The World Set Free (Review)

The World Set Free (Review)

According the Wells, all it will take for world socialism and sunlit-fields-upon-high utopia are radioactive volcanoes.

The World Set Free was written in 1913 (under the looming war). In its format, it’s very similar to In the Days of the Comet, another Wells’ book. We have a “Dickens” view of the world, bleak and unfair and evil (I agree with him on this). The middle act is the disaster, the events so amazing that it would take Hollywood in all its CGI to do them justice. And after that, the level world reexamines itself, sorts itself out, corrects itself (and becomes, of course, socialist). I love HG on this – so much romantic hopelessness (which sounds 2012-gloomy, I suppose).

Of course, the world sucks. We get a nice POV take on this by a rich man who’s father bankrupts their family, and he goes from holiday to the streets in one quick plummet. As noted here…

Indeed, in his book, he thanks fortune for them. “I might have lived and died,” he says, “in that neat fool’s paradise of secure lavishness above there. I might never have realized the gathering wraith and sorrow of the ousted and exasperated masses. In the days of my own prosperity things had seemed to me to be very well arranged.” Now from his new point of view he was to find they were not arranged at all; that government was a compromise of aggressions and powers and lassitudes, and law a convention between interests, and that the poor and the weak, though they had many negligent masters, had few friends.

“I had thought things were looked after,” he wrote. “It was with a kind of amazement that I tramped the roads and starved – and found that no one in particular cared.”

The book works towards its main concept, that atomic energy is understood, and that things are getting better and better as cheap and limitless power comes to us. But such powers have a unseen prices. For example, cheap power means automated factories and the streeting of labor (a concern in our own time). But it also results in more dangerous and direct uses…

He had in his hands the black complement to all those other gifts science was urging upon unregenerate mankind, the gift of destruction, and he was an adventurous rather than a sympathetic type…

The atomic bombs Wells envisions are as horrible as ours but in a different way. His don’t just go BANG and leave a lot of people dead. His produce an explosion that explodes and explodes for two weeks or so, a long continuous detonation. And when dropped (220 times or so on capitals and other places of militaristic interests), their explosions burn through the crust of the earth, releasing a volcano that absolutely destroys the area.

I felt that Wells didn’t quite capture what this would really be like, with 220 plumes of volcanic ash thrown into the air, of the perpetual gloom, of the world-changing events. He doesn’t even mention the columns of death that should be visible in every sky. In our days under climate change, these seems like an odd ommision. But he does capture the horror of such detonations, of a woman with her hearing blown out and her leg mangled, of a man whose hand is shot away in trench warfare.

And in the end, of course, the world is forced, by the doom it toys with, to become better. The rulers come together, casting down the tyrants and madmen, joining up as a world council. Too often, world socialism just happens (that’s what the Hyde Park socialists believe). But here, Wells makes a good point, that a world of refugees, of starvation and desperation, might be ready for such a thing…

They found far less friction than might have been expected in turning the loose population on their hands to these things. People were extraordinarily tamed by that year of suffering and death; they were disillusioned of their traditions, bereft of once obstinate prejudices; they felt foreign in a strange world, and ready to follow any confident leadership.

As are we all in 2012.

The book does have its windy moments, its slow Randian grindings. But I’ll forgive Wells for those; I love him too much as a life-time fan to let it sway me. And, of course, there are the interesting takes of this brave new world, of women’s rights imagined by a 1913 eye (I’m actually happy to see that, for once, we shoot higher than his ideal). Overall, it’s not his best work, but it’s still Wells, so it’s going to be better than anything on the shelves today.

You can get it for free thanks to Project Gutenberg HERE.