H.G. Wells and The Present Crisis in Human Affairs
Sometime in 1935: Imagine Herbert George Wells sitting on a stack of wood in a soundstage at Worton Hall in Isleworth. He watches an army of carpenters build a façade of the future out of cheap wood while he awaits the arrival of his film’s set designer, Vincent Korda. The carpenters swarm around Wells, every bit as chaotic as the opening shots of writhing crowds with which he intends to introduce his film. He imagines the words that will appear atop the industrious crowd: “Whither Mankind?” the film’s name, for the time being, anyway. Wells is grateful for the carpenters because they are building a vision—what is supposed to be Wells’s, and only Wells’s vision, to be clear—of a thriving utopia.
In the days leading up to this meeting, Wells sent scores of memos to his set designer, as well as the film’s producer, Vincent’s brother Alex Korda, and the film’s director, William Cameron Menzies, who is, as far as Wells can tell, not particularly good at his job. In these memos, Wells demanded that Vincent Korda’s sets of the future utopia be utilitarian and realistic, that the designs, and their implementation resist the pragmatically disinclined impulses of other films’ depictions of the future. In one of his memos, which will later be excerpted in The New York Times, Wells famously writes, “All that balderdash one finds in such a film as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis about ‘robot workers’ and ultra-skyscrapers, et cetera, should be cleared out of your minds before you work on this film. As a general rule you may take it that whatever Lang did in Metropolis is the exact contrary of what we want done here.” Ultimately, Korda’s work thus far has not fully complied with Wells’s requests, hence this meeting. Wells checks his watch, noting that Korda is now ten minutes late, and reviews the notes he’s made with regards to the problems he has found with the set design.
Korda arrives fifteen minutes later, wearing an expensive looking suit that is wrinkled and messy, as if it has not been properly cleaned or pressed in months. His shirt is untucked and one of his shoes is untied. Wells finds the man’s appearance distasteful. Korda apologizes for his lateness. His English is broken and difficult to understand. This, too, bothers Wells, but only a little as Korda has not been speaking English for very long, having only recently moved to England from Hungary. Without so much as a greeting, Wells immediately asks Korda if he received the memos. Korda laughs, says, “I have received all of your many memos.” Wells asks, “Then why aren’t you following my instructions?” Korda gestures to the work happening around him, says “I have been, Mr. Wells.” Wells replicates Korda’s gesture, replies, “This is not what I want.” He hands his list of complaints to Korda and continues, “I do not believe that you have taken my memos seriously.” Korda scans the list and hands it back. Instead of addressing the contents of the list, he says, “If you want something different, re-hire Léger.” Wells tells Korda that this is not about Léger or any of the other designers who had tried and failed to fulfill Wells’s vision. “This is about you, Vincent,” Wells says, “and your unwillingness to work with me.” Korda laughs again, asks, “Why so many memos? Why you not come and talk to my brother and me?” The truth is, Wells had tried to find the Kordas for days, calling them on the telephone, stopping by their office, arriving on various sets unannounced at times they were scheduled to be working. Having failed to find either of the Kordas, who were clearly uninterested in returning Wells’s calls, the author was left with no choice but to write and send his memos. Instead of explaining this to the younger Korda, Wells says, “The memos are efficient.” Korda says, “I’ll see what I can do about your list.” Korda does not see what he can do about Wells’s list.
July 23, 1934: H. G. Wells is in a government building in Moscow awaiting the arrival of Joseph Stalin. In 1933, Wells discussed The New Deal with President Roosevelt. Now he is set to talk to Stalin to explore alternative perspectives on the roles of governments and economies in shaping brighter futures for the world’s citizens. Wells checks his watch. It is currently 3:57 in the afternoon. The interview is scheduled to begin at 4:00 p.m. and, though Wells does not know it now, will last until approximately 6:50 p.m. Wells impatiently stares at his watch, waiting for the minute hand to tick once, twice, three times. Two men in uniforms with medals pinned to their breasts stand inside the door to the room, and a technician in a white lab coat, under the direction of a suited bureaucrat, prepares microphones and a reel-to-reel tape deck with which to record the conversation. Once the Soviets release the tapes of this interview to Wells, the conversation will be transcribed and given to The New Statesmen for publication, and will eventually appear as a stand-alone pamphlet, titled Marxism vs. Liberalism: An Interview. Because Wells knows that his interview will eventually be published he wants the conversation to be thorough and compelling. As such, while he waits for the Soviet Premiere, Wells reviews his notes and the list of topics he will broach.
