The World Set Free

H.G. Wells and the allure of apocalyptic utopianism.

In certain political science (or political shit-posting) circles there is a term “accelerationism”, referring to a belief that the problems of society should not be ameliorated but rather exacerbated in order to cause the collapse of a preexisting social order so that something else may be built on its ashes. The justification for this is simple: anarchy is a blank slate upon which any enterprising political elite can realize their dreams should they put the proper work into it and persuade the right people.

One such form of accelerationism comes forth in the writings of the Argentine Marxist writer J. Posadas, who advocated for nuclear war, which would destroy the capitalist order and, among the ruins, provide a way to build Marx’ classless utopia.

Posadas also believed in the necessity of contacting aliens who, by virtue of their technological advancement, must be more advanced according to Marx’ dialectical theory, a notion which has him painted as a loon by certain political science (or political shit-posting) circles on the internet.

However, he was not the first writer to put forth a similar idea.

In 1914, H. G. Wells published a novel entitled The World Set Free, a book which depicts the discovery of a metal, called Carolinum, which allows for the creation of atomic bombs. These atomic bombs are not the incinerators of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Instead they are easy-to-detonate explosives that continue to detonate for a very long time. This is based on an understanding of the half-life of uranium. Wells says:

to this day the battlefields and bomb fields of that frantic time in human history are sprinkled with radiant matter, and so centers of inconvenient rays.

This has an eerie resemblance to descriptions of nuclear fallout.

It is not the only eerie prediction contained within that novel. He also talks a lot about the social effects of mass automation. One of the things that strikes me in his discussion of the nuclear war is that he doesn’t even bother to give you a discussion of the political buildup to the war; he maintains that such a thing is irrelevant, like many anti-nuclear activists during the Cold War.

Wells was a man who was always cognizant of the civilization-ending potential of technology, well before it was actually able to do so. In a sense, he saw that there would be, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, guided missiles and misguided men.

But what makes Wells’ work seem all the more prescient is the idea that, after the atomic bombs have made the world’s great powers one with Nineveh and Tyre, a British monarch named Egbert abdicates in support of a World State, announcing that decision at a conference of the squeaking remnants of the belligerents at Brissago in Switzerland. After crushing a rebellious king of Serbia, the World State sets about reforming human society. The end result is an anarcho-communist situation where most people are artists and actual work is taken care of with automation.

Wells is not the only science-fiction writer to have this conception of what I shall call “apocalyptic utopianism”, in which a better world can be built after significant loss to society. Even alternate history has several examples.

The most similar to The World Set Free is Resurrection Day by Brendan Dubois (1999, review here), which has communal societies in the ruins of bombed-out American cities after the Cuban Missile Crisis goes hot. Dubois portrays the American government of the novel as being authoritarian and decaying after the fallout of the war (as opposed to the Eastern Bloc, which was bombed to the point that they do not properly constitute industrial civilization), and a major portion of the plot, as it is slowly revealed, concerns the plans of these people in the cities to reveal themselves to America and show that New York and Washington are not dead cities after all.

Another example, albeit a relatively lesser one, is found in The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson (2002). Robinson is known for being a utopian in the first place, which has given us work like the monumental Mars trilogy (1992-99), as well as the short story “The Lucky Strike” (1984), which is utopianism brought about by avoiding apocalypse (at least for two cities).

The Years of Rice and Salt has its point of divergence in a much stronger Black Death, which kills the vast majority of the population of Europe; an event that can reasonably be described as apocalyptic, at least for a single continent. Most of the book is relatively similar in terms of quality of life to our world, but there is one major concession to utopianism. Feeding into a trend of Robinson’s disdain for the existence of nuclear weapons, in this world the concept for atomic bombs is developed by scientists who immediately hold an international scientific convention in which the plans are shared. The rationale for this decision, not unlike a notion propagated by Nikola Tesla in our world, is so that no country may have a monopoly on such devastation, thereby preventing the capacity for the destruction of civilization.

Perhaps the most salient example of apocalyptic utopianism in alternate history is the 1632 series, the brainchild of Eric Flint and subsequently added to by a variety of other authors. There is no disaster in a conventional sense here. Instead, the West Virginia mining town of Grantville from the year 2000 is thrust into Thuringia in 1632 as the fog of war lies thick and armies scorch the land in the midst of the Thirty Years’ War.

Almost immediately after realizing that they have been thrust back in time, the townsfolk decide to “start the American Revolution a hundred and fifty years ahead of schedule,” in the words of Michael Stearns, who rapidly emerges as the leader of these temporally displaced Americans. The sense of a collapse is subtle, but very much there: one of Stearns’ policies is preparing the Americans for “gearing down” to a technological level roughly akin to the nineteenth century, as that is the best that can be done with the limited amount of twentieth-century knowledge and technology that they have with them. One such example is town notables adopting gas lighting to replace electric lighting as a more sustainable (for them) means of lighting.

The 1632 series is interesting due to its philosophical underpinnings of a deep faith in the principles of American constitutional democracy combined with the concern for public welfare of twentieth-century social democracy. After some wrangling with their political patron, Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, they declare a new United States of Europe, dedicated to the values that modern Americans hold dear and to their spread. Emulating the American Revolution, Grantvillers set up Committees of Correspondence throughout Europe with the stated goal of spreading democracy, liberty and science to the people of the continent.

Flint’s background as a socialist trade union activist (on his website, he states his disdain for academic socialists) becomes clear in a few ways.

Immediately after Grantville is plunged into war’s desolation, the local branch of the coal miner’s union steps up to form a local militia to provide defense against marauding armies. Later on, it is mentioned that all workplaces of a certain size are legally required to be unionized, something that is held in suspicion by downtimers due to similarities with seventeenth-century guilds. In this manner, the series finds a way to be progressive in both an eighteenth-century and a twentieth-century sense (not to mention a seventeenth-century sense).

Both Wells and later alternate historians demonstrate that apocalyptic utopianism is nothing new. Indeed, one could argue that it has always been within the collective of ideas of this sort of literature, and has at various times become more and less prominent. What drives it, I think, is the allure of what the wide open spaces of the Great Plains had for many Americans as they drove forth on wagon trains. What apocalyptic utopianism is honest about is that such new, exciting frontiers come from the destruction of that which is already there.

This story was originally published by Sea Lion Press, the world’s first publishing house dedicated to alternate history.


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