Science Fiction Studies

#27 = Volume 9, Part 2 = July 1982


H.G. Wells


[``Utopias'' is the title Wells gave the second of his talks to the Australian public. Transmitted through the facilities of the ABC on January 19, 1939, it has something of the wistful tone of his previous broadcast, "Fiction About the Future" (for the text of which, see H.G. Wells's Literary Criticism, ed. Patrick Parrinder and myself [Brighton, UK & Totawa, NJ: 1980], pp. 246-51). But in this case, the poignancy derives not from a self-deprecating sense of his own literary failures but from his awareness that a war which would soon involve Western Europe was already savaging much of the world for the second time in a generation. It is no doubt with that lugubrious prospect in mind that Wells invokes Isaiah 2:3-4 and speaks of Utopia as "a reflection of our distresses. " Even so, he sees in the progress of the literature of "if only " from "Utopias of conduct" to "Utopias of Organization" the emergence, via Francis Bacon, of something affined to the intellectual cooperation of "prepotent individuals" that he had championed in his own utopian writings: a Scientific Ideal of "perpetual criticism, increase and diffusion of...knowledge" that might yet put "this order."

This is the first time "Utopias" appears in print. The text, slightly amended to conform to SFS style, is that of the typescript in the Wells Collection at the University of Illinois and incorporates corrections in HGW's hand. It is reproduced below by special arrangement with and kind permission from A.P. Watt and Son, literary agents for the Wells Estate, which holds the copyright.—RMP]

I would like in this article to say something about a type of work, Utopian Fiction, often associated with anticipatory tales. It is not a very close association. Some Futuristic stories are indeed Utopian, but usually they have nothing in common with the Utopian spirit. They profess to foretell—more often than not, with warnings and forebodings. The Utopian story imagines a better and a happier world and makes no presence to reality. For 24 centuries at least men have been telling Utopian stories, and they are all stories arising out of discontent and escaping towards dreamland. They all express a certain appetite for life—"if only"—.

"If only"—that is the Utopian key-note. There is little prospect of any futuristic writings becoming permanent literature. We prophets write for our own time and pass almost before we are dead, but some of the Utopias are among the most enduring gems in the literary treasure house. They throw down no such self-destructive challenge as the futurist writer does, when he says, "This is the way things are going—and this what is coming about." The Utopian says merely, "If only," and escapes from time, death and judgment. That does not prevent the normal Utopian from assuming a certain exemplary attitude. If he does not warn and threaten us, he does not hesitate to reprove. At times, "If only" becomes "If only you would." It is just that note of moral edification that marks off the Utopian story from a third realm of imaginative escape, the fiction of irresponsible fantasy, mere wonder tales, like Munchhausen's Adventures, Gulliver's Travels, the voyage of St Brendan or the wanderings of Rabelais' Panurge in search of the Holy Bottle. There the effect sought is the unadulterated delight of pure astonishment. That sort of thing passes by insensible degrees into the inspired absurdity of Heath Robinson's Uncle Lubin and his pursuit of the Bag-Bird; that lovely book which is at once as convincing and as incoherent as a preposterous dream.1 The Utopian writer does not want to be impossible. He is not a realist, no, but he is serious. His "If only—if only you would" is wistful....

Another sort of fable which releases us from reality lies closer to the Utopias. These are the worlds beyond death, the Heavens and the Paradises of simple-minded folk. Most heavens are restful. The Red Indians' Hunting Grounds and the Islamic Paradise have a certain flavor of active enjoyment about them, but the common atmosphere of Heaven is a glow of evening restfulness. There is a very charming and quite Utopian poem by Ford Madox Ford, called "On Heaven"—I don't know if you have read it—and there is a short story by Henry James, "The Great Good Place," both pervaded by the same serenity, and both extremely well worth hunting out and reading.2

