In Men Like Gods H G Wells takes us to his vision of Utopia. He follows in the wake of a number of other Utopian novels by socialists including Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy, News from Nowhere by William Morris, The Sorcery Shop by Robert Blatchford and Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
The novel’s hero Mr Barnstaple is a typical Wellsian hero, an ordinary man who gets caught up in extraordinary events like Bert Smallways in Wells’ 1908 novel The War in the Air.
At the start of the novel Mr Barnstaple is feeling stifled by his family;
He was a man of strong natural affections; he loved his family extremely
so that he knew it by heart, and when he was in these jaded moods it bored him acutely. His three sons, who were all growing up, seemed to get leggier and larger every day; they sat down in the chairs he was just going to sit down in; they played him off his own pianola; they filled the house with hoarse, vast laughter at jokes that one couldn’t demand to be told; they cut in on the elderly harmless flirtations that had hitherto been one of his chief consolations in this vale; they beat him at tennis; they fought playfully on the landings, and fell downstairs by twos and threes with an enormous racket. Their hats were everywhere. They were late for breakfast. They went to bed every night in a storm of uproar: “Haw, Haw, Haw–bump!” and their mother seemed to like it. They all cost money, with a cheerful disregard of the fact that everything had gone up except Mr. Barnstaple’s earning power.
He manages to escape on a holiday on his own, but as he is quietly motoring along near Windsor he suddenly finds himself plucked into another world, the result of a scientific experiment that has gone wrong. A number of other cars have also been transported, his companions in this new world include a Lord, a Cabinet Minister, an entrepreneur, a Catholic priest and a society beauty.
The visitors dub this new world “Utopia” and the barely clothed inhabitants “Utopians.” The Utopians have advanced technology and live in a world of mountains, meadows and lakes from which war, disease and poverty have been banished.
As they approached these mountains, broad stretches of golden corn-land replaced the green of the pastures and then the cultivation became more diversified. He noted unmistakable vineyards on sunny slopes, and the number of workers visible and the habitations multiplied. The little squadron of aeroplanes flew up a broad valley towards a pass so that Mr. Barnstaple was able to scrutinize the mountain scenery. Came chestnut woods and at lastpines. There were Cyclopean turbines athwart the mountain torrents and long, low, many-windowed buildings that might serve some industrial purpose. A skilfully graded road with exceedingly bold, light and beautiful viaducts mounted towards the pass. There were more people, he thought, in the highland country than in the levels below, though still far
fewer than he would have seen upon any comparable countryside on earth.
Once their guests have been made comfortable, the Utopians – Urthred, Lychnis, Serpentine and others – explain the history of their society in a very lengthy exposition. It seems they are thousand years in advance of Earth, having evolved from what they called “The Age of Confusion”, an era very similar to Earth in the C20th. The world is a single entity with no countries, no central government and no private property.
“We have been through that stage. We found at last that private property in all but very personal things was an intolerable nuisance
to mankind. We got rid of it. An artist or a scientific man has complete control of all the material he needs, we all own our tools
and appliances and have rooms and places of our own, but there is no property for trade or speculation. All this militant property,
this property of manoeuvre, has been quite got rid of. But how we got rid of it is a long story. It was not done in a few years.
The exaggeration of private property was an entirely natural and necessary stage in the development of human nature. It led at last
to monstrous results, but it was only through these monstrous and catastrophic results that men learnt the need and nature of the
limitations of private property.”
After many cycles of rapid growth followed by decline and catastrophe, the Utopians evolved a new form of society as a Utopian explains:
He made it clear that the change over in Utopian affairs had been no sudden revolution. No new system of laws and customs, no new method of economic co-operation based on the idea of universal service to the common good, had sprung abruptly into being complete and finished. Throughout a long period, before and during the Last Age of Confusion, the foundations of the new state were laid by a growing multitude of inquirers and workers, having no set plan or preconceived method, but brought into unconscious co-operation by
a common impulse to service and a common lucidity and veracity of mind. It was only towards the climax of the Last Age of Confusion in
Utopia that psychological science began to develop with any vigour, comparable to the vigour of the development of geographical and
physical science during the preceding centuries. And the social and economic disorder which was checking experimental science and crippling the organized work of the universities was stimulating inquiry into the processes of human association and making it
desperate and fearless.
