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The Shape of Things to Come  
Shape of things to come.jpg
The cover of the 2005 Penguin Books edition.
Author H. G. Wells
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre(s) Future history
Publisher Hutchinson (UK)
Macmillan (USA)
Publication date September 1933
Media type Print

The Shape of Things to Come is a work of science fiction by H. G. Wells, published in 1933, which speculates on future events from 1933 until the year 2106. The book is dominated by Wells' belief in a world state as the solution to mankind's problems.

Rather than a novel, it is a fictional history book or chronicle, similar in style to Star Maker and Last and First Men, both by Olaf Stapledon. Wells' book also shared with Stapledon's an understanding of the change wrought in the nature of war by the development of air power; both writers included harrowing depictions of cities destroyed in aerial bombardments (by planes whose bombs also contain poison gas).

Contents

Plot

As a frame story, Wells claims that the book is his edited version of notes written by an eminent diplomat, Dr. Philip Raven, who had been having dream visions of a history textbook published in 2106, and wrote down what he could remember of it. It is split into five separate sections or "books":

  1. Today And Tomorrow: The Age of Frustration Dawns - The history of the world up to 1933.
  2. The Days After Tomorrow: The Age of Frustration - 1933-1960.
  3. The World Renascence: The Birth of the Modern State - 1960-1978.
  4. The Modern State Militant - 1978-2059.
  5. The Modern State in Control of Life - 2059-New Year's Day 2106.

Wells predicted a Second World War breaking out with a European conflagration breaking out from the flashpoint of a violent clash between Germans and Poles at Danzig (which is what indeed eventually happened). Wells set the date for this in January 1940 (it actually happened in September 1939).

From this point the war develops quite differently: Poland proves the military match of Nazi Germany and - rather than being quickly overwhelmed, as would happen in the actual war - engages in an inconclusive war lasting ten years. More countries are eventually dragged into the fighting, but not as many as would be involved in the actual war (France and the Soviet Union are only marginally involved, Britain remains neutral, the US fights inconclusively with Japan and does not get involved in Europe).

The war drags on until 1950 and ends with no victor but total exhaustion, collapse and disintegration of all fighting states (and also of the neutral countries, also affected by the deepening economic crisis). Europe and the whole world descend into chaos: nearly all central governments break down, and a devastating plague in 1956-57 kills a large part of humanity and almost destroys civilization.

Wells then envisages a benevolent dictatorship—'The Dictatorship of the Air' (a term likely modeled on 'The Dictatorship of the proletariat')—arising from the controllers of the world's surviving transportation systems (the only people with global power). This dictatorship promotes science, enforces Basic English as a global lingua franca, and eradicates all religion, setting the world on the route to a peaceful utopia. When the dictatorship chooses to murder a subject, the condemned persons are given a chance to take a poison tablet.

Eventually, after a century of re-shaping humanity, the dictatorship is overthrown in a completely bloodless coup, the former rulers are sent into a very honourable retirement, and the world state "withers away" (as was predicted by Friedrich Engels in his 1877 work Anti-Duhring). The last part of the book is a detailed description of the Utopian world which emerges, in some ways reminiscent of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward. The ultimate aim of this Utopian world is to produce a world society composed entirely of Polymaths, each and every one of its members the intellectual equal of the greatest geniuses of the past.

As noted by Neville [1], while The Shape of Things to Come was written as a future history, seen in retrospect it can be considered as an alternate history diverging from ours in late 1933 or early 1934, the Point of divergence being U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's failure to implement the New Deal and revive the US economy (and also Adolf Hitler's failure to revive the German economy by re-armament). Instead, the worldwide economic crisis continues for three decades, concurrently with the war. The war is prosecuted by countries already on the verge of collapse and ends, not with any side's victory, but with everybody's total collapse and disintegration (also of countries which were not involved in the fighting). There follows the complete collapse of capitalism and the emergence of the above-mentioned new order.

The book displays one of the earliest uses of the C.E. ("Common Era") calendar abbreviation after A.D. year dates; Wells preferred the English C.E. in place of the traditional Western Latin A.D. ("Anno Domini").

Accurate and inaccurate predictions

Submarine-launched ballistic missiles

Wells' book can be credited with an accurate prediction of the submarine launched ballistic missile, which was to assume a crucial role in the Cold War period. Though the warheads of what he termed "long-range air torpedoes with directional apparatus" were envisaged as chemical rather than nuclear, Wells grasped the strategic implications of combining submarines with weapons of mass destruction:

"The smallest of these raiders carried enough of such stuff to 'prepare' about eight hundred square miles of territory. Completely successful, it could have turned the most of the London or New York of that time, after some clamour and running and writhing and choking, into a cityful of distorted corpses. These vessels made London vulnerable from Japan, Tokyo vulnerable from Dublin; they abolished the last corners of safety in the world."

As well as predicting this application of submarines, Wells correctly predicted that these weapons would not be fully utilised and would be mainly used to create deterrence between the various powers holding them.

Japan and China

The book predicted that Japan would fail in its efforts to conquer China, and get bogged down and exhausted in an effective guerrilla campaign launched by the Chinese. However, Wells - writing after the Chinese Communist Party suffered a crushing blow at the Shanghai Massacre and before Mao's Long March restored the party's fortunes - credited the effective guerrila campaign mainly to Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Chinese, with the Communists playing only a marginal role. The Communists do become prominent in both China and Japan in later stages, during the worldwide chaos - but they fail to establish an effective central government in either country and are eventually swept away by the emerging Modern State.