There are two equally sound reasons why I should not attempt to give you a comprehensive account of all the Utopias in existence. One is that I haven't the necessary time, and the other that I haven't the necessary learning. It is altogether a vast literature. There are multitudes of Utopias I have heard about and never read, and there must be multitudes I have never heard of. To be a complete authority on Utopias would be the work of a lifetime. From the very beginnings of writing mankind has been revealing its distresses in these dreams. There were Babylonian and Egyptian Utopias. And the book of Isaiah is a dark texture of bitterness and foreboding, shot with wistful desire. You will remember that familiar passage:

Come yee and let us go up the mountaine of the Lord, to the house of the God of Iacob, and he will teach us of his wayes, and we will walke in his pathes....And tree shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beate their swords into plow-shares, and their speares into pruning hookes: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learne warre any more. 12:3-41

There speaks a war-weary spirit, and again you will remember:

For behold, I create new heavens, and a new earth: and the former shal not be remembred, nor come into mind. But bee you glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create: for beholde, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy. And I wit rejoyce in Jerusalem, and joy in my people, and the voice of weeping shall be no more heard in her, nor the voice of crying. There shalbe no more thence an infant of dayes, nor an olde man, that bath not filled his dayes.... And they shall builde houses, and inhabite them, and they shal plant vineyards, and eate the fruit of them. They shal not build, and another inhabit: they shal not plant, and another eat:....mine elect shal long enjoy the worke of their hands. They shall not labour in vaine, nor bring forth for trouble.... The Wolfe and the lambe shall feede together, and the Iyon shall eate straw like the bullocke .... They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountaine, sayth the LORD. Isaiah 65:17-251

There you have the very quintessence of a Utopia. That millennial dream has never yet been realized. You will grasp its poignant quality if you will take the Book of Isaiah as one whole and read it through. You will find these passages I have quoted are set in a turmoil of violent realities, marching hosts, thundering chariots, walls cast down and captives driven into exile— slaughtering and frightfulness and vindictive punishments beyond measure....

You will find the same reflection of a troubled world in the various Utopias scattered through the Dialogues of Plato. The Republic is a Utopia. It reflects the dissatisfaction of a fine and powerful mind, living in the bright light of that small, intelligent, Athenian community, at the failure of men to achieve justice, at the success of the demagogue and despot over the reasonable men, their betters. This problem of reconciling justice with freedom and good government is still one of our troubles, as perplexing among the dissensions of our Parties, Parliaments, creeds, classes, movements, and nations today, as ever it was in the Athenian democracy, 22 centuries ago. Plato found his solution in the Philosopher King, who was to reign from 35 to 50, and then depart to the Islands of the Blest, receiving honor and exuding wisdom for all the rest of his days. Nowadays we have a little improved upon Plato, but the Utopias of our time are none the less a reflection of our distresses.

The Critias is an unfinished Platonic Dialogue in which a quasi-Utopian story begins and breaks off abruptly, and that is very disappointing, because it was to tell how, thousands of years ago, the mighty vanished Empire of Atlantis made war upon the Athenian Republic under its Philosopher King, and, if the story had been concluded, we should have seen how the Utopian democracies fought for their free union and won the war.3 "If only—."

It would have been pure Utopianism, because in the world of hard reality, the bickerings of the Grecian states were clearly preparing for their ultimate conquest by the Macedonians.

Throughout the ages the Utopias reflect the anxieties and discontents amidst which they were produced. They are, so to speak, shadows of light thrown by darknesses. The more disturbed men's minds are, the more Utopias multiply. The Ages of Faith before the Renascence and the Reformation produced few fresh Utopias. Partly because they would have been suppressed, but mainly because the ideas of the Millennium and Heaven supplied the same imaginative need. Saint Augustine's City of God is a Utopian conception of human life brought into a unity under the rule of the Church. With the stimulation and disturbance of men's minds by the Renascence and the discovery of America and the Far East, Utopias sprang up everywhere. There were firstly Utopias of freedom and good conduct. Utopias that protest against fear. The Thelema of Rabelais was the greatest of these. "If only" we behaved without fear, without profiteering, freely and gallantly as ladies and gentlemen should—that was the theme of Thelema. The happy News from Nowhere of William Morris is another good example of that "If only—." Everybody was pleased to serve everybody, and nobody wanted to be paid any more than a gentleman wants a tip. I myself tried a little excursion of that sort, called In the Days of the Comet, but I do not think the Utopian side of it very good. The device I used was to wipe the Earth clean with the tail of a remarkable comet made of a sort of beneficent benzedrine gas, that cleared men's minds and hearts to a wonderful extent.

