Sunday, October 11, 2009

Things to Come (Dystopia Week Part 1)

H.G. Wells was a complete jerk.  As noted in Jonah Goldberg’s recent book, Wells coined the term “liberal fascism,” and he meant it as a good thing, a long-term plan to give socialism the panache and glamour of Naziism and a veneer of palatable old-fashioned liberalism (he seems to be winning, alas).

Wells was also an arrogant, totalitarian monster (and thus right at home with George Bernard Shaw and other respectable British intellectuals in the Fabian Society of a century ago).  His stories included ones in which he openly dreamt of humanity simply waking up much smarter one day and, as a result, burning the old books and paintings of the bourgeois era in massive bonfires so that people can set about building a new world without markets or sexual jealousy.

If Wells hadn’t imagined some Martians, giant ants, and time machines along the way, he’d rightly be regarded today as an insufferable asshole.

Poised somewhere between the two aspects of his persona lies the 1936 film that he wrote, the truly impressive Things to Come (fusing a similarly-titled novel he wrote and a widely-acclaimed sociological tract that he likely plagiarized).  On the brink of the real Second World War, Wells depicted a global conflict that would cast civilization in ruin but would also afford the opportunity for big-brained socialists (specifically, giant-helmeted “Masons” with the world’s only remaining tech knowledge) to rebuild — and this time get things right.

The most surprising — yet familiar — sequence of this whole century-spanning tale, though, to the modern viewer, is the almost farcical (in a good way) sequence in the middle of the film depicting humanity living in squalor amidst the ruins.  For, as surely as I am a geek, it was this sequence that inspired (directly or indirectly) most of the other dystopian works we’ll be looking at this week, including Road Warrior.  It’s all here: the patched-together clothing, the ramshackle vehicles, the primitivist reversion to tribal ways and leadership by chieftans, even the silly hats.

He wanted utopia, but for this Week of Dystopia, we are deeply indebted to H.G. Wells.

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