The Shape of Things to Come

"The Shape of Things to Come" is a work of science fiction by H. G. Wells, published in 1933, which speculates on future events from 1933 until the year 2106. It is not a novel, but rather a fictional history book or chronicle, similar in style to "Star Maker" and "Last and First Men", both by Olaf Stapledon.

Wells' book also shared with Stapledon's an understanding of the change wrought in the nature of war by the development of air power; both writers included harrowing depictions of cities destroyed in aerial bombardments, which proved an all too accurate prediction of what was to happen in the actual second World War.

Wells creates a framing device by claiming that the book is his edited version of notes written by an eminent diplomat, Dr Philip Raven, who had been having dream visions of a history textbook published in 2106, and wrote down what he could remember of it.

The book is dominated by Wells's belief in a world state as the solution to mankind's problems. Wells successfully predicted the Second World War, although he envisaged it dragging on into the 1960s, being finally ended only by a devastating plague that almost destroys civilization. Wells then envisages a benevolent dictatorship - 'The Dictatorship of the Air' (a term obviously modeled on 'The Dictatorship of the proletariat') - arising from the controllers of the world's surviving transportation systems (the only people with global power). This dictatorship promotes science, enforces Basic English as a global lingua franca, and eradicates all religion, setting the world on the route to a peaceful utopia. When the dictatorship finds it necessary to kill political opponents, the condemned persons are given a chance to emulate the ancient philosophers Socrates and Seneca and take a poison tablet in a congenial environment of their choice.

Eventually, after a century of re-shaping humanity, the dictatorship is overthrown in a completely bloodless coup, the former rulers are sent into a very honourable retirement, and the world state "withers away" as was predicted by Friedrich Engels in his 1877 work Anti-Duhring. The last part of the book is a detailed description of the Utopian world which emerges, in some ways reminiscent of Edward Bellamy's "Looking Backward".

While written as a future history, seen in retrospect it can be considered as an alternate history diverging from ours in late 1933 or early 1934, the Point of divergence being FDR's failure to implement the New Deal and revive the US economy (and also Hitler's failure to revive the German economy by re-armament). Instead, the worldwide economic crisis continues for three decades, concurrently with the war. The war is prosecuted by countries already on the verge of collapse and ends, not with any side's victory, but with everybody's total collapse and disintegration (also of countries which were not involved in the fighting). There follows the complete collapse of Capitalism and the emergence of the above-mentioned new order.


Polish Corridor as cause for World War II

H. G. Wells criticized the Polish Corridor as one of the future causes of World War II:

And to keep the waters of the Vistula as pure and sweet for Poland as the existence of Danzig at the estuary allowed, the peace-makers ran the Vistula boundary between Poland and east Prussia, not in the usual fashion midway along the stream, but at a little distance on the east Prussian side (Jacques Kayser, La Paix en Péril, 1931). So that the east German population, the peasant cultivator, the erstwhile fisherman, the shepherd with his flocks to water, was pulled up by a line of frontier posts and a Polish rifle within sight of the stream.

Within a dozen years of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles the Polish Corridor was plainly the most dangerous factor in the European situation. It mocked every projection of disarmament. It pointed the hypnotized and impotent statescraft of Europe straight towards a resumption of war.

ubmarine Launched Ballistic Missiles

Wells's book can be credited with an accurate prediction of the submarine launched ballistic missile, which was to assume a crucial role in the Cold War period. Though the warheads of what he termed "air torpedoes" were envisaged as chemical rather than nuclear, Wells fully grasped - two decades ahead of the military planners - the strategic implications of combining submarines with weapons of mass destruction.

As well as predicting this application of submarines, Wells correctly predicted that these fearsome weapons would not be fully utilised and would be mainly used to create deterrence between the various powers holding them.

The book displays one of the earliest uses of the C.E. ("Common Era") calendar abbreviation after A.D. year dates; Wells preferred the English C.E. in place of the traditional Western Latin A.D. ("Anno Domini").

Film adaptations

There have been two film adaptations of the novel.

*"Things to Come", a 1936 film with a screenplay by Wells himself.
* "H. G. Wells' The Shape of Things to Come", a 1979 science fiction film very loosely based on the book.
* An episode of the television series "Lost" is titled "The Shape of Things to Come". One of the main settings in the episode is Iraq, similar to the novel.

The Kipling connection

Wells's "Air and Sea Control", the association of pilots and technicians which controls the world's communications and eventually develops into a world government, seems a clear literary descendant of an institution called the Aerial Board of Control (A.B.C.) in the short stories "With the Night Mail" and "Easy as A.B.C.", by Rudyard Kipling, with which Wells was certainly familiar. The Kipling stories are set in a post-apocalyptic world where airships are commonly used both for freight and passenger service, as well as for preventing civil unrest using powerful sonic weapons:

:"The A.B.C., that semi-elected, semi-nominated body of a few score persons, controls the Planet. Transportation is Civilisation, our motto runs. Theoretically we do what we please, so long as we do not interfere with the traffic and all it implies. Practically, the A.B.C. confirms or annuls all international arrangements, and, to judge from its last report, finds our tolerant, humorous, lazy little Planet only too ready to shift the whole burden of public administration on its shoulders."

The above description, from Kipling's "With the Night Mail", seems very applicable to the world-wide institution depicted by Wells. However, Kipling's stories contain dystopian elements.

External links

* [ Full text] - Available freely from the University of Adelaide

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