Saturday, 13 January 2018

The Shape of Things To Come (1933)

I suppose this is the last book Wells published that has any kind of currency today. And that's quite a striking thing, actually: his bibliography stretches through nearly thirty more original titles, up to his death in 1946, and some of those works are really good (his Autobiography, published a year after Shape of Things to Come, is wonderful; and a couple of the later novels are actually very interesting: Star Begotten and The Holy Terror in particular). But there we are. No one today has heard of, let along read, any of those; where people have at least heard of this one. I mean, I'm certainly not claiming it's a novel as famous as Time Machine, War of the Worlds or The Invisible Man; but SF aficionados are at least likely to have heard of it (not something true of 1932's The Bulpington of Blup, if the reaction to my post on that novel is anything to go by).

It helps that a relatively famous movie was made of the work: Things to Come (1936), produced by Alexander Korda and directed by William Cameron Menzies. Wells collaborated enthusiastically with the filmmakers and wrote the screenplay, although the film is a very different beast to the book.

1. Film

It's worth starting with the film, actually, because it slimmed this lengthy, fine-grained novel into simpler shapes, which in turn point out a couple of problems with what's going on in Wells's future speculation. Here's a photo of Wells on set with two of the film's cast: Pearl Argyle and the lead, Raymond Massey.

The film is in three acts, not very smoothly linked-together. It opens in 1940 in the bustling metropolis of ‘Everytown’, where businessman John Cabal (Raymond Massey) is too worried about the danger of impending war to enjoy Christmas.

His friend, Pippa Passworthy (Edward Chapman: did Pippa used to be a man's name, then?) is more optimistic: even if war break out, he thinks it will provide a boost to technological progress. But then war does start: aerial bombardment, general mobilisation, global conflict. The next we see of Cabal he is piloting a plane, and trying to stop a one-man bomber that is gassing his city. Having shot the plane down, Cabal lands chivalrously to rescues the enemy pilot (John Clements) from the wreckage, and the two put on gas masks because of, well, you know: the gas. But then the enemy pilot gives-up his gas mask to save the life of a young girl who chances upon them, and Cabal, impressed at the fellow's sacrifice, takes the girl away with him in his plane.

Act Two steps forward to the 1970s. War has dragged on for decades, and people have forgotten why they are fighting. A plague called ‘the Wandering Sickness’ has devastated the population. Civilisation has collapsed and barbaric local warlords have seized power and rule amongst the ruins.

The film concentrates on one such, a warlord known as ‘Chief’, who rules what's left of Everytown, and who is played with rather more campness that one might think appropriate to the role, by Ralph Richardson:

John Cabal flies into town, landing in a sleekly futuristic plane, and wearing an absolutely extraordinary coal-scuttle helmet. I worry about the helmet. He wears it once, then seems to lose it and we never see it again.

The Chief takes him prisoner and forces him to work mending his warlord air-fleet of battered old biplanes, but Cabal is entirely unfazed. He represents, he says, an elite band of engineers and mechanics, based in Basra, Iraq, who have have formed a group to rebuild civilisation called ‘Wings Over the World’. The Wings have outlawed war and decreed an end to individual nation states. Here's smug Cabal, left, and the paranoid Chief, right.

The Wings Over the World fly-in, in some impressively art-deco aircract, easily beat the Chief's antiquated biplanes, drop sleepy-bombs on the population, and take charge.

Which brings us to the movie's final act. A fast-froward montage shows Everytown (and the rest of the world) being rebuilt as part of the new Wellsian World-State utopia. The new city is all white and shining monumental architecture, rather anticipatory of the Fredric Jamesonian Westin Bonaventure Hotel and, I'd guess, as disorienting actually to live in.

