Monday, 18 December 2017

The Way The World Is Going (1928)

It's yet another collection of Wells's occasional journalism on contemporary social and political themes, this time culled from his various (lucrative) newspaper commissions 1927-28. The volume opens with a, to be honest, rather passive-aggressive preface in which Wells gripes about how editors keep mucking about with his copy:
These articles were written for great weekly newspapers upon both sides of the Atlantic, and I note rather than complain that they appeared after suffering a certain amount of mutilation. I expressed my disapproval of such changes as were made, as vividly as possible, but the remedies a writer has are uncertain and tedious and the editorial interference went on to the end. The paragraphs were cut to pieces ; there was a brightly careless excision of phrases and sentences apparently done at the eleventh hour to fit space and there was a frequent insertion of uncongenial cross-heads and headings more satisfactory to the editorial mind.
This is poor form, really. I've written for the papers, and commissioning editors and sub-editors have edited my work. That's their job. Complaining about this tends to be, as the contemporary idiom has it, a dick move. Wells here rather gives the impression of somebody who has decided they are too grand and important a writer to be edited (‘it is amusing to try saying what one has to say in as editor-proof a form as possible. It is like shouting across an intervener at a crowd’; ‘Mercifully, I have removed the emphatic cross-heads in restoring my original text [and restored] quips and quirks, fine phrases and fine qualifications’).  But there you go.

The pieces themselves range from contemporary politics (‘2: What is happening in China? Does it foreshadow a New Sort of Government in the World?’; ‘3: What is Fascism? Whither is it taking Italy?’) to attacks on ‘Baldwinism’ and ‘The Absurdity of British Politics’, to speculations about how technology will change the world (‘15: The Remarkable Vogue of Broadcasting: will it continue?’; ‘12: Changes in the Arts of War. Are Armies needed any longer?’) That last essay contains some hair-raising predictions, actually, ‘the aeroplane gas attack ... trailing land torpedoes, gas-poisoned belts, and zones of sudden flame that would make tanks mere cooking-pots’, by way of arguing the case that war is now too destructive to contemplate and that our only hope for species survival is global disarmament.

In its latter stages the volume moves onto less materialist topics: ‘19: New Light on Mental Life: Mr. J. W. Dunne’s Experiments with Dreaming’ is an interesting account of Wells's friend's ideas, and the final essay is ‘27: Is a Belief in a Spirit World growing? Why many Sensible Men continue to doubt and disregard it. What is Immortality?’ Along the way are various other things, especially a funny but fundamentally point-missing attack-review of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, ‘The Silliest Film. Will Machinery Make Robots of Men?’ and an interesting meditation on the direction fiction was going: ‘The Future of the Novel. Difficulties of the Modern Novelist’ (‘In brief, the difference between the modern novel and the novel of the last century is this, that then the drive of political and mercantile events and the acts of their directing personalities scarcely showed above the horizon of the ordinary life, and now they do’ [26]).  It makes, I'd say, a more satisfying whole than some of the other collections of Wellsian occasional pieces, mostly because the quality of the individual essays is higher.

Not for the first time Wells, in predictive mode, gaily offers multiple hostages to fortune. He thinks fascism will ruin Italy and sees no risk of it catching on elsewhere, worries that war between Great Britain and the USA is imminent (‘such a war is being prepared now. What are intelligent people to do about it?’ [14]) and insists democracy is on the way out, confidently insisting that ‘general elections and municipal elections or any sort of popular elections’ will no longer have ‘the slightest importance in the affairs of A.D. 2027’ [4]—we still have a few years before we can test the validity of that prophecy, I know, but as prognosis it's not looking good. Rather worryingly, Wells repeatedly praises the Kuomintang as the very model of what will come to replace the exhausted models of representative democracy: the ‘brain and nervous system’ of New China: ‘the Kuomintang is the most interesting thing by far upon the stage of current events, and the best worth watching and studying’ [2].

What else? Well, he sees no future in commercial air-travel (by 1950, he says, flying ‘will be as fitful, unpunctual, and uncertain’ as it is in 1928: ‘a great majority of air passengers will still be in the air as a rather daring “experience” for the first and last time’ [11]), and thinks radio broadcasting won't catch-on, since gramophone records provide a better quality of sound. He also predicts the introduction of what he calls ‘Companionate Marriages’, halfway between celibacy and full marriage, to enable people to have sex (with birth control) and then either proceed to full marriage or else, provided there are no children, to dissolve the bond by mutual agreement and no legal complexities.

So, no: Wells strike-rate for accurate prophesy is, really, no better in this volume than his previous ones. On the upside, that Alasdair Gray-esque cover art, at the top of this post, is gorgeous.


  1. A PS: the ‘Silliest Film’ take-down of Lang's Metropolis is a thoroughly entertaining essay mocking the inconsistencies of the movie's worldbuilding, and insisting that machines will in the future serve men rather than the other way around. The points it makes are all fair enough except insofar as Wells appears blind to the possibilities that texts might be working metaphorically rather than mimetically or in literal-prophetic mode. John Crowley has written an interesting essay on this, actually.

  2. To be fair there was serious discussion and planning in the US of and for a potential war with Britain (envisaged as an invasion of Canada), around this time (following the Geneva Naval Conference of 1927), which was taken sufficiently seriously for Congress to supply funding to the effort. It was eventually declassified in 1974. See

    1. That's a very fair comment, Mark. And clearly Wells isn't just pulling these prophecies from thin air; he's picking up on real contemporary anxieties and, as you point out, plans. All I'd add to your observation is that (a) 'War Plan Red' was only one of a whole rainbow of colour-coded US military plans, covering every eventuality from war with Japan (orange), Germany (black), Mexico (green) and, as you say, Canada (red), and (b) Wells's prophecy of a GB/US war didn't come true.