston Churchill. But Bussy, a press baron, is a portrait of Lord Beaverbook. The Winston Churchill character in the novel is called ‘Mr Brimstone Burchell’

[328] Of Star-Begotten (1937), Smith says ‘Joseph, and his wife Mary (although her name is not revealed until the end of the book) ...’ But she is named in the very first chapter!

[329] The Camford Visitation (1937) ‘opens in a common-room’. Not so: it opens in a dining room. Only later does the action move to a common-room.

[355] ‘In the little allegory All Aboard for Ararat (1940), the ark, symbolic of the world at war ...’ But this makes no sense: the flood is the war, the ark is Wells's fragile dreams for a better future (that, really, is the whole point of the novella)

[358] At the end of my blogpost on You Can't Be Too Careful (1943) I note, and give reasons for, my suspicion that Smith has not read this novel with any care.

[397] The Secret Places of the Heart (1922) ‘begins with the leading character, Sir Richmond Hardy, taking a three-week trip with his alienist (the usual word of the period for psychiatrist) ...’ The word alienist is not used in the novel; Dr. Martineau is simply Sir Richmond's regular doctor.

[397] ... and talking of The Secret Places of the Heart: Smith says Sir Richmond goes away ‘to work out his relationship with his wife (Rebecca) ... the book ends with the wife beating on the coffin of her dead husband ...’ This is all wrong: the Rebecca West character in the novel is Miss Martin Leeds, a famous cartoonist (unmentioned by Smith) with whom Sir Richmond is having an affair. Lady Hardy, Sir Richmond's wife, is a portrait of Wells's wife, Jane. And it is Miss Martin Leeds who beats on the coffin at the novel's end, not the wife.

[479] Smith says A. Morley Davies attended Wells's cremation at Golders Green in 1946, which, since Davies himself had died in 1943, must have been quite a shock for the other mourners.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Beyond the End of Mind's Tether (2018)



[Note: this short piece is a sequel to H G Wells's last published book, the 30-page Mind at the End of its Tether (1945). The date at the head of this post does not reflect the date of composition, for this story was written on the last day of March 2018, but so as not to rob the index-post that currently stands at the head of the blog of its place I have retrospectively dated it to fit it into the main body of the blog.]




It was dark. It was not a comfortable dark. It contained within it no incipience of dawn. Where was he? Who was he? Was he?

There was an answer to this last question: ‘yes’, said a voice.

The darkness did not abate, but Bertie felt, or intuited, the presence of others. It was, he thought, as when you apply pressure to your closed eyes in the middle of the night, and rub retinal effects of unearthly mauve and dark blue and sparks of glinting black-purple into your vision. ‘Where am I?’ he asked.

Where is not the best way of talking about your presence in the present,’ said the voice, or all the voices in near unison, it was hard to tell.

‘Am I dead? I was certainly dying. Far from pleasant, physically speaking. Physically. Am I beyond such material suffering now?’ Some fretful twist of the old Bertie returned to him. ‘But if I'm dead, then what is doing this thinking? My physical brain has ceased function, and is even now deliquescing into a puddle of rotting proteins and fats. And that's what I've been using for my mentation for ...’

‘For the best part of a century,’ agreed the voice. ‘But that's not it. Your residual consciousness is attuned now to such non-mental rhythms as the accumulation of crystalline matter in a mineral vein or the efflorescence of a shower of meteors as they scarf brightness through the night sky. Your mind accepted the secular process as rational and it could not do otherwise, because it evolved as part and parcel of it. But all that is over now.’

Something shifted in Bertie's perceptions: a sense of horizontally-vertiginous scale, of gliding without motion towards some dim chasm of illumination, antarctic grey, razory blues, some great ravine of catchment. ‘Are you God?’

Bertie wasn't expecting the laughter. It did not last long, and there was no echo in this place, and it did not strike an unkind or mocking tone. ‘You wrote books.’

‘I did’

‘Many books.’

‘I have written books on many different subjects,’ said Bertie, a little flourish of pride lifting his spirits. ‘Including several fables of the afterlife. But I never imagined anything so ... murky.’

‘Many a murkle,’ said the voice, ‘makes a mickle. Or, wait: should that be the other way around?’

‘I have sinned grievously, I know,’ said Bertie, ‘and perhaps most grievously with my words. So I daresay it would be fitting if my eternal damnation will be an endless conversation that goes nowhere and communicates nothing.’

