Men Like Gods
A positive Utopia by H. G. Wells

Review by Gunter Heim,
Aachen, Germany
September 2002

Penguin Classic, 1976

   
[1] Many people are afraid of the years to come. The life sciences, genetics and robotics may soon confront us with species of artificial life that may challenge man`s superiority on this planet. Global warming may bring desaster to many countries and political tension between Asia, Europe and the U. S. may lead to another world war.    
[2] As justified as these fears may be, the future may just as well see mankind move on towards a much better world. Science could help us to live healthy lifes, the idea of sustainable development may bring about a more sensible behaviour towards nature and a growing awareness that justice is a prerequesite for peace and prosperity may unite the world into a harmonious social body.    
[3] Strangely enough, negative visions of the future prevail by far. 1984 by George Orwell, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, the Terminator movies with Arnold Schwarzenegger or The Matrix all describe rather desperate societies and they are only a few out of many examples.    
[4] The few positive visions about man's future such as Ray Kurzweils The Age of Spiritual Machines or Stocks Metaman seem to be rather naive. They are based on the unproved assumption that new technologies will somehow automatically lead to more happiness.    
[5] There are two utopian visions, however, that seriously describe feasible societies of enriched intellectual life and fair material prosperity.    
[6] The first vision was created by Thomas More in about 1516. More was very actively involved in English politics, but as a faithful Roman Catholic he quietly opposed King Henry VIII and was finally beheaded by his opponents.   In 1521 Martin Luther causes the Reformation on the Continent.
[7] More wrote a small book in Latin with the title Utopia which is Greek and means no-where. In that book, a powerful nation, Utopia, is described in great detail. More tells us how the Utopians practice euthanasia, how they invariably attack treacherous neighbouring countries with their military strength, how convicts are integrated into ordinary families for restitution and why the aboliton of private property is a good thing. In fact, More explicity used the word communism in the Latin original of his book. A fact which is hardly remembered nowadays.   Sir Thomas More. Change of topic: Valis, by K. P. DickIn the 1520 and 30ies Southern and Central America were invaded by a handful of Spanish Conquistadores. They destroyed whole empires.
[8] The second positive vision was written by Herbert George Wells in about 1921. A party of Englishmen travelling across the countryside are miraculously transferred into another universe. There, mankind lives in a state of material affluence, intellectual integrity and vigorous scientific curiosity.   In 1921 the Versailles Treaty was much discussed and the Bolshevik Revolution still in full swing. They are both mentioned in the book.
[9] The ideas developed by Wells are in many ways remarkable. He unfailingly follows up trains of thought to their final conclusions and welds them together into a plausible entity. I now want to cite and comment on some passages of the story.    
[10] Wells was much interested in scientific matters and whether out of pure chance or great intuition, he described the nature of space much in the same way as string theorists began to describe it since about 1990:   In the year 1921 quantum physics and the theory of relativity represented the state-of-the-art of phyiscal knowledge.
[11] "...this universe in which we lived not only extended but was, as it were slightly bent and contorted, into a number of other long unsuspected spatial dimensions. It extended beyond its three chief spatial dimensions into these others just as a thin sheet of paper, which is practically two dimensional, extended not only by virtue of its thickness but also of its crinkles and curvature into a third dimension." And: "We think in terms of a space in which the space and time system, in terms of which you think, is only a specialised case." Page 44 and page 215 In the early 1920ies Kaluza and Klein postulated such properties of space.

A good book on string theory Some notes on string theory in German: ontologische Aspekte der Superstring Theorie, called "The Elegant Universe" was written by Brian Green and published in 1999.

