H. G. Wells and the Upside of Annihilation
In my pre-midterm I planned to research satire in the works of H. G. Wells, but that topic is less relevant to the objectives of Literature of the Future than I would like. Wells remains the target of my research, but now the focus is on his contribution to the development of apocalyptic fiction, a genre that, prior to the start of this semester, held very little personal or professional interest for me. Re-reading The Time Machine and discovering The Parable of the Sower reminded me that apocalyptic dystopian and utopian narratives can be vehicles for social criticism. More important than any professional benefit I might receive from studying this genre is the impact that well-crafted, critical narratives have on society. H. G. Wells set a standard for encapsulating social criticism in apocalyptic narratives that modern authors like Octavia Butler match and occasionally exceed; becoming more than disciples of Wells’s genius, Butler and others break new ground in the heavily trafficked genre of humanity’s imagined end.
Before discussing the relevance or purpose of apocalyptic fiction it is necessary to establish a working definition of the term in the context of the content and objectives of Literature of the Future. Apocalyptic fiction is inspired by the idea of millennialism or belief in “an end-time or transformation of the world” (White). Millennialism in Western culture descends from apocalyptic predictions in the texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Within the context of Literature of the Future, large-scale (affecting humanity as a whole) apocalypses occur in The Revelation of John, Parable of the Sower, and The Time Machine.
The vision of humanity’s destruction in H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine follows Charles Darwin’s evolutionary model and occurs in minute steps over millennia. According to Frank D. McConnell’s “H. G. Wells: Utopia and Doomsday,” Wells believed “society was on the verge of overspecializing itself into extinction” (183). McConnell specifically points to The War of the Worlds as an example of Wells’s literary war against specialization, but the evolution of humans into Morlocks and Eloi in The Time Machine is equally relevant to the argument. McConnell begins his article by quoting the first two sentences of the following paragraph, evoking the spirit of Wells’s “melancholy observation” (176), while leaving out the Time Traveler’s critical development of the point:
I grieved to think how brief the dream of the human intellect had been. It had committed suicide. It had set itself steadfastly towards comfort and ease, a balanced society with security and permanency as its watchword, it had attained its hopes—to come to this at last. Once, life and property must have reached almost absolute safety. The rich had been assured of his wealth and comfort, the toiler assured of his life and work. No doubt in that perfect world there had been no unemployed problem, no social question left unsolved. And a great quiet had followed. (10.2)
This is Wells’s first fictional apocalypse; it is gradual and avoidable, if Victorian society would listen to Wells, who McConnell characterizes as the “man who whistles loudest in the dark [and] is likely to be the one who feels the darkness most” (185).
Like Wells’s Victorian apocalypse, society’s collapse in Parable of the Sower is avoidable, the result of human-driven climate change; however, Butler’s millennial vision unfolds in the decades preceding the beginning of the novel and leaves enough people struggling to survive for humanity to have some hope of salvation. Jim Miller’s “Post-Apocalyptic Hoping: Octavia Butler’s Dystopian/Utopian Vision” explores the thin thread of hope Butler suspends in her brutal vision of the near future: “this novel offers us no comforting answers, preferring instead to drag us through a world full of violence, degradation, and hate, rather than constructing a utopian blueprint. . . . Butler’s hope is a post-utopian one, tempered by the lessons of the past. Perhaps, though, this makes her vision more tangible and enduring in an era of diminished expectations” (357).
The apocalypse in Parable pointedly lacks the flash of a Hollywood disaster movie; instead, Butler builds a plausible extrapolation of the socioeconomic conflict in 1990s Los Angeles and weaves in a hopeful protagonist’s dream of saving humanity. Lauren’s vision of salvation is naïve—Butler makes it intentionally simplistic to remind the reader that Parable does not offer a solution; in the book’s final conversation, Bankole speaks for Butler and the reader in an attempt to temper Lauren’s single-minded optimism:
“As bright as you are, I don’t think you understand—I don’t think you can understand what we’ve lost. Perhaps that’s a blessing.”
“God is Change,” I [Lauren] said.
“Olamina, that doesn’t mean anything.”
“It means everything. Everything!” (Butler 327-328)
In an era of Miller’s “diminished expectations,” maybe Lauren’s youthful enthusiasm will be contagious.
Later in his career, Wells would write an apocalyptic novel more like Parable than The Time Machine in the sense that people actively bring about their own demise; The World Set Free becomes the prototype for a new genre of apocalyptic fiction: the nuclear war. In “Wells and the Liberating Atom,” David Seed names Wells’s 1914 novel as “the first fictional description of nuclear war” and quotes Charles Gannon’s assertion that it “establishes the ‘narrative imagery’ of the later genre” (36). McConnell does not specifically mention World in his article but he points out that by “World War I, Wells’s scientific romances had taken a distinctly positive turn;” in this era Wells writes “utopian fiction” in which “the cataclysmic war to which mankind [is] surely doomed” leads to “a new golden age of rational organization and scientific progress” (184). However, I must point out that Wells subscribed to his own socialist philosophy, in which his idea of utopia is “a benevolent dictatorship where ‘voluntary noblemen’ would exercise a firm hand (controlling human procreation for example)” (McConnell 179). This later version of Wells’s apocalypse differs from Octavia Butler’s and his own vision in The Time Machine and more closely resembles the biblical model in which mankind’s destruction is both inevitable and necessary for society to transcend its current state of corruption.
Apocalyptic narratives in Western literature date back at least as far as the writing of the Old Testament of the Bible and are more prevalent than ever in this golden age of multimedia storytelling. Before reading Parable of the Sower and re-reading The Time Machine this semester, I had written off everything apocalyptic; it is easier to dismiss the whole diluted genre than to filter through the deluge of dystopias, utopias, zombies, and irradiated wasteland clichés to find the authors and filmmakers who have something novel to convey. For the final version of this research report, I will read Wells’s The World Set Free and Mind at the End of its Tether, and expand my search for secondary sources in an effort to better understand Wells’s optimism about impending doom and to consider the power of futuristic narratives as tools for abstractly examining societal imperfections.
McConnell, Frank D. “H. G. Wells: Utopia and Doomsday.” The Wilson Quarterly, vol. 4, no. 3, Summer 1980, pp. 176-186. JSTOR, https//www.jstor.org/stable/40255984.
Miller, Jim. “Octavia Butler’s Dystopian/Utopian Vision.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 25, no. 2, July 1998, pp. 336-360. JSTOR, https//www.jstor.org/stable/4240705.
Seed, David. “H. G. Wells and the Liberating Atom.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 30, no. 1, March 2003, pp. 33-48. JSTOR, https//www.jstor.org/stable/4241139.