As has become a tradition for our clubs, Mr. Kaggsy has offered up a guest post, and for 1936 has taken on a titan of classic science fiction writing. Here he considers The Shape of Things to Come by H.G. Wells – and explores whether in this case the film or the book is better!

I weighed “The Shape of Things to Come” (TSOTTC) as one might an ancient pyramid: not needing to look at the structure for long, having swiftly understood and appreciated its form. But pondering how it got there, what went into its construction, who was in charge of the building, why it was wanted, how long it took to create and how long ago, would be more in one’s thoughts than dwelling on the artistic nature of the shape. Aspects of TSOTTC felt a lot like that: reverence as to the mind behind so much detail and imagination, prophecy even, appreciation of the feat involving the near 160,000 word fictional treatise, but pondering what was the point of it, whether to entertain, impress, or warn, certainly not to excite or energise. Would I want to go back to see the earlier pyramid again, and would I wish to read TSOTTC once more – both drew the same answer, being no less in my admiration, but feeling no pull towards ever wishing to visit them again.

Contrast the cinema film, with its truncated title “Things to Come” (1936; screenplay by Wells), a futuristic vision, by which I was captivated at a young age. The fault is no doubt mine, but from the pages of the book I formed no mental pictures, sensed no emotion; the notion of ‘unputdownable’ a remote fancy. But plough on with the work I did, finding it a strange mixture of non-fiction and imagination. Having enjoyed so many of Wells’s past writings, on completion of TSOTTC I was left questioning whether this was a ‘blueprint’ for a future world order, a sincere entreaty to coming generations to act while there is still time, or a conclusion that there is no hope for our descendants. Wells reportedly meant the story more as a ‘discussion’ than a work of fiction, perhaps also seeing his involvement with the later movie as a ‘propaganda’ exercise, rather than a true science fiction presentation.

First edition Hutchinson 1933; Macmillan 1936 US.

The simple answer is to quote Wells, as the ‘narrator’ of the tome, the main character, having come into possession of a journal written in 1930 by a recently deceased colleague, scholar, or scientist, what you will: “I have decided to publish the facts and the substance of this peculiar cooperation of ours. I have been holding back a manuscript, or rather a collection of papers and writings, entrusted to me. It is, or at least it professes to be, a Short History of the World for about the next century and a half.” The documentation left behind becomes a ‘book within a book’, divided into separate main sections, which proceed as the author/narrator himself ‘reads’ the content. There is no breaking away, discussing the subject matter with a colleague, or old friend, just a compulsion to discover the ‘secret’, if there is one. The idea of ‘dreaming the future’ appeals to Wells’s character, he no doubt wanting to experiment and see whether the declared ‘time travel’ is possible. And so the content within unfolds as “THE DREAM BOOK OF DR. PHILIP RAVEN” an introduction followed by “BOOK THE FIRST.”

Before proceeding further, it is worth looking at Wells and contemporaries. He worked with Julian Huxley – brother of “Brave New World” (1932) author Aldous Huxley – on the epic 1930 non-fiction book “The Science of Life” (1929/30). Wells’s novels and non-fiction often embraced history, with social commentary. TSOTTC was published in 1933 and some years later Wells produced “The New World Order” (1940), promoting global cooperation to establish lasting peace. The writers at the time, as men of science, could be regarded as visionaries, philosophers, or some kind of proponents of futurism, even eugenics. Wells’s TSOTTC could be seen as the forerunner to his “Science” work, or perhaps at this earlier stage he preferred to ‘hide’ behind a fictional spokesperson writing under the guise of ‘dream power’, enabling the future to be seen and how or if the world manages in the end to save itself by reaching a settled state of harmony. Whether the aim was to compete with his fellows, or to remain a popular and prolific writer, or earnestly to provide a warning at a time when the threat of war was growing, is for conjecture. For my part, I didn’t find that the mode of reporting the writings of a deceased dreamer worked especially well; a straightforward science fiction tale of a mysterious book of the future might have been more engaging.