[12] It is through the use of such knowledge that the Utopians opened up a gate between their and our universe. Through that gate a number of earthly humans was transferred to Utopia by chance.    
[13] The Utopians seem to speak perfect English, they live in peace and quiet and their planet looks like paradise. The weather is always fine and tigers have no intention of harming either humans or other animals. And the humans that live there do so in perfect harmony.    
[14] The Utopian state is founded on common sense:    
[15] "Decisions in regard to any particular matter were made by the people who knew most about that matter." Page 52  
[16] To maintain the rule of common sense, the Utopians had    
[17] "...a number of intelligences directed to the general psychology of the race and to the interaction of one collective function upon another." Page 53  
[18] Just like in Thomas More's Utopia, Wells also played with the idea of communism. A Utopian says:    
[19] "We found at last that private property in all but very personal things was an intolerable nuisance to mankind. We got rid of it." Page 53 The German speaking religious community of the Hutterites (Hutterer) have a similar attitude towards private property.
[20] The people in Utopia, however, did suffer from no lack of motivation. Quite on the contrary:    
[21] "...a great number of people (were) concerned in the production and distribution and preparation of food; they inquire ... into the needs of the world, they satisfy them and they are a law unto themselves in their way of doing it. They conduct researches, they make experiments. Nobody compels, obliges, restrains or prevents them... And again others produce and manfuacture and study metals for all mankind and are also a law unto themselves... Others experiment with sensory and imaginative possibilities." Page 54  
[22] In the book, this sort of non-compulsory industriousness is called "Professionalism" and reference is made to a Chinese professor, Mr. S. C. Chang, who had written a pamphlet on it in which    
[23] "he points out how undesirable it is and how unnecessary for China to pass through a phase of democratic politics on the western model. He wants China to go right straight on to a collateral independence of functional classes, mandarins, industrials, agricultural workers and so forth..." Page 54 Does knowledge work in large enough social bodies work in analogy to neural networks?Some ideas on modelling societies as functional units of neural networks
[24] But how did this utopia come about? The reader is told that Utopia once was in the same state as earth at the beginning of the 20th century. Then came a time of great technological progress:    
[25] "They found themselves, too, in possession of mechanical power on a scale beyond all previous experience, and not simply of mechanical power; physiological and then psychological science followed in the wake of physics and chemistry..." Page 56 This is just the state of affairs at the beginning of the 21st century. Think of nuclear power, information technology and the life sciences!
[26] But just like the western civilization does not really seem to appreciate the sweeping force of emerging technologies so the Utopians took their time to realise the full potential of progress:    
[27] "The first response of the general population of Utopia to the prospect of power, leisure and freedom thus opened out to it was proliferation. It behaved just as senselessly and mechanically as any other animal or vegetable species would have done... It spent the great gifts of science as rapidly as it got them in a mere insensate multiplication of the common life." Page 56 To what use do we, on earth in the year 2002, put our scientific knowledge?
[28] In due course, the planet was swamped with two thousand million people. But the Utopians learnt that overpopulation is not desirable and they decided that two hundred and fifty million people   Earth in about 2000 is populated by some six thousand million people.
[29] "had been the maximum population that could live a fully developed life upon the surface of Utopia" because "the overcrowding of the planet ... was ... the fundamental evil out of which all the others that afflicted the race arose." Pages 56 and 57 If all six thousand million people on Earth adopted lived the American way of life they would need 5 "earthes", it is said.
[30] But the way to Utopia was arduous and the nasty hardships of capitalism had to be experienced by the Utopians before they were ready for some other system:   Read Friedrich Engels Portrait of Engels and a short note on his work and life in German or Charles Dickens to get an idea of the brutish face of unchecked capitalism.
[31] "Organised science had long since been commercialised and was 'applied' now chiefly to a hunt for profitable patents and the forestalling of necessary supplies." Page 58  
[32] Capitalism seems to have had some innate tendency towards self-destruction:    
[33] "All societies were based on the limitation by laws and taboos and treaties of the primordial fierce combativeness of the ancestral man-ape ... The idea of competition to possess, as the ruling idea of intercourse, was, like some ill-controlled furnace, threatening to consume the machine it had formerly driven." Page 59 Some ideas on old and new qualities of leadership, written in 2002Some ancestral motives still prevail in our daily social intercourse.
[34] The transition of this state to the state of true social Utopia was of gradual character. There occurred no revolution and there was no single leader who had brought about the change. Teachers used school to shape the minds of the young and imbue them with the spirit of some better future. But the old order of things did not give up without resistance:   Agenda 21, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, and the Statement of principles for the Sustainable Management of Forests was formulated in 1992.
[35] "The old order gave small rewards to the schoolmaster, but its dominant types were too busy with the struggle for wealth and power to take much heed of teaching: it was left to any man or woman who would give thought and labour without much hope of tangible rewards, to shape the world anew in the minds of the young." Page 62 Agenda 21 strongly emphasizes the need for individual and local action. In Aachen (Germany) a local initiative encourages some prototypical families to...
[36] And these idealist teachers were successful in the long run because their adversaries were preoccupied with their personal affairs:   ...substantially change their way of live and report on it to a committee (2002).
[37] "In a world ruled ostensibly by adventurer politicians, in a world where men came to power through foundering business enterprises and financial cunning..." Page 62 George Bush junior had been active in the oil industry before he became president of the U. S. in 2000.
[38] It took five centuries to transform Utopia into a "universal scientific state, the educational state".    
[39] Once the Utopian state of things had been achieved it was perpetuated by training the young to its needs:    
[41] "Every Utopian child is taught to the full measure of its possibilities and directed to the work that is indicated by its desires and capacity... And in particular the growth of its imagination is watched and encouraged." And: "Our education is our government" (says a Utopian). Page 63 and 64  
[42] The result of this continuous strive towards a better world was an advantageously modified psyche of humankind:    
[43] "There are few dull and no really defective people in Utopia; the idle strains, the people of lethargic dispositions or weak imaginations, have mostly died out; the melancholic type has taken its dismissal and gone; spiteful and malignant characters are disappearing. The vast majority of Utopians are active, sanguine, inventive, receptive and good-tempered." Page 64  
[44] Wells dedicates a few chapters to criticism of this world, too. He does not describe it as perfection. The Utopians, he says, consider themselves to be only at the beginning of some much greater struggle for knowledge and better worlds still. And one thing particularly is very strange to the visitors from Earth, namely total technological control over nature. It was the    
