H.G. Wells, A Modern Utopia, originally published in 1905, page numbers and quotes in this commentary are from Penguin Classics Edition, 2005.
This book uses somewhat complex points of view and plot structures such that it could probably be aptly characterized as experimental fiction using today’s terminology.
The first point of view that is used is that of the author, denoted by italicized text. This is found in the first chapter titled “The Owner of the Voice” where the author lays out the organization of the book, in the last chapter where the author makes explicit the substantive issues he has been trying to grapple with by using this fictional format, and occasionally at other places within the text in the form of short interjections enclosed by parentheses.
The second point of view is that of a fictional character referred to simply as The Voice, a man sitting at a table here on earth while reading and thinking about Utopias. It is his voice that we encounter during the remainder of the book. However, his voice takes two forms. Sometimes it describes his thoughts about the utopias that have been proposed by earlier writers here on earth such as Plato and Thomas More, and how a modern utopia might relate to those earlier proposals. The sections using this form of the voice read like didactic scholarly essays. But other times the man’s thoughts take a leap to an imaginary world that parallels ours, but in which a modern utopia has been implemented. In these sections the form of the voice becomes fictional narrative including dialogue with (imaginary) characters he meets. A character referred to as The Botanist accompanies The Voice on these excursions.
Using this format, H. G. Wells deals with several substantive topics relevant to utopian states including infrastructure and transportation systems; how individual freedoms relate to control of behavior by the state; the roles and rules governing marriage and family; economic issues including ownership of property, occupations and wages; along with several others.
It became gradually apparent to me while reading the book that topics are described and discussed using the same basic schema. First the topic is discussed using the first form of the voice, essentially an essay that lays out the theoretical advantages to some specific utopian approach for dealing with issues relating to this topic. Sometimes potential pitfalls or problems with this approach are also mentioned, but usually only briefly or in a cursory manner. Next, the reader encounters the second form of the voice. A narrative description emerges of what is seen and heard by the travelers (The Voice and The Botanist) as they engage in various adventures in the imaginary utopian world, one that has implemented some of the theoretical ideas that had been discussed abstractly earlier by the first form of the voice. Inevitably, what is encountered by the travelers as they interact with characters living in the utopian world fails to match up to the lofty abstract ideals that had been originally discussed.
“So far the impression we have had of our Utopia is one of quite unearthly sanity, of good management and comprehensive design in every material thing, and it has seemed to us a little incongruous that all of the Utopians we have talked to, our host of last night, the post-mistress and our garrulous tramp, have been of the most commonplace type.” Page 110
Furthermore, the characters they meet do not seem to appreciate, or even particularly care about, the abstract utopian ideals. The Botanist who accompanies The Voice on these excursions to utopia amplifies this discrepancy between abstract ideals and individual human nature. In a typical passage, The Voice will go on and on in an excited manner describing how impressed he is by some aspect of the modern utopia they are travelling through. Eventually he will turn to The Botanist and ask if he has any thoughts about the topic. Invariably, the response of The Botanist is something along the lines, “Sorry, I wasn’t really listening. I was thinking about my girlfriend Mary.” In other words, grand ideas about utopia come head-to-head with the human nature of an individual person.
Above, I characterized the basic approach applied to each topic as a schema, but that does not do the literary style of this book justice. H. G. Wells is a highly gifted writer, and each of these sections are individually creative and humorous, some sections are laugh-out-loud funny. Once the reader catches on to this basic approach, each new section can be greeted with anticipation along the lines, I know the general direction where this is probably going to end up, but I am delighted to be taken along for what I know will be a highly enjoyable read.
Here are a couple of examples of how specific topics are treated:
1. High Ranking Public Officials
High ranking public officials initially appear very impressive.
“But suddenly there looks out from this man’s pose and regard a different quality, a quality altogether nearer that of the beautiful tramway and of the gracious order of the mountain houses. He is a well-built man of perhaps five and thirty, with the easy movement that comes with perfect physical condition, his face is clean shaven and shows the firm mouth of a disciplined man, and his grey eyes are clear and steady. His legs are clad in some woven stuff deep-red in colour, and over this he wears a white shirt fitting pretty closely, and with a woven purple hem.” Page 110
But there are soon harbingers that these initial positive impressions might not hold up.