At exactly 4:00 p.m. the door to the meeting room opens and in walks Joseph Stalin. The Premiere is shorter than Wells imagined, his posture rigid, as if he’s trying to create the impression of height. He is dressed in a uniform with medals on the breast and, unlike the men standing on either side of the door, red lapels pinned with polished brass buttons. Wells stands to greet Stalin, who hurriedly sits down, ready to begin the conversation. The author fingers the tip of his mustache; Stalin does the same to his own. Wells says, “I am very much obliged to you, Mr. Stalin, for agreeing to see me.” He says, “I was in the United States recently. I had a long conversation with President Roosevelt to ascertain what his leading ideas were.” After this brief, gracious preamble, Wells asks, “Now I have come to ask you, what you are doing to change the world?” Without pause, Joseph Stalin answers, “Not so very much.”
Everytown, 2036: In the third act of Things to Come, the film that was once to be called Whither Mankind?, the citizens of Everytown live in subterranean cities under the benevolent leadership of scientists. These scientists are represented by Oswald Cabal. The sequence’s narrative arc revolves around a group of angry citizens, led by a luddite named Theotocopulous—who for his own part, misses the passion and joy of simpler living and is frustrated by his society’s unending, exhausting march of scientific progress—and who demand an end to the technocracy and a return to old ways of living. After much debate, the luddites decide that a Space Gun, designed by Oswald Cabal to send the men and women of Everytown into space as passengers in bullet-like rockets, is, in the words of one character, “an offence to every human instinct,” and must be destroyed.
Running parallel to Theotocopulous’s insurgency, the film examines the relationship between Oswald Cabal and his old friend Raymond Passworthy, who is, in his own right, a less radical luddite. Throughout the film’s third act, the two men debate the finer points of technology’s role in Everytown’s development. Cabal, the city’s staunchest proponent of progress, had been previously approached by Passworthy’s son, Maurice, with a request: Maurice wants to be on the first vessel shot from the Space Gun, and he wants to be accompanied by Cabal’s daughter Catherine. At first, Cabal resists the notion, but is slowly persuaded when he learns that the proposal was his daughter’s idea, and that Maurice and Catherine believe it is only fitting that this inaugural journey be undertaken by the child and family friend of the man most invested in the Space Gun. For his part, Raymond Passworthy is clearly unhappy with the idea and engages Cabal in a long debate about the dangers of technology. The debate lasts until Theotocopolous’s insurrection comes to a head and an angry mob of luddites head to the Space Gun in an attempt to destroy it. Upon learning of the mob’s plans, the Passworthys and Cabals rush to the launch-site, where, despite Raymond Passworthy’s reservations, Oswald Cabal launches Maurice and Catherine into space before the mob can intervene.
September, 1933: The Shape of Things to Come arrives in bookstores and it feels heavy. Not heavy the way some people use the word to describe ideas, but heavy in that the book’s boards are thick and sharp, its pages sturdy, coated—this is a book that wants readers to feel its weight. If the book’s physical presence cannot be ignored, how can its ideas? As for the book’s contents, we might roughly describe it as a novel, though the book is not particularly interested in character or plot. In the volume’s opening pages, Wells establishes that the book will be a history of Earth, written in the year 2106 by Dr. Philip Raven. In this history, Dr. Raven describes a second World War, set to begin in 1940 and last for ten years, which will plunge all of the world’s countries into a new age of chaos and plagues. Following on the heels of this new dark age, though, will begin an era of rebuilding, beginning with a benevolent dictatorship, which will eventually dissolve, leaving in its place a clean and efficient technocratic World State. This volume is noteworthy for featuring one of Wells’s more accurate predictions of the future in that he not only predicts the inevitability of a Second World War, but he comes within sixteen months of pin-pointing the start of that war. This prediction is seen as proof of Wells’s intellectual prowess and his strength as a prognosticator of the future.