‘Sick burn!’ said the voice, and Bertie shuddered momently at the thought that this was, perhaps, a diabolic command to ignite at last the furnaces of a fully medieval Hell. Odd how hard it is to banish these childhood superstitions from even the most rational and mature of minds. But the voice was saying something else now: ‘truth hour, Bertie. Time to come clean.’

If he had still possessed lungs, Bertie would have drawn a deep breath. ‘What do you want to know?’

‘Our truth, not yours. We know all yours. The thing is .. well let me put it like this. Your very last published book? Mind at the End of its Tether?’

‘Yes?’

‘You were getting an inkling, there. The end of everything we call life is close at hand and cannot be evaded, you said. Extinction coming to man like a brutal thunderclap of Halt! People read it, and said to themselves: oh, he's just projecting his own imminent death onto the cosmos as a whole. But you weren't, were you? You were, right at the end of your life, starting to get a sense of how things really stood.’

‘And I was right? Reality—human reality, all of it, for all of us, has ended?’

‘Sure,’ said the voice. ‘Though that all of us is a little misleading, maybe. The truth, Bertie, is that we were running a simulation.’

Bertie pondered this. ‘Please explain further,’ he said.

‘It wasn't real. The environments you inhabited, the houses and hills and sky and sea, the seasons and everything. It was, if you like, written. We coded it, as we like to say. We made it, and put you in it.’

‘And now,’ said Bertie, peering again into the darkness, ‘you have unmade it, and taken me out?’

‘You dying unmade it. It was just you, in there.’

‘Nonsense,’ said Bertie, reflexly. ‘I have been fortunate to meet many brilliant and wonderful people.’

‘You certainly did that!’ agreed the voice. ‘You had sex with quite a few of them’

Bertie would not have blushed at this, even had he a face and blood vessels with which to perform such an action. ‘I make no apology for being true to my passions, and to the passions of others. Indeed, if I ...’

‘There were no others.’

‘You'll pardon me,’ said Bertie, stiffly, ‘if the vividness and force of my personal friendships, teh intensity of my love affairs, means that I cannot concur with ...’

‘Nah, nah, Bertie. No, we tried it. Believe me, we did. We have tried multi-party simulations, parallel-sync and combi-player versions. But what we found was: introduce multiple agents into the simulation and they interact in chaotic ways. Chaotic in the mathematical sense of the—actually I guess you don't know. But there you go. We ran up against Chung Wang's law. You're too proud to admit you don't know what Chung Wang's law is, or who Chung Wang even was, but there's no shame in your ignorance. It wasn't part of your sim. And, and, in a nutshell, you know: the more actual people you have sharing your sim, the more rapidly the hyperbolic chaosm crashes your sim. It's the unpredictability of the real. You can build a sim of the entire world around a single consciousness—a fully realistic and immersive sim, I mean: one whose pixels are planck length—you can do that with a couple thousand yottabytes of processing. Add in a second consciousness to your sim and you need not to double your processing capacity, but cube it. There are reasons why, and their complicated, but that's how it is. I mean if your two consciousnesses never meet in the sim, then the amount of processing you need goes down, but if that's how your coding things then why not just build it for one? Add a third real player, and the processing requirement goes up by x to the nine, and so on. Add a fourth and ... well, you see what I'm saying?’

‘Not entirely,’ said Bertie.

‘No, you got it,’ said the voice. ‘You got it. You grasped it intuitively in your End of Tether book. You knew you were dying, personally, and you've never been a philosophical solipsist, so you didn't want to write that because you were dying the world was coming to its end. But it was true. The world we created, and in which you lived, surrounded by ciphers, was coming to and end. Because there's no point in running the programme once you checked out.’

‘A whole world?’ said Bertie. ‘Just for me? Some manner of playground, erected purely for me? But why?’

‘Well,’ the voice said, ‘it isn't cheap, if that's what you mean. So: yeah. Why is a good question. We only put one kind of person in the programme, generally speaking. Writers. By which I mean: science fiction writers, of course. There are other companies who experiment with other kinds of people, physicists, inventors, prophets and seers, but we have a good record, harvest-wise, so we don't see why we should change our approach. We've tried different sorts of mind, and different life shapes, and different world-history-environment frames, but this one works. Take a science fiction writer. Give him or her an unhappy childhood—happy childhoods followed by unhappy adulthoods don't seem to work as well, for some reason—to build up a kind of psychic momentum in them. Then vary the mix in adulthood: give them some, or most or as in your case all that they ever dreamed they might have. Then we sit back! Simple as that. Takes time, but time is one thing we got, here.’