“His general effect reminds me somehow of the Knights Templars. On his head is a cap of thin leather and still thinner steel, and with the vestiges of ear guards…” page 110
And eventually the respect and high regard for public officials totally collapses as in this example.
“He pulls down the corners of his mouth in a wry deprecatory smile, eyes us obliquely under a crumpled brow, shrugs his shoulders and shows us the palms of his hands. On earth, where there is nationality, this would have been a Frenchman – the inferior sort of Frenchman – the sort whose only happiness is in the routine security of Government employment.” Page 161
2. The Efficient Bureaucracy
The utility and efficiency of a utopian bureaucracy are initially extolled.
“If the modern Utopia is indeed to be a world of responsible citizens, it must have devised some scheme by which every person in the world can be promptly and certainly recognized, and by which anyone missing can be traced and found … colossal task though it would be … each human being could be given a distinct formula, a number or ‘scientific name’, under which he or she could be docketed. About the buildings in which this great main index would be gathered, would be a system of other indices with cross references to the main one, arranged under names, under professional qualifications, under diseases, crimes and the like. These index cards might conceivably be transparent and so contrived as to give a photographic copy promptly whenever it was needed, and they could have an attachment into which would slip a ticket bearing the name of the locality in which the individual was last reported. A little arm of attendants would be at work upon this index day and night.” Pages 112, 113
But to what end is all of this effort directed? Perhaps tongue and cheek, we get the answer.
“At last, when the citizen died, would come the last entry of all, his age and the cause of his death and the date and place of his cremation, and his card would be taken out and passed on to the universal pedigree, to a place of greater quiet, to the ever-growing galleries of the records of the dead. Such a record is inevitable if a modern Utopia is to be achieved.” Page 114
And The Botanist is apparently not impressed by these lofty odes to the efficiency of the state.
“Yet at this, too, our blond-haired friend [The Botanist] would no doubt rebel. One of the many things to which some [like The Botanist] will make claim as a right, is that of going unrecognized and secret whither one will.” Page 114
And so on and so forth, this basic scheme — start out with lofty utopian principles which then degenerate into unworkable or negative situations in practice – is applied repeatedly to a number of issues.
Near the end of the book The Voice starts coming around, grudgingly, to The Botanist’s perspective.
“The botanist will not see Utopia in any other way. He tests it entirely by its reaction upon the individual persons and things he knows; he dislikes it because he suspects it of wanting to lethal-chamber his aunt’s ‘dear old doggie’ [Note: no dogshit in this utopia, but also, sinisterly, no pets], … And here am I, near fallen into the same way of dealing!” page 173
One criticism of A Modern Utopia that I have heard expressed by some puzzles me. Namely, that they disagree with some of the specific precepts for how a Modern Utopia should operate that are advocated for in the book. I admit to almost total ignorance about the life of H. G. Wells or of the positions he advocated during his lifetime. I assume that, like most of the rest of us, he held or advocated for a variety of (perhaps sometimes contradictory) positions during various stages of his lifetime. However, based strictly on what is contained in the text of A Modern Utopia it seems to me to be abundantly clear that the book is not advocating for any aspects of the utopia that is described. In fact, The Voice states explicitly late in the book that he considers the utopia he has visited to be a “moral monster State my Frankenstein of reasoning has made”. (page 160)
In the final chapter of the book where the author’s voice reappears in italics, he explains his purpose in writing this book. It is not to advocate for any specific version of utopia, but instead to explicate the unresolvable tensions that arise between broad theoretical ideas and individual human nature.
“When one focuses on these two [The Voice and The Botanist], that wide landscape [broad theoretical ideas about utopias] becomes indistinct and distant; and when one regards [broad theoretical ideas about utopias], then the real persons one knows grow vague and unreal. Nevertheless, I cannot separate these two aspects of human life, each commenting on one another. In that incongruity between the whole and the individual inheres the incompatibility I could not resolve, and which, therefore, I have had to present in this conflicting form.” Page 247
I found this book to be a stimulating and delightful read, and even though it is now over 100 years old, many of the ideas it discusses in fictional form seem to me to be as relevant today as they were when the book was first published.