Men Like Gods (1923) by H.G. Wells

Book review by Frances S: Settling down to begin reading Men Like Gods a day or two after The Prime Minister’s 23 March 2020 ‘lockdown’ speech, I was looking forward to escaping into the relative calm of 1921 Sydenham. The novel is divided into three ‘books’. Book 1, The Irruption of the Earthlings, tells how Mr Barnstaple, somewhat like ‘J’ in Three Men in a Boat, decides that he needs a holiday from his work as sub-editor and general factotum to Mr Peeve, gloomy Editor of The Liberal, ‘that well known organ of the more depressing aspects of advanced thought’. Mr Barnstaple also wants a break from his family. Much as he loves them, he is wearied by the noisy presence of his three sons as they get ‘leggier and larger every day’.

Mr Barnstaple sneaks off in his old, yellow sports car, telegraphing his wife to tell her he has been advised by a nerve doctor to take an immediate holiday and urging her not to worry about him. On the road, an enormous grey touring car sweeps past him, followed by a limousine. Rounding the next corner, he is astonished to find that both cars have disappeared. Just as he is wondering where they could have gone, he skids, stops, and finds himself in a totally strange landscape, with the limousine parked ahead of him.

They are in a beautiful, idyllic country, with blue skies, wild flowers, contented cattle and a friendly leopard. The first local inhabitants they encounter are the bodies of a beautiful young man and girl, killed by an explosion whilst conducting the time and space experiments that led to the Earthlings’ arrival. It emerges that the third car has also arrived, and, still speeding, has run over and killed a local youth. The occupants of the cars include various members of high society, including the clergy and senior politicians, plus, of course, their chauffeurs.

The Earthlings have been catapulted into a parallel ‘Utopian’ world whose far distant history, called the ‘Age of Confusion’ by the Utopians, was similar to our present. Fortunately, the Utopians communicate by a process of thought, so they ‘speak’ whatever language is necessary. Their world has been purposely developed over several thousand years to eliminate all that is not perfect, and they are as fascinated by their primitive visitors as the Earthlings are by them.

Utopia has no government, no private property, no class structure, no cash, no religion, no war, no marriage, no vermin, no infectious diseases and no idleness. Mental and physical disability have, over the centuries, been eliminated using eugenics, and the population is kept, by self-governance, at a level their world can comfortably support. Nature has been tamed. Education, especially science and technology, is highly valued. Mr Barnstaple is deeply attracted to the Utopians and wants to be accepted into their world. The other Earthlings are initially bewildered, then defensive, and, very soon, aggressive towards their hosts. Wells clearly shares Mr Barnstaple’s distaste of this attitude, and there is much high comedy as they all try to come to terms with their new circumstances.

This was where my much-desired escapism came to a halt as abrupt as that of Mr Barnstaple’s yellow car.

Book 2, Quarantine Crag, describes a great epidemic that hits Utopia. Wells tells how, in the Utopia of more than twenty centuries before, ‘all colds, coughs, influenzas and the like had been mastered, and ended. By isolation, by the control of carriers, and so forth, the fatal germs had been cornered and obliged to die out.’ Most Utopians had, therefore, no resistance to such illnesses. Within a couple of days, nearly everyone who had been in contact with the Earthlings was in a fever, with cough, sore throat, aching bones and a headache. Animals and Utopians began to die. With no hospitals, pharmacies or medical equipment, the Utopians ‘had to improvise forgotten apparatus and organizations for disinfection and treatment.’ None of the Earthlings became ill, but they had brought this devastating illness with them. They are forced into quarantine, politely but firmly guarded by Utopians wearing protective helmets ‘made of highly flexible and perfectly translucent material’ and flown in small aeroplanes to an old castle on a crag, formerly used as a laboratory. The Utopians explain that ‘the only way to prevent this epidemic devastating their whole planet indeed, was firstly to gather together and cure all the cases affected, which was being done by converting the Conference Park into a big hospital, and next to take the Earthlings in hand and isolate them absolutely from the Utopians until they could be cleaned of their infections.’

The Earthlings, much to Mr Barnstaple’s horror, plot to treat the castle as a fortress and, armed with handguns from their luggage, plan to conquer the Utopian planet. Mr Barnstaple decides his loyalties lie with the Utopians, and he shouts a warning. He then needs to escape from the Earthlings to avoid being shot as a traitor. After a dramatic chase and a perilous climb down the castle wall and cliffs, he escapes the castle, and sees it rotate away from him after some sort of electrical energy attack by the Utopians.

Book 3, A Neophyte in Utopia tells how Mr Barnstaple is rescued by the Utopians and treated kindly. The epidemic has been banished. Mr Barnstaple, recovering from his ordeal, explores Utopia, which continues to delight him.

There are no towns, but the Utopians travel widely by air and by road. They still use printed books, but instead of letter and telephone they have ‘wireless transmission’ that allows individuals or groups to speak together using an automatic connection with messages coming and going from any part of the planet. Mr Barnstaple discovers that ‘the message organization of Utopia had a complete knowledge of the whereabouts of every soul upon the planet. It had a record of every living person and it knew in what message district he was. Everyone was indexed and noted.’ Mr Barnstaple is aghast at this, because he sees it as a tool for blackmail and tyranny, but blackmail and tyranny are unknown in Utopia. He learns more about the Utopians’ way of life and philosophy. But much as he admires and loves this world, he feels inadequate because he cannot make any meaningful contribution to it. He is told that he can best serve Utopia by returning to Earth, as a volunteer in the Utopian’s scientific experiments. He has to choose between staying in Utopia or risking his life by attempting to return home where, with his newfound understanding, he can change his own life and that of others for the better. The book concludes with his decision and its outcome.

Men Like Gods is funny and thought provoking. Its long passages of philosophic and political discussion and explanation, generally put into the mouths or thoughts of one of the characters, are eminently readable, and relieved by the humour and page-turning thrills of Mr Barnstaple’s adventures as he reveals the bravery behind his mild manners. The plot has holes as gaping as those in the space time continuum, but Wells’ satire of politics and the press, and his imaginings of an epidemic and wireless communications, are scarily apposite today.

‘H.G. Wells foreseeing things’
by Max Beerbohm

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