‘Harvest?’

‘Sure. Return on our investment. You wouldn't expect us to be doing this for the sheer fun of it, would you? I mean, I know you spent much of your life as a, what's the phrase? Socianist. Socialist? Socialist. But out here in the real world its dog eat dog. Or it would be, if there were any dogs left. Omega-point-consciousness eat omega-point-consciousness, let's say.’

‘Harvest what?’

‘Let's have a look,’ said the voice. ‘So, we did pretty well out of you, all told. The main one is, let me check the phrasing, time machine. Yes: time machine. That was a real bonus. We could have cashed you out of the sim when you were thirty and we would have been well ahead. But we let the sim run on, to see what else you might come up with. And you did come up with some other stuff, some useful stuff. Especially after we had you live through that big war, that world war thing. Indeed, that was so productive we bodged up a second one, when you were old, for you to live through. But the elasticity of your inventiveness had mostly gone by then, so we ended up with nothing much to show for it. Still time machine, and the other stuff, and this has been a pretty profitable run for us.’

‘I don't understand,’ said Bertie. ‘I only wrote about the idea of a time machine. I'm no inventor, or temporal physicist. I only thought of the idea!’

‘That's the whole game, Bertie my beaut. The whole game. Cool ideas. Cool and original ideas. Not every consciousness is capable of coming up with them, and you do need the whole entablature of a life lived in order for men or women to generate them. In our experience science fiction writers have the best ideas. Fiction writers generally are too wedded to the particular contours of the reality in which they find themselves. Scientists, ditto, for slightly different reasons, and with a different focus. But the overlap, the venn-diagram overlap, between those two groups and now you're talking ...’

‘But what use ...?’ Bertie began to say. ‘What possible use ...?’ Slowly, and very slowly, his environment was coming into some kind of focus. It was not a sensory focus, exactly, but some other mode of apprehension.

‘Use? All the use in the universe! Making the universe a useiverse! We're in trouble, Bertie, and that's the truth. The aperture of reality is closing down, shrinking to its final point, and eventually it will squish us out of existence altogether, like thumbnails pressing together hard on a tick. Do we not like that. We've assembled all the computing power that remains in the cosmos, and all the energy we can generate, and are trying to—skew that shrinkage, just enough, to generate more imbalance, and so more energy and more computing power, and postpone ... look: you're not interested in our problems. But we can say, thank you. Thank you! The idea of a time machine. That's a very cool idea, and nobody had had it before you did.’

‘Nobody?’

‘Nobody in our reality. Which is the real reality. Sorry, Bertie. But it's a very cool idea. We don't know if an actual machine can be constructed, but just the idea of moving spatially through time has opened up new possibilities for us in the manipulation of the shrinking cosmos. So that's good.’

‘And it was in the hope of garnering such ideas that you put my consciousness, my real consciousness, in the world I have just experienced? For eighty years of joy and disappointment, triumph and pain?’

‘Bingo,’ said the voice. ‘And now you're done.’

‘But I'm not,’ said Bertie, a slyness entering into his voice. ‘Am I? You clearly need me for something else. If what you say is true, then my consciousness should end when the simulation, as you style is, ended. The fact that I'm still thinking means that I am still of use to you. And that gives me leverage. Because whatever it is that you need from me, I shall deny it you, unless you meet my demands. My demands! I require a body, for one thing. A young and vigorous body. And an environment that is not this ... murkiness. Sunlight, and good food, and the companionship of clever and attractive people, or at any rate copies of such folk good enough to pass as real.’

‘No can do, Bertie,’ said the voice. ‘Although you are right. There was one last thing we needed from you, after the sim was over. But we've got it now.’

‘Last thing?’ Bertie asked, The dread he had felt when composing Mind at the End of its Tether came back to him now, a vice fixed around his very consciousness. ‘What?’

