Monday, June 3, 2013

Review of "Men Like Gods" by H.G. Wells

I had the pleasure of reading Men Like Gods by H.G. Wells, first published in 1923.  “In the year 1921, a dozen people from London are out for a drive when they suddenly find themselves in Utopia, a world in a parallel universe whose history is in many ways similar to but in important ways divergent from their own.” 

Observed mainly through the eyes of the kind-hearted, mild-mannered, unassuming main character, Mr. Barnstaple (interestingly, his first name is never provided), a writer for a small London newspaper, the Utopian people and their society appear to be far advanced compared to those of earth.  Mr. Barnstaple embraces the Utopian way of life and vows to become a Utopian of the mind and spirit if not the body. 

Mr. Barnstaple quickly learns that his earth of 1921 would be considered to be in an Age of Confusion, the name the Utopians give to their dark ages of some three millennia past (Mr. Barnstaple is able to learn because Mr. Wells grants the Utopians telepathic abilities, a useful device to overcome the otherwise inevitable language differences between the Utopians and the earthlings).  During the one hundred generations since the histories of earth and Utopia diverged, the Utopians managed to root out all of the problems that plagued the earth of 1921 (and that still plague the earth of 2013):  poverty, crime, war, famine, overpopulation, tyranny, disease, economic disparity, organized (or any kind of) religion, nationalism, government, marriage, and racial/tribal hatred.

Freed from these hindrances, the Utopians enjoy rich, long, meaningful lives in perfect health spent in the pursuit of any creative designs that suit their fancies.  Their entire world has been tamed and subjugated to the Utopian will for the Utopian benefit, right down to the careful elimination of noisome insects and stinging nettles.  Utopia is Mr. Wells’ picture of the perfection of mankind and of mankind’s planet that could have been and, in time, might yet be--at once a sober assessment of reality and message of hope for the future.

Alas, the other earthlings, among them a priest, a politician, and a patrician, are horrified by what they find in Utopia.  The priest particularly is filled with revulsion and a deep-seated, megalomaniacal hatred for the Utopians and everything for which they stand.  Ignoring the beauty and harmony of the Utopian people and their peaceful society, the priest sees only wantonness, licentiousness, weakness, and a total lack of morals.  He also sees a world that is ripe for both religious and political conquest. 

Soon, all the earthlings with the exception of the good Mr. Barnstaple begin to plot the violent takeover of Utopia.  In this effort, the earthlings plan to rely on what they see as their strengths in comparison with the Utopians:  their knowledge of and willingness to carry out violence, their religious and moral rectitude, their natural competitiveness, and, most importantly, their superior immune systems.  It is this last strength that is the most fearsome weapon of the earthlings, for the Utopians, having long ago wiped out disease, have correspondingly naïve immune systems (Mr. Wells also used this strength of humanity in War of the Worlds (1898), albeit in a different context and to achieve a different end).

In Mr. Wells’ Utopia, the achievements of the Utopian people came about gradually, one person at a time--through evolution rather than revolution (although not without its martyrs).  Slowly, gradually, over three millennia, the Utopians found that they did not have to live in a world of conflict and corruption.  Those who still clung to the old ways gradually died out.  Those who were lazy or without creative vision were allowed to live but found that they could not find mates, and so they too died out.  In the end, Utopia was achieved and became self-perpetuating.

It is important to remember, as H.G. Wells professed, that Utopia, if it comes to us, would come gradually, and that any attempt to impose a utopia upon society would inevitably result in disaster--Mr. Wells, writing around 1923, would have been all too familiar with the results of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.  Furthermore, Mr. Wells was by no means necessarily optimistic about earth’s future, as anyone familiar with the plot of The Time Machine (1895) knows. 

There are signs in our world of today that Utopia on earth is indeed possible.  The Internet has connected mankind in ways that were inconceivable a generation ago.  Advances in medicine and molecular genetics are on track to provide perfect health, long life, and perhaps even immortality.  We are still in an Age of Confusion, but the dream of utopia will be achievable, as more and more of us share the dream.  Mr. Wells’ message in Men Like Gods is one of hope for the future of earth and mankind.  His story offers tantalizing glimpses of what we as a species might one day achieve.    

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