Sometime in 1935: Now let us imagine H.G. Wells watching the rushes from the third segment of his film. This is the part of the film in which Everytown is a futuristic, underground technocracy. As Wells watches excerpts from this sequence, most of which feature speeches from Ernest Thesiger’s performance as Theotocopolous, he is already disappointed with his film. Not only has the film been renamed, from the cautionary Whither Mankind? to the fine, but familiar, Things to Come, but Wells is also looking at sets that convey only a hint of the clean, elegant design he had requested, at scenes that betray the author’s vision through omission and subtle shifts in actors’ inflections. The more Wells watches, the more irritated he grows with Menzies and the Brothers Korda for not following his instructions to the letter. For several weeks, now, Wells has been attempting to contact the rest of the film’s senior production staff. From their silence, Wells surmises that they have been avoiding him and his input. These dailies confirm Wells’s suspicions—he feels sick watching his vision of the future slip away from him thanks to the crass commercial whims of common filmmakers.
As his vision erodes on screen, Wells begins to focus his anger on Thesiger. In Wells’s estimation, Thesiger’s performance is grating and rigid, is lacking the fire needed to convey Theotocopolous’s importance as a dangerous antagonist. The performance is all wrong, Wells decides. Something must be done.
The next day, Wells sends a series of memos, detailing his dissatisfaction with Thessiger’s performance, to the rest of the production team. In the final memo of the day, Wells informs the team that even though all of Thesiger’s scenes have been filmed, the actor will be replaced in the final cut by Cedric Hardwicke. The production team is irked, but not altogether displeased with the change, as Hardwicke provides a more recognizable name than Thesiger’s, another tool to be used in the film’s marketing.
July 23, 1934: During the course of his conversation with Stalin, Wells suggests that a fundamental flaw with The Premiere’s approach to government is his failure to place enough emphasis and responsibility on the role of the “technical intelligentsia” in building a fairer, more efficient, and happier future. To this, Stalin argues that the “technical intelligentsia” are a part of his plan, but that they are not a great enough class to shoulder the burden of change. Stalin says, “The transformation of the world is a great, complicated, and painful process. For this task a great class is required. Big ships go on long voyages.” Wells answers, “Yes, but for long voyages a captain and navigator are required.” And Stalin: “That is true; but what is first required for a long voyage is a big ship. What is a navigator without a ship? An idle man.” Then Wells: “The big ship is humanity, not a class.” In an attempt to move the conversation away from maritime metaphors and cut to the heart of why he believes Wells’s argument is naïve, at best, Stalin says, “You, Mr. Wells, evidently start out with the assumption that all men are good. I, however, do not forget that there are many wicked men. I do not believe in the goodness of the bourgeoisie.” Neither man is willing to yield to the other’s worldview.
Everytown, 1940: Chritsmas in Everytown looks exactly like Christmas in London. There are bells, a choir singing “The First Noel,” shopping crowds, and toys. Also, there is the threat of war. This is how Things to Come begins. On Christmas night there are soldiers marching and a sky full of planes dropping bombs. Then the tanks come and title cards tell us it is 1945, then 1955, and still there is war. There are medics moving bodies, and it is 1960. There are images of desolate, bombed-out cityscapes. Everytown is in ruins. The front page of a newspaper, dated 1966, tells us that “The End is In Sight. Victory is Coming.” But with victory comes a plague, a Wandering Sickness spreading through Everytown and across the globe. The people of Everytown in 1966 are desperate and frightened. For Wells, this upheaval and destruction, while not preferred, is necessary to bring about a brighter future. For Wells, only the end result matters.