‘We're gathering the materials for a new sim, or have gathered the materials. This little exchange is part of it. Somewhere a science fiction writer will stumble across it—stumble across this conversation which we have been having. And it will spark something in her mind. At least, we hope it will, because our very existence depends upon it. She'll be in a sim so real she'll mistake it for reality, and will have myriad experiences, good and bad, and what we're interested in are the cool new ideas she concocts that nobody has concocted before. SF writers are the best for that. This little exchange might, we hope, spark one such idea. Maybe. And who knows, that could be the idea that redeems the final destiny of consciousness in the universe as such! We can but hope. But the conversation is over now, Bertie, and that means this can ...’

‘... end’, said Wells, resignedly.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945)



This is the end, beaut-i-ful friend. The end. ‘This little book,’ Wells declares in his preface, ‘brings to a conclusive end the series of essays, memoranda, pamphlets, through which the writer has experimented, challenged discussion, and assembled material bearing upon the fundamental nature of life and time. So far as fundamentals go, he has nothing more and never will have anything more to say.’ So it proved.

Mind at the End of its Tether is a mere slip of a book: 34 pages, and eight short chapters:
1. The End Closes in upon Mind
2. Mind is Retrospective to the End
3. There is no “Pattern of Things to Come”
4. Recent Realisations of the Nature of Life.
5. Race Suicide by Giganticism
6. Precocious Maturity, a Method of Survival
7. The Antagonism of Age and Youth
8. New Light on the Record of the Rocks
With a title like that, we expect pessimism; and Wells does not disappoint. Indeed, pessimism is piled on pessimism, to the point where this short work starts to feel endless, a TARDIS-book longer on the inside than its external page-count can allow. On and on it goes, repeating the same obscure and doom-clanging point over and over. Wells has had, he says, an intimation that things are approaching an end ‘within a period to be estimated by weeks and months rather than by aeons’. Something profound has changed about the cosmos: ‘there has been a fundamental change in the conditions under which life, not simply human life but all self-conscious existence, has been going on since its beginning’. Wells explains, referring to himself in a distancing third-person:
This is a very startling persuasion to find establishing itself in one’s mind, and he puts forward his conclusions in the certainty that they will be entirely inacceptable to the ordinary rational man. If his thinking has been sound, then this world is at the end of its tether. The end of everything we call life is close at hand and cannot be evaded. [Mind, 1]
For Wells to write this only a few months ahead of the atom bomb being dropped on Hiroshima looks prescient indeed; but Wells is not talking about nuclear weapons—even though he anticipated (more or less) the immense destructive properties of that ordnance all the way back in 1914. No: he's thinking about something else. Not a super-weapon invented by the world, but something existentially prior to the world itself.

He insists that ‘the cosmic movement of events is increasingly adverse to the mental make-up of our everyday life’; that ‘the secular process loses its accustomed appearance of a mental order’ [1] By ‘secular process’ he means the physical world outside humanity, something he here call, a little confusingly, ‘Eternity’. Wells used to believe that human consciousness and the external world run together, in intertwined ways, and now he no longer believes that:
That congruence with mind, which man has attributed to the secular process, is not really there at all. The secular process ... is entirely at one with such non-mental rhythms as the accumulation of crystalline matter in a mineral vein or with the flight of a shower of meteors. The two processes have run parallel for what we call Eternity, and now abruptly they swing off at a tangent from one another—just as a comet at its perihelion hangs portentous in the heavens for a season and then rushes away for ages or for ever. Man’s mind accepted the secular process as rational and it could not do otherwise, because he was evolved as part and parcel of it.
In other words, it's not, or not just, Wells's mind that's at its tether's-end in the title to the book; it's consciousness as such. Exactly how that works is not explained.

Indeed, it's not just the how of this coming apocalypse that is not explicated; it's the what. The book is surprisingly elusive of exactly what is going on: it is ‘the Pattern of Things to Come fading away’; it is ‘extinction coming to man like a brutal thunderclap of Halt!’ (although Wells immediately contradicts this assertion: ‘it never comes like a thunderclap. That Halt! comes to this one to-day and that one next week. To the remnant, there is always, “What next?”’ [1]). It is ‘chaos’ and ‘a harsh queerness come over things’. It is a kind of cinematic illusion:
We pass into the harsh glare of hitherto incredible novelty ... The cinema sheet stares us in the face. That sheet is the actual fabric of Being. Our loves, our hates, our wars and battles, are no more than a phantasmagoria dancing on that fabric, them- selves as unsubstantial as a dream. [Mind, 1]
There is some kind of menace out there, lurking in the darkness, in the supracosmic spaces. Wells, channeling Shelley (though the poet isn't named) calls it “Power”, although he isn't happy with the nomenclature (‘“Power” is unsatisfactory. We need to express something entirely outside our “universe”, and “Power” suggests something within that universe and fighting against us. But we cannot deny this menace of the darkness’). His alternatives won't serve though: ‘“Cosmic process”, “the Beyond”, “the Unknown”, “the Unknowable”, all carry unsound implications’.