However, it is the lengthy ‘dream book’ of Dr. Philip Raven – a diplomat for the League of Nations – as studied by his fictional reader, which falls to be reviewed. His history of the world, from the early twentieth century to the year 2106, is presented posthumously through his visions. There are and have been people who believe their dreams manifest something outside of their own imagination; indeed the past was full of prophecies and claims of ‘out of body’ experiences. With this in mind, Wells’s book is difficult to take in, if the basic premise of dreaming the future is not handled in an interesting fictional way. Instead there is much regurgitating of the dead dreamer’s notes, with no real accompanying ‘story’. Moreover, a fair amount of the content would nowadays be out of step with modern popular and political views, or sensitivities of the world’s countries and differing governments or religions.

Cresset Press Wells’s screenplay 1935; film poster 1936.

The basis of Raven’s seeing the future is to write down, after coming out of deep sleep, the dreamer’s “premonitions in the dozing moment between wakefulness and oblivion”. Based on his mental observations the process goes as far as seeing events, “As if one was looking at a moving picture on the page.” The writings are not dismissed as imagination, but professed to be a real ability to witness goings-on far into the future. Of course the downside is there being no guarantee that a listener would believe the claimant, or accept that his experiences were real; sadly, the dreamer being departed, no laboratory testing and corroboration would apply.

As an aside, a book I enjoyed long ago was “Bid Time Return” (1975), by Richard Matheson, made into a popular movie “Somewhere in Time” (1980). The novel presented a man speaking from his brother’s manuscript, telling how the sibling either projected himself back in time to a past age, or became ever more mentally ill as the possibly imagined illusion progressed. The fictional premise was not dissimilar to that of Wells, with the main character either travelling back to a former age, or simply believing events to be real under self-hypnosis. In TSOTTC the experience is an envisioned window into the future, but with the possibility that the dreamer is under a mistaken perception. Of course this is not the essence of the book – foreseeing potential changes to the world in the decades ahead, or far beyond. However, that said, if the premise requires too much belief being suspended the result can be dissatisfaction, the text a mixture of historical stream of consciousness, part polemic or part warning. Wells’s first novel “The Time Machine” (1895), offered a more literal and sci-fi excursion into the future, spanning many centuries. Amusingly, the writer himself became a character in the film “Time After Time” (1979), in which he actually invents the time machine, although his plans are usurped by Jack the Ripper in a bid to escape justice.

TSOTTC’s “BOOK THE SECOND – THE DAYS AFTER TOMORROW” records how “…the old order of the nineteenth century, the Capitalist System as it was called, came to disaster in the second and third decades of the twentieth century …” A good deal of the future years present war, battles between nations and global conflicts. BOOK THE THIRD – THE WORLD RENASCENCE: “The world was not able to unify before 1950 for a very simple reason: there was no comprehensive plan upon which it could unify…” Asia had been “Westernized, in Turkey, India, China, and Japan.” In addition “The New Model of Revolution” also embraces advances in technology. BOOK THE FOURTH – THE MODERN STATE MILITANT: Disappointingly, “…Raven left this very vital part of his story obscure and confused while he went on to the very last part of all…”; and so on the last section.

BOOK THE FIFTH – THE MODERN STATE IN CONTROL OF LIFE: The final ‘book’ encompasses the “Creation of a New World”, following the “Age of Frustration”, the days of the existing order, the “Era of the Modern State” now coming to an end, although there is almost half a century left in the ‘revelations’. Again I was reminded of another futuristic catastrophe movie, “The Day the Earth Caught Fire” (1961), when the newspapers, awaiting the world’s fate, print two alternative headlines: “World Saved” and “World Doomed”. Whether TSOTTC was intended as a sincere prediction of a future hell or solution, or an imaginative piece of science fiction, neither in my view achieved its aim. No doubt, given the very times in which the book was written, it might have then been more alarming. TSOCC, now approaching a century on, makes a plea for openness, in place of revolt, tyranny, insurrection, religious clashes and all the connected suffering. The ‘dream’ foretells that this harmonious state is going to happen anyway, so why not start bringing about now what lies ahead in any event.