We're now in the 2030s. Massey plays his own great-grandson, Oswald Cabal, who is planning a space rocket to advance mankind's domination to the planets. In a poorly prepared-for final drama, an angry mob appears, it seems from nowhere (notionally they have been incited by a reactionary sculptor played by Cedric Hardwicke, who thinks progress has gone too far). The mob swarms towards the space gun that launches the rocket intent on wrecking it, but Cabal fires the vessel into space just in time. It's a transparent and unconvincing attempt to wring a little dramatic tension out of a profoundly undramatic situation. The movie ends with his pious-pompous speechifying: ‘Man ... must go on, conquest beyond conquest. First this little planet and its winds and ways. And then all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him and at last, out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of Space, and all the mysteries of Time, still he will be beginning.’

Here's Cabal pointing out details in an improbably regular star-map or else indicating the rivets in the pan of the world's largest Le Creuset. One of the two, certainly.

Now: there are those who think highly of this film. I am not one such. I can't deny that it was influential, especially some of the designs from the last act, which reappeared for many decades in modified forms as the template for cleanly antiseptic future utopian infrastructure in myriad SF films and TV shows. But otherwise this is a bad film; unconvincingly characterised, stiffly acted and disposed into a story that falls between two stools—too large-scale and disconnected for us properly to invest emotionally in specific characters (who can care about the aviator who gives us his gas mask to save the girl? What even happens to the latter? Are there any commonalities apart from name between Cabal the 1940 business and Cabal the 1970s Wings Over The World aviator?)—and too bogged-down in its individual stories to create the proper sense-of-wonder longue durée of the novel.

Structurally the whole is too joltingly abrupt in its segues between its three time-periods, and the riot at the end is bafflingly under-motivated. More, there's a conceptual muddiness in the whole: is the movie arguing that the destructive barbarism of its 1940-70 is a necessary period of, as it were, technological retrenchment in order to wipe the slate of history clean and so enable the gleaming 21st-century utopia? Or is the war a regrettable lapse, perfectly avoidable if only the nations of 1940 had listened to figures like Wells, and so a kind of distraction on the path to the broad, sunlit uplands?

There's also an ideological problem. Not to put too fine a point on it: it's hard to imagine a clearer celebration of technofascism than this motion picture. The gleaming war-machine of the Wings Over The World possessing the highest of high-ground and imposing order on the squabbling barbarism below with shock, awe and superior engineering. This is a movie that says: left to its own devices human society descends into squabbling chaos: only the übermensch, clad in his coal-scuttle überhelmet, and focusing his will-to-power through his gleaming aerial machines, can save us.

The film is a starker fable of fascist victory than the book because the appearance of the engineering overlords (out of a Basra that is mentioned briefly and in passing) is so abruptly deus ex machina—might even call its second Act denouement SS ex machina, if only it didn't look like a cheap shot. The political palate of the film is designedly two-tone, which means it only admits of two possibilities: social chaos or rule by the technocratic elite. No other political settlement, says Things To Come, is either possible or even imaginable.

Fascism not only (of course) dominated not only Europe's 1930s, it's an unavoidable load-bearing beam in Wells's own intellectual-ideological make-up. This blog has returned often to those occasions when Wells has expressed what might be charitable called pseudo-fascist ideas. In 1932 he delivered his notorious talk ‘Liberal Fascism’ to the Young Liberals at their Summer School in Oxford in July 1932. I've said before, here, that he wasn't really a fascist, and stand by that judgment. But he flirted with aspects of the movement, no question.

Wells probably deserves some credit for a few things on this unpromising front. He repeatedly and clearly repudiated the militarism and nationalism championed by actual fascist movements, and his views did change in the later 1930s, as events in Nazi Germany showed how illiberal actual fascism, applied efficiently enough, actually was. But he still felt, as he wrote this novel, that there only was one path to a better future: a quasi-fascist singular focus of power, the top-down application of it to cut the combined gordian knots of history, tradition, bureaucracy and petty self-interest. An aggressive commitment to technological and engineering development. Collective will overriding individual selfishness. And that's quite a fascist set of beliefs, if we're honest. It is easy to judge him with hindsight, but ease doesn't mean that doing so is wrongheaded. The stakes, after all, are high.