This is all in chapter 1, which comprises almost half the whole book. Subsequent chapters ring changes upon this theme without, really, explicating it. ‘Our universe is not merely bankrupt,’ he says; ‘it has not simply liquidated; it is going clean out of existence, leaving not a wrack behind. The attempt to trace a pattern of any sort is absolutely futile’ [3]; Homo sapiens is ‘played out’, ‘the stars in their courses have turned against him and he has to give place to some other animal’ [4]. What animal?
Ordinary man is at the end of his tether. Only a small, highly adaptable minority of the species can possibly survive. The rest will not trouble about it, finding such opiates and consolations as they have a mind for. [Mind, 8]
But Wells gives us no hints as to what this adaptable minority will look like, or how even this sliver of future possibility might unfold. On the contrary, he ends the books as gloomy as he started it, : ‘doubt[ing] that there will not be that small minority which will succeed in seeing life out to its inevitable end.’

So what's going on here? At the end of the lengthy first chapter, Wells says:
Hitherto, recurrence has seemed a primary law of life. Night has followed day and day night. But in this strange new phase of existence into which our universe is passing, it becomes evident that no longer recur. They go on and on to an impenetrable mystery, into a voiceless limitless darkness.
It's hard to avoid the sense that he is here merely projecting his imminent individual extinction onto the cosmos as a whole. We mortals are prone to that, I suppose. And indeed it soon did follow that H G Wells's personal nights no longer followed his personal days.

Still: the rest of us have survived pretty well past the months-, nay weeks-long, deadline of doom with which Mind at the End of Its Tether opens. Indeed, there's something ironic in a book that insists the old existential repetitions are coming to an end being, in itself, so very repetitious. But perhaps that's not irony; perhaps that's the point. This is Wells's cope-stone work, slender though it is. It self-consciously repudiates the very fact of ‘the future’, which looks like it is denying the very grounds on which Wells's fame as a writer rests: an anti-prophetic work that denies there will even be a future to be prophetic about. But this doesn't seem to me quite right. I think what Wells is confronting here is not the death of the future, but the death of uncertainty, that quantity which enacts not only the distinction between fact and fiction, but precisely the prophet's distinction between past and future. Wells at the end of his life has lost faith in uncertainty. Without it into which to expand, Being simply butts its head on the inevitable, over and over, until the particular iteration of Being doing the butting finally stops, as happened with Wells on 13 August 1946.

That said, I'm not sure this is the best context in which to read Wells's final published work. It contains, for example, nothing of the personal in it (beyond some references to previous books Wells has published; but nothing on Wells's failing health or imminent death). Rather it takes its place, although it is rarely discussed in these terms, in a whole series of works generated by the war and its immediate aftermath that discussed the end of history, or of time itself. Most famously now, perhaps, though certainly unknown to Wells in 1945, is Benjamin's ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ written in 1940. Having bought himself a copy of Klee's Angelus Novus, Benjamin crowned her-him as history itself:
His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back his turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. The storm is what we call progress.



That piled-up wreckage has some consonance with Wells's pessimistic assessment in this book, although Benjamin means (insofar as there's any consensus about what Benjamin means) something different:—that the future is not visible to us, even to us supposedly forward-looking Marxists, except as a kind of backward intuition predicated upon the past. Revolutionaries are not inspired by the possibilities of their grandchildren so much as outraged into activity by the injustices suffered by their grandparents. Although there's also a mystic sense of Eternity intersecting temporality, that draws on Jewish eschatological, or Christian apocalyptic, traditions: Benajmin's slippery like that. The important thing in this context is that he was far from alone. Back in the early 1990s, in those innocent pre-9-11 days when Francis Fukuyama could proclaim the end of history as if the notion was his own discovery, Lutz Niethammer published a history of the end-of-history (the English translation, by Patrick Camiller, appeared as Posthistoire: Has History Come to an End? in timely fashion in 1993, although the German original was first published in 1989).

