Men Like Gods
by H. G. Wells

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Cassell: London, 1923
304 pages

Macmillan: New York, 1923

327 pages February 2003

An alternate world

Now even a mechanical foot-bath does not like being passed in this lordly fashion on a bright morning on the open road. Mr. Barnstaple's accelerator went down and he came round that corner a good ten miles per hour faster than his usual cautious practice. He found the road quite clear ahead of him.

Indeed he found the road much too clear ahead of him. It stretched straight in front of him for perhaps a third of a mile. On the left were a low, well-trimmed hedge, scattered trees, level fields, some small cottages lying back, remote poplars, and a distant view of Windsor Castle. On the right were level fields, a small inn, and a background of low, wooded hills. A conspicuous feature in this tranquil landscape was the board advertisement of a riverside hotel at Maidenhead. Before him was a sort of heat flicker in the air and two or three little dust whirls spinning along the road. And there was not a sign of the grey touring car and not a sign of the Limousine.

Beyond that heat flicker in the sunny air is another world, an alternate Earth. The two faster cars have just flicked through into that parallel world, and in a few seconds Mr. Barnstaple's yellow open car passes into that transient opening and follows them.

Mr. Barnstaple is "sub-editor and general factotum of the Liberal, that well-known organ of the more depressing aspects of advanced thought"; his family feels overwhelmingly tiresome; and he has been in desperate need of a holiday alone. He slips away from family and job, and in short course in his little yellow car he has driven into Utopia.

But a utopia traditionally is a land of men and women, not a heaven of gods and goddesses. What does it mean to be Men Like Gods, as in the title of H. G. Wells' 1923 science fiction novel?

The human ecology of utopia

In this alternate world, the Utopia indeed is a land of men and women. They are bright and happy, healthy and long-lived. Their appearance is likened explicitly to Greek deities. The Utopians go unclothed unselfconsciously — which implies a climate more like Greece than Wells' England, or at least a really nice English Summer. The population is rather the size of Classical times than 1923 even — collapsed to only two hundred million people in the whole Utopian world, although now allowed to increase again. There is plenty of open space; this is not a citified folk. Families are amorphous and shifting.

The ecology has been as rigidly controlled as the humanity. Vast numbers of species of bugs and birds have been wiped out deliberately — a true silent spring. Cows are not afraid of a leopard, and the leopard merely curious about the English men and women who drive into Utopia. We might ask what has been done to this world.

In the distant past, the world of Utopia had suffered in its own Days of Confusion, not unlike what still reigns on Earth. By the end of his first day, Barnstaple already is bowled over by how far Utopia has progressed:

And yet even in the hate and turmoil and distresses of the Days of Confusion [in Utopia] there must have been earnest enough of the exquisite and glorious possibilities of life. Over the foulest slums the sunset called to the imaginations of men, and from mountain ridges, across great valleys, from cliffs and hillsides and by the uncertain and terrible splendours of the sea, men must have had glimpses of the conceivable and attainable magnificence of being. Every flower petal, every sunlit leaf, the vitality of young things, the happy moments of the human mind transcending itself in art, all these things must have been material for hope, incentive to effort. And now at last — this world!

Mr. Barnstaple lifted up his hands like one who worships to the friendly multitude of the stars above him.

"I have seen," he whispered. "I have seen."

Little lights and soft glows of illumination were coming out here and there over this great park of flowerlike buildings and garden spaces that sloped down toward the lake. A circling aeroplane, itself a star, hummed softly overhead.

A readable utopia in a real landscape

Men Like Gods works better as a novel than many of Wells' other more or less science-fictional social satires. He takes care to give us a real landscape, not just happy nude Utopians lecturing the stranded Earthlings. Barnstaple boats across the waters of a reservoir to see the view from the dam. Later he has to descend a rock cliff and it's quite an ordeal.

Wells' earlier science fiction novel The Food of the Gods (1904) is not related to this one. In that, a few babies as well as plants and animals are given an addictive growth-stimulating food. Amusing in the first half, but when Wells gets to the societal strife caused by forty-foot tall humans living in contemporary Britain, it becomes ridiculous. Even ignoring the square-cube law, gods are more than tall.

Another route to utopia by Wells, In the Days of the Comet (1906), is an improbable revenge story of a stolen girlfriend and socialist revolutionary ferment. Both plotlines eventually are stymied and transformed by a comet-dust tail sweeping the Earth of bad impulses. The glimpse at the end of the happy world has no shreds of believability.

In his 1934 preface to Seven Famous Novels by H. G. Wells, the author says:

Men like Gods, written seventeen years after In the Days of the Comet, and not included in this volume, was almost the last of my scientific fantasies. It did not horrify or frighten, was not much of a success, and by that time I had tired of talking in playful parables to a world engaged in destroying itself. I was becoming too convinced of the strong probability of very strenuous and painful human experiences in the near future to play about with them much more.

A variety of utopias

There are plenty of utopian conceptions throughout literature. Anyone meditating on conditions for human perfection has a wide range to consider. The harshly ideal State in the Republic by Plato requires manipulative rule by philosopher-kings. In The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, the wonderful woodland is accessible only to a supra-human and immortal race: Lothlorien, "the heart of Elvendom on earth". In Brain Wave by Poul Anderson, a galactic cloud passes on, lifting its age-old suppression of sheer human intelligence.

How about godlike individuals in imperfect societies, recognizable men and women reaching beyond any current human norm to virtual demigod heights? In Edward E. Smith's Lensman series and James H. Schmitz's Telzey Amberdon series, principal characters, more or less aided by very advanced technology, possess mental powers of Olympian altitude to help set things aright.

Please note how utterly different these are.