The visitors have brought bacteria with them – unknown in this world – leading to sickness and death among the Utopians. They are thetrefore placed in quarantine in a castle on a crag. Here the novel (in which frankly not a great deal has been happening up to now ) changes gear slightly moving into a satire on the colonial reflexes of Europeans. Only Mr Barnstaple has fully accepted what he has seen, the rest regard the Utopians as weak and decadent, ripe for takeover. Mr Catskill (a character apparently based on Winston Churchill) explains his plans:
“They will not know what to do. Do not be deceived by any outward shows of beauty and prosperity. These people are living, as the
ancient Peruvians were living in the time of Pizarro, in an enervating dream. They have drunken the debilitating draught of
Socialism and, as in ancient Peru, there is no health nor power of will left in them any more. A handful of resolute men and women who
can dare–may not only dare but triumph in the face of such a world. And thus it is I lay my plans before you…We have to turn this prison into a capitol, into the first foothold of mankind in this world. It is like a foot thrust into a reluctant door that must never more close upon our race.”
They intend to take hostages as a first step, but only succeed in killing several Utopians. Mr Barnstaple escapes as the Utopians encircling the crag with a power cable. As they do so Mr Barnstaple notices something above :
Abruptly something black and spear-shaped appeared beside the little group of Earthlings above. It seemed to jump up beside them, it
paused and jumped again half the height of a man and jumped again. It was a flag being hauled up a flag staff, that Mr. Barnstaple had
not hitherto observed. It reached the top of the staff and hung limp.
Then some eddy in the air caught it. It flapped out for a moment, displayed a white star on a blue ground and dropped again. This was the flag of earth–this was the flag of the crusade to restore the blessings of competition, conflict and warfare to Utopia. Beneath it appeared the head of Mr. Burleigh, examining the Utopian coils through his glasses…
The throbbing and humming in Mr. Barnstaple’s ears grew rapidly louder and rose acutely to an extreme intensity. Suddenly great
flashes of violet light leapt across from coil to coil, passing through Quarantine Castle as though it was not there.
For a moment longer it was there.
The flag flared out madly and was torn from its staff. Mr. Burleigh lost his hat. A half length of Mr. Catskill became visible
struggling with his coat tails which had blown up and enveloped his head. At the same time Mr. Barnstaple saw the castle rotating upon
the lower part of the crag, exactly as though some invisible giant had seized the upper tenth of the headland and was twisting it
And then it vanished.
The imperial adventure is over. At the end of the novel the Utopians succeed in returning Mr Barnstaple to his own world, and he returns home, wiser and more thoughtful, where his wife notices that he has grown several inches taller.
She looked up into his eyes. As though she was very glad indeed to have him back with her.
But Mr. Barnstaple remained lost in thought. “It must be the extreme freshness of the air. I have been in some wonderful air….
Wonderful!… But at my age! To have grown! And I _feel_ as though I’d grown, inside and out, mind and body.”…
Mrs. Barnstaple presently began to put the tea-things together for removal.
“You seem to have avoided the big towns.”
“And kept to the country roads and lanes.”
“Practically…. It was all new country to me…. Beautiful….
His wife still watched him.
“You must take me_there some day,” she said. “I can see that it has done you a world of good.”
The problem with Utopian novels is that they are little more guidebooks to an imagined future, and thus barely function as novels at all, making them quite dull. Men like Gods has a little more incident than most, which is not saying a great deal. It’s an unfortunate truth that dystopian novels are usually much more readable eg Wells’ earlier novel The Sleeper Awakes. Apparently Aldous Huxley was moved to write Brave New World (1932) after reading Men Like Gods, writing to a friend, “I am writing a novel about the future — on the horror of the Wellsian Utopia and a revolt against it. Very difficult. I have hardly enough imagination to deal with such a subject. But it is none the less interesting work.”
In its very enthusastic review of Men Like Gods the Manchester Guardian said:
The charm and absorbingness of this novel may be taken for granted. It is most remarkable. No other writer could have achieved a smilar triumph. Mr Wells has always been able to see clearly and with beauty into a highly sanitary ideal world. He can do this because of his really passionate love of human-kind and desire for the betterment of its lot. His hatred of contemporary squalors, of the system of greed and squalor and sprawling ineffectiveness which makes the world a sprawling mess, is so intense that to Mr Wells restless and reforming spirit passive endurance is impossible. He must attack and destroy and rebuild – the process being one continuous movement of his immense vital energy….The author’s passion for education, for knowledge and health have never been more brilliantly expressed. ..It is full of fine thinking and fine understanding.
You can read Men like Gods online here.