[45] "'Balance of Nature' which the scientific methods of Utopia had destroyed" by "an enormous and deliberate reduction of insect life" and "a systematic extermination of tiresome and mischievous species" Page 72 This strongly opposes the romantic view of nature cherished by many people today.
[46] The Utopians maintained that nothing could be more from the truth than idealizing Nature. He who does so, according to Utopians, wrongly thinks that    
[47] "this old Beldame Nature is a limitless source of will and energy if only we submit to her freaks and cruelties and imitate her most savage moods, if only we sufficiently thrust and kill and rob and ravish one another ... He too preaches the old fatalism and believes it is the teaching of science..." And "she is purposeless and blind". Page 82 A short phantasy A perfect life without any uncontrolled species (no brain - no pain) along these ideas written in German: a Buddhist Utopia on Mars.
[48] But Utopians did not limit themselves to the control of other species, "now man was weeding and cultivating his own strain... The Utopians told of eugenic beginnings, of a new and surer decision in the choice of parents, of an increasing certainty in the science of heredity." Page 74 There is a fierce discussion about genetic engineering going on at the beginning of the 21st century Notes, phantasies and thoughts on the possibilites of changing man genetically (in German) (German).
[49] The result was a healthy race of individuals with intellectual integrity and frankness:    
[50] "They were clear and frank and direct... The ironies, concealments, insincerities, vanities and pretensions of earthly conversation seemed unknown to them." Page 74  
[51] Another mechanism that makes for better humans in Utopia is some sort of mobbing. People that do not conform to the views of the society are shunned and openly criticized. And just like mobbing can kill humans on earth Is mobbing a useful function of large cooperative groups?, so it does in Utopia: "The indolent and inferior do not procreate here" Mobbing as a useful social corrective
[52] Now, a major criticism put forward by some of the visiting earthlings is the one of degeneration. It is said that the Utopians had outbred all strife for combat and self-assertion. As the economic system does not need these human motives any more, they completely lack in the society at large. This grossly wrong view of the Utopian character is actively promoted by some of the earthlings and who finally have to pay dearly for their misjudgment. They openly oppose their Utopians hosts by opting for military action against them. These people of less than ten in number think that they can bring the whole of Utopia under their control just as easily as the Spanish Conquistadores had subjugated the Indians in the 16century. Middle part of the book Utopians are not degenerated
[53] These ungrateful people, however, are simply transferred out of the Utopian universe into another dimension by the Utopians' use of their superior control over the physics of space and time.    
[54] Interestingly, the humanist author and politican Sir Thomas More described his utopian society also as basically peaceful but still capable of professional military retaliation if cause was given. It is to the credit of Wells and More that they treated the dilemma of pacifism in their writings so frankly.   More`s Utopia of 1516
[55] Wells makes many references to the politics of his days. He wrote the book just after World War One. The Soviet Revolution of 1917 was still in progress, Lenin still alive (page 222). Ireland was still fighting for independence (page 231) and many parts of the world had been divided up into colonies.   Historic allusions
[56] However, many of the allusions Wells makes must elude the modern reader. For instance, the fictitious figure of Mr. Rupert Catskill seems to parody the young Winston Churchill, who had been Lord Admiral during World War I. Wells says that Catskill "had been a prisoner and escaped wonderfully" Page 95 Winston Churchill parodied?
[57] In fact, Winston Churchill had fought in the Boer Wars around the turn of the 19th to the 20th century and he had been caputured by the Boers and imprisoned. In an autobiography Full title of Churchills book and some notes on it Churchill describes in much detail how he had romantically escaped from a P.O.W. camp and how he had travelled across enemy country right up to the then Portuguese port of Laurenšo Marques (now Maputo in Mosambique). Wells caricatures his own days when he lets a Frenchman call Germans "Boche" and when he makes someone exclaim in wonder that Utopia seems to him a "White Man`s World" in sincerely appreciative words. Page 143  
[58] But let us return to Utopia. Wells is strongly rooted in realism. He proved so with his book "The Time Machine" in which he described a possible future on Earth quite repelling in all respects. Wells draws the readers of Men Like Gods`s attention to the fact that their society founded on sense and logic lacks all sense of romance and adventure. And the main protagonist of the story, Mr Barnstaple, admits that    
[59] "For long he had known how intensely he loathed and despised that reeking peasant life which is our past; he realised now for the first time how profoundly he feared the high austere Utopian life which lies before us. This world he looked out upon seemed very clean and dreadful to him." Page 125 Ambivalent nature of Utopian perfection
[60] Apart from the rather obvious dilemma of pacifism this is another but less obvious dilemma inherent to any definition of a perfect state of things. But Wells does not fear to elaborate on it. It is the dilemma of the mutual exclusion of reason and personal individuality.   Some personal notes on life in generalThe dilemma of a free will from a philosophical point of view
[61] For where absolute reason reigns, any individual must submit to it. If all questions can be solved by means of logical thought what options do remain for personal freedom? And as everything was to be done in a sensible way in Utopia, emotions too were to be subordinated to reason:    
[62] "Bright and lovely beings they were - in no way pitiful. There would be no need for those qualities..." Page 127  
[63] The Utopians were driven by curiosity instead:    
[64] "The lives of the people must be like the lives of very successful artists or scientific workers in this world, a continual refreshing discovery of new things, a constant adventure into the unknown and untried." Page 126 Curiosity of Utopians as main motive
[65] But Wells does not suggest that these people are fundamentally different from us, the readers of his book. As he had pointed out earlier on, the Utopian state of affairs was mainly achieved by educating the children in a new way. Genetically, the Utopians were    
[66] "still a Stone Age race, it was not twenty thousand years away from the days when it knew nothing of metals and could not read nor write. Deep in its nature, arrested and undeveloped, there still lay the seeds of anger and fear and dissension. There must still be many uneasy and insubordinate spirits in this Utopia ... Eugenics had scarcely begun here." Page 127 Eugenics had not yet begun in Utopia.
[67] Again, Wells makes clear how curiosity is the main motive of Utpians:    
[68] "The jewel on the reptile`s head that had brought Utopia out of the confusions of human life was curiosity; the play impulse, prolonged and expanded in adult life..." Page 190 Neotony?
[69] And the Utopian individual is rewarded by something that completely misses in modern western civilization on earth: "a sense of belonging to the great purpose of the race". Page 192  
[70] Wells, it seems, would not have liked our modern computerized life-style with SMS-messages and mobile phones too much.    
[71] "For in Utopia, except by previous arrangement, people do not talk together on the telephone. A message is sent to the station of the district in which the recipient is known to be, and there it waits until he chooses to tap his accumulated messages." And "In Utopia the ear like the eye was at peace. The air which had once been a mud of felted noises was now - a purified silence. Such sounds as one heard lay upon it like beautiful printing on a generous sheet of fine paper." Page 193 and 218 How unlike the constant noise of cars, telephones, radios and other gadgets does that sound!

