Mention the name “H.G. Wells” to anyone, and they’ll almost certainly be able to name a few of his books. Most of us know The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898), but Wells wrote many, many more works, both fiction and non-fiction, during the course of his 60-year writing career. A number of these were also very influential in their time, in surprising ways, but have been lost to the public consciousness as the years have passed.
One of these is the truly fascinating 1914 novel, The World Set Free. I recently read an edition of it given the more compelling title, The Last War:
The novel tells the prophetic story of man’s harnessing of the (at that time) newly-discovered power of the atom, and how this power nearly destroys civilization in a catastrophic war. In a sense, however, as we note below, it ended up being a self-fulfilling prophecy! The World Set Free is a remarkable example of how science and science fiction can interact with and build upon each other.
(My discussion will contain spoilers in that I will give a broad overview of the plot.)
The novel was originally published as a serial in three parts: A Trap to Catch the Sun, The Last War in the World and The World Set Free. It is presented as a history of the important events of the 20th century, jumping back and forth amongst narratives of different eyewitnesses and major players in those events.
The first third of the book is easily the most powerful and eloquent in my opinion, and gives a beautiful whirlwind history of humanity’s intellectual development from a quarter million years ago to the present. Men start with crude tools and fire, eventually learn the secrets of explosives and combustion, to electricity, and then to nuclear power, their rate of knowledge acquisition always accelerating. The descriptions give simultaneously a sense of wonder and foreshadow doom: mankind’s quest for knowledge will inevitably give it the power to destroy itself. A sample:
For scores and hundreds of centuries, for myriads of generations, that life of our fathers went on. From the beginning to the ripening of that phase of human life, from the first clumsy eoliths of rudely chipped flint to the first implements of polished stone, was two or three thousand centuries, ten or fifteen thousand generations. So slowly, by human standards, did humanity gather itself together out of the dim intimations of the beast. And that first glimmering of speculation, that first story of achievement, that story-teller, bright-eyed and flushed under his matted hair, gesticulating to his gaping, incredulous listener, gripping his wrist to keep him attentive, was the most marvellous beginning this world has ever seen. It doomed the mammoths, and it began the setting of that snare that shall catch the sun.
Entering the age of radioactivity, Wells begins a fictional account of the development of nuclear power! This is especially surprising since, in 1914, the usefulness of radioactivity was by no means certain and the atomic nucleus had only been discovered four years earlier (a short discussion of the history of radioactivity can be found in my post here). It is perhaps not surprising that Wells’ fictional chemist, Holsten, is inspired to work with radioactivity at a young age by a device familiar to readers of this blog:
Then a chance present of a little scientific toy invented by Sir William Crookes, a toy called the spinthariscope, on which radium particles impinge upon sulphide of zinc and make it luminous, induced him to associate the two sets of phenomena. It was a happy association for his inquiries. It was a rare and fortunate thing, too, that anyone with the mathematical gift should have been taken by these curiosities.
Certainly many scientists of Wells’ era saw the remarkable potential for radioactivity, but Wells used the freedom of science fiction to imagine bigger than any scientist dared speculate. A professor, lecturing in the novel, proclaims:
This — this is the dawn of a new day in human living. At the climax of that civilisation which had its beginning in the hammered flint and the fire-stick of the savage, just when it is becoming apparent that our ever-increasing needs cannot be borne indefinitely by our present sources of energy, we discover suddenly the possibility of an entirely new civilisation. The energy we need for our very existence, and with which Nature supplies us still so grudgingly, is in reality locked up in inconceivable quantities all about us.
By 1953, in Wells’ timeline, nuclear power has come into general industrial use, and airplanes, cars, and trains are powered by small atomic engines. These advances do not come without a price, however, and Wells ingeniously explains the unforeseen consequences of radial change, including economic collapse — and war.
War was basically inevitable, in Wells’ eyes, in large part due to the stagnation of the political class. I find his description hilarious and strikingly in line with my opinions:
It must always be remembered that the political structure of the world at that time was everywhere extraordinarily behind the collective intelligence. That is the central fact of that history. For two hundred years there had been no great changes in political or legal methods and pretensions, the utmost change had been a certain shifting of boundaries and slight readjustments of procedure, while in nearly every other aspect of life there had been fundamental revolutions, gigantic releases, and an enormous enlargement of scope and outlook. The absurdities of courts and the indignities of representative parliamentary government, coupled with the opening of vast fields of opportunity in other directions, had withdrawn the best intelligences more and more from public affairs. The ostensible governments of the world in the twentieth century were following in the wake of the ostensible religions. They were ceasing to command the services of any but second-rate men.