1928: In the first edition of his book, The Open Conspiracy: Blueprints for a World Revolution, Wells outlines “The Present Crisis in Human Affairs,” then describes ways in which a utopian society can be built on a foundation of science and technology. Wells envisions a world run by a single government, absent the divisive politics of nationalism, and re-imagines religion, not as a system of symbols and archaic explanations of the natural world, but as a vehicle with which to inspire humans toward the selflessness required to achieve this new world order. Many of Wells’s critics do not take kindly to the author’s pragmatic approach to religion. Others take issue with a passage in which Wells expresses his hopes that “directive breeding” will someday become a goal of humankind, and that “deliberate collective population control” will become a “primary condition” of an organized society. As far as his critics can see, Wells is mucking with the natural order, trying to turn a world of spirit and toil into one of cold calculation and the indifferent march of progress.
September 1, 1939–September 2, 1945: The Second World War that Wells predicted would begin on December 25, 1940 begins on September 1, 1939. As indicated in various news outlets, many of the actors and crew who worked on Things to Come participate in the conflict that Wells foretold. Edward Chapman, who played Pippa and Raymond Passworthy, joins the Royal Airforce in 1941. Kenneth Villiers, who played Maurice Passworthy, joins the Royal Navy and is injured, but not critically, when his ship is sunk in 1940. Patrick Barr, who played a transport officer in the film, is a conscientious objector, but he assists the wounded piling up around him in London’s East End during The Blitz. Unlike in Wells’s film, the war neither lasts for decades, nor, and perhaps to Wells’s disappointment, does it lead to the complete collapse of the existing social order so that a better, brighter future can be built from its ashes. It should be noted that, for much of his life, H.G. Wells described himself as a pacifist.
February, 1937: A year after the theatrical release of Things to Come, an article in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society notes that in order for the Space Gun to send a projectile into space, it would need to exert so great a force on its passengers as to reduce them to pulp. Wells, normally so interested in correctly predicting the future, was adamant, at every point in the film’s production, that the Space Gun be used as a symbolic counter to the destructive use of guns in the film’s earlier depictions of war—a symbol of how far humanity has progressed over the film’s timeframe of one hundred years.
Sometime late in 1935: H.G. Wells is in Hollywood visiting his friend Charles Chaplin. Chaplin, in the 1964 publication of My Autobiography, describes his interactions with Wells during this visit: The two men talk about socialism—Chaplin tells Wells that he first came to socialism when asked by Upton Sinclair if he believed in the profit system. Chaplin and Wells talk about the Soviet Union—Chaplin is upset with Wells for taking a confrontational tone during his conversation with Stalin, but Wells explains that it is only because he is disappointed in the tyrannical nature of Stalin’s regime, and that he is worried about the future of socialism if its implementation requires tyranny.
In response, Chaplin asks Wells what future exists for mankind, period, if socialism fails in the Soviet Union, when, in Wells’s own estimation, capitalism, too, is doomed. Wells considers his friend’s questions and, ever the optimist, declares that Socialism will not fail in the USSR, but has simply run into difficulties due to its present style of management.
Later, Wells attempts to convince Chaplin to be in one of his films; Chaplin is not interested.
Of course, this all raises the question: why is Wells traveling to Hollywood and visiting with his elite friends on the eve of his film’s completion? Why isn’t Wells feverishly working in an editing bay, sculpting his vision into the world-changing masterpiece he knows it can be? Now that filming has wrapped, Wells’s input is neither welcome nor needed. Wells has heard rumors that Korda is butchering the film in editing, looking over the shoulders of Charles Crichton and Francis Lyon as they chop and splice frames, building a new vision from the scraps of Wells’s own.
