H. G. Wells and the Quest for Utopia

Taught by Professor Pamela Bedore, Ph.D.

Many of H. G. Wells’ science fiction stories contain fantastical utopian overtones. What was the historical impact of including these utopian settings within the context of his writings? And, relatedly, is there a way to see utopia as being inherently part of the science fiction project?

Watch lecture 7 from the series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature, and follow along with the summary below.

Defining Science Fiction

  • Science fiction might be the genre fiction with the most contentious set of definitions. Below are two representative definitions.
  • The author Damon Knight’s definition from 1952 is famous, or maybe infamous: “Science fiction is what we point to when we say it.” This may sound like a copout, but he’s right: There’s a very broad range of texts that we consider science fiction. That’s partly because there’s a very broad range of disciplines that we consider science—from natural sciences like physics, chemistry and biology, to applied sciences like engineering and medicine, to social sciences like sociology, psychology, and economics.
  • The critic Darko Suvin’s definition from 1972 continues to be highly respected and discussed: Science fiction is “a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.”
  • When we’re reading or watching sci-fi, many of us enjoy the fact that we’re thinking hard and learning, all because we’re presented with something unfamiliar—what Suvin calls “an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.”
  • Is that also true of utopia? We’ll take a look at two of Wells’s most acclaimed novels in considering that question: The Time Machine, from 1895, and A Modern Utopia, from 1905.


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The Time Machine: Time Travel

Image of H. G. Wells
H. G. Wells produced a series of novels that pioneered our ideas about the future.
  • In thinking about The Time Machine, we’re going to look especially at what happens to utopia when we engage fictionally with three different topics in science: time travel, the scientific method, and evolution.
  • The Time Machine is a euchronia, like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, in which the visitor to the utopia is going to a different time instead of a different place. In Wells’s hands, the time travel isn’t mysterious or supernatural; it’s a result of technology. The main character, known only as the Time Traveler, has built a time machine that allows him to travel forward and backward in time.
  • The frame for the utopia is that, one night at a weekly dinner of scientific-minded friends, the traveler gives a lecture on time as the fourth dimension. The Time Traveler tells his companions about this wonderful machine one day, and one week later he tells them he’s just back from a voyage through time in which he witnessed an intriguing future.
  • What’s the impact of giving a scientific explanation for the euchronia instead of just leaving it as an unexplained phenomenon of the Rip Van Winkle or Edward Bellamy persuasion? It connects the genres, repositioning utopia within science fiction. It also provides us with a scientist as a main character, which becomes important to how the utopia works.
  • On a rhetorical level, the gap removes the story from the realm of political activism. There is nothing we can do right now to impact a future over 800,000 years away.

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The Time Machine: The Scientific Method

  • The Time Traveler is a scientist, and as such, he uses the scientific method and tells his story with all the hypotheses showing. He explains that when he first arrives in the future, he finds a society of beings called the Eloi—small, elegant humans who appear to live a happy, egalitarian lifestyle in which they do very little labor.
  • He initially imagines they are alone in their utopian communities and that their general lack of curiosity about him and his machine results from the comfort of their well-balanced, relatively static life. This is hypothesis 1.
  • Eventually he learns that the Eloi are not alone in their world. They live above ground. But beneath the ground lives another fully developed society, the Morlocks. Image of city seen from tunnel openingThey are sensitive to light and look almost like apes. They have machinery, just like the new subways of London, critics have noted.
  • And all that machinery—all that energy and labor beneath the surface—makes possible the passive, enlightened lifestyle of the Eloi. Hypothesis 2: the Eloi (the leisure class) subjugate the Morlocks (the working class). That hypothesis fits into turn-of- the-century thinking quite nicely.
  • As the Time Traveler explores underground trying to figure out how to get back his time machine, which the Morlocks have appropriated, he questions his second hypothesis. The Eloi certainly don’t act like masters and the Morlocks, except for their day-blindness, don’t act like slaves, which brings him to hypothesis 3: the Eloi and Morlocks are in conflict with one another, and perhaps on the brink of a war.
  • It isn’t until quite late in the story that the Time Traveler realizes what is actually going on. Hypothesis 4: the Morlocks and the Eloi live in a symbiotic relationship, but it isn’t one of master and slave; it’s one of consumer and consumed. It is the Morlocks who control the Eloi, basically treating them as cattle, fattening them up so they can eventually devour them.
  • We could see the Time Traveler’s hypotheses as a metacritical commentary on the development of utopian literature, where at first utopia is located on an island, in what is basically isolation from other societies. But then, we realize that there is a cost to the highly functioning society, like the slaves of More’s Utopia or the sacrifice of technology in Samuel Butler’s Erewhon. And then, eventually, we realize that the people we think are living in a utopia may in fact be living in a dystopia.