In "a cleaned and perfected humanity",
should godlike individuals retain individuality?

Let's get back now to the idea of Utopia on Earth, as Wells proposes here:

And about this world went the tall people of Utopia, fair and wonderful, smiling or making some friendly gesture as they passed him but giving him little chance for questions or intercourse. They travelled swiftly in machines upon the high road or walked, and ever and again the shadow of a silent soaring aeroplane would pass over him. He went a little in awe of these people and felt himself a queer creature when he met their eyes. For like the gods of Greece and Rome theirs was a cleaned and perfected humanity, and it seemed to him that they were gods. Even the great tame beasts that walked freely about this world had a certain divinity that checked the expression of Mr. Barnstaple's friendliness.

Those Utopians sure aren't curious! And affable rather than friendly, affable to the point of indifference; I doubt Utopians possess even enough depth for contempt of poor Barnstaple. For a society of artists and inventors they display rather flat-affect personalities. The Utopians may be "bright" and "attractive" but they're dull and shallow.

Olympian eccentrics or utopian drones?

I maintain a much more vital impression of the Classical gods than Wells allows Barnstaple to intimate here. The Olympian gods, if we may so, were very human. Their variety and individuality, their lack of absoluteness leaves room in the Classical world for men and women to be — men and women.

... Anthropomorphic view of the Gods also encouraged a concept of a divine society, probably influenced by west Asian models and very prominent in Homer. Prayer formulae locate deities in their sanctuaries or favorite place on earth, but much mythology creates a picture of a group of Gods living more or less together in (albeit rather eccentric) family relationships.

Simon Hornblower & Anthony Spawforth, editors
"Religion, Greek: Gods and other cult figures"
The Oxford Classical Dictionary, Third Edition:

Well's Utopian men like gods are not by Olympian standards eccentric at all, nor particularly odd by our own jaded modern tastes. I misdoubt the Classical Greeks would be impressed by this Utopia with constant nudity but not much liveliness, or a nature with denatured animals. Are the Utopians godlike at all? The whole business looks more wishful than noble, less a marriage of virtues than a social-engineered misalliance: say Technocracy plus Nudism.

The world the creators build

However, Herodotus the Father of History takes a plain straightforward view, surprisingly very like Wells', of efficiency become godhood:

In early times the Pelasgi, as I know by information which I got at Dodona, offered sacrifices of all kinds, and prayed to the gods, but had no distinct names or appellations for them since they had never heard of any. They called them gods (disposers) because they had disposed and arranged all things in such a beautiful order.

The Histories 2:52
translated by George Rawlinson (revised)

The Pelasgi? Well, Dodona in Epirus was "reputedly the oldest Greek oracle" according to The Oxford Classical Dictionary; "Achilles prayed to the Pelasgian Zeus at Dodona". The Pelasgians are mentioned by Homer as Trojan allies, but also being within Achilles' domain. They are "the mythical pre-Hellenic inhabitants of Greece", the "Ur-peoples of the Aegean more generally". So we may reckon that Herodotus had the straightest report we are likely to get from the Elder Days before the Greeks awoke.

So disposing and arranging the things of this world in a beautiful order is godlike, an attribute of gods. In this sublunar plane of Earthly loves and toils, we do however need to be careful about deifying the efficiency experts. Who will optimize the optimizers? What I call waste of time may be your favorite hobby. What you call waste of effort I may call romantic love.

Workers' paradise lost

To Wells' credit, he already seems aware before 1923 that the utopia in power being formed in the new Soviet Union is not good, a realization that many other socialists and communists took a generation to figure out, or never did. There is a relation to the micro-utopia of Galt's Gulch in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, in that there also everyone's paradisal ambition is assumed to be work, creative or inventive. Yes, that may be ideal for creative giants like Wells and Rand, but what about all the others? The masses, as they or we used to be called?

To put it bluntly, in Utopia they are dead. In Men Like Gods, the uncreative all are vanished long ago, non-creativeness and non-inventiveness bred out of the race. In Atlas Shrugged it is the creative ones who never are seen to have children, so that future will be up for grabs.

H. G. Wells works thoughtfully in Men Like Gods to suggest how we common folk, men of clay not of gold, not substantially different than we were in the Stone Age — and requiring neither a supreme God nor a despot — how we may begin to build and at length achieve Utopia on Earth. The novel remains well worth reading, and should stimulate our thoughts.

If we agreed on one Utopia —

Fortunately individual men and women may still differ on what constitutes a utopia, and I trust that despite (or because of!) the progress of knowledge we all never shall manage to perfectly agree on what constitutes the one perfect Utopia. To my mind that would deify the social state, submerging real men and women into a necessarily shallow definition of humanity. We might still "create" and "invent" and even "raise children", but we would not have men and women. The individualized human nobility would be subsumed in the divine rightness of Utopia.

We would have not only a utopia in power but a theocracy in power. The end of history; the future becalmed and rippleless out to the furthest horizon. We would have not fountaining men like gods, but a stagnant God-state. That is not the living and ongoing perfection of Man, but the dead and final domination of the State.

Thus all that is past is abandoned: for one day the rabble might become master and drown all time in shallow waters.

Therefore, my brothers, a new nobility is needed to be the adversary of all rabble and of all that is despotic and to write anew upon new tablets the word "noble."

For many who are noble are needed, and noble men of many kinds, that there may be a nobility. Or as I once said in a parable: "Precisely this is godlike that there are gods, but no God."

Friedrich Nietzsche
"On Old and New Tablets"
Thus Spoke Zarathustra III.12  (1884)
in The Portable Nietzsche

Better Olympus than Utopia.


© 2003 Robert Wilfred Franson

DLF facilitated this.

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