Wells and Butler Talk Class, Identity, and the Future
Authors of literature depicting the future are forced to draw upon their conceptions of the present and to imagine where it is going. Often, these concepts are developed through the process of magnifying perceived crises in the author’s time. When one considers the difficulties associated with making a living as a writer, the prevalence of concern about future economies makes sense. Both Parable of the Sower and The Time Machine are their own types of warning tales about future economies, though Butler and Wells differ in their concerns and visions. By contrasting the authors’ worries regarding their futures and applying an historicist perspective to the readings, it is possible to gain some understanding of the assumptions that are built into the texts.
Parable was written by Octavia Butler during the early 1990s, which was a time of great social upheaval in much of the United States. Some of the changes that were occurring at the time included the move toward greater corporatization, growing wealth imbalance, exploding rates of drug usage, and urban riots. This is highlighted through the lack of social cohesion, unreliability of government, and general hardship for normal people. The general state of hardship included shortages of jobs, food, potable water, and safety. In hopes of protecting their properties and families, pockets of neighborhoods walled themselves in from each other. Despite these apocalyptic developments, the government manages to continue as an ineffective shell which is powerless to help its own people. This is a contrast to the fact that the government still manages to put humans on Mars, the merits of which are debated within the book. Another factor which cannot be ignored in Butler’s future vision is the impact of drought and climate change on the society. Food is so scarce that the protagonist, Lauren, learns to make a flour out of acorns. Lauren’s supply of acorns is ended when bandits break into her walled community and flush out its survivors. This is another repeated theme in Parable; in the process of taking from one another, the people end up destroying their vital means of production. While some people might find this to be a cynical assumption about the future, when considered through Butler’s identity and setting, it might seem more realistic.
Likewise, the concept that different classes of people will evolve into biologically different species probably seems farfetched to most people. Here, too, it is important to recognize how the author’s identity affected those visions. Being an English student and academic in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, H.G. Wells was highly exposed to the prevalent concept of Darwinism. This explains his fixation on the continued evolution of the human species, as well as one of the reasons for this novel’s vast success; the idea had hardly been explored to date. Still, this alone does not necessarily explain his vision of how the classes become separate biological species; this also required a sense of separation between the rich and the poor. This concern was borne from other authors of the era, such as Karl Marx and William Morris. Like Darwinism, these concerns about the directions and equitability of society pervaded the era. For Wells, these concerns became somewhat merged in his membership and participation of the Society of Fabian Socialists. Wells’s membership in this elite group of academics and socialites probably informed his vision of class separation being inevitable. In a similar fashion, the idea that one group of humans would take the responsibility for caring for and managing the rest probably comes from this association.
Though both Butler and Wells are shown to be highly affected by the settings in which they lived, Butler’s future vision is much more oriented towards social survival, with changes being necessary within the individual. While one would assume that survival in times of hardship would require savagery, the author defies expectations by introducing Lauren’s hyperempathy. In a book review titled “The Intuition of the Future,” Jerry Phillips aptly describes the problem, saying “The social disintegration brought on by a market system, based squarely on the competitive drive for profits, with all else going to the wall, leads to the erosion of moral community.” Phillips describes hyperempathy and its role as “… a symbolic negation of the psychopathology of atomized, corporate society.” In Butler’s future vision, the problems are matters of ethics, whereas in Wells’ vision the problem is more about stratification.
A few things stand out about Wells’ future vision regarding class. First, considering the man’s humble upbringing, the protagonist and the author both seem to identify with the Eloi, or the future vision of the upper-class. More importantly, the future earth is not dominated by the upper class, but by the evolved workers, in the Morlocks. At first glance, this plot element seems to affirm the Marxist perspective, that workers will rise and overcome the idle elites; but, it is important to remember how far into the future that the Time Traveler went. The existence of abandoned buildings, decaying statues, and lost knowledge indicate that a utopian society has already come and gone. As Matthew Taunton notes in his article “Class in the Time Machine,” This profoundly pessimistic vision of the future, then, expresses not only Wells’s horror at the realities of 19th-century class relations, but also his fears about what utopian socialism and communism were offering in their place.” Beyond this, it can be said that The Time Machine represents a sort of post-utopian narrative; Wells concludes that the achievement of utopia can only be followed by social and intellectual decay, as wits and self-preservation are traits that are refined in relation to their necessary towards survival.
Phillips, Jerry. “The Intuition of the Future: Utopia and Catastrophe in Octavia Butler's ‘Parable of the Sower.’” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, vol. 35, no. 2/3, 2002, pp. 299–311. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1346188.