The World Set Free by Wells, H.G., 1914

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Later in his career, and by "later" I mean after 1903 or so, H.G. Wells turned his attention from writing scientific romance stories to social commentary, historical analysis, and other related kinds of non-fiction works. But in 1914 he was inspired by a scientific work about the half-life of radioactive materials and those materials potential for highly destructive explosions. I can only imagine that it was a red letter day in publishing. H.G. Wells, one of the most popular novelists of all time, and certainly the most successful to that time in speculative fiction, returning after years to what made him popular, and what made people really love him. Too bad it didnít work out very well.

The World Set Free, a.k.a. The Last War is a truly jumbled mix of an world transformed to a utopia, followed by an end of the world nuclear apocalypse story, and concluded with a weird attempt at rebuilding through gender equality. Wells starts us off well back in prehistoric times, I suppose in an attempt to demonstrate that humans always have and always will make war, even when conditions are good otherwise. Within a few chapters the reader is taken from cave drawings and stone tools to atomic power. Actually, he shows a world transformed by cheap, plentiful and very adaptable power which allows chemists to solve the age old mystery of alchemy, and so completely transform the economy that the world really does transform to an almost sustainable utopia, but for the glut of gold on the market which is actually a by product of the use of atomic engines. for some reason the gold is not held by national banks, but is on deposit in reserves owned by very few. The glut drives down the value of property and assets owned by everyone else. The various legislatures and judicial systems in Europe did not react fast enough to stop the turmoil that developed, and after some intense conflicts an all out atomic war ensued.

Wellsí most interesting prose centers around the military conflict. This is no surprise considering his earlier fiction works and the experience he garnered writing them. The war and combat scenes were graphic and alive, second only in intensity to the aftermath of the war that led to cannibalism, plague, revolution, insanity and all kinds of other problems. What is good about this book, other than the realistically drawn combat scenes, is that in my opinion he did a pretty good job predicting the true destructive power of nuclear weapons.

For the whole world was flaring then into a monstrous phase of destruction. Power after Power about the armed globe sought to anticipate attack by aggression. They went to war in a delirium of panic, in order to use their bombs first. China and Japan had assailed Russia and destroyed Moscow, the United States had attacked Japan, India was in anarchistic revolt with Delhi a pit of fire spouting death and flame; the redoubtable King of the Balkans was mobilising. It must have seemed plain at last to every one in those days that the world was slipping headlong to anarchy. By the spring of 1959 from nearly two hundred centres, and every week added to their number, roared the unquenchable crimson conflagrations of the atomic bombs, the flimsy fabric of the world's credit had vanished, industry was completely disorganised and every city, every thickly populated area was starving or trembled on the verge of starvation. Most of the capital cities of the world were burning; millions of people had already perished, and over great areas government was at an end. Humanity has been compared by one contemporary writer to a sleeper who handles matches in his sleep and wakes to find himself in flames.

Uncharacteristically Wells included lots of dead end ideas in this book that he seemed to forget about before the end of the book; loose ends abounded. For example when the atomic engines were first introduced he spent several pages describing competition from Tata in India, but dropped it and never mentioned it after that. And he brought in characters time and again that really had nothing relevant to say, and nothing on-topic to do. On top of that, the entire end of the book is practically indecipherable, boring and totally off topic, which I think was about one world, one currency, one language, spaceflight, interstellar colonization and gender equality. Iím still not entirely sure how it all ties together, other than to be some overly liberal pipe-dream that expresses all the longing for true togetherness that we have ever collectively had (in other words, a global society, which I personally am no longer certain is our way to paradise). Here I think is where Wells wanted to take us:

It is only by realising this profound, this fantastic divorce between the scientific and intellectual movement on the one hand, and the world of the lawyer-politician on the other, that the men of a later time can hope to understand this preposterous state of affairs. Social organisation was still in the barbaric stage. There were already great numbers of actively intelligent men and much private and commercial civilisation, but the community, as a whole, was aimless, untrained and unorganised to the pitch of imbecility. Collective civilisation, the 'Modern State,' was still in the womb of the future....

Two out of five stars for this one. Get it only if this is the only Wells book you have never read.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 2 star(s)


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