The Pacific War

Wells' scenario did include a war between Japan and the US, but a far more limited one than the actual Pacific War of World War II, with only a single indecisive naval battle (Japanese forces try to bar US ships from sailing to Manila, the Americans break through but fail to destroy the Japanese forces). There is no island-hopping and no fighting on land, and the war - which precedes rather than follows the outbreak of war in Europe - is broken off with the two sides exhausted, Japan from its war in China and the US from the 1929 economic crisis which Roosevelt failed to resolve.

While air power is a major theme of the book as a whole, Wells failed to anticipate its impact on naval warfare and the decisive role which aircraft carriers would play in the Battle of Midway. Rather, in his prediction the naval battle is still fought by the ships' artillery, as in the Battle of Jutland.

Role of Winston Churchill

The book was written when Winston Churchill's career was at its nadir. Wells clearly assumed that he was not destined to any further noteworthy deeds, and that his reputation in posterity would rest mainly on his role as First Lord of the Admiralty in World War I and on the history of that war which Churchill wrote and of which Wells provided in the book a rather facetious review [1]. However, his son Randolph Churchill is briefly mentioned as one of several distinguished Britons taking place in a vain effort to mediate an end to the war (in which Britain does not participate) and delivering "brillant pacific speeches" at a conference in Vevey, which "echo throughout Europe" but fail to end the war [2]. (The other would-be peacemakers, in Wells' vision, included Hore Belisha, Ellen Wilkinson and Duff Cooper.)

World Encyclopædia Establishment

The book described something called the 'World Encyclopædia Establishment'. It was founded in 2012, eleven years after Wikipedia was created. The Encyclopædia along with the 'Central Observation Bureau' and the 'Record and Library Network' were 'complex organization of discussion, calculation, criticism and forecast' created by the Air Dictatorship. The latter organisations have no apparent contemporary parallels.

Suppression of religions

One of the major aspects in the creation of the World State envisioned by Wells is the complete crushing and eradication of all organized religion—an act deemed indispensable in order to give the emerging "Modern State" a monopoly over education and the complete ability to mould new generations of humanity worldwide into the required shape.

In light of the actual historical developments, Wells can obviously be said to have greatly underestimated the resistance which the Muslim World could be expected to put to such a project. As depicted in the book, forces of the Air Police are able to "descend upon Mecca and close down the main holy places" without this act—the worst of sacrileges in Muslim terms—provoking any serious riots or disturbances, even though the emerging world government has its headquarters in the Muslim city of Basra, Iraq. Eventually, Islam disappears, its demise accelerated by the decay of Arabic and its replacement by "an expanded English". Virtually the only remnant are some twenty mosques, deemed to be worthy of preservation on architectural grounds.

There is only a single mention to the destruction of Buddhism and no reference to any serious problem encountered by the Modern State in eradicating it from East Asia.

The most prolonged and formidable religious opposition envisaged by Wells is from the Catholic Church (there is little reference to Protestants). The Pope and entire Catholic hierarchy are gassed unconscious when blessing the new airplanes built by a revived Fascist Italy. After the Catholic Church is decisively crushed in Italy, it finds refuge in Ireland, "the last bastion of Christianity" which becomes a Catholic theocracy. And after Ireland, too, is subdued, there is still for some time a Catholic resistance in Latin America, under "a coloured Pope in Pernambuco"—but it, too, is finally put down.

Wells gives considerable attention to the fate of the Jews. In this history, they were spared the Holocaust, with the enfeebled Nazi Germany envisaged by Wells incapable of such systematic murder (and in the war depicted, German forces fail to so much as reach the site of Auschwitz). However, Jews greatly suffer from "unorganized" persecution, and there is a reference to anti-Jewish pogroms happening "everywhere in Europe" during the chaotic 1950's. And in a world where all nation-states were a doomed anachronism, Zionism and its ambition to create a new such state obviously came to naught.

In the later struggle between the emerging world state and its opponents, Jews are seen as caught between the hammer and the anvil. Following the launch of its anti-religious campaign, the Modern State closes down all kosher butcheries still in operation - while the opening act of the "Federated Nationalist" rebels opposing this state is to perpetrate a pogrom against Jews in the Frankfurt area. Eventually, in Wells' vision, it is the Modern State's forced assimilation which wins out and the Jews—who had resisted earlier such pressures—become completely absorbed in the general society and lose their separate identity.

Film adaptations

There have been two film adaptations of the novel.

The Kipling connection

Wells's "Air and Sea Control", the association of pilots and technicians which controls the world's communications and eventually develops into a world government, seems a clear literary descendant of an institution called the Aerial Board of Control (A.B.C.) in the short stories "With the Night Mail" and "Easy as A.B.C.", by Rudyard Kipling, with which Wells was certainly familiar. The Kipling stories are set in a post-apocalyptic world where airships are commonly used both for freight and passenger service, as well as for preventing civil unrest using powerful sonic weapons:

The A.B.C., that semi-elected, semi-nominated body of a few score persons, controls the Planet. Transportation is Civilisation, our motto runs. Theoretically we do what we please, so long as we do not interfere with the traffic and all it implies. Practically, the A.B.C. confirms or annuls all international arrangements, and, to judge from its last report, finds our tolerant, humorous, lazy little Planet only too ready to shift the whole burden of public administration on its shoulders.

The above description, from Kipling's "With the Night Mail", seems very applicable to the worldwide institution depicted by Wells. However, Kipling's stories contain dystopian elements.

Wells's book might have also been influenced by George Griffith's 1893 "The Angel of the Revolution" in which a band of revolutionaries known as 'The Brotherhood of Freedom' masters the technology of flight and eventually establish a 'pax aeronautica' over the earth.

References

  1. ^ Charles B. Neville, "The worlds that never were", New York, 1986, p. 85.

Source material

Up to date as of January 22, 2010

From Wikisource

The Shape of Things to Come
by Herbert George Wells







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