Thursday, June 3, 2021

A Modern Utopia by H. G. Wells

Ploddingly didactic and stylistically annoying
Thomas More may have coined the term Utopia in 1516 with his book of the same name, but utopian fiction has a history that goes back to ancient times. As the science fiction genre came to prominence in the late 19th century, however, utopias multiplied like rabbits. H. G. Wells, one of the pioneering masters of science fiction, penned a number of works set in utopian societies, among them When the Sleeper Awakes (1899) and Men Like Gods (1923). It is with his 1905 book A Modern Utopia, however, that Wells seems bent on writing a utopia to end all utopias by not merely contributing to the utopian subgenre but also critiquing it.

Amid Wells’s prolific bibliography, one will find A Modern Utopia listed among his novels, but it really isn’t one. Though it contains a fictional scene here and there, the bulk of the text is written as a series of essays. The occasional fictional content is mostly in the style of philosophical dialogues rather than literary narrative. The book opens with an annoying introduction in which Wells constantly employs the second-person plural and breaks the “fourth wall,” asking how can we build a better utopia? Rather than just show us his utopia, Wells prefers to talk about how he’s going to make his utopia, and how it will differ from More’s Utopia, William Morris’s News from Nowhere, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, or Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun. The reader can’t wait for this irritating prologue to end and for the real novel to start, but it soon becomes apparent that the whole book is written in this frustrating style. Wells ploddingly proposes his vision of the future while delivering smug lit-crit asides on past utopian literature.

On his journey through this utopia, Wells is accompanied by a companion known only as “the botanist” who serves as his foil in philosophical debates. The utopia itself is set in the Switzerland of a parallel universe. Wells describes the setting in a very pretentious manner that assumes anyone who’s anyone has been to Switzerland, an odd choice for an author usually so sympathetic to the working class. It seems as if Wells is not content to be regarded as a fine storyteller or philosopher but instead wants to be recognized as a Writer of literary merit. Thus, the prose drips with verbal ostentation, using a hundred flowery words to say what could have been stated in ten.

What Wells actually says about the future is not so different from many of his contemporary futurists: The economic system will be based on socialism, but not to the rigid extremes of Bellamy’s future. There’s no eugenics, but deformed babies will be euthanized. A woman can work, but the family is her first priority. Wells’s one ostensibly original contribution is a class of “voluntary noblemen” he calls “samurai,” who will run the world. The term, however, is really just a rebranding of the same old fantasy of meritocracy where birth and wealth mean nothing, and the smart and driven triumph over the lazy and dumb. I would have given this drudgerous book an even worse rating were it not for the surprisingly forward views that Wells expresses on racial equality. He even condones interracial marriage, a definite taboo in Victorian England. Wells does, however, advocate a melding of world cultures that would basically eliminate cultural diversity in favor of a universal language, currency, and customs.

Literary scholars have described A Modern Utopia as a “postmodern utopia.” In this case Wells’s postmodernism smothers all the fun out of what is usually an amusing and stimulating genre. The purpose of utopian literature should be to make political and philosophical theory accessible to general readers. Otherwise, why not just write scholarly essays? A Modern Utopia is so dull, dry, and pompously arty it could cause readers to lose their taste for utopian fiction entirely.
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