Friday, July 7, 2017

Retro Review of Men Like Gods, by H. G. Wells (1923)


Having gotten into science fiction in the first place by reading some of the classics, including of course several of the novels of H. G. Wells (specifically, War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Invisible Man), and having previously owned Wells anthologies including short novel anthologies, I was surprised to discover a Wells science-fiction novel which I had never read.  What's more, this is one of the most obscure of his science-fiction novels, and has as far as I know never received a movie adaptation.

I expected it to be not very good.  I knew something of Wells' writing history, namely that he had written almost all of his great science fiction during the 1890's and 1900's, and after that period had fallen into writing "important" mainstream social novels, mostly advocating Fabian Socialism (1), and most of them terribly forgettable.

I mean, I expected it to be technically good.  Wells was a master writer, and probably couldn't pick up a pen or set to a typewriter without producing work of some merit.

I was surprised to read what is probably the best utopian novel of the 1920's -- and one which introduced some new concepts into science fiction, some of which I didn't even realize Wells had invented.

I. Story

In the year 1921, Mr. Barnstaple, a leftist intellectual helping to edit a news magazine, is bored and decides to take a motoring holiday.  He sets forth on the road through London, probably headed either to East Anglia or Kent (I'm not familiar enough with the British road system to be able to tell exactly where he was headed), when he suddenly finds himself (and his car) on a road in another world.

He and eleven other people (the occupants of two other cars on the small stretch of road) have just accidentally fallen into a time-space portal.  It's never made entirely clear just what the planet they wind up calling "Utopia" (it's not actually the planet's name) happens to be -- whether another planet in our Universe, or what we would today call a parallel Earth -- but it's a lot like our own world, except that around 3000 years ago, the Utopians passed through their "Last Age of Confusion" -- roughly equivalent to the 19th-20th centuries -- and evolved a new social order.

They swiftly discover a burning house with two dead bodies, a man and a woman, inside.  Barnstaple later discovers that these were a mated pair of scientists who had been working on an interdimensional portal, and whose experiment both succeeded and failed tragically.  It was this portal, which was supposed to open up on deep space, which instead opened up on the Earth and brought the twelve Earthlings (Wells uses that exact term) there.

The Utopians contact their visitors and bring them (by means of advanced airplanes) to a sort of lakefront lodge at which they house the Earthlings.  They're apologetic about accidentally drawing them into Utopia, and promise to try to send them back home, and in the meantime treat them as guests.

The Utopians are healthy, naked and very obviously close to a post-scarcity civilization by early 20th century standards.  They have a sort of quasi-socialist anarcho-syndical culture, which has gone beyond religion and war.  Barnstaple finds himself rather quickly admiring them.

One of the other eleven Earthlings, Rupert Catskill (a clear Expy from his biography of none other than Winston Churchill) (2) is a warmongering adventurer who sees weakness here and starts thinking of exploiting it.  He is the closest thing this story has to a Villain of the piece:  most of the bad things that happen are due to his baneful charisma and ruthless opportunism.

Another one, Father Amerton (who may well be a Chesterton Expy) is horrified at the fact that the Utopians had a Jesus Christ like figure about 5000 years ago, worshipped him for a couple thousand years, and then ultimately decided that he was an admirable mortal philospher rather than the literal Son of God.  He also considers the Utopians shameless for their nudity and (relative) promiscuity (they don't have an institution of marriage, but it's reasonably common for them to find life-mates).

It turns out that the Earthlings are carrying contagious diseases, some of which are fatal to the Utopians.  This is because the Utopians eliminated all contagious diseases among their kind around 1500 years ago, and hence have very little natural resistance.  There is a danger of plague.

The Utopians put the Earthlings in quarantine on top of an old castle which they have preserved and sometimes use as a chemical laboratory, but which is currently vacant.  They promise to work out cures for the diseases, purge the Earthlings of them, and then restore them to freedom.

Rupert Catskill sees the clear parallel with Pizarro and the Incas, and decides that he should lead the dozen Earthlings to conquer Utopia.  This is an entirely insane objective, as I'll discuss later on, but the thing to remember is that it hinges on the Utopians being soft, peaceful and helpless before superior Earthling aggressiveness, and on being weakened by the plagues.  Step One of his plan is to take a couple of hostages.  Barnstaple is utterly horrified by and openly objects to this plan. They override him, and get together a handful of revolvers to achieve this end.

