Book Review: “The World Set Free” by HG Wells

As I have written about before (and will be a part of a new book that I am working on, as well as in my next novel), one of my interests relates to the imagery of ‘the mushroom cloud‘, atomic weapons, including issues relating to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the Daigo-Fukuryu-maru incident. In amongst the various things that I have read and watched, there has sometimes been mention about how HG Wells first coined the term ‘atomic bomb’ in the book ‘The World Set Free’. I’m not sure why it has taken me so long, but I finally got round to reading the book recently.

Before reading the book, my knowledge of HG Wells was quite superficial. Of course I knew of him and some of his books – but mainly thanks to the ones that had been turned into movies. Indeed, I quite enjoyed the remake of ‘War of the Worlds’ (Spielberg, 2005) and that movie was amongst those that was initially included in my study of disaster movies (‘Disaster Narratives by Design: Is Japan Different?‘), but was not included in the final study once I had clarified what was meant by ‘science fiction’ for my study (with all such movies not being included).

Perhaps thanks to ‘War of the Worlds’, as well as some of the other movies, I only associated HG Wells with ‘science fiction’. But, of course, there is much more to his writing than that. ‘The World Set Free’ is one such book – although I suspect that some, particularly at the time it was first published, may have considered it science fiction. But as I have written in some of my publications, I suspect many still considered the idea of atomic bombs as science fiction until 6 August 1945.

One of the biggest challenge of reading a book like ‘The World Set Free’ is the style of English. I have encountered this before when reading the original versions of Sherlock Holmes books, Frankenstein, or, more for my academic research books such as Hearn’s ‘Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan’. Indeed the changing nature of language is something that Wells also addresses in ‘The World Set Free’.

In terms of what drew me to reading the book, the first thing that stood out for me was the cover of the book. There are many versions of the book available for free now thanks to the copyright limitations having expired. The one that I chose – which was one of the first listed – has the distinctive mushroom cloud that rose above Nagasaki on 9 August 1945. Interestingly, however, while the book does introduce us to the atomic bomb – there is no mention of a mushroom cloud. But, in other respects, the description sounds familiar to those who know what the bombs are like:

The bomb flashed blinding scarlet in mid – air , and fell , a descending column of blaze eddying spirally in the midst of a whirlwind

(Page 72)

Wells’ atomic bomb is, in many respects, a very different beast to what the Manhattan Project would bring about. Most notably, it was a portable device. Also the material used was different. The nature of the bomb is somewhat different – with the fireball continuing for years. But, within this concept was a hint of the impact of the real bomb. While the flash, blast, and mushroom cloud may be done with in less than a day in reality, its social, psychological, and health impacts continue for many years. Indeed, even Wells introduces us to the impact of radiation and discusses something which would become akin to the actual phenomenon of ‘black rain‘. There was, without doubt, something visionary about Wells in relation to the atomic bomb. Indeed, it is said that it was reading this book and its concept of the chain reaction, that effectively created the chain reaction in the thoughts of scientists that culminated in the real atomic bomb itself.

When I read some of what Wells envisioned the world being like in the wake of numerous atomic bombs, I could not help but feel that he had also understood that it would lead to a nuclear winter. In this respect, I began to draw parallels with the terrifying portrayal of the impact of a nuclear war in the excellent dramatization ‘Threads‘. As Wells puts it,

The state of mind of the dispossessed urban population which swarmed and perished so abundantly over the country – side during the dark days of the autumnal months that followed the Last War , was one of blank despair

(Location 2070)

But ‘The World Set Free’ doesn’t stop with the nuclear winter. Far from it. Much of the book is dedicated to what comes next – or rather came next as the book is written from the perspective of someone in the second half of the 20th Century looking back at how the war came about and what happened as a result. Wells writes about how ‘war was becoming impossible’ (location 1110) and of the creation of a single world government, amongst other things. In essence, a United Nations with real power. It is certainly an idealistic viewpoint – which even in the book points to some of its inherent problems – and one that I have thought about many times throughout my life. I find it surprising that it’s taken me until I was 50 to read such a book.

Why is it that I (and still so many children) had to endure Dickens, Shakespeare, or early 20th Century American novels, when books like ‘The World Set Free’ exist? I can imagine why governments may not want people to read a book like this and its implications – for at its heart there is a criticism about the establishment of nations and nationalism (as well as pointing to the desire of the adoption of one measurement system (metric) and one language (English)). ‘The World Set Free’ would undoubtedly have stretched my mind so much more than any of the ‘classics’ that I had to read. But, of course, many education systems don’t want children’s minds to be stretched – they want to create the next generation of compliant drones.

I find it surprising that there has – as far as I can tell – been no dramatization of ‘The World Set Free’ – especially given how close the world came to dramatizing the book in real world through the Manhattan Project, bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and creation of the United Nations.

‘The World Set Free’ and the ideas it presents is not perfect. But it is a novel, not a manifesto. Although, from additional reading I have done about Wells since reading the book, I can see that it contains much of his views on the world, there are elements that I cannot agree with (most notably the idea of adopting English as a world language or that it is a simple language). Also, despite apparently being strongly in favour of gender equality, ‘The World Set Free’ is predominantly about a male dominated world (much like his other books, I understand). There is some discussion about the position of women later on in the book and ideas which must have seemed ahead of their time when the book was first published;

I do not care a rap about your future — as women . I do not care a rap about the future of men — as males . I want to destroy these peculiar futures . I care for your future as intelligences , as parts of and contribution to the universal mind of the race .

(Location 2713)

Men and women have to become human beings

(Location 2733)

It would be easy to imagine how to take ‘The World Set Free’ and create a very exciting syllabus and be able to debate a wide range of issues – far better than the books that are often used for such exercises or remain at a rather superficial level. There is even a way to bring in discussion of Brexit when you have comments such as the following,

a famine – stricken country , and his picture of the England of that spring is one of miserable patience and desperate expedients . The country was suffering much more than France , because of the cessation of the overseas supplies on which it had hitherto relied

(Location 2115)

Ultimately, one thing that ‘The World Set Free’ could aid people to do is think more about the continued significance of atomic weapons – how we cannot unlearn such knowledge and how the one who has the weapons still has so much power.

Today, I fear that the ‘No More Hiroshimas’ campaign is largely failing. Too many people have no idea about what happened in that city or Nagasaki. Or that so many nuclear weapons still exist and what they could do. This makes the weapons more dangerous than ever as, without this knowledge, they cease to be a deterrent by merely another weapon of war.

Unlike Wells’ continuing burning bombs, acting as a constant memory and ongoing tragedy – the real things became easier to ignore and forget for the majority.

And that is why, although ‘The World Set Free’ is set out in the 20th Century, it still has so much relevance today. It could yet become a vision of the world’s future.

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