July 23, 1934: Towards the end of his conversation with Stalin, Wells begins to challenge The Premier’s totalitarianism and use of violence. In response, Stalin points out that “The Communists base themselves on rich historical experience which teaches that obsolete classes do not voluntarily abandon the stage of history.” Then, to illustrate his point with an example from Wells’s homeland, Stalin instructs his interlocutor to “Recall the history of England in the seventeenth century.” He asks, “Did not many say that the old social system had decayed? But did it not, nevertheless, require a Cromwell to crush it by force?” Wells, growing defensive, says, “Cromwell operated on the basis of the constitution and in the name of constitutional order.” Stalin’s answer: “In the name of the constitution he resorted to violence, beheaded the king, dispersed Parliament, arrested some and beheaded others.” Wells strokes his mustache again, then checks his watch. The time passes slowly and while Stalin’s vision of the future is full of promise, Wells finds The Premiere’s means increasingly abhorrent. Wells wonders if less distasteful means will ever present themselves. He wonders if that is even the right question to be asking.
1935: When Wells realizes he is losing control over Things to Come, he arranges for the publication, ahead of the film’s premier, of his detailed treatment of the film. If the filmmakers will not respect Wells’s vision, the author rationalizes, he will not respect theirs. The release of this volume is the only way Wells can be certain that audiences will understand the full importance of his film.
Sometime in early 1934: Alex Korda and H.G. Wells find each other at lunch, a chance encounter. Over sardine sandwiches, Korda, a fan of Wells’s, decides that he wants to make movies of Wells’s written work. Korda offers Wells what amounts to complete creative control over the films—Wells will write the scripts, from which the director will not deviate during filming, Wells will be welcome on set whenever he likes, and Wells’s continued creative input will help guide the films’ development. The arrangement is unprecedented. As the story goes, this agreement is drawn up on a napkin and signed on the spot.
Sometime in 1936: As published in The Correspondence of H.G. Wells, after the completion of Things to Come, Wells writes to his friend, Constance Coolidge, that, “Things to Come isn’t right. It’s confused, incoherent, hurried at the end, muddled & badly directed. I’m partly to blame but also I was considerably let down in the production. Still … I’ve learned a lot from it & please God (or not) I’ll do better next time.” There will not be a next time.
February 20, 1936: Of course H.G. Wells is present for the premier of Things to Come, and of course he smiles and waves at the press as he enters the film. Perhaps we can imagine Wells taking his seat alongside Menzies, the Brothers Korda, and the film’s stars. We might also imagine the embarrassment Wells feels when, shortly before the film starts, he sees Ernest Thesiger take a seat with the film’s principal actors and production staff. Wells realizes he never told Thesiger that he had been replaced by Cedric Hardwicke, and he suspects neither Korda nor Menzies informed him, either. Wells wants to tell Thesiger but does not know how. In this moment, the decision to replace the actor seems needlessly cruel—Wells is no longer sure if Thesiger was a problem, or if he was merely a victim of the author’s desperate need to feel as if he was shaping the film that was supposed to be his. Before Wells has a chance to speak to Thesiger, the lights in the theater dim.
Wells watches the beginning of the film, those early city scenes, filmed chronologically so that the sets, designed to resemble London and built on Denham Studio’s backlot, could be filmed in various stages of disrepair and destruction as Wells’s vision of a Second World War unfurls. As the sequence comes to an end, we might imagine Wells wishing that he’d informed Thesiger of the actor’s exclusion from the film. Perhaps he briefly considers taking Thesiger out to the lobby to share the bad news, but decides against it, determining that the conversation would be too unpleasant to bear. As Wells watches the rest of the film that is supposed to be his, occasionally glancing down the row at Thesiger, he thinks about what a mess he has made of things.
September 1934: The first two volumes of Wells’s An Experiment in Autobiography are released. In addition to telling the story of his life, Wells uses the volumes to grapple with philosophy and the frustration he feels, daily, at his inability to make the world a better place, and with humanity’s inability to improve itself. In the volume, Wells writes, “Universal freedom and abundance dangles within reach of us and is not achieved. We who are Citizens of the Future wander about this present scene like passengers on a ship overdue, in plain sight of a port which only some disorder in the chart-room prevents us from entering.”