Niethammer identifies a knot of thinkers and writers who were moved by the end of the Second World War to theorise history's ending—he doesn't discuss Wells, but easily could have done—as a reaction to a broader sense of intellectual exhaustion. Malcolm Bull summarises:
European theorists of posthistoire [consistsed] most notably of Kojève on the Left, Arnold Gehlen (who first deployed the term) and the novelist Ernst Jünger on the Right and (moving between the two extremes) the political theorist Bertrand de Jouvenel and the Belgian politician Hendrik de Man. By finding the connections between the ideas of this seemingly heterogeneous group of (mostly) mid-century writers, Niethammer evokes the mood of historical exhaustion that enveloped radical intellectuals at the end of the Second World War when their political expectations were disappointed and American-style capitalism became dominant in the Western world. [Bull, ‘The End’, LRB 15:5 (11 March 1993), 23]
Niethammer diagnoses in these diverse thinkers ‘the fantasy of a meaningless, but ever continuing course of events’, which is exactly what Wells is complaining of in Mind at the End of Its Tether. Niethammer notes what he calls ‘this characteristic mixture of ideas’ which ‘equates bourgeois society with history, defines the contemporary world in terms of systemic dangers, and maintains hope in the future mainly at the level of individuality’. The ending of history, in this case, means the collapse of bourgeois individualism, which is quite a fruitful way of reading late Wells, I think. He worries about species death as a ‘systemic’ transference of the ego-individuality of Wells’s own mind, and he cannot project a new species to supersede the exhausted strain of Homo Sapiens. One of the things that has surprised me, as I have worked through Wells's entire oeuvre, is how often his socialist and revolutionary non-fiction plays peek-a-boo with a kind of constitutive bourgeois sensibility.

It's hard to avoid the temptation (although succumbing to it exposes me to the charge of imposing an egregious neatness of pattern on a book that specifically repudiates meaningful pattern) to link this last publication of H G Wells back to his first, to thread the needle that links Mind at the End of Its Tether to 1893's The Time Machine. That's also a book about the end of all things, the terminal beach to which the nameless traveller ventures and from which he flinches back in horror, or despair. That story, of course, is presided over by the Sphinx, a relative of some kind to Benjamin's angel of history, who poses the riddle what is this monster? to which the answer is: us, it is we ourselves. The monster is man. We are the ones who violate the incest taboo, who murder our fathers and sleep with our mothers, who are compelled to blind ourselves in self-disgust, who range out as far as we can only to feel the tether fastened around our necks go taut. Mind at the End of its Tether discusses the fossil record; but The Time Machine actually dramatizes those petrific sheaves of deep time. The human traveller encounters Morlocks eating Eloi, and both are his descendants, as are the strange crab creatures and the black eyeball-like blobs under the dying sun. Humans are monsters that devour themselves, literally as cannibals and erotically as oedipal figures transgressing the taboo on incest. Futurity and the past are the same, inescapable path, and it leads only to death and blindness. The curse cannot be escaped-from, because the curse is us, we are the monster. Wells's Time Traveller has no name in this story because what we are, as humans, is nameless.

It's a repetition, rather than a pattern, I think: this parallel between Wells's first and last work; a psychopathological going over and over the same ground, like Lady Macbeth endlessly washing her own hands. Mind at the End of Its Tether offers neither evidence for Wells's strange presentiment that everything was coming to and end, and develops nothing that looks like a conventional argument. Instead it just states and restates that the nameless something (“Power”, “Cosmic process”, “the Beyond”, “the Unknown”, “the Unknowable”) is bringing doom. That, it seems to me, is the final twist in Wells's twisted final book. He is not predicting an apocalypse, because, as Frank Kermode so eloquently shows in The Sense of an Ending, it has always been the role of apocalypse to shape the story of our collective existence, to transform the tick-tick of chronological time into the gleaming wonder of kairos, the right time, the special time. Rather Mind at the End of its Tether is predicting the radical absence of apocalypse, the trapped tick-tick of an endlessly existential cul de sac, the impossibility of shape or meaning as such. Pessimism had never been so pessimistic before. Credit, at least, to Wells for that.

