Friday, 6 October 2017

What Is Coming? (1916)

295 pages of speculation and prophecy, disposed into the following twelve chapters:

 ‘Prophecy may vary,’ Wells says, ‘between being an intellectual amusement and a serious occupation,’ adding that ‘it is the lot of prophets who frighten or disappoint to be stoned’. What was it Dylan sang? Everybody. Must. Get. Stoned. Wells, though, opens this volume with quiet confidence in his unstoneability, a certain pride in his previous prophetic successes:

‘What is really being examined here,’ we are told, ‘is the power of human reason to prevail over passion’ [9]. Wells thinks the nation state unsupportable, going forward, and predicts that either his looked-for World State will be established or else states will agglomerate into three blocks, European, Chinese and Pan-American, adding: ‘I leave it to the mathematician to work out exactly how much the chances of conflict are diminished when there are practically only three Powers in the world instead of some scores’ [25]. He means to imply that there would be a greatly reduced chance of conflict, but I can't be the only person who, reading this, found myself thinking: fewer permutations, but much greater chance of any war that happens taking on catastrophic proportions. Makes me wonder if Orwell read this book. Presumably he did.

Anyway: Wells thinks there’s a good chance, postwar, of ‘an immediate World State and Pax Mundi’ [26]. He thinks the war will end not through any great military breakthrough, but by a process of exhaustion: ‘exhaustion is likely to be a very long and very thorough process, extending over years. A “war of attrition” may last into 1918 or 1919’ [40]. That proved spot-on, of course; although Wells’s predictions in chapter 3 of complete financial reorganisation necessitated by the enormousness of war debt was less on-the-nose. He argues reconstruction of smashed infrastructure will prove easier than generally assumed (broadly right); and insists the postwar world will be a socialist one. As evidence for this belief he notes that modern war can only be fought on anti-individualistic, fundamentally socialist lines, and this war has radically altered the social fabric: ‘it will be as impossible to put back British industrialism into the factories and forms of the pre-war era as it would be to restore the Carthaginian Empire’ [113]. This is an interesting guess, actually. It wasn't really true of 1920s Britain, of course, but it does describe the coming of the Welfare State in the post-1945 settlement. Wells also predicts the coming of proportional representation, and the comprehensive reordering of education.

The chapter on ‘The War and Women’ makes some sensible points, in amongst some essentialist weirdness that comes close to actual barking nonsense:
There have always been two extreme aspects of the sexual debate. There have always been oversexed women who wanted to be treated primarily as women, and the women who were irritated and bored by being treated primarily as women. There have always been those women who wanted to get, like Joan of Arc, into masculine attire and the school of ‘mystical darlings’. … Of course the mass of women lies between these extremes. But it is possible, nevertheless, to discuss the question as though it were a conflict of two sharply opposed ideals. The ordinary woman fluctuates between the two, turns now to the Western ideal of citizenship and now to the Eastern of submission. [168-9]
This chapter also contains a little peek-a-boo reference to Wells's current affaire de coeur:
Compare, say, the dark coquettings of Miss Elizabeth Robins’ “Woman’s Secret” with the virile common sense of that most brilliant young writer, Miss Rebecca West, in her bitter onslaiught on feminine limitations in the opening chapters of “The World’s Worse Failure.” The former is an extravagance of sexual mysticism. Man can never understand women. Women always hide deep and wonderful things away beyond masculine discovery. Some day perhaps—— It is someone peeping from behind a curtain and inviting men in provocative tones to come and play catch in a darkened harem. The latter is like some gallant soldier cursing his silly accoutrements. [171]
Can you guess which of these two women Wells is having sex with, I wonder?

Chapter 9 speculates on how the postwar map of Europe might be redrawn, and Chapter 10 goes into more detail on the possible futures of the USA, Britain, France and Russia. Since he does not foresee Bolshevik revolution in the latter state, he gets plenty of things wrong there; and he goes off on a weird rant about the Cyrillic alphabet (he insists Russian must be converted to ‘a Western phonetic type … The Frenchman or Englishman is confronted with COP!; the sound of that is SAR! For those who learn languages there will always be an undercurrent towards saying “COP.” The mind plunges hopelessly through that tangle to the elements of a speech which is yet unknown’ [234-5]). More perceptively he predicts a coming end to the age of European empire, and the last chapter pleads for a mindset of clemency to handle the question of what shall become of the Germans after they have been defeated. Overall, What Is Coming is what you would expect it to be: a mix of hit and miss.

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