Sunday, October 25, 2009

H. G. Wells - The World Set Free

(Back when I was studying the history of science at Notre Dame I took a class called The Technology of War and Peace. In that class we had to give a presentation on a related book, this is a transcript of my presentation.)

The World Set Free
H. G. Wells

It is impossible to discuss the writings of H. G. Wells without also discussing the man, for his writings reflect both his deepest fears and his greatest hopes. He was born in 1866, a member of the lower-middle-class. His mother was a domestic, his father an unsuccessful business man. Although he was apprenticed to trades several times, his escape from this existence came in the form of a scholarship to the Normal School of Science in South Kensington in 1884. One of his teachers in his first year there was T. H. Huxley, the staunch defender of Darwin. Despite early success, Wells did not take a degree. He wound up in London, teaching, and writing essays and popularizations of science. In 1895 he published The Time Machine. In it he presented a theme that was to dominate all his works. The narrator says of the Time Traveler that he “thought but cheerlessly of the Advancement of Mankind, and saw in the pile of civilization only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end.” But, the narrator continues, “If that is so, it remains for us to live as though it were not so.” (The Science Fiction of H. G. Wells by McConnell, p. 11)

By the turn of the century he was the darling of the British literary world. In 1903 he joined the Fabian Society, a group that strongly supported socialism but believed that the change would only come gradually through reasoned argument rather than class warfare. By 1905 he had written some 24 books, including almost all of his science fiction (McConnell, p. 17), and this level of productivity continued for most of his life. But by 1911, the tenor of his works changed and they became little more than vehicles for his ideas of social reform and his prophecies of the doom that awaited mankind unless they woke up and listened to him. In 1914, on the eve of the first World War, he published The World Set Free. This is the novel that gave the world the ‘atomic bomb’ and depicted an atomic war. For the most part, in telling the story of this novel I shall let Wells speak for himself, quoting liberally and often, and only adding explanatory and connective details as needed.

It opens, as Wells was wont to do, with a sweeping panorama of human history in which he begins with the statement that “the history of mankind is the history of the attainment of external power” (p. 7) the greatest expression of this is mankind’s desire to find “the snare that will some day catch the sun” (p. 13). Inspired by Soddy’s writings, Wells concludes this prelude in 1910, with a professor of physics named Rufus giving a lecture on Radium and radioactivity in Edinburgh.

The first chapter opens in 1933, when the scientist Holsten manages to set up atomic disintegration in a minute particle of bismuth; it explodes with great violence into a heavy gas of extreme radio-activity, which disintegrates in turn over a period of seven days. Coincidentally, it was in 1933 that the Joliot-Curies first produced radioactive phosphorous by bombarding aluminum with electrons (H. G. Wells: Discoverer of the Future by Haynes, p. 41). It takes Holsten another year to show that the final result is gold. The Alchemist’s Dream. In this first experiment, however, “Holsten knew that he had opened a way for mankind, however narrow and dark it might still be, to worlds of limitless power” (p. 26). He is stunned by his discovery and the ramifications for the future of mankind and spends the next day wandering around Hampstead Heath in a daze. He “felt like an imbecile who has presented a box full of loaded revolvers to a Creche” (p. 28). In the evening he stands outside the doors of Saint Paul’s Cathedral listening to the service. He feels oppressed and scared “by his sense of the immense consequences of his discovery. He had a vague idea that night that he ought not to publish his results, that they were premature, that some secret association of wise men should take care of his work and hand it on from generation to generation until the world was riper for its practical applications” (p. 30).

Holsten continues his soul searching: “His intelligence struggled against this mood and struggled for a time in vain. He reassured himself against the invasion of this disconcerting idea that he was something strange and inhuman, a loose wanderer from the flock returning with evil gifts from his sustained unnatural excursions amidst the darknesses and phosphorescences beneath the fair surfaces of life” (p. 31). Finally, he concludes that “It has begun. It is not for me to reach out to consequences I cannot foresee. I am a part, not a whole; I am a little instrument in the armory of Change. If I were to burn all these papers, before a score of years had passed some other man would be doing this...” (P. 32).

And so Holsten relieves himself of responsibility, yet one of the things that Wells believed was that we should think about where our science is leading us. We should think about what the future may hold. We should not let ourselves merely drift along.