Wells's son with Rebecca West, Anthony West, waxes crotchety over the idea that his father was any kind of actual-fascism fellow-traveler. He attacks those who claim that ‘it was only my father's vanity that kept him from taking up the totalitarian cause in the early thirties’, that ‘he would have thrown in his lot [with the fascists] if he hadn't had a swollen-headed feeling that it was their place to come courting him rather than his to go over to them’. West doesn't say who claims this, but, never mind who, he's having none of it:
The next step from there was to indicate that, as the author of The Shape of Things To Come, my father was one of the creators of the spirit of Munich. According to this thesis the fantasia in question, which first saw the light in 1933 and was very soon afterwards made into a film, with my father's active and enthralled participation, has to be considered as one of the many factors which created public support for the policy of appeasement, because it featured a massive air attack on London, shrewdly previsioned as taking place in 1940. [West, H G Wells: Aspects of a Life (1984), 130]
This is not to address the fascistic quality of the Wings Over The World as a movement, although West is adamant that what the book is really saying is, in his words: ‘this is the sort of thing you will more than likely be in for if you don't take a stand against Fascism now’. This strikes me as an argument that includes a fairly high quotient of wishful thinking.

The real question, I suppose, is whether Wells can be acquitted of a culpable naïveté in believing fascism ever could be neatly separated out from its nationalism and militarism. Maintaining a huge fleet of art-deco bombers might be thought a strangely inconsistent thing for an organisation that had outlawed war, after all; and Wells's screenplay tries to fudge the issue by dropping bombs not of high-explosive but of soporific gas. Then again, the gas does kill Ralph Richardson's ‘Chief’ character, and Massey's Cabal delivers a gloating speech over his body: ‘Dead, and his world dead with him—and a new world beginning. And now for the rule of the Airman, and a new life for mankind. For now we have to put the world in order’. Here he is doing just that, with the ‘Chief’ dead in the bottom right-hand corner. I draw your attention to the Chief's charmingly amateurish chalk-board efforts at propaganda.

FURTHER HOSTILITIES WILL BRING A VICTORIOUS PEACE LONG LIVE THE CHIEF is hardly a marching slogan to trip off the tongue, I'd say. The point, and Wells's Act 2 moral, is that history must be erased, and that a Year Zero inaugurated, with all opposition to the coming top-down technocratic utopia eliminated. And there are fewer more terrifying political strategies than insisting upon a Year Zero. At any rate, implying that one might be able to do any of this without the forceable breaking of the old norms to which people are so stubbornly attached, without in other words more war, is, frankly, Wells not thinking-through his own premises with any clarity—very much him pretending his omelette can be made without breaking eggs. His global pacific omelette. Conceivably cooked-up in that gigantic riveted Le Creuset already pictured.

2. Book

Enough about the movie: what about the book? Or to frame the question more precisely: does the novel manage to tell what is, in its broadest lineaments, the same story as the film—from now to a decades-long near future war and out the other side to a World State utopia—in a more nuanced, less nakedly fascistic manner? I think it does. But only up to a point.

Certainly, not only the specifics of the book but the texture is different: the pages are dense with detail, the focus ranges around the world, various individual set-pieces (often vividly realised) intersperse long stretches of expository and explanatory prose. The book has none of the characters of the movie, and no clumsily Bunyanesque ‘Everytown’ touches; instead it carries-through the stylistic strategies of 1920's Outline of History into the future. Indeed, roughly the first quarter of the novel isn't concerned with the ‘to-come’ at all, instead recapitulating and abbreviating Outline of History's account of the 19th-century and the first two decades of the twentieth, and bringing it up to 1933. And as far as that goes, it still reads pretty well. This, for an account of Hitler (for instance) gets to the nub of the issue, which is pretty good going for a date as early as 1933:
Adolf Hitler is one of the most incredible figures in the whole of history. He must have astonished even the teachers and writers who had evoked him. We can study his personal presence from a hundred different angles in Vol. 30112 of the Historical Portrait Gallery, and it is that of an entirely commonplace man, void of dignity, void of fine quality. We can hear his voice, we can hear him persuading, exhorting and attempting to reason from the numerous steel-tape records that were made of his speeches. It is a raucous, strained voice, talking violently but incoherently. It is the voice of a vulgar, limited, illiterate man, lashing himself to fierceness, shouting, threatening, beating his fists at the window, smashing the furniture about him, to escape from perplexity and despair. He was perfectly simple and honest in his quality. And that was perhaps the secret of his career. He gave vent to the German overstrain. He is the voice of Germany losing control.