Wells presented an unsettled mixture of history and fiction, the notion of a possible universal language and goal, across the globe. Perhaps one day the world will indeed be forced to coexist and end its planet-harming actions, although the onward trends of monopolising, protectionism, weapons development and sales, and so on, may make that a slender hope. There is no ‘crime and punishment’ in Wells’s dreamer’s vision, only an inevitable and permanent ‘readjustment’: “…social adaptations, as the confluence of wills supersedes individual motives and loses its present factors of artificiality, the history of life will pass into a new phase, a phase with a common consciousness and a common will. We in our time are still rising towards the crest of that transition. And when that crest is attained what grandeur of life may not open out to Man!”

Macmillan 1945 US; Corgi 1967 paperback.

The author has posed the struggle existing since time immemorial, goodness over evil – or perhaps in today’s case, ecological necessity. Raven’s manuscript ends abruptly and the reader/narrator asks, “ Was it a dream book or was it indeed, as he declared and believed it to be, a vision of the shape of things to come?” Like some sage visitor from outer space, shrugging when looking at the faults of Earth’s inhabitants, a message ‘from the future’ is delivered: “When the existing governments and ruling theories of life, the decaying religious and the decaying political forms of to-day, have sufficiently lost prestige through failure and catastrophe, then and then only will world-wide reconstruction be possible.” Sadly, George Orwell’s Winston Smith (“Nineteen Eighty-Four”; 1949) had a different expectation, writing in his forbidden journal: “If there was hope, it MUST lie in the proles, because only there in those swarming disregarded masses, 85 per cent of the population of Oceania, could the force to destroy the Party ever be generated. The Party could not be overthrown from within.”

Thus TSOTTC. written as a kind of non-fiction account of a fictional state of affairs, pleads for “…devoted men and women who will try out and establish and impose a new pattern of living upon our race.” Ultimately the book’s conclusion is almost as if Wells leaves the reader to decide whether the reported dream is to be taken as a dark forecast, or dismissed as bunkum. The writer’s deceased diplomat has envisioned from the 1930as all the events which will occur far into the future. Leaving aside the irritating implausibility of such a boundless feat, the account of Raven’s dream did embrace the approaching threats of world war, unspeakable weapons and climate dangers. Ironically, when retrospectively considering TSOTTC, the only issues which can be brought into play are the factors affecting our planet now, which paradoxically means that if curing the present cannot be achieved, there is no point in vexing about the future.

The “Things to Come” (1936) movie, with its screenplay by Wells, was the most expensive British production at the time; albeit monochrome, future home releases offered colourised versions. The climax sees an angry multitude storming a rocket about to take Man off the planet to forge a new world, the Art Deco film set resembling that of the “Flash Gordon” serial out at the same time. The wise elder (actor Raymond Massey) is asked, “Is there never to be an age of happiness?” He declares in reply that mere rest is “… enough for the individual man… but for Man no rest and no ending. He must go on, conquer after conquer… all the universe or nothing.” His indictment is that by not aspiring to rule new worlds, humans will matter “no more than all the other animals”. In a peculiar way, the film answered Wells’s dreamer’s question for him, that there will only ever be competition and no peace; the conquerors feeling that doing nothing is a waste of their very existence. However, I prefer the continuing conflict to that of Winton Smith’s dystopia, that of the “Party” ruling with an iron hand forever, being invincible and inhumane. In fairness, TSOTTC drew much credit for its prescience, ahead of the world war which arrived at the end of the 1930s, and in respect of other technological revolutions.

Phew! A very thorough look at Wells’s book and the film it spawned – thank you, Mr. K!