No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction

By Eric S. Rabkin; Martin H. Greenberg et al. | Go to book overview

7The Shape of Things to Come: H. G. Wells and the Rhetoric of Proteus

Ken Davis

Herbert George Wells did not write a utopia; he lived one. His life was fired by an apocalyptic vision of a better world, but this vision was not fully realized in any single work. Rather, Wells's every word and action -- literary, political, personal -- seems part of a consistent whole. We might say of Wells what Keats said of Shakespeare: that he "led a life of Allegory: his works are the comments on it."

Yet to grasp the central place of Wells in the development of utopian and dystopian fiction, we must narrow our focus, and we can do no better than to narrow it to the 1933 book The Shape of Things to Come, and the 1935 "film story," Things to Come, based upon it. The former is perhaps the fullest realization, in a single volume, of Wells's utopian vision, while the latter demonstrates the ultimate failure of that vision. Together they embody a rhetorical use of literature as a means for achieving "Protean" change in humanity -- a vision which transcends the "Promethean" stance for which Wells is too often condemned.


The Early Wells

To understand this vision, we must begin by taking a time machine to 1866 and the London suburb of Bromley. H. G. was born there to Sarah Wells, an innkeeper's daughter with more than usual schooling, and Joseph, a china-shop proprietor and semi-professional cricketer. The latter enterprise, however, was too often conducted at the expense of the former, and the resulting poverty, combined with the general squalor of the town and the times, drove Sarah to bitterness and religious dogmatism and Joseph to anger, despair, and resignation. For H. G., childhood was thus a time of cruelty and conflict, bringing insecurities and even nightmares. His biographers, Norman

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