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H.G. Wells

The World Set Free





















THE WORLD SET FREE was written in 1913 and published early in

1914, and it is the latest of a series of three fantasias of

possibility, stories which all turn on the possible developments

in the future of some contemporary force or group of forces. The

World Set Free was written under the immediate shadow of the

Great War. Every intelligent person in the world felt that

disaster was impending and knew no way of averting it, but few of

us realised in the earlier half of 1914 how near the crash was to

us. The reader will be amused to find that here it is put off

until the year 1956. He may naturally want to know the reason

for what will seem now a quite extraordinary delay. As a

prophet, the author must confess he has always been inclined to

be rather a slow prophet. The war aeroplane in the world of

reality, for example, beat the forecast in Anticipations by about

twenty years or so. I suppose a desire not to shock the sceptical

reader's sense of use and wont and perhaps a less creditable

disposition to hedge, have something to do with this dating

forward of one's main events, but in the particular case of The

World Set Free there was, I think, another motive in holding the

Great War back, and that was to allow the chemist to get well

forward with his discovery of the release of atomic energy.

1956-or for that matter 2056-may be none too late for that

crowning revolution in human potentialities. And apart from this

procrastination of over forty years, the guess at the opening

phase of the war was fairly lucky; the forecast of an alliance of

the Central Empires, the opening campaign through the

Netherlands, and the despatch of the British Expeditionary Force

were all justified before the book had been published six months.

And the opening section of Chapter the Second remains now, after

the reality has happened, a fairly adequate diagnosis of the

essentials of the matter. One happy hit (in Chapter the Second,

Section 2), on which the writer may congratulate himself, is the

forecast that under modern conditions it would be quite

impossible for any great general to emerge to supremacy and

concentrate the enthusiasm of the armies of either side. There

could be no Alexanders or Napoleons. And we soon heard the

scientific corps muttering, 'These old fools,' exactly as it is

here foretold.

These, however, are small details, and the misses in the story

far outnumber the hits. It is the main thesis which is still of

interest now; the thesis that because of the development of

scientific knowledge, separate sovereign states and separate

sovereign empires are no longer possible in the world, that to

attempt to keep on with the old system is to heap disaster upon

disaster for mankind and perhaps to destroy our race altogether.

The remaining interest of this book now is the sustained validity

of this thesis and the discussion of the possible ending of war

on the earth. I have supposed a sort of epidemic of sanity to

break out among the rulers of states and the leaders of mankind.

I have represented the native common sense of the French mind and

of the English mind-for manifestly King Egbert is meant to be

'God's Englishman'-leading mankind towards a bold and resolute

effort of salvage and reconstruction. Instead of which, as the

school book footnotes say, compare to-day's newspaper. Instead

of a frank and honourable gathering of leading men, Englishman

meeting German and Frenchman Russian, brothers in their offences

and in their disaster, upon the hills of Brissago, beheld in

Geneva at the other end of Switzerland a poor little League of

(Allied) Nations (excluding the United States, Russia, and most

of the 'subject peoples' of the world), meeting obscurely amidst

a world-wide disregard to make impotent gestures at the leading

problems of the debacle. Either the disaster has not been vast

enough yet or it has not been swift enough to inflict the

necessary moral shock and achieve the necessary moral revulsion.

Just as the world of 1913 was used to an increasing prosperity

and thought that increase would go on for ever, so now it would

seem the world is growing accustomed to a steady glide towards

social disintegration, and thinks that that too can go on

continually and never come to a final bump. So soon do use and

wont establish themselves, and the most flaming and thunderous of

lessons pale into disregard.

The question whether a Leblanc is still possible, the question

whether it is still possible to bring about an outbreak of

creative sanity in mankind, to avert this steady glide to

destruction, is now one of the most urgent in the world. It is

clear that the writer is temperamentally disposed to hope that

there is such a possibility. But he has to confess that he sees

few signs of any such breadth of understanding and steadfastness

of will as an effectual effort to turn the rush of human affairs

demands. The inertia of dead ideas and old institutions carries

us on towards the rapids. Only in one direction is there any

plain recognition of the idea of a human commonweal as something

overriding any national and patriotic consideration, and that is

in the working class movement throughout the world. And labour

internationalism is closely bound up with conceptions of a

profound social revolution. If world peace is to be attained

through labour internationalism, it will have to be attained at

the price of the completest social and economic reconstruction

and by passing through a phase of revolution that will certainly

be violent, that may be very bloody, which may be prolonged

through a long period, and may in the end fail to achieve

anything but social destruction. Nevertheless, the fact remains

that it is in the labour class, and the labour class alone, that

any conception of a world rule and a world peace has so far

appeared. The dream of The World Set Free, a dream of highly



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