A Modern Utopia

  • If The Time Machine is in some sense a metacritical commentary on utopia, it certainly isn’t the only one Wells wrote. A Modern Utopia, his 1905 “novel,” certainly fits the bill. This is a strange book: It’s not quite science fiction, not quite utopia (despite the title), and not quite a novel.
  • This is a book much devoted to the concept of doubles. The book opens with a two-page segment called “The Owner of the Voice,” which begins “There are works, and this is one of them, that are best begun with a portrait of the author.”
  • Wells goes on to say “Now this Voice … is not to be taken as the Voice of the ostensible author who fathers these pages.” But then he describes the Voice’s owner as a “whitish plump man” with many other features that Wells himself possesses: slight baldness on the crown, agile movements, a convex front, and blue eyes. So where does this self-portrait leave us?
  • The Voice isn’t just a double for the author. It’s also a double for the narrator, who tells us of a utopian society with pretty typical features of a modern liberal society.
  • The narrator is the one who actually visits the utopia. He visits with an acquaintance he refers to only as the Botanist. The Botanist acts as a kind of opposing double, so that each time the narrator finds a new feature of utopia, the Botanist comes in and complains about said feature.
  • The utopian setting itself is based on doubling. It’s set in a parallel world, on a planet just like Earth, except utopian. On this planet, there is a version—a double—of each person currently living on Earth.
  • That provides the main impetus of the story: the narrator’s quest for his utopian double. The Botanist, true to character, continues to pine for his true love, who had no interest in him on Earth and, the reader imagines, will be equally uninterested on utopian Earth.
  • What does this doubling down on doubles accomplish? First, it speaks to late-19th-century scientific trends, especially in the fields of psychology and statistics, which were starting to set up research projects with experimental and control groups, including twin studies.
  • Second, the doubling within the text speaks to the doubling within the genre, to the idea that utopia as a genre is always both fiction and philosophy. It also always contains two societies, implicitly or explicitly: the utopian society and contemporary society.
  • In Wells’s utopia, there’s a premium on travel, and the people of the parallel planet are migratory, regularly visiting and even moving to new places on their planet.
  • Women are considered equal, and motherhood is subsidized by the state. People need to earn over a specified amount in order to marry. The modern utopia is racially diverse. Residential areas are in temperate zones, with children growing up in comfortable and beautiful areas. Research is encouraged through careful organization.
  • Crime is rare and the state plays a pretty small role in people’s lives. The state is responsible for the well-being of children, but has absolutely no interest in regulating sexuality.
  • Everyone is healthy. This is something the narrator thinks about as he seeks his double. He assumes that his double will be healthier, more fit, with a longer life expectancy. And he’s right.
  • But here’s the surprise: The modern utopia is not a representative democracy. A special class of people known as the Samurai makes all decisions. When the narrator meets his utopian double, the double explains all, since he is a Samurai, part of the “voluntary nobility … [that is] essential in the scheme of the Utopian state.”
  • The utopians can’t imagine a world in which all people are treated as equivalent, as having the same impact on the political system. In the modern utopia, people fall into one of four classes: the Poetic, the Kinetic, the Dull, and the Base.

The utopians can’t imagine a world in which all people are treated as equivalent, as having the same impact on the political system. In the modern utopia, people fall into one of four classes: the Poetic, the Kinetic, the Dull, and the Base.

  • The Poetic are creative, and they’re responsible for art and for inventions. The Kinetic are energetic, and they include administrators, scientists, preachers, and actors. The Dull are the stupid and incompetent people. The Base can be poetic, kinetic, or dull, but they turn their energies inward, having no moral sense.
  • With this system of broad categories in mind, the founders of the World State—which is what its inhabitants call their world— created a classification that would be unattractive for the Dull or the Base, but that would provide leadership from among the Poetic and Kinetic: the Samurai. These people are the only ones who get to vote. But they must agree to follow a very specific lifestyle in order to become Samurai.
  • They live an ascetic life—no drinking or drugs. They are allowed to marry, but can spend only limited time with their family, usually sleeping alone. They must take a wilderness voyage one week of the year to push themselves.

The Impact

  • Wells’s A Modern Utopia was no Looking Backward in the way it activated real-world readers. But it did have an impact. A few small groups formed as a result of the novel and tried to live according to the precepts of the Samurai.
  • Perhaps most famously—and scandalously—a Cambridge undergraduate named Amber Reeves, whose parents were both Fabians (a British socialist organization), created an all-women’s club called the Utopians, who were based on Wells’s book.
  • The scandalous part comes when the much younger Reeves, a great admirer of Wells, became pregnant with his child.
  • Several utopian groups based on the novel had rather brief flirtations with the Samurai lifestyle, and their writings on these experiences can be found among Wells’s papers.

Questions to Consider

  • What’s your definition of science fiction? Is utopia always part of science fiction for you, or does it sit next to science fiction under the larger umbrella of speculative fiction?
  • Have you seen any of the film, radio, or TV adaptations of The Time Machine? How do you explain this text’s continued popularity?
  • To what degree do you see a split between utopia and dystopia in Wells’s writing? Should The Time Machine be considered the first great dystopia? Why do you think we usually go to Zamyatin’s We for that honor? (This might be easier to answer after Lecture 9.)
From the Lecture Series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature
Taught be Professor Pamela Bedore, Ph.D.