Everytown, 1970: A proclamation from The Boss is posted on the wall of a ruined building in the center of town. A man in tattered clothes reads the proclamation to the surrounding rabble: “The pestilence has ceased. Thanks to the determined action of our chief in shooting all wanderers, there have been no cases for two months. The Pestilence has been conquered. The chief is preparing to resume hostilities against The Hill People with the utmost vigor. Soon we shall have Victory and Peace. All is well—God save the Chief. God save our Land.”
In a sequence soon after, John Cabal, who is Oswald Cabal’s grandfather, arrives in Everytown in an airplane and explains that he is from a new society of engineers called Wings Over the World. He offers peace, prosperity, and stability to the people of Everytown, but The Boss wants none of it and makes the visitor his captive. Not long after, Wings Over the World gasses the citizens of Everytown and rescues Cabal. When the people of Everytown awake from being gassed, The Boss has been killed and Wings Over the World have claimed Everytown as their own. Wings Over the World’s grip on Everytown will eventually wane and an era of prosperity and technological advancement will begin, as indicated by a montage of machines intended to signify progress.
July 23, 1934: In an attempt to conclude his conversation with Stalin on more collegial grounds, Wells compliments the Premiere’s work: “I cannot yet appreciate what has been done in your country; I only arrived yesterday. But I have already seen the happy faces of healthy men and women and I know that something very considerable is being done here.” He continues, “The contrast with 1920 is astounding.” Stalin strokes his mustache, says, “Much more could have been done had we Bolsheviks been cleverer.” Though Wells doesn’t believe Stalin’s statement to be intentionally sinister, the words chill him, nonetheless.
1941: A new edition of The War in the Air, one of Wells’s more prescient novels as it was written in 1908 and predicted the rise of air warfare, is released. In the new edition’s preface, Wells writes that, upon the event of his death, he would like his epitaph to read, “I told you so. You damned fools.”
February 20, 1936: Now, let us imagine H.G. Wells watching the end of the film that was supposed to be his. He is saddened by the many cuts and changes made in editing. In particular, Wells misses some of the film’s longer monologues, some of which revealed the greater role women would play in his future world. The thing he has been watching relegates women to caretakers and sidekicks. Wells feels little pride toward his film until its final scene. After the launch of their children from the Space Gun, as Passworthy and Cabal watch a view screen to track the vessel’s progress, Cabal waxes poetic about the importance of progress. Of man, Cabal looks at the camera and says “He must go on—conquest beyond conquest.” He says, “And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time—still he will be beginning.” In response to this, the reluctant Passworthy says, “But we are such little creatures. Poor humanity. So fragile—so weak.” Cabal says, “Little animals, eh?” Passworthy agrees, repeating, “Little animals.” Cabal looks upon the view screen and begins answering Passworthy, though he is clearly talking to the entire world, maybe the entire universe, even: “If we are no more than animals—we must snatch at our little scraps of happiness and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more.” He looks at the stars and continues, “It is that—or this; all the universe—or nothingness.” He says, “Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be?” Then a chorus of voices sings, “Which shall it be?” The film ends. No astronauts were smashed to pulp on their journey into space. The angry luddites did not destroy the Space Gun. The theater lights come up. The audience applauds politely.
H.G. Wells looks at the admiring, if not quite adoring crowd. Perhaps he looks at Thesiger, burning red among his friends. The sting of disappointment settles in Wells’s stomach. He checks his watch for no good reason, waits for the minute hand to move.
James Brubaker is from Dayton, Ohio, originally, but now teaches and lives in Missouri. He is the author of Liner Notes (Subito Press), Pilot Season (Sunnyoutside Press), Black Magic Death Sphere: (Science) Fictions (Urban Farmhouse), The Taxidermist’s Catalog (forthcoming from Braddock Avenue Books), and a number of short stories that have appeared online and in print. James is also the director of Southeast Missouri State University Press and the editor of Big Muddy. Before that, he was a founding and associate editor of The Collapsar (2013-2017), and served as music section editor of The Fiddleback for that journal’s entire run (2010-2013).
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