It takes another twenty years before Holsten’s discovery bears fruit, with the first Holsten-Roberts engine replacing the steam engine in electrical generating stations. Other engines quickly followed, the Dass-Tata engine, used chiefly in vehicles and the American Kemp and Krupp-Erlanger engines. By autumn 1954 a gigantic replacement of industrial methods and machinery was taking place. Within 3 years the old polluting automobiles were replaced with “light and clean and shimmering shapes of silvered steel” (p. 34). The light weight of the engines revolutionizes aircraft design, creating a new age in personal transport: “The Leap into the Air” (p. 34). Technological innovation flourished. The prosperity of the patent holding companies was enhanced by the fact that the recoverable waste product in both the Dass-Tata and the Holsten-Roberts engines was gold. But beneath this brightness of wealth and productivity “there was a gathering darkness, a deepening dismay. If there was a vast development of production, there was also a huge destruction of values.”... “Millions of coal miners, steel workers upon the old lines, vast swarms of unskilled or under-skilled laborers in innumerable occupations were being flung out of employment by the superior efficiency of the new machinery, the rapid fall in the cost of transit was destroying high land values at every center of population, the value of existing house property became problematical, gold was undergoing headlong depreciation, all the securities upon which the credit of the world rested were slipping and sliding, banks were tottering, the stock exchanges were scenes of feverish panic” (p. 35).

In 1955 the suicide rate in the United States quadrupled. Violent crime increased. “The thing had come upon an unprepared humanity; it seemed as though human society was to be smashed by its own magnificent gains” (p. 36).

The story then shifts to the experiences of Frederick Barnet, told through the pages of an autobiographical novel that he published in 1970. It is through Barnet’s eyes that we see the collapse of the old world and the outbreak of war. Barnet was of the upper class, until his father was ruined by the atomic revolution and took his own life. In an instant, Barnet’s world was turned upside down. He finds himself on the streets with the millions of other displaced workers. As he wanders the city of London, now recreated with elevated side walks that raise the haves above the ground, to which the have nots have been relegated, he sees a society literally stratified by class. Above him the rich flit about in their personal aircraft, below him are the beggars and dispossessed. And he thinks to himself: “I saw an immense selfishness, a monstrous disregard for anything but pleasure and possession in all those people above us, but I saw how inevitable that was, how certainly if the richest had changed places with the poorest, that things would have been the same. What else can happen when men use science and every new thing that science gives and all available intelligence and energy to manufacture wealth and appliances, and leave government and education to the rustling traditions of hundreds of years ago?” (P. 54).

This catalog of the decline of human society brought on by the sudden changes of atomic power is cut off by the outbreak of what Wells calls “The Last War.” He does not give us details about how it started although prior to its outbreak there was talk of war looming on the horizon. Talk of the “Central European powers suddenly striking the Slav Confederacy, with France and England going to the help of the Slavs” (p. 55). We don’t even get many details on the waging of the war itself. We know that it was primarily a ground war, but Wells does not have machine guns, just infantry and rifles. At the beginning, airplanes are used primarily for reconnaissance, and only later do they get used in aerial combat, and of course, for dropping the bombs. The center of command of the allies fighting the Central European powers is in Paris, and is destroyed by bombs. With the allied military effectively decapitated, the scientists and airmen decide to carry out their own plan, a plan that they would have carried out with or without approval from the military commanders. As one of the airmen puts it “now, there’s nothing on earth to stop us going to Berlin and giving them tit-for-tat” (p. 67).

The bombs that they drop on Berlin use a substance known as Carolinium, which is analogous to plutonium in many of its properties. It is a continuing explosive, meaning that once its atomic decay process has been started, it continues with a furious radiation of energy that cannot be stopped. The bombs used by the allies are black spheres with handles for lifting them. They are composed of pure Carolinium, coated with a substance that induces the radioactive decay of the Carolinium when exposed to air, the whole thing being covered over with a nonreactive substance. A small celluloid stud between the handles is bitten off to admit air to the device, activating the radioactive decay. Thus resulting in a chain reaction. The picture is this: Two airmen in a plane, the pilot and the bombardier. The bombardier sits with these spherical bombs between his legs. He lifts one up by its handles, bites off the celluloid stud, and drops the bomb over the side of the airplane. “What happened when the celluloid stud was opened was that the inducive oxydized and became active. Then the surface of the Carolinium sphere began to degenerate. This degeneration passed only slowly into the substance of the bomb. A moment or so after its explosion began it was still mainly an inert sphere exploding superficially, a big inanimate nucleus wrapped in flames and thunder. Those that were thrown from aeroplanes fell in this state, they reached the ground still mainly solid and, melting soil and rock in their progress, bored into the earth. There, as more and more of the Carolinium became active, the bomb spread itself into a monstrous cavern of fiery energy at the base of what became very speedily a miniature active volcano. The Carolinium, unable to disperse, freely drove into and mixed up with a boiling confusion of molten soil and superheated steam and so remained spinning furiously and maintaining an eruption that lasted for years or months or weeks according to the size of the bomb employed and the chances for dispersal. Once launched the bomb was absolutely unapproachable and uncontrollable until its forces were nearly exhausted, and from the crater that burst open above it, puffs of heavy incandescent vapor and fragments of viciously punitive rock and mud, saturated with Carolinium, and each a center of scorching and blistering energy, were flung high and far” (p. 73).

