Sunday, July 1, 2007

Wellsian Prophecies

From childhood, one of my favorite books has been "Seven Science Fiction Novels," a collection of some of the greatest and most imaginative novellas by H.G. Wells (and indeed some of the best science fiction of all time). The copy I have was published in 1934, bought by a school library, discarded and then brought home by my dad. When I was old enough to read it, it became a source of endless wonder. Each novella was a glimpse of eerie spectres of things to come: Martian invasion. A man who is utterly transparent. Journeys through time to the last days of Earth. Moon creatures living beneath its surface. The collision of a comet. It's all in there, written in a uniquely intelligent style, as if from the vantage point of someone who has stepped out of time and encompassed the past, present and future of all things.

As I delved further into Wells' career, I discovered that his books seem to alternate between prophecies of doom and predictions of an utopia beyond imagination. Sometimes, as in the Time Machine, what seems at first glance to be paradise reveals itself to be an utter nightmare. Other times, it takes complete devastation to clear the ground for a brave new order, as in one of Wells' lesser known works, "The World Set Free." That 1914 tale of destriction and restoration is notable for its prediction of atomic warfare and the first use of the term "atomic bomb"

What I didn't know until recently was that reading that frightening story helped inspire physicist Leo Szilard to work out the details of the concept of a chain reaction himself, become avidly interested in the possibilities and ramifications of nuclear weaponry in the 1930s, and contribute to the theory behind the development of the first atomic bombs in the Manhattan project. Szilard and Einstein wrote a famous letter to Roosevelt about the dangers of the Nazis developing the bomb first, and this led to the Allied effort and ultimately to the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (which the theorists had emphatically absolutely nothing to do with--it was strictly a presidential and military decision under Truman).

I'm currently reading a fascinating and important book, called Doomsday Men, written by the historian of science, reviewer, Einstein biographer, photographer and blogger PD Smith. I've been delighted to discover in his new work ample references to Wells and science fiction, woven into a riveting chronicle of how superweapons capable of mass destruction were pondered, developed and justified. Talk to any child about the idea behind nuclear weapons and he or she is likely to recoil in horror, and seriously wonder why any madman would consider building such devices. Yet in the 20th century the concept of a "war to end all wars" stimulated thoughts amongst serious-minded people that the existence of weapons too horrifying to use would bring about world peace. And at least some of this, as Smith writes, can be traced back to Wells and other writers who imagined that a world after devastation would be one of wise leaders guiding the masses to peace.

For those of you who recall the tumultous days of the 20th century that preceded the current Golden Age (as so we're told by the rock band U2, at any rate, who go on to say that "gold is the reason for the wars we wage), or even for those of you too young (or busy) to remember the 20th century at all, I suggest that you familiarize yourself with the past so that we're not doomed to repeat it. As you can probably tell, I highly recommend Doomsday Men, now available in the UK (through for example):

Doomsday Men

It will also be published by St. Martin's Press in December.

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