A novel without an individual hero, this is instead, as its subtitle puts it, ‘A Story of Mankind’. Wells speculates about the creation of nuclear weapons, ordnance for which he himself coined the enduring name ‘atom bombs’. He sketches their use in ‘the Last War’, when humanity teeters on the brink of utter destruction, before managing, after millions of deaths and the annihilation of some of the world's greatest cities, to haul itself back. The novel ends with a new utopian world state being built on the ruins of the old.
Formally The World Set Free is mostly disquisitional—the very first chapter, for instance, is an undiluted lecture on the long view of history, ‘the history of mankind is the history of the attainment of external power; man is the tool-using, fire-making animal’ and so on: pages and pages of it. This lecturer's mode is leavened with a series of fictioneer's touches, vingette-y individual character mini-stories. So, as he unfurls his future history, Wells gives us: Holsten, whose scientific breakthrough unleashes the new atomic energy, wandering around London and wondering what the future holds. Then there's more future exposition (‘the American Kemp engine, differing widely in principle but equally practicable, and the Krupp-Erlanger came hard upon the heels of this, and by the autumn of 1954 a gigantic replacement of industrial methods and machinery was in progress all about the habitable globe’), followed by a second inset life-story: Frederick Barnet, a rich kid who falls on hard times, is conscripted into the army, fights in northern Europe during the ‘Last War’ and fades from the novel's view as he takes up post-bellum duties in ‘the army of pacification’. Embedded in this account are two cut-aways, an unnamed secretary, serving the French supreme commander Marshal Dubois, who experiences the atomic bombing of Paris first hand and dies; and an unnamed French pilot part of the retaliatory mission that bombs Berlin.
Then the action moves on to a world-peace conference held in the Alps; into which Wells drops the good example of King Egbert, ‘the young king of the most venerable kingdom in Europe’ who surrenders his power to the new World State Council and the bad example of King Ferdinand Charles, ‘the “Slavic Fox,” the King of the Balkans’, who steals a number of atom bombs and tries to use them, to leverage his personal power, and is shot dead by the Council for his pains.
After this there's more exposition, describing Wells's future-state utopia (clean new roads and cities are constructed, money is pegged to energy production, English becomes the world language, atomic power frees humans to live as artists and gardeners, and flies are exterminated. That's right: ‘the War against Flies has been waged so successfully that this pestilential branch of life is nearly extinct’. Hah! Take that, flies!) Storytelling and lecturing come together in the last inset life-story: that of the brilliant, congenitally crippled Marcus Karenin, who plays a large part in reforming the world, and who dies in a hospital in the Himalayas, preaching from his deathbed:
“Man lives in the dawn for ever,” said Karenin. “Life is beginning and nothing else but beginning. It begins everlastingly. Each step seems vaster than the last, and does but gather us together for the nest. This Modern State of ours, which would have been a Utopian marvel a hundred years ago, is already the commonplace of life. But as I sit here and dream of the possibilities in the mind of man that now gather to a head beneath the shelter of its peace, these great mountains here seem but little things....” [World Set Free, 5:5]The thrust of the novel is plain enough: soon, Wells is saying, we will develop weapons capable of utterly destroying civilisation, and then we will either extirpate ourselves entirely or, faced with this prospect, mature as a species and put all such foolishness behind us. OK then.
Wells's reputation as prophet accrued particular kudos from this novel, something he humblebrags about in the preface to the 1921 reissue, listing all the things he got ‘right’ and conceding only that he was wrong to date the coming ‘end war’ to 1956 rather than 1914-18 (‘as a prophet, the author must confess he has always been inclined to be rather a slow prophet’). Contemporaries and later critics both have tended to concur: ‘all this,’ said The Advocate of Peace in their positive review, ‘is a vision seen by Mr Wells, but one might imagine it to be the history which will be read a century or more hence.’ [The Advocate of Peace, 76:8 (Aug-Sept 1914), 193]. David Seed talks about the book's ‘keen prophetic vision’ and David C Smith praises it for its ‘prescience’. And it is true that Wells coined the phrase ‘atom bomb’, and in doing so named the weapon under whose shadow the second half of the twentieth-century, and the current portion of the twenty-first, quails.
But, but, but. The truth is Wells gets the really crucial things wrong. For one, I think he simply misread what Frederick Soddy (the novel's dedicatee) argues in his Interpretation of Radium (1909). Soddy's book was Wells's direct inspiration for the novel, and Wells's misprison of it creates atomic weaponry of prodigious oddness. I don't mean to sneer, hindsight-benefitted as I am: and indeed what Wells comes up with here makes for a very striking and memorable SF conceit. But that's not to say it makes sense. His reasoning seems to have gone like this:
1. A conventional bomb explodes instantaneously;Of the active ingredient of his bombs, Carolinium (which he calls ‘Carolinum’), Wells tells us that ‘what chemists called its half period was seventeen days’, and glosses this: ‘that is to say, it poured out half of the huge store of energy in its great molecules in the space of seventeen days, the next seventeen days' emission was a half of that first period's outpouring, and so on’ [2:4]. Thus his bombs explode with unprecedented force for seventeen days, and over the following months slowly reduce the intensity of their exploding.
2. But a radioactive element releases half its energy over the course of its half-life, which might be many weeks, months, or even years;
3. Therefore an atom bomb would explode continuously for many weeks, months or even years.
There's a kind of genius in the sheer bonkers-ness of this, actually. Wells's bombs are suitcase-sized devices, carried in the open-cockpits of planes, activated by the aviator biting off a fuse with his teeth, and then dropped vaguely over the side. The US edition of the novel carried an illustration of one such moment on its front cover.