But most of these later Utopias from the 17th century onward have been not so much of Utopias of conduct as Utopias of Organization. They include Campanella's City of the Sun, the first definite Socialism since Plato's Republic, and also there was the first of all Utopias to be called frankly no-where—the Utopia of Sir Thomas More.4 That dealt with unemployment. His Utopia was a distant island, and in those eventful centuries of voyages and discoveries, the 17th and 18th, all Utopias were islands and remote lands.

 Towards the end of the 19th century we began to realize that all the islands had been found and that the world was becoming one community. Blatchford's Merrie Englands came home for Utopia, and in Bellamy's famous Looking Backward, Utopia was the world. In 1904, A Modern Utopia, I made a sort of summary of Utopian ideas, in which I pointed out this now unavoidable universality. But still seeking an escape from material fact, I went, in Men Like Gods, right out of our time and space across the dimensions to an entirely different Universe.

Side by side with these recent Socialist Utopias, another field of Utopianism was opening out. The wistfulness of the Socialist Utopias lay in saying "If only we organized society better," but these other Utopias I am coming to said, "If only we put our minds and our knowledge in order—." Knowledge is power. That was the dominant thought of Bacon's Atlantis, the greatest of the scientific Utopias.

That Utopia of Bacon's has produced more in the way of real consequences than any other Utopia that was ever written. It carried out the teaching of that still greater and earlier Bacon, Roger Bacon, and it confessed that man is still an ignorant creature, who has everything to learn. It embodies a new conception in human life, the conception of continual organized research. All the other Utopias present islands, communities and worlds of happy and exemplary completion and self-satisfaction, but the Utopia of Francis Bacon is a world of seekers after knowledge, a world growing perpetually in knowledge and wisdom and incidentally growing in power. It is a world ruled by organized Science. And by Science we do not mean established knowledge, but the perpetual criticism, increase and diffusion of more knowledge and more. Perhaps a better word would be not Science but philosophy. It supplements the Utopia of Plato which would make the philosopher, king. Instead of that it tries out the idea of making not the philosopher but scientific philosophy, king.

All scientific workers are Utopians after the school of Francis Bacon. That is why I am here in Australia talking to you. I came here to learn what I could from the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science [,] which has just been meeting at Canberra. All the men and women in that Association, I warn you, are Utopians, and they believe their Utopia is real. They believe that this world of ours can only be put in order and kept in order by the perpetual refreshment of scientific thought. They believe as firmly as any human beings have ever believed, that swords can be beaten into plough-shares and spears into pruning-hooks, that nation need not lift up its hand against nation, nor should they learn war any more.

But they do not prophesy that will certainly happen. They say, "If only you would."


1. Wells is referring to a children's book (1902) by the cartoonist and book-illustrator William Heath Robinson (1872-1944).

2. The heaven of Ford's poem (first published in On Heaven and Poems Written in Active Service, 1918) "is situate in a little old town/Not very far from the side of the Rhone." It bears some resemblance to the "great good place" of Henry James's better-known short story (1900) in that it, too, is a refuge from the cares and exigencies of the mundane world.

"On Heaven" is most readily available in Selected Poems: Ford Maddox Ford, ed. Basil Bunting (Cambridge. MA: Pym-Randall Press. 1971), pp. 11-25: 

"The Great Good Place" can be found in The Complete Tales of Henry James, ed. Leon Edel (Philadephia & NY: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1964), 11:13-42.

3. The Atlantis myth also makes an appearance in Plato's Timaeus (20c-26d), where the fragmentary narrative is again Critias's.

4. For Wells's far more lengthy commentary on More, see his 1908 preface to the Utopia, in H.G. Wells's Literary Criticism, pp. 234-37.

5. This book (1894) comprises a series of articles on socialism by Robert Blatchford (1851-1943).


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