Maximus Clarke defends H.G. Wells against “eleven paragraphs of bile”

Maximus Clarke, better known in these parts as Mr. Maud, writes to defend H.G. Wells from an attack that appeared in a recent issue of The Wall Street Journal.

One of the signature traits of the far right is its compulsion to ferociously attack even long-dead figures whom it perceives as ideologically incorrect. Every reactionary crank has a favorite theory about how, when, and where civilization went off the rails — and which groups and individuals were responsible. In that spirit, the Wall Street Journal op-ed page last week ran a hit piece on — believe it or not — H.G. Wells.

Presumably as a preemptive strike against any possible sympathy generated by the new Spielberg/Cruise “War of the Worlds,” The National Review‘s John Miller spews eleven paragraphs of bile against the pioneering British author of speculative fiction. Wells, of course, was also a well-known democratic socialist — and that’s clearly his real crime, although Miller never breathes the S-word. Instead he tells us that Wells got bad grades in school, and that as a result, his writings were twisted by a “destructive urge.” (Whether this same laughable form of head-shrinkery applies to George W. Bush, a mediocre student whose own “destructive urge” led to the pulverization of a Middle Eastern country, Miller does not say.)

Miller compares Wells unfavorably to Jules Verne, who decades earlier had predicted scientific marvels like moon shots, submarines, and world-circling balloon trips. But Verne’s novels were light entertainment, offering gee-whiz technology with no social or political depth. This suits Miller just fine — so he deceptively suggests that Wells’ own speculations were “appallingly wrong.” In fact, Wells predicted television, atomic and biological warfare, and numerous other developments. And his imaginative forays into sociology, evolution, time travel, and other subjects far surpassed anything written by Verne (and indeed, much of the science fiction written since).

But wait — Miller has abruptly changed the subject, and is comparing Verne’s sci-fi apples to Wells’ political oranges. It’s time for a few out-of-context quotes. Yes, Wells at one time described Lenin as “creative.” Never mind that this was during the early days of the
Russian revolt against the medieval feudalism of the Tsars, and that Wells was a non-Marxist who believed in liberal democracy. Yes, Wells did abhor religious traditionalism, whether Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, or other. Never mind that he was also a deist.

Miller misrepresents the context of another quote even more grievously. After claiming that Wells “simply never met a collectivist movement that didn’t intrigue him,” he says: “It was for views such as these that George Orwell delivered a blunt verdict in 1941: ‘Much of what Wells has imagined and worked for is physically there in Nazi Germany.'”

Was Wells somehow simultaneously a Bolshevik and a fascist? In the vacuous, historically ignorant world of the contemporary right — where liberals and Democrats are viewed as acolytes of both Hitler and Stalin — this paradox may be easily swallowed. But it bears no resemblance to what Orwell was actually talking about. In fact, he was condemning Wells’ perceived technological utopianism:

…[T]he equation of science with common sense does not really hold good. The aeroplane, which was looked forward to as a civilising influence but in practice has hardly been used except for dropping bombs, is the symbol of that fact. Modern Germany is far more scientific than England, and far more barbarous. Much of what Wells has imagined and worked for is physically there in Nazi Germany.

Orwell didn’t castigate Wells for being infatuated with Hitler — but rather for not taking him seriously enough. Wells had recently called Hitler a “screaming little defective,” and suggested that his military might was on the wane. But Wells was suspicious of all mass movements, and anticipated a day when fundamentalism, nationalism, and other -isms would be transcended by a benign, technocratic world government. This may seem quaint today, but it was widely believed at the time — even by Orwell, who said in the very same essay quoted above:

What is the use of pointing out that a World State is desirable? What matters is that not one of the five great military powers would think of submitting to such a thing. All sensible men for decades past have been substantially in agreement with what Mr Wells says; but the sensible men have no power and, in too many cases, no disposition to sacrifice themselves.

Orwell’s complaint was not that Wells was a raging totalitarian, as Miller pretends, but rather that his hopes for a better tomorrow — which Orwell shared — were premature.

What Orwell apparently missed was that many of Wells’ futuristic visions were more dystopian than utopian. In The Time Machine, When the Sleeper Wakes, and other stories, Wells emphasized that without a fundamental change in social dynamics, new forms of technology would merely continue to enrich and empower the few at the expense of the many. (And if Orwell really thought that Wells saw aircraft as purely “a civilising influence,” he must have been unfamiliar with The War in the Air — which features a global air war touched off by a hellish raid on New York City.) Miller, evidently one of Orwell’s neo-con idolaters, simply repeats these errors.

Finally, Miller leaves us with a few bizarre insinuations about Wells’ beliefs in science, evolution, and materialism. It is a peculiar claim of today’s “conservatives” that by embracing evolutionary theory, the left has also embraced social Darwinism, thus destroying individual dignity and ushering in a merciless, survival-of-the-fittest world. Of course, it was the uber-capitalists of the Gilded Age who turned the theory of natural selection into a pseudo-scientific social creed. And the victory of laissez-faire, dog-eat-dog capitalism — and the abolition of civilizing regulatory and social policies that guard against its worst excesses — have been the central causes of the Republican Party for the last thirty years.

But in a crowning, supremely offensive bit of hackery, Miller portrays the degrading and brutal treatment of humankind by the Martians in The War of the Worlds as reflective of Wells’ own materialist contempt for the human soul. This last lie obscures what the novel has always been widely understood to be: Wells’ attack on the cruelty of British imperialism.

It’s hard to believe that a newspaper representing the nation’s supreme financial and corporate interests would print such a shallow, malicious, and fraudulent piece of “criticism.” Then again — if the influence of concentrated wealth is as pernicious as thinkers like Wells have been warning us for a long time — maybe it’s not.

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