The bombs destroy Paris, Berlin and many other cities, and nearly destroy San Francisco (‘the Japanese very nearly got San Francisco. The Americans ran the Japanese aeroplane down into the sea and there the bomb got busted ... Submarine volcano. The steam is in sight of the Californian coast’). I can't prove it, but I wonder if, in reading Soddy's book, his eye skimmed past this passage on p.99:
... and instead was caught by the imaginative potential of this passage on p.100.
At any rate, it results in some splendid disaster-porn set-pieces.
The phenomena, it must be remembered, changed greatly from day to day, and even from hour to hour, as the exploding bomb shifted its position, threw off fragments or came into contact with water or a fresh texture of soil. Barnet, who came within forty miles of Paris early in October, is concerned chiefly with his account of the social confusion of the country-side and the problems of his command, but he speaks of heaped cloud masses of steam “all along the sky to the south-west” and of a red glare beneath these at night.In a way, a deeper problem with the novel is its social vision rather than its nuclear physics. The real point here, as with all of Wells's utopian writings, is to diagnose the now as ‘a phase of gigantic change in the contours and appearances of human life’ a change ‘as rapid and as wonderful as the swift ripening of adolescence to manhood after the barbaric boyish years’ and one ‘correlated with moral and mental changes’ [4:11]. Wells's wish was father to this thought, of course, but golly how he wished it. He suggests that two generations are enough to separate human beings entirely from ancestral barbarism:
Other descriptions agree with this; they all speak of the “continuous reverberations,” or of the “thudding and hammering,” or some such phrase; and they all testify to a huge pall of steam, from which rain would fall suddenly in torrents and amidst which lightning played. Drawing nearer to Paris an observer would have found the salvage camps increasing in number and blocking up the villages, and large numbers of people, often starving and ailing, camping under improvised tents because there was no place for them to go. The sky became more and more densely overcast until at last it blotted out the light of day and left nothing but a dull red glare 'extraordinarily depressing to the spirit.' In this dull glare, great numbers of people were still living, clinging to their houses and in many cases subsisting in a state of partial famine upon the produce in their gardens and the stores in the shops of the provision dealers.
Coming in still closer, the investigator would have reached the police cordon, which was trying to check the desperate enterprise of those who would return to their homes or rescue their more valuable possessions within the 'zone of imminent danger.'
That zone was rather arbitrarily defined. If our spectator could have got permission to enter it, he would have entered also a zone of uproar, a zone of perpetual thunderings, lit by a strange purplish-red light, and quivering and swaying with the incessant explosion of the radio-active substance. Whole blocks of buildings were alight and burning fiercely, the trembling, ragged flames looking pale and ghastly and attenuated in comparison with the full- bodied crimson glare beyond. The shells of other edifices already burnt rose, pierced by rows of window sockets against the red-lit mist.
Every step farther would have been as dangerous as a descent within the crater of an active volcano. These spinning, boiling bomb centres would shift or break unexpectedly into new regions, great fragments of earth or drain or masonry suddenly caught by a jet of disruptive force might come flying by the explorer's head, or the ground yawn a fiery grave beneath his feet. Few who adventured into these areas of destruction and survived attempted any repetition of their experiences. There are stories of puffs of luminous, radio-active vapour drifting sometimes scores of miles from the bomb centre and killing and scorching all they overtook. And the first conflagrations from the Paris centre spread westward half-way to the sea. [World Set Free, 4:3]
The Highlanders of the seventeenth century, for example, were cruel and bloodthirsty robbers, in the nineteenth their descendants were conspicuously trusty and honourable men. There was not a people in Western Europe in the early twentieth century that seemed capable of hideous massacres, and none that had not been guilty of them within the previous two centuries. [World Set Free, 4:11]Again, hindsight is easy; but there's something spectacularly misjudged about standing at the beginning of the twentieth-century and declaring there is not a people in Western Europe capable of hideous massacres now. Guess again, Bertie. (Also, has he not read his Walter Scott? Does he not understand the difference between Highlands Scots and Lowland Scots?)
Nor did his more fundamental prophesy, the one that structures the whole of The World Set Free, prove correct. That fundamental prophesy is that once humankind develops weapons with the power literally to destroy the planet, the old ways of global belligerence will be discarded, the weapons unmade, and a new utopia of social justice and peace built in its place. In fact what happened was: humankind, having developed weapons with the power literally to destroy the planet, not only kept them but proliferated them to many different countries, and otherwise carried on pretty much as before. Alas.
I will say that I enjoyed The World Set Free, although it's minor Wells, really. It anticipates the narrative strategies that became famous with later century blockbuster thrillers and disaster stories: an long-shot overview frame in which a number of individual point-of-view characters are embedded to give us on-the-spot perspectives. What is that mode of writing called? Does it even have a name?
Anyway: the real significance of this novel is that it marks a major change in Wells's own broader worldview. Reading those scientists who were, in the early nineteen-teens, investigating radioactivity—the opening to chapter one namechecks ‘such scientific men as Ramsay, Rutherford, and Soddy’, but there were probably others as well—in effect cured Wells of his attachment, as much aesthetic as intellectual I suspect, to entropy. It wasn't just him: this period at the beginning of the twentieth century stretched general conceptions of how long the sun would continue to shine, whether the earth was cooling, the age of the universe and so on. The winding-down, decay and ending of things had been believed relatively imminent; now it was pushed back. Here's the relevant passage from Soddy's book, which image I encourage you to click and embiggen:
This new Radioactivity Wells is, in crucial ways, a different sort of writer to the older Entropy Wells: less imaginatively pessimistic, more spaciously open-ended. It's an important rubicon in his career.