Friday, 1 December 2017

Men Like Gods (1923)

No, they don't.


  1. I'm being facetious, I know. That is though, more-or-less, an accurate summary of the novel though. Its 20th-C men can't stomach the godlike perfection of the future utopia into which they stumble. ‘We’ are not ready. As the protagonist, Barnstaple, says as he prepares to return to our world from the world (at once an alt-historical and a far-future version of Earth): ‘Suppose all men could have this vision of Utopia! They would not believe it if I told them. No, they would bray like asses at me and bark like dogs!’

    The story: Barnstaple, a well-to-do family man who lives in a villa in Sydenham, is depressed and exhausted, and drives west, leaving his family for a holiday on his own, to recharge his batteries. But instead he blunders into utopia when driving out of Slough, just past Windsor. In fact he arrives there with two other cars, who have also stumbled through the rift in spacetime (Einstein might be able to explain it, we're told, but none of the characters can). One of the cars contains: Rupert Catskill, Secretary of State for War (a parodic version of Winston Churchill, this, a man whom Wells considered a reckless adventurer and dangerous reactionary), together with his secretary Freddy Mush, Lady Stella and Mr. Cecil Burleigh ‘the great Conservative leader, not only distinguished as a politician [but] eminent as a private gentleman, a philosopher and a man of universal intelligence’. There's also a Catholic priest, Father Amerton. In the other car is the obnoxious Lord Barralonga and his low-minded chauffeur Ridley. Most of the novel is a Cook's Tour of Wells's Utopia: a world of two hundred and fifty million well-adjusted individuals living in an advanced mode of political anarchy. Science is well ahead of our world (though not flawless: the explosion of one particular experiment is what caused the rupture in spacetime that brought the three 20th-century cars into Utopia in the first place). The Utopians are welcoming, but the visitors bring flu and measles with them to which the Utopians have no natural immunity. Accordingly sickness sweeps through Utopia and the visitors are quarantined away. Here the unscrupulous Catskill/Churchill, who considers Utopia decadent and vulnerable, persuades the others to plot to overthrow it. Persuades, that is, all but Barnstaple: ‘I tell you it is not an adventure. It is a crime. It is an abomination. I will have no part in it. I am against you in this attempt’ [2.2.5]. The plot doesn't get very far, and all the other plotters are punished by the Utopians: it's not clear in the novel whether they are executed by being atomised, or just shifted into yet another dimension where their wickedness can do less harm. Barnstaple wants to stay in Utopia, but the Utopians tell him he needs to return to his own world to help bring about Utopia there, and so he goes home, a changed man: ‘he belonged now soul and body to the Revolution, to the Great Revolution that is afoot on Earth; that marches and will never desist nor rest again until old Earth is one city and Utopia set up therein. He knew clearly that this Revolution is life, and that all other living is a trafficking of life with death.’

    1. "That is though, more-or-less, an accurate summary of the novel though." Damn: I wish Blogger let you edit comments. Strikethrough the second 'though', though.

  2. Men Like Gods is a readable and sometimes quite jolly novel, if fatally underplotted; but at the same time it reads very much like refried beans. This Utopia is not a carbon copy of the one in A Modern Utopia (1905), but it’s close enough. It’s perhaps more overtly sexual utopia than the former, which marks the extent to which Wells's fiction writing has grown franker, or he himself has reached a position where he feels more licensed to talk about this stuff:

    “How did it feel to be living in Utopia? The lives of the people must be like the lives of very successful artists or scientific workers in this world, a continual refreshing discovery of new things, a constant adventure into the unknown and untried. For recreation they went about their planet, and there was much love and laughter and friendship in Utopia and an abundant easy informal social life. Games that did not involve bodily exercise, those substitutes of the half-witted for research and mental effort, had gone entirely out of life, but many active games were played for the sake of fun and bodily vigour.” [2.5.2]

    Bodily vigour eh? Oho! ‘They loved no doubt,’ says Wells: ‘subtly and deliciously—but perhaps a little hardly’. Such loving, it seems, involves neither pity nor tenderness: ‘there would be no need for those qualities.’

    Barnstaple develops a crush on a beautiful young Utopian called Lychnis; he toys with the idea of having an affair with her although, in the end, he doesn’t; and at the novel’s end he comes to realise that Lychnis ‘was one of Utopia's failures’.

    “She was a lingering romantic type and she cherished a great sorrow in her heart. She had had two children whom she had loved passionately. They were adorably fearless, and out of foolish pride she had urged them to swim out to sea and they had been taken by a current and drowned. Their father had been drowned in attempting their rescue and Lychnis had very nearly shared their fate. She had been rescued. But her emotional life had stopped short at that point, had, as it were, struck an attitude and remained in it. Tragedy possessed her. She turned her back on laughter and gladness and looked for distress. She had rediscovered the lost passion of pity, first pity for herself and then a desire to pity others. She took no interest any more in vigorous and complete people, but her mind concentrated upon the consolation to be found in consoling pain and distress in others. She sought her healing in healing them. She did not want to talk to Mr. Barnstaple of the brightness of Utopia; she wanted him to talk to her of the miseries of earth and of his own miseries.” [3.2.7]

    She has, in other words, a kind of kink for misery, in a world in which nobody is miserable. Wells offers us this as a symptom of the health of his imagined future (we’re 3000 years, we’re told, after the twentieth-century). But it’s impossible not to read it, rather, as an index of social pathology. You feel that a novel about Lychnis would have been a more interesting proposition than the strangers-in-paradise yarn Wells actually wrote. Perhaps such a novel would have been beyond him as a writer.