When Catskill tries to take two leading Utopians hostage, Barnstaple warns them. The Utopians try to escape, and show surprising strength and agility in the process.  Catskill's followers wind up shooting both of them to death.

Barnstaple is treated as a traitor by the other Earthlings, who attempt to kill him.  Barnstaple manages to flee the castle, but has to make his way down a dangerous cliff.  He is trapped midway down and prepares to die of starvation.

When three Utopians show up with a ladder, and towing a very thick power cable, Barnstaple waits until they are past and then climbs down the ladder to safety.  He is fleeing from the cliff when he notices that the Utopians have set up a curious line of rings, fed by the thick cable, and pointed straight at the castle. The rings glow -- and the castle disappears in what looks like an immense explosion.

Barnstaple wakes up being tended to by the Utopians.  They have found cures for and purged him of his diseases.  He is now free to venture among the Utopians and learn of their culture, which he does, in a manner fairly standard to utopian novels, with the help of some friendly native guides.

One thing he learns is that the glowing-ring thing he saw wasn't precisely a weapon, but rather a portal gun (3) -- a bigger version of the device that brought them into this world.  He learns that the castle was rotated through higher dimensions and then set down somewhere the Utopians could subdue the other Earthlings; some fell off during the trip and died, but the ones which remained on or in the castle lived.

Barnstaple loves the Utopian society he sees but comes to realize he has no true place in it.  He's in the position of an Early Bronze Age barbarian brought into a modern Western European kingdom, unable to contribute meaningfully to this culture.  The Utopians are willing to keep him in luxury for the rest of his life if he wants to stay; however, they are also willing to send him home.

He learns that Utopia itself has recently made immense physical discoveries which could open the rest of the Universe to their colonization.  The portal that brought him here was one of their experiments in opening space-time gateways:  they were surprised to find a parallel world, because what they were trying to do was learn how to open gates to other planets and star systems (4).  The Utopians do not want to make long-term contact with Earth as it is today -- they fear that war would ensue, and they might be then forced to exterminate Mankind -- but perhaps in some future time, Earth's culture will have advanced far enough to allow peaceful intercourse between the two civilizations.

Barnstaple is energized by this awesome vision of a possible future, and returns home, determined to work to help his own world begin to transform into a civilization as enlightened as that of Utopia.

II.  The Utopians

As I've said, their culture could best be described as quasi-socialist anarcho-syndicalism.  They've gone beyond private competition and ownership of the means of production; there is no government (but there is a highly-effective system of large-scale voluntary cooperation, mediated by a global communication system (5).  They still use money (in the form of an electronic credit and debit system) but only for goods of medium value (ordinary sustenance is free, and major capital goods are social rather than private property).

They have been eugenically altering (and possibly genetically engineering) themselves for centuries.  They started out almost identical to our humanity, but have become a lot stronger, faster, healthier and smarter by now.  Barnstaple, intellectually-gifted by Earthly standards, is a bit below the average Utopian.

Somewhere along the line they developed telepathy.  Barnstaple is able to talk with them from the beginning, but he can never be sure if he's understanding them correctly, because something he almost understands will be rendered by some close English equivalent, and something he doesn't understand at all will come through as gibberish or silence.  And he never learns to read their language.

There is a long tradition of Utopias in science fiction, dating back to Sir Thomas More's Utopia (1516) and including some of the cultures encounterd in Gulliver's Travels (1726).  This one is interesting for a few reasons:

(A) -  The Utopians are treated as real characters, including the possession of character flaws.  This is particularly true of Lychnis, one of his closest friends, who is suffering from rather severe long-term depression.

(B) - The Utopian society as a whole is not flawless:  it makes mistakes, in particular failing to anticipate Earthling diseases and violence.  It is also aware of its own flaws:  for instance, that it might be driven to abuse Earth if there was long-term contact.

(C) - Finally, and related to these, Utopia is not a static, finished society.  It is aware that it still knows very little about the Universe, and is looking toward the possiblity of interplanetary and interstellar exploration and expansion.  The Utopians have not given up on their ambitions, only on greed and wrath.

III.  Catskill's Crazy Plan

Catskill believes the the combination of Earthling aggressiveness, Utopian pacifism and Utopian vulnerability to Earth diseases will enable him to play Pizarro conquering the Incan Empire.  Let me elucidated why Catskill's plan is not only evil, but also crazy.