He denounced foreigners, Jews, Cosmopolitans, Communists, Republicans, owners of property and leaders in finance with raucous impartiality, and nothing is so pleasing to perplexed unhappy people as the denunciation of others. Not their fault, their troubles. They have been betrayed. To Fallada's question, ‘Little Man, what now?’ his answer was, ‘Massacre Jews, expel foreigners, arm and get more arms, be German, utterly German, and increase and multiply.’ [Shape of Things to Come, 2:7]
Not a bad thumbnail sketch, I'd say.

But this dry, historico-analytic tone becomes less persuasive as Wells imagines into the future. His later 1930s is characterised by increasing lawlessness, gangsters seizing power, protection rackets becoming the norm, people driving around in armoured cars and living in fortified houses. Wells does, its true, imagine World War 2 breaking out in 1940, but not because Hitler preemptively invades Poland and France, instead through a random if violent misunderstanding: a Jew, on a train that has stopped briefly in the free city of Danzig, tries to extract ‘an orange-pip or a small fragment of walnut’ from behind his dental plate. A young Nazi on the platform sees what he thinks is a Jew making disrespectful faces at him through the window, boards the train and shoots the Jew dead. This violation of neutrality snowballs until it has ‘released the dogs of war from the Pyrenees to Siberia’ [2:9].

That war is essentially a re-run of 1914-18, a trench-war stalemate that drags on until the 1950s. Then plague ravages the shattered remains of civilisation, described in a chapter with some nice zombie-like touches (‘one terror which is never omitted [in accounts of the plague] is the wandering of the infected. Nothing would induce them to remain in bed or hospital; nothing could keep them from entering towns and houses that were as yet immune. Thousands of these dying wanderers were shot by terror-stricken people whom they approached’ [2:9]) but which has nothing to do with meaningful prophecy.

Finally, in 1965, the remaining aircraft and shipping companies gather in Basra to consolidate and protect their interests. With the roads shot, a monopoly on flight and shipping is effectively a monopoly on all travel and trade, and the ‘Union of Tansport’ (not, I was sorry to see, these guys) uses its influence to enforce civilisation and order upon the world. The account of the reconstruction occupies Book 3 (‘The World Renaissance: The Birth of the Modern State, 1960–1978’), and then we get a Cook's Tour of the World State Utopia Books 4 and 5: ‘The Modern State Militant 1978–2059’ and ‘The Modern State in Control of Life, 2059 to New Year's Day 2106’.

In the novel there's no John or Oswald Cabal, no ‘Wings Over the World’ and no rocket to outer space, let alone any random Simpsons rentamob to disrupt the launch. Rather, it's half a novel of Stapledonian extrapolation followed by an end to history, and a survey of the perfected society. This latter is a remix of a lot of old Wellsian friends, from a global currency based on energy rather than precious metals, to the centrality of ‘right’ education, global unity, the eradication of poverty, racism and so on.