The Happy Turning: a Dream of Life (1945)



This short work, Wells’s penultimate, describes his daily walk from his home in Hanover Terrace, beside Regent’s Park, round the corner to his club in Mayfair. The real walk is not the thing, though. It is how Wells takes that walk in his dreams (‘I am dreaming,’ is how the story opens, ‘far more than I did before this chaotic war invaded my waking hours’). In his dreams, he says he can turn off at hitherto unnoticed ‘happy turnings’ into a pleasant, cheering dimension where he can stroll, explore and chat with—for instance—Jesus (who is critical of Saint Paul for twisting his original teachings). The conceit is rather like his earlier short-story ‘The Door in the Wall’, though Wells doesn’t make this comparison explicitly, and although this door doesn’t elude the narrator the way the earlier portal does

 It is, of course, a place of wish-fulfillment for a chronically sick, and actually dying, man:
Beyond the Happy Turning I leap gulfs unerringly, scale precipices, shin up trees and am indefatigable. There are no infections here; no coughs, no colds; to cough or sneeze would be to wake up and tumble back headlong into those unhygienic present-day realities where dirt-begotten epidemics have their way with us. [Happy Place, 1]
It’s not just wish-fulfillment of course. It would be a one-dimensional sort of book if it were. Or more precisely, it is a book aware how tricky dream-wishes and dream-fulfilment can be. Wells brings in a little Freud (‘the subliminal self is never straightforward’ [2]) and reflects on his own dreams.
In the past I do not recall dreams as a frequent factor in my existence, though some affected me very importantly. As a child I used to have a sort of geometrical nightmare as if a mad kaleidoscope charged down upon me, and this was accompanied by intense distress. I may have been very young then, because I cannot remember now how I awakened or whether I conveyed my distress to anyone. Nor have I ever come upon a description of that dream as happening to any other child. [Happy Turning, 2]
That's quite a striking nightmare! To me it says something about the angular inhospitability of the reality principle as it imposes itself on the desires of the id. Your mileage, as the phrase goes, may vary.

This final iteration of utopia in Wells's oeuvre is largely rural, and although there is a lot of architecture, but ‘the architects of Dreamland lay out a whole new world’ [6] every time they build. Which is as if to say, geometry is not imposed onto the pliable material of the world, like a mad kaleidoscope, but is instead coeval with it, integral in its eutopic disposition. But it's also to say that the architecture is a matter of wish rather than labour, of plenitude rather than lack.

Christ takes the central role in two chapters ‘Jesus of Nazareth discusses his failure’ and ‘Miracles, Devils and the Gadarene Swine’, and the proximity dreams to religion, or more precisely the tension between the dream-fulfilment of faith and the kaleidoscopic horrors of dogma and creed, are part of the point of the book. ‘Religions are such stuff as dreams are made of’ says Wells, adding:
The Athanasian Creed is severely logical in dreamland, Isis is transfigured into Hathor, a cow, Quannon, the crescent moon and Murillo’s Queen of Heaven, and still the dream flows on. Osiris becomes his own son Horus, who becomes again Osiris and the Virgin Mother, in incessant rotation. [Happy Turning, 2]
Young Wells was, of course, very close to his devout mother, a woman who believed absolutely in the Athanasian Creed. Lay out your imaginary H G on your imaginary psychiatrist's couch, and it won't take you long to unearth a core reason for his constant love affairs and sexual promiscuity in his relationship with the mother he adored and who was so hard to please, that objet a, here populating the religion of Dreamland with metamorphosing female deities. This, incidentally, is what Murillo’s Queen of Heaven (1660) looks like:


We don't have any photographs of Sarah Wells as a young woman, so you'll have to take this one of her in old age and extrapolate backwards towards her brunette, fine-faced youth.



Yes? No? Maybe I'm over-reaching. The problem with this level of ‘explanation’ for Wells’s (or any man’s) sexual promiscuity is not that it isn’t convincing, but rather the opposite: it’s too facile, too obvious. Too much an absolute horizon within which a series of much more particularised and localised behaviours and misbehaviours, fetishes and loves and griefs, flourish and wither. Its explanatory power is too broad-brush. On the other hand, Wells's Dreamland also contains Osiris becoming Horus becoming again Osiris, this brief glimpse of a son who begets himself bypassing the maternal altogether, is interesting. Wells was a self-made man in the material and financial sense of the phrase, but his real desire (this dream suggests) is to be what nobody can be, self-made in an ontological sense.

