The History of Science Fiction Literature – A Modern Utopia by HG Wells (1905)

A Modern UtopiaDeclaration of interest: I really wasn’t looking forward to reading this and debated not bothering at all. However, it has merits in the history of science fiction so is worth my time.

Originally published (as so many novels of the time were) in serialised form from October 1904 to April 1905, A Modern Utopia came to be a book later in 1905. I use the term book deliberately. This is no novel. I read a free Gutenberg edition published of the first edition.

What is a novel? Fiction. Certainly. A narrative journey. Correct. A description of events and characters which change over the duration of the story. Hopefully. For me, a story is all of the above and something more. Something almost intangible. A novel encompasses the story. Embraces it. A Modern Utopia is no novel, despite describing fictitious events and characters. There is little plot to describe. The Owner of the Voice, the narrator, and his companion, the Botanist, find themselves on a planet exactly like the Earth in terms of biology and geography, but on the far away in space ‘out beyond Sirius’. All the individuals who exist are duplicated on both planets. The companions are in alternative Switzerland and meet some people. They go to London and meet some people, including the Owner’s duplicate. The Botanist pines after a woman back home, and meets her double. Nothing else happens. There are no events, no character development – both the Owner and the Botanist remain at the conclusion as they were at the beginning of their journey. The Botanist is there to provide a counterpoint to the Owner of the Voice but he is passionate, irrational and driven by unreason. Hardly the definition of the personality of a scientist. All that remains is discussion and description of the utopian society and comparisons with Earth.

This is a long essay, not a novel and the best way to have read it would have probably been the in its original serialised format as published. In the light of history, and specifically the history of science fiction literature, A Modern Utopia is not a good read. Indeed, the opening line of one of the chapters is “were this a story”. Wells himself knew this was no novel or tale. The occasional dips into the narrative of the companies feels like an afterthought. It would have made more sense if Wells had scrapped the narrative conceit and the elements of fiction.

Wells opens the debate with descriptions of other written utopias, some of which I’ve written about, including those by More and Morris, as well as the science of Darwin and the histories and philosophies of Plato for example. He certainly knows his stuff. It is competently researched. This is a self-aware and I think, self-serving piece, which ultimately fails by its own rules. Via the Owner, we learn, as previous utopic novels have done before, about the culture, economics, politics and such like of this planet. Wells says a utopia must be planet-wide to succeed. Maybe he is correct about that, if little else. There is little talk about how the companions arrived, by the way. They just did. Why should the reader accept such a thing? There is little talk of technological advancement anywhere. A train travels 200mph. That’s about it…This becomes more fantasy than science fiction.

The protagonists understand the language of this planet because the whole world has a common language they know. But while everything else is the same as Earth, the culture, traditions, ideas being different, have led to a different destiny. Which is odd, because history dictates destiny. If Greece hadn’t risen as it did in the times of Plato, I would not be sat here in Kent, typing on a laptop, no matter what my personality and philosophy.

So Wells talks about free will, personal freedoms and a migratory nature of people of this place. There are no positive compulsions. The society is split amongst broadly unrealistic lines, with people falling in odd categories. While writing, this is presented as speculation of what the planet should be, rather than fact. The writing itself is very dull and plodding with very long sentences and paragraphs the length of pages. I found myself bored for much of the book. I don’t know if there are a lot of great ideas in his utopia, because I stopped caring. The comment about drinking on Earth to “lighten up dull days and hopelessly sordid and disagreeable lives” did bring a wry smile to my face, however. Some things never change. It was only when the bad ideas came up I woke from my slumbers.

Wells plays a dangerous game, criticising past written utopias but making the same mistakes he points out, reflecting the views of the era. He says Plato failed to mention machines because he knew nothing of them. Yet Wells cannot name technology from his future either. Surely a utopia would have better technology than he describes. He is a prejudiced as those who went before. This is best exemplified by the general misogyny of the book. Women cannot be equal to men, he writes, but must be paid for motherhood as they cannot do the important work men do. It is Wells attempt at saying women should be free. He fails. His views on marriage are equally archaic. No mention at all of LGBT issues for example. A utopia would embrace and respect all. And as for race: “an adult white woman differs far from a white man than a negress or pigmy woman from her equivalent male”. Where to begin! Thus he talks about religion and race, ill-informed as the times were. He even suggests that the only “sane and logical” thing to do with inferior races is to exterminate it. I don’t think he was satirising the ideologies of the time, merely reflecting them. If he was true to his utopic beliefs, he should be more aggressive in his dismissal of such notions, not providing the reader with a cure for insomnia.

A Modern Utopia is no novel, no story. It is a dull essay that falls into the same traps as it accuses its forebears of. It takes a very naïve view of people and society and answers no questions. As for science fiction, barely! Although it might be the first novel-length prose fiction that takes place almost entirely on another planet.

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