Not that the path from here to there is smooth: there is resistance, backsliding, and for a time Utopia is enforced by a ‘Second Council’ of ‘Air Dictators’, who fly around compelling obedience to the new laws. These are the latest iteration of Wells's beloved Samurai. Their credo is ‘I shall do nothing worth while and nothing worth while will be done unless I pull myself together and stiffen up my conduct’:
If the new Air Dictatorship was schooling the world with considerable austerity, it was certainly schooling itself much more so. The code of the first makers of the World-State had been a simple one. ‘Tell the truth,’ they insisted; ‘maintain the highest technical standards, control money and do not keep it, give your powers ungrudgingly to the service of the World-State.’ [Shape of Things To Come, 4:5]
By the end of the novel, humanity has outgrown its need for rule by the Air Dictatorship, and they sportingly and improbably give up power. Homo sapiens is ready for the next phase of human civilisation: radically reshaping the earth (Wells calls this ‘Geogonic Planning’) and a move towards a transcendent group-consciousness of all mankind, to supersede ‘our little selves’ and become a collective ‘Man the Undying who achieves these things through us’ [5.9]

Because this whole historical narrative happens much more gradually, with vastly more specific detail, it doesn't feel as wrenching as it does in the movie. But that fine-grained confident voice is more than a little misleading. The basic wrench, or twist, in historical process is still there, just disguised by a great deal of prose. We still go from a species so violent and self-destructive that we all but annihilate ourselves, through the needle's-eye of a group of technocratic aircraft and ship owners, to a glorious gleaming future Utopia. And we're still entitled to ask: how?

The key, I think, is buried in the middle of the book, and, rather oddly, Wells does not draw attention to it. The novel's framing device is a conceit by which ‘H G Wells’ is actually editing for publication a visiomary manuscript completed by his friend Dr Philip Raven (whom I take to be a version of Graham Wallas) immediately before his death. Raven foresees the shape of things to come in a series of visions, and has written it all down. Immediately after the section on Hitler quoted above, ‘editor’ Wells inserts a short chapter called ‘A Note on Hate and Cruelty’, noting: ‘this section was in a detached fascicle, but its place seems to be here’. This begins:
The student of history will find it almost impossible to understand the peculiar difficulties of political life as it was lived until about a hundred years ago, nor will he grasp the essential differences between what was called education in those days and the educational processes we are still developing to-day, unless he masters the broad facts about these systems of hatred that dominated the group relationships of mankind right up to the assertion of the Modern State. [Shape of Things To Come, 2:8]
Wells styles hatred as a disease, ‘a sort of social dementia’ occasioned by ‘the absence of a common idea of community’. As communities grow and fill-out more of the world's limited real-estate they bump uglies with other communities, and ‘civilized motives [give] place to instinctive hostilities and spasmodic impulses’. Our problem is that we don't understand that hatred is a disease, and therefore eradicable in the same way that diseases are eradicable: ‘our ancestors did not envisage this as a controllable mental disease. They did not know that it was possible to get through life without hatred, just as they did not know that the coughs and colds that afflicted them and most of the phenomena of senility were avoidable’. But that's the magic ingredient ‘X’ that enables the transition from our grisly present to Wells's gleaming future. We cure hatred.

It is, I think, an interesting notion. It is also, so far as I can see, the first time Wells, howsoever tentatively, proposes an actual mechanism by which what we might call ‘human nature’ gets altered far enough to make Utopia practicable. Hatred is not integral to the human animals, he says: it comes about when ‘two or more population groups, each with its own special narrow and inadaptable culture and usually with a distinctive language or dialect’ finds itself ‘by the change of scale in human affairs jammed together or imposed one upon another’. But this hatred is not in any sense a strategic group self-defense or interest, but instead a kind of group psychosis, and literally rather than metaphorically an illness.

It's a beguiling idea, although I don't think it's (you know) true, actually. But it makes me think. It's interesting to me that hatred isn't one of the traditional Christian seven deadly sins: Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy and Pride. I suppose you might bracket it with wrath, but that's a poor fit: one can very easily hate coldly, with a kind of rational clarity, and cruelty—hate's handmaiden—needs a clearer head than ira tends to allow. Indeed, in another sense hate has a place approximate to virtue in Christian thought, doesn't it? We're supposed to hate the devil, and to hate the sin, though we strive to love the sinner. Hate in the proper proportion, or aimed at the correct target, is an indication that you still care. Of course, that puts a lot of pressure on the need to find the correct target.

