[``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 world...in
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
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 foretellmore 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 goingand 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 onlyif 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 itand 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
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
There speaks a war-weary spirit, and again you
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 shouldthat 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-wherethe 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
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.
5. This book (1894) comprises a series of
articles on socialism by Robert Blatchford (1851-1943).
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