A.  Lack of Intelligence: At the point Catskill makes this plan, all they have seen of Utopia is a countryside, a lakefront lodge, the castle, and some terrain they flew over getting to these places.  He knows almost nothing about the civilization he means to conquer save that they are relatively pacifistic and promiscuous.

Admittedly, Pizarro didn't know that much, either.  But also he suffers from

B.  Poor Numerical Odds:  There are twelve Earthlings (two of them women and one of them unsympathetic to his goals), so call it nine potential combatants.  There are ...

... 250 million Utopians.

These are worse numerical odds than Pizarro faced.  Even if the plagues are incredibly effective and kill 90% of the Utopian population, that would be over 2 million to 1 against him.

Admittedly, Pizzaro had only a few hundred against a few million, which was around 10 thousand to 1 against him,  However, Catskill also has

C.  Inferior Technology:  While Pizarro had steel weapons and armor opposed to Neolithic weapons and armor, Catskill has a dozen or so revolvers opposed to ...  we never find out what, exactly.  The Utopians take his band out with the portal gun, then overcome the survivors while they're confused.  But we have no reason to assume that the Utopians couldn't have worked their centuries-to-millennia-superior civilian technology into superior military weapons, if they'd had to do so.

He also has the problem of

D.  Inferior Troops:  There are clues to this earlier in the book.  Most notably, there's a scene at the lakefront lodge where one of the chauffeurs attempts to accost a young woman who has come to clean his room.  Note:  this is a full-grown man versus a girl in her mid to late teens.

She casually slaps him aside, knocking him down and leaving a bruise. Then goes on about her business.

The Utopians are simply stronger, pound for pound, than the Earthlings. This is the product of the aforementioned eugenics and possibly genetic engineering.

This means that the Earthlings don't have the advantage in close combat, either.


E. The Plagues Aren't That Bad:  The American Indians suffered roughly 90% die-offs from the European plagues of the 16th and 17th centuries.  This is the effect on which Catskill is counting to weaken the Utopians.

But the Incans were a Neolithic society with almost no medical capabilities.  When they started falling to plagues, they could do nothing save pray to their gods and try to tend the sick.

In contrast, the Utopians have low disease resistance because they have an awesome bio-technology, and have eradicated all serious diseases on their planet.  After a few Utopians die, their doctors quarantine the ill and rapidly develop cures.

So they aren't -- as a culture -- weakened by the plagues at all.


F.  Good Is Not Soft:  Far from being a decadent culture, past its height and close to collapse, the Utopian society is ambitious, creative, scientifically progressive, and close to launching interplanetary colonization ventures.  They are about as threatened by Catskill as we would be by, say, a small band of Bedouin from the 3rd millennium BC.

The Utopians don't like to kill, and they try non-lethal or at least survivable tactics.  But it's made very obvious, both by their actions then and later, that they will fight to protect themselves if attacked, and they are quite capable of killing if they see no better choice.

Catskill never had a chance.


This is a genuinely-excellent work of science fiction, which I recommend without hesitation to all modern readers.


(1) - In between seducing Sweet Supergenius Girls, of whom Rebecca West was merely the most famous.

(2) - One of the reasons why this novel probably isn't better-known today is its casting of a Winston Churchill expy as the Villain.  It seems surprising, but consider that in 1921, Churchill was known mainly for colonial adventuring, militarism, strikebreaking, and the failure of the Gallipoli Campaign.  And Wells, of course, was a pacifist socialist.

(3) - As far as I know, the first portal gun in science fiction.  And the first portal.

(4) - This is the first example as far as I know of an interstellar empire and a stargate system, even as a possibility, in science fiction, and it's at least as advanced a concept for the early 1920's as the notion of alien invasions or time machines were in the 1890's.  In context:  this story was published a few years before The Skylark of Space, and a decade before Olaf Stapledon's more famous works.

(5) - Close to a proto-Internet, though Wells didn't realize that communications and library functions could be merged.  The system as a whole appears to be either sapient or semi-sapient; it's an artificial intelligence of sorts.  Keep in mind however that Barnstaple is an illiterate when it comes to the Utopian language, and there's a lot he fails to understand about their culture, by his own admission.

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