  3. Contemporary reviewers noted that this novel was Wells’s first (as we would now say) SF/Utopia fiction for many years. And it’s striking how early appeared what is now a critical commonplace, that Wells’s later SF represents a huge falling away from earlier glories, overwhelmed as it is by his hectoring-lecturing urge. ‘After long divagations in strange places,’ said a review in July 1923’s issue of Advocate of Peace through Justice ‘Mr. Wells re turns to his early love and unfolds for our benefit another of those pseudo-scientific fairy stories which first brought him recognition. The mark of his wanderings, however, is strong upon him. Mr. Wells is no longer content to tell an impossible story with an air of conviction. He has a mission and he needs must preach.’

  4. And following on from that comment, a couple of other thoughts on Men Like Gods as SF/Utopia.

    The undeniably secondhand-ness of this novel is a little redeemed by the way it intriguingly inverts some of the assumptions of Wells’s earlier works. So one way of taking the novel is as mirror-image of War of the Worlds: in that work the extramundane invaders are defeated by earthly microbes; in Man Like Gods the invaders bring microbes with them and threaten the world—a truer reflection of the logic of colonial conquest, of course. Then again, in my piece on The Time Machine I noted how gloriously profligate Wells could be with ideas, and recoded my astonishment that having in effect invented the sub-genre of ‘time travel fiction’ he never again wrote a time-travel story. But of course he did: Men Like Gods is about a trip 3000 years into the future which anticipates one of the major strands of later time-travel, alternate realities: Barnstaple reflects that ‘that dear world of honesty and health was … but one of countless universes that move together in time, that lie against one another, endlessly like the leaves of a book. And all of them are as nothing in the endless multitudes of systems and dimensions that surround them. “Could I but rotate my arm out of the limits set to it,” one of the Utopians had said to him; “I could thrust it into a thousand universes.” [3.3.6]. So for instance this Utopian world has Christ in its history, but he was killed on a wheel rather than a cross.

    On the question of eugenics, Wells takes a step backward: this is unambiguously a eugenicist Utopia: ‘the Utopians told of eugenic beginnings, of a new and surer decision in the choice of parents, of an increasing certainty in the science of heredity’ [1.6.2] (Wells uses gardening euphemisms, in rather queasy-making ways: ‘man was weeding and cultivating his own strain’ and so on). The whole is based on the ‘deliberate elimination of ugly, malignant, narrow, stupid and gloomy types during the past dozen centuries or so’ [2.2.2]. Speaking as someone who ticks two and arguably three of the terms on that last, might I just say: uh-oh.

    More, this is a specifically racially segregated eugenic regime: 3000 years had produced no ‘general admixture of races’: ‘On Utopia as on earth there [were] dusky and brown peoples, and they remained distinct. The various races mingled socially but did not interbreed very much; rather they purified and intensified their racial gifts and beauties.’ Purifying our racial gifts and beauties could hardly be a more on-the-nose Nazi slogan, really. To be clear: people of different races are allowed to have sex with one another, ‘but rarely did such love come to procreation’.

    Beyond the eugenicist and racist stuff is the book’s emphasis on the rational, scientific mental life and the deliberately downplaying of poetry and art. On the upside, everyone can write anything and get it published at state expense. These books are distributed to the world’s many open libraries where ‘it was read or neglected as the visitors chanced to approve of it or not. Often if they liked what they read they would carry off a copy with them’. I’m pleased to report that Science Fiction popular. ‘Crystal [a young Utopian Barnstaple befriends] had some new fantastic fiction about the exploration of space among his books; imaginative stories that boys were reading very eagerly; they were pamphlets of thirty or forty pages printed on a beautiful paper that he said was made directly from flax and certain reeds.’ [3.2.3] Now that’s a policy I could get behind.

  5. Final comment for now, on Aldous Huxley and Wells.

    So: Huxley claimed that he began Brave New World specifically as a satire of Men Like Gods (‘gradually it got out of hand,’ he claimed ‘and turned into something quite different from what I'd originally intended’ [Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, Second Series (New York: Viking, 1963), 198])—and Huxley had a remarkably low opinion of Wells. His attitude to the older writer inflected, as you can see, some honest-to-goodness de haute en bas snobbery: ‘a rather horrid, vulgar little man,’ he called him; a writer whose novels were ‘thin, shoddy, uninteresting and written in that dreadful swill-tub style [which was] H. G.'s woodnote’ [Grover Smith (ed), Letters of Aldous Huxley (Chatto & Windus, 1969), 281]. H.G., for his part, understood very well the class-based animus that informed Huxley’s rebuttal of the Wellsian Utopia: he thought Brave New World a betrayal of the future and dismissed it as ‘that Bible of the impotent genteel’ [Wells, The New World Order (1939)].

    These are larger points in terms of Wells, and could be discussed at greater length. Huxley was no reactionary, but whatever his intellectual focus he was an old Etonian and Balliol man, where H G Wells was in everything a lower-middle-class Normal School fellow. And the true English gentlemanly disdain for social inferiority requires a degree of opacity, a space into which contradictions and oppression can be airily disposed and thus ignored. What Huxley really dislikes about Wells’s art, I think, is its insistence that everything must be spelled out, that no cloud of unknowing be permitted to veil the workings of society. He is right, I think, in that ideology very often operates by occluding its own hierarchies and power-relations, and Huxley does, I think, miss the point by framing his criticism in terms of Wells’s lack of negative capability. I mean, Wells, as a writer, does rather lack negative capability: and God the Invisible King period displayed that he had no grasp of that category that mattered so much to Huxley, the ‘numinous’. Still: negative capability is great in a poem and quite out of place in a blueprint. Don’t you think?