A Modern Utopia

The Wheels of Chance by lisa congdon

Because of the complexity and sophistication of its narrative structure, H.G. Wells’s 1905 novel ‘A Modern Utopia‘ (1905) has been called ‘not so much a modern as a postmodern utopia.’ The book is best known for its notion that a voluntary order of nobility known as the Samurai could effectively rule a ‘kinetic and not static’ world state so as to solve ‘the problem of combining progress with political stability.’

In terms of Northrop Frye’s classification of literary genres, ‘A Modern Utopia’ is not a novel but an anatomy, a book that divides a topic into parts for detailed examination or analysis. Frye, narrowed the definition of the word to mean a work resembling a ‘Menippean satire,’ which ridicules foolish or undisciplined mental attitudes instead of specific individuals.

In his preface, Wells forecast (incorrectly) that ‘A Modern Utopia’ would be the last in series on social problems that began in 1901 with ‘Anticipations’ and included ‘Mankind in the Making’ in 1903. But unlike those non-fiction works, the third volume presents a tale told by a sparsely described character known only as the ‘Owner of the Voice.’ This character ‘is not to be taken as the Voice of the ostensible author who fathers these pages,’ Wells warns. He is accompanied by another character known as ‘the botanist.’ Interspersed in the narrative are discursive remarks on various matters, creating what Wells called in his preface ‘a sort of shot-silk texture between philosophical discussion on the one hand and imaginative narrative on the other.’ In addition, there are frequent comparisons to and discussions of previous utopian literature.

The premise of the novel is that there is a planet (for ‘No less than a planet will serve the purpose of a modern Utopia’) exactly like Earth, with the same geography and biology. Moreover, on that planet ‘all the men and women that you know and I [exist] in duplicate.’ They have, however, ‘different habits, different traditions, different knowledge, different ideas, different clothing, and different appliances.’ (Not however, a different language: ‘Indeed, should we be in Utopia at all, if we could not talk to everyone?’)

To this planet ‘out beyond Sirius’ the Owner of the Voice and the botanist are translated, imaginatively, ‘in the twinkling of an eye . . . We should scarcely note the change. Not a cloud would have gone from the sky.’ Their point of entry is on the slopes of the Piz Lucendro in the Swiss Alps. The adventures of these two characters are traced through eleven chapters. Little by little they discover how Utopia is organized. It is a world with ‘no positive compulsions at all . . . for the adult Utopian—unless they fall upon him as penalties incurred.’

The Owner of the Voice and the botanist are soon required to account for their presence. When their thumbprints are checked against records in ‘the central index housed in a vast series of buildings at or near Paris,’ both discover they have doubles in Utopia. They journey to London to meet them, and the Owner of the Voice’s double is a member of the Samurai, a voluntary order of nobility that rules Utopia. Running through the novel as a foil to the main narrative is the botanist’s obsession with an unhappy love affair back on Earth. The Owner of the Voice is annoyed at this undignified and unworthy insertion of earthly affairs in Utopia, but when the botanist meets the double of his beloved in Utopia the violence of his reaction bursts the imaginative bubble that has sustained the narrative and the two men find themselves back in early-twentieth-century London.

In the economic and social system of Utopia the world shares the same language, coinage, customs, and laws, and freedom of movement is general. Some personal property is allowed, but ‘all natural sources of force, and indeed all strictly natural products’ are ‘inalienably vested in the local authorities’ occupying ‘areas as large sometimes as half England.’ The World State is ‘the sole landowner of the earth.’ Units of currency are based on units of energy, so that ’employment would constantly shift into the areas where energy was cheap.’ Humanity has been almost entirely liberated from the need for physical labor: ‘There appears to be no limit to the invasion of life by the machine.’

The narrator’s double describes the ascetic Rule by which the samurai live; this includes a ban on alcohol and drugs and a mandatory one-week solitary ramble in the wilderness. He also explains the social theory of Utopia, which distinguished four ‘main classes of mind’: The Poietic (creative or inventive), the Kinetic (able but not inventive), the Dull (lacking ‘imagination’), and the Base (mired in egotism). There is extensive discussion of gender roles, but no recognition of the existence of homosexuality. A chapter entitled ‘Women in a Modern Utopia’ makes it clear that women are to be as free as men. Motherhood is subsidized by the state. Only those who can support themselves can marry, women at 21 and men at 26 or 27. Marriages that remain childless ‘expire’ after a term of three to five years, but the partners may marry again if they choose.

A Modern Utopia is also notable an enlightened discussion of race. Contemporary racialist discourse is condemned as crude, ignorant, and extravagant. ‘For my own part I am disposed to discount all adverse judgments and all statements of insurmountable differences between race and race.’ Another progressive issue raised is vegetarianism; the narrator is told, ‘In all the round world of Utopia there is no meat. There used to be. But now we cannot stand the thought of slaughter-houses. And, in a population that is all educated, and at about the same level of physical refinement, it is practically impossible to find anyone who will hew a dead ox or pig. We never settled the hygienic question of meat-eating at all. This other aspect decided us. I can still remember, as a boy, the rejoicings over the closing of the last slaughter-house.’

The reception for the book was mostly positive, though, tellingly, Joseph Conrad complained to Wells that he did not ‘take sufficient account of human imbecility which is cunning and perfidious.’ Anarchist author Marie-Louise Berneri said of the book, ‘Wells commits the faults of his forerunners by introducing a vast amount of legislation into his utopia’ and that ‘Wells’ conception of freedom turns out to be a very narrow one.’ Wells biographer Michael Sherborne criticizes Wells for depicting ‘an undemocratic one-party state in which truth is established not by critical discussion but by shared faith. E.M. Forster would skewer the book’s unhealthy conformism in his 1909 science-fiction story ‘The Machine Stops.”

‘A Modern Utopia’ was partly inspired by a trip to the Alps, Wells made with his friend social psychologist Graham Wallas, a prominent member of the Fabian Society, a British socialist organization. Several Samurai societies were formed in response to ‘A Modern Utopia,’ and Wells met with one of them in 1907 at the New Reform Club, a private members club in central London. Two months after his death in 1946, the Royal Institution, a scientific research and education society, held a formal memorial service. Economist and noted progressive William Beveridge read passages from ‘A Modern Utopia,’ calling it the work that had influenced him the most. According to Vincent Brome, Wells’s first comprehensive biographer after his death, the novel was widely read by university students and ‘released hundreds of young people into sexual adventure.’

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