- Paperback: 320 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Classics (April 25 2006)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0141441127
- ISBN-13: 978-0141441122
- Product Dimensions: 13 x 1.9 x 19.8 cm
- Shipping Weight: 240 g
- Average Customer Review: 1 customer review
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #357,553 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
A Modern Utopia Paperback – Apr 25 2006
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About the Author
H.G. Wells was a professional writer and journalist, who published more than a hundred books, including novels, histories, essays and programmes for world regeneration. Wells's prophetic imagination was first displayed in pioneering works of science fiction, but later he became an apostle of socialism, science and progress. His controversial views on sexual equality and the shape of a truly developed nation remain directly relevant to our world today. He was, in Bertrand Russell's words, 'an important liberator of thought and action'.
Francis Wheen is a journalist, author, and broadcaster.
Gregory Claeys is a historian at the University of Royal Holloway, London.
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This is a curious kind of book, which Wells acknowledges at the start. Not quite a novel, not quite an essay, A Modern Utopia is the result of “a peculiar method,” one which Wells believes to be “the best way to a sort of lucid vagueness which has always been my intention in this matter.”
Wells identifies the key ways in which his utopia is meant to be different from the many classical and contemporary utopias to which he frequently refers. A Modern Utopia is to be a dynamic, not static society, one that is not a perfect and unchanging ideal but rather an evolving social organism, adjusting its character to maintain its purposes through changing times and circumstances. In one way or other, Wells’s utopia must account for everyone, not just the able and admirable citizens found in other utopias. It must offer everyone maximum freedom, not maximum uniformity.
A Modern Utopia is a single world state, using modern transportation and communication technologies to make a unified, fluid citizenry possible and practical. This world state is a combination of global socialism — everyone is provided with the means to live in modest comfort — and individual liberty — few restrictions on where or how one lives, on what or how much one works, with incentives for greater industry and for other meaningful contributions to society. Few restrictions, with one crucial exception. Following Malthus, Wells sees unchecked population growth as the greatest danger to society: “a State whose population continues to increase in obedience to unchecked instinct, can progress only from bad to worse.”
In A Modern Utopia, reproduction is strictly regulated, with the goal of improving the species by encouraging the best to have children, while keeping the worst childless: "A mere indiscriminating restriction of the birth-rate … involves not only the cessation of distresses but stagnation, and the minor good of a sort of comfort and social stability is won at too great a sacrifice. Progress depends on competitive selection, and that we may not escape."
But it is a conceivable and possible thing that this margin of futile struggling, pain and discomfort and death might be reduced to nearly nothing without checking physical and mental evolution, with indeed an acceleration of physical and mental evolution, by preventing the birth of those who would in the unrestricted interplay of natural forces be born to suffer and fail.
The detailed social mechanisms by which Wells proposes to achieve his population ends are beyond the scope of a short review, other than to note that they follow his understanding of Darwinian evolution. Wells would not attempt to engineer “compulsory pairing,” but he would set up conditions and rules that operate to restrict reproduction in ways that foster the “natural selection” of the individuals most fit for the future.
In a society without poverty, with free choice of occupation and interest, a meritocracy of “voluntary noblemen,” called samurai, assume the key leadership and administrative positions. Strictly non-hereditary, this nobility operates something like a combination of Plato’s “Guardians” and the imperial Chinese civil service.
The samurai are “noblemen” thanks to one area in which Wells’s vision doesn’t see the full future. While women in his utopia are free and officially equal, Wells can’t quite bring himself to discard the attitudes of his sex and his time. While he argues that women are inferior to men only because they are kept economically inferior, which he proposes to remediate by making motherhood a paid occupation, his reasons for that economic inferiority are pure Victorian sexism: "It is a fact that almost every point in which a woman differs from a man is an economic disadvantage to her, her incapacity for great stresses of exertion, her frequent liability to slight illnesses, her weaker initiative, her inferior invention and resourcefulness, her relative incapacity for organization and combination …."
So much for an enlightened vision!
On religion, the Utopians have repudiated “original sin,” believing instead that “man, on the whole, is good….This is their cardinal belief.” Individual freedom will reign here as it does in all other aspects of Utopian society: "[T]hey will have escaped the delusive simplification of God that vitiates all terrestrial theology. They will hold God to be complex and of an endless variety of aspects, to be expressed by no universal formula nor approved in any uniform manner. Just as the language of Utopia will be a synthesis, even so will its God be."
Too soon, our traveler narrator returns to his own world, where he is over-whelmed by the imperfection of its dirt and noise and unequal suffering. Yet, even here, he sees a hope for the future: "The face of a girl who is passing westward, a student girl, rather carelessly dressed,her books in a carrying-strap, comes across my field of vision. The westward sun of London glows upon her face. She has eyes that dream, surely no sensuous nor personal dream." And Wells muses: "After all, after all, dispersed, hidden, disorganized, undiscovered, unsuspected even by themselves, the samurai of Utopia are in this world, the motives that are developed and organized there stir dumbly here and stifle in ten thousand futile hearts."
In all, A Modern Utopia is worth the investment of the short time it takes to read, even if its depiction of a world enlightened by science and led by an altruistic intellectual and creative elite strikes me more as a rather naive curiosity than as a prescription for a real future.
But then, a skeptic like Wells may imagine an ideal society, where the pessimist or cynic may not.
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
As promised in the title, it's modern in ways that many more recent Utopias aren't. Wells considers the unavoidable inequality of child-bearing duties, and turns full-time motherhood into a paying profession. He acknowledges acquisitiveness and cupidity - rather than wide-open warehouses, his Utopia uses money to add wisdom (or at least thought) to the choices made in what to take home. He discusses race and racial superiority in terms that his 1905 audience would have found familiar. In the end, he argues for economic and legal equality not on the grounds of actual equality, a point that he leaves undecided, but on the grounds that no group in history has ever shown that it deserved to hold the upper hand.
There's more, much more, including a wealth of references to other Utopian literature - that by itself might almost have justified the cost of this book. Wells's interleaving of multiple levels of fiction also makes for an unusual reading experience. But it's the ideal world itself that stands out, mostly by not standing out. Real people didn't set out to create a bad world, so most of what we've worked out has a lot going for it. Above all, what we've got has room in it for many kinds of people, not all of whom will or can devote themselves to some moral ideal. "A Modern Utopia" is complex and layered in its presentation, but equally complex in what might look like banality of solutions to pressing social problems. Social improvement mattered too much to Wells for him to let it seem glib or impossible.
The end results sounds more like a system set up in the Middle Ages, with most of the labor moving to where the jobs are, a small middle class of above normal workers and a class of supermen, and some women, at the top. I am sorry Wells, but this is not a Utopia. Even after talking about individualism and the equality of women in the end this more like a nightmare, and a boring one at that.
You should read it, because many modern books on utopias and dystopias will use it as part of the background on the subject. But I don't think anybody should really talk about it as a serious system of World Government.