In 2002 there is a campaign for a more restful lifestyle going on in the Netherlands: "Bond tegen haast".

[72] Quite late in his book, Wells lays out the theoretical foundation, called the five principles, of Utopian society:
  • Principle of Privacy
  • Principle of Free Movement
  • Principle of Unlimited Knowledge
  • Lying is the Blackest Crime
  • Principle of Free discussion and Criticism
Page 194 to 196  
[73] The steady application of these principles resulted in a better society than ours that lives a truly enviable daily life:    
[74] "It is a life of demigods, very free, strongly individualised, each following an individual bent, each contributing to great racial ends. It is not only cleanly naked and sweet and lovely but full of personal dignity. It is, I see, a practical communism, planned and led up to through long centuries of education and discipline and collectivist preparation. I had never thought before that socialism could exalt and ennoble the individual and individualism degrade him, but now I see plainly that here the thing is proved."    
[75] The book ends quite undramatically. The plot does not provide any thrills. The merits of the story lie somewhere different. Wells tries to think up a better world that can indeed be achieved by earthly humans. And he does not say that it must be brought about by great political schemes and revolutionary upheavals. Instead, each one of us can contribute towards such a better future simply by educating our children in a slightly different way than in former times or by living a slightly more utopian life.   Agenda 21?
[76] I have a strong feeling that the emerging technologies of the 21st centruy and global challenges like overpopulation, global warming and military conflicts will lead to decisive actions with far reaching results for mankind.    
[77] It is perhaps our century in which man on earth opts for utopia or whatever else. Wells, at least, has tried to show that a better world is thinkable, whether in spite of or because of technological progress.
   
Suggested Reading

H. G. Wells: Modern Utopia


   

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