Wells began writing The Happy Turning in 1943, but dropped it, along with various other unfinished projects as the year went on and his health deteriorated. He took it up again in the summer of 1944, when he experienced a final burst of productivity: finishing this short book, writing Mind At The End of its Tether, and fifteen newspaper and journal articles, together with a quantity of other unpublished bits and pieces which, for a while, he was thinking of pulling together into one volume under the title Exasperations. It is these latter that inform what the artist does, of course: not art but the obstacles to art, not expression but the obstacles to expression. Wells's entire career involved him moving from fiction to reality, and finding in the latter exasperating refusal to bend to his will. And it is to the real world, Wells finally addresses himself in this little book, with something like defiance: ‘you have no existence apart from mind, and so I shall make an end to you now.’

Reshaping Man's Heritage (1944)


A collection of pieces by various individuals, all originally delivered as BBC radio talks. Authors include Julian Huxley, H. G. Wells, J. B. S Haldane, J. C. Drummond and L. J. Witts, among others.

Huxley had collaborated closely with Wells on The Science of Life, and had remained friends with him in the early 1930s; but the two had a falling-out in 1941. ‘I was chairing a meeting of the British Association,’ Huxley recalled in his autobiography; ‘and had been instructed to allow only twenty minutes to each speaker, so providing time for general discussion at the end.’ H.G. submitted a paper that would take forty minutes to read, and when Huxley told him this wasn't fair to the other speakers ‘an angry correspondence and protest followed.’ ‘When the time came, I had to ask him to cut short his discourse. He never forgave me’ [Julian Huxley, Memories (Penguin 1972), 165]. Huxley didn't see Wells again after this, but when the BBC asked him to convene a series of radio broadcasts on the theme of ‘Reshaping Man's Heritage’ he suggested they contact him, which resulted in this letter from H.G.



An interesting glimpse into Wells's working habits, I'd say; and a summary of his contribution to this volume.

One more quotation from Huxley's memoirs. Though he never healed his estrangement with Wells, his wife Juliette remained friends with H.G.:
I never saw him again—but during the last years of his life, when he became too ill to do more than sit in his armchair, Juliette often dropped in to visit. He looked shrunk, she said, his face curiously altered, concentrated around an elongated and pensive nose. Visitors were no encouraged, as they tired him out, and he seemed very lonely. His tea was carefully measured and a piece of cake weighed, to balance his diabetes. A tall Buddha, extending his blessing, stood on the mantlepiece. ‘He know a thing or two,’ murmured H.G. [Huxley, Memories, 166]
The improbably deep-thinking nose aside, this is a mournfully affecting little pen-portrait.

You can hear Wells's talk, if you're interested, over on the BBC Archive.

'42 to '44: A Contemporary Memoir Upon Human Behaviour (1944)




This is a collection of 35 essays disposed into two sections, ‘the Heritage of the Past’ and ‘How We Face the Future’. Nothing new in that, although Wells didn’t intend this volume for wide distribution, and instructed his publisher to limit the print-run to 2000 copies. In the preface Wells says ‘I have issued it deliberately as an expensive library book, and I intend it to remain an expensive library book. There will be no cheaper edition issued at any time and I doubt if second hand copies will ever become abundant.’ Wells hurried his publishers into print because his doctors had told him he had only months to live, although in fact he lived for almost another two years. The volumes includes journalism on the prosecution of the war, some pieces on the necessity of orienting the coming peace towards a Wellsian transnationality, and various other pieces (such as Wells’s obituary of his old frenemey Beatrice Webb).

The volume also includes, as an appendix, the dissertation elderly Wells wrote and submitted to the Royal Society. It became one of the odd ideés fixes of Wells’s dotage that he ought to be elected a fellow of this august institution. His friends tended to agree and blamed political bias amongst those fellows voting ‘no’ on his election, although it’s just as likely that the Society's disinclination to elect him has to do with Wells’s lack of significant scientific discovery or invention. At any rate, the elderly Wells forced the issue by submitting a D.Sci dissertation to the extra-mural department of the University of London. Its title was ‘A thesis on the quality of illusion in the continuity of the individual life in the higher metazoa, with particular reference to the species homo sapiens ... accepted by the University of London for the doctorate of science’. Julian Huxley gave him feedback on the dissertation draft, the University awarded him the degree, he published it in this vol, but the Royal Society remained unimpressed. Wells never was elected a fellow. Shame, really.