This is surely the nub of the matter. Hate is not, whatever some people think, the opposite of love. The opposite of love is indifference. Actually, it's surprisingly easy to fall hard for people we find in many ways hateful. Peter Gay's monumental social history The Cultivation of Hatred (1994), itself the conclusion to an even more monumental trilogy of historical analyses, locates the success of the bourgeoisie in the way it, as a class, internalised repressions that then stoked up, precisely, hatreds. For Gray this reservoir of hatred fueled an aggression that middle class subjects sublimated into the new fields of business and money-making: making one’s way in the world is read as the concrete expression, in many ways a constructive and benevolent expression, of hatred.

I suppose what Gay shares, for all his radical differences, with traditional Christianity is a sense that hatred, as wrongness, is one of the secret truths of human existence. Original sin, as the phrase goes. Wells is saying: on the contrary, hatred is an excrescence, a social infection to which social medicines can be imagined; and that if we removed hatred from human breasts then we would leave the other passions in place.

Whether you're convinced by this thesis or not, it does, I'd argue, at least suggest why the novel version of this story works so much more compellingly than the film version. The idiom of the movie is melodrama, and the currency of melodrama is hate, and its coin-obverse, love. The idiom of the history textbook is one already purged of such destabilising emotional intensities. Form matches content rather better that way.


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  2. One thing that's interesting is that although its precise predictions I think are pretty widely mocked, as a prediction of the shape of things to come, it holds up better than we allow. Where Wells saw a Dictatorship of the Air seizing the world's weary governments, we got the military-industrial complex. Wells has them establish a World State, where we got the more nebulous concept of Globalism, but in both timelines, they brought unprecedented rises in human wellbeing at the expense of some liberty and traditional culture. This seems a quite accurate assessment of the opening of the 21st century in either timeline:

    "The World Council was in effective possession of world power, but not in unchallenged possession. Even in 2000 C.E., nineteen-twentieths of mankind were still unassimilated to the organization. If the world was not rebellious it was mutinous, and there were plenty of alert and intelligent people in opposition, estranged people or people shaped to forms of thought altogether uncongenial to the reconditioning of human affairs on Modern State lines."

    Right now, we're right in the middle of where Wells foresaw the rise of "Federated Nationalists" and their "Warfare of the Silenced and Disarmed" (literally - it runs from 2000 to 2034). It's not hard to look our world, and the anti-globalist right-wing alliance across the USA, Russia and Europe (and the resurgence in anti-semitism they've wrought) and think Wells did pretty well on that one.

  3. SchrodingersDuck: see, that's exactly where we disagree (not that that means you're wrong, of course). I think it's precisely the shape that Wells got wrong. As a friend pointed out on Twitter, that shape is the same as the Star Trek universe backstory, presumably because the Roddenberry and the other Trek writers were influenced by this movie amongst other things, viz. that a gleaming utopian future awaits us, but in order to get there we first have to take a giant step backwards, in global barbarism, and only then leap gigantically forwards. And that's not how the 20th-/21st centuries have actually gone.

    It's an interesting 'shape', certainly. Perhaps it speaks to people because they feel 'we can't get there from here, so we need a detour'; or else 'we will only band together if our back is against the wall, things must get worse before they can get better'. But it proved to be wrong.

  4. You have a point - I'd forgotten just how hellish his version of the Second World War was, even compared to reality (it seems weird to say "WWII wasn't that bad", but compared to total global collapse, the collapse of just central Europe and East Asia does seem minor). And investors are obliged to say, "past performance is not indicative of future results" - I agree entirely that just because he did well at predicting 2016, that doesn't mean going backwards is necessary or sufficient for producing his 2106.

  5. The image of the Airman as prophet/leader/enforcer of the new technocratic order is resonant, and not in what you could call liberal ways - compare The Aerodrome or "Training an Airman". Off-topically, I remember a discussion on soc.history.what-if of the relative weights in the popular imagination of planes and tanks. We came to the conclusion that, if WWI had dragged on another year, the image of the tank commander would have supplanted the 'airman', and the prospects for Fascism in Britain would have been all the stronger for it.