On a mountain-side above the town of Brissago in Switzerland, the surviving rulers of the world meet. They are called together by the French ambassador to the US, a man named Leblanc, “to arrest if possible, before it was too late the debacle of civilization” (p. 93). “For the whole world was flaring then into a monstrous phase of destruction. Power after power about the armed globe sought to anticipate attack by aggression. They went to war in a delirium of panic, in order to use their bombs first. China and Japan had assailed Russia and destroyed Moscow, the United States had attacked Japan, India was in anarchistic revolt with Delhi a pit of fire spouting death and flame; the redoubtable King of the Balkans was mobilizing. It must have seemed plain at last to everyone in those days that the world was slipping headlong to anarchy. By the spring of 1959 from nearly two hundred centres, and every week added to their number, roared the unquenchable crimson conflagrations of the atomic bombs, the flimsy fabric of the world’s credit had vanished, industry was completely disorganized and every city, every thickly populated area was starving or trembled on the verge of starvation. Most of the capital cities of the world were burning; millions of people had already perished, and over great areas government was at an end. Humanity has been compared by one contemporary writer to a sleeper who handles matches in his sleep and wakes to find himself in flames” (p. 95).

Against this backdrop of destruction, Leblanc manages to gather the remnants of the world leaders in Brissago. A place chosen for its remoteness, for its distance from old associations. The natural leader of this conference is one King Egbert of England, who is going to show the rest of the leaders how to create a world government by being the first to give up his sovereignty. The only no-show is the King of the Balkans (also known as the ‘Slavic Fox’), who attempts to turn back the clock and make himself king of the world by sending airmen to bomb the conference. The plane is shot down, without dropping its bombs, and although there is no identification on the airmen, it’s pretty obvious to everyone who is responsible. Egbert travels to visit the Slavic Fox, ostensibly on an inspection mission, to verify that the Balkans do not possess atomic bombs. The Fox tries to smuggle the bombs out of the capital city, is caught, and killed. Now nothing stands in the way of the world government.

And so, out of the ashes of destruction of the old world, rises the new. There is not much to say about this utopia, it is like most utopias, long on dreams, short on practicality. It does not include capitalism, democracy (as we know it), or nations, states, or flags. English is its language. Education is universal. An index of human knowledge is being created, a world encyclopedia, in a sense, a world brain, long a dream of Wells.

Shortly after the publication of this novel, World War I broke out. Wells felt, in some way responsible. He began a shrill and vociferous journalistic campaign leading off with an essay titled: The war that will end war. It became a national slogan. Interestingly enough I have not yet found any evidence that the novel itself had much of an impact on the political tenor of the time. Perhaps it was simply that then, as now, science fiction is read more by scientists than by politicians. We do know that it did influence scientists. Leo Szilard read it and was impressed by the vision that Wells presented.

In 1939 war loomed once again upon the horizon. Wells was seventy-three, ill and tired. Sir Ernest Barker saw him sitting alone at a reception and asked how he was. “Poorly, Barker, Poorly,” he said. Barker asked him what he was doing. “Writing my epitaph.” He asked him what it was. “Quite short,” Wells said, “just this–God damn you all: I told you so.” (McConnell, p. 9). And what was Wells telling us? As Frank McConnell put it, in his book The Science Fiction of H. G. Wells it was this: “That the major disease of modern man is that his scientific and technological expertise has outstripped his moral and emotional development; that the human race, thanks to its inherited prejudices and superstitions and its innate pigheadedness, is an endangered species; and that mankind must learn–soon–to establish a state of worldwide cooperation by burying its old hatreds and its ancient selfishness, or face extinction.” (McConnell, p. 11).

H. G. Wells died on August 13, 1946, a year after the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.