Emphasis mine! Wells apparently viewed government as being, in essence, a dumping ground of dimwits.
These dimwits are unable to prevent war from breaking out across Europe, and this Last War introduces the devastating effect of atomic bombs. Wells explains their physics in great detail, involving a new heavy element Carolinum:
Always before in the development of warfare the shells and rockets fired had been but momentarily explosive, they had gone off in an instant once for all, and if there was nothing living or valuable within reach of the concussion and the flying fragments, then they were spent and over. But Carolinum, which belonged to the β-group of Hyslop’s so-called “suspended degenerator” elements, once its degenerative process had been induced, continued a furious radiation of energy, and nothing could arrest it. Of all Hylsop’s artificial elements, Carolinum was the most heavily stored with energy and the most dangerous to make and handle. To this day it remains the most potent degenerator known. What the earlier twentieth-century chemists called its half period was seventeen days; that is to say, it pour outpouring half of the huge store of energy in its great molecules in the space of seventeen days, the next seventeen days’ emission was a half of that first period’s outpouring, and so on. As with all radio-active substances, this Carolinum, though every seventeen days its power is halved, though constantly it diminishes towards the imperceptible, is never entirely exhausted, and to this day the battle-fields and bomb-fields of that frantic time in human history are sprinkled with radiant matter and so centres of inconvenient rays…
Wells’ description of the workings of atomic bombs is mostly inaccurate, though it captures the devastating power and long-lasting effects of such weapons. He perceives them as a sort of “perpetual bomb”, that gives off continuous radiation/explosions for a long period of time, based on the principle of the half-life of radioactive materials.
This is, of course, not how nuclear bombs work. In ordinary radioactive decay, individual atomic nuclei have a chance at any particular moment of breaking down and releasing their decay products. The total radiation is proportional to the number of excited nuclei remaining in the sample, which leads mathematically to the observed half-life phenomena. In a nuclear weapon, however, a radioactive sample is compressed (by a smaller explosion) to a density at which the decay products of a nucleus end up triggering the decay of additional nuclei. This “chain reaction” causes the radioactive sample to, in essence, release all of its energy at once, creating a nuclear explosion.
Though Wells did not get the workings of an atomic bomb correct (more to this story below), he did inadvertently hit on the idea that a bomb-struck region is radioactive and uninhabitable. In reality, the fallout from a nuclear explosion is itself radioactive and can cause cell damage, cancer, or death in high enough amounts. A nuke-struck area won’t seethe with perpetual explosions as Wells imagined, but will be uninhabitable all the same.
The descriptions of warfare are surprisingly horrifying and poignant, even more so when one realizes that World War I started the same year as the book’s publication. One short description of a costumier, unable to face the destruction of his livelihood in Paris, stands out:
“But all this is foolish talk. It is impossible that Paris, which has survived so many misfortunes, should not presently revive.”
“I do not think it will ever revive. Paris is finished. London, too, I am told — Berlin. All the great capitals were stricken… .”
“But– ! Monsieur must permit me to differ.”
“It is so.”
“It is impossible. Civilisations do not end in this manner. Mankind will insist.”
“Monsieur, you might as well hope to go down the Maelstrom and resume business there.”
“I am content, Monsieur, with my own faith.”
“The winter comes on. Would not Monsieur be wiser to seek a house?”
“Further from Paris? No, Monsieur. But it is not possible, Monsieur, that you say, and you are under a tremendous mistake… Indeed, you are in error… I asked merely for information… .”
“When last I saw him,” said Barnet, “he was standing under the signpost at the crest of the hill, gazing wistfully, yet it seemed to me a little doubtfully now, towards Paris, and altogether heedless of a drizzling rain that was wetting him through and through… .”
In the fact of self-annihilation, mankind is forced to change its ways. In the third section of the book, we get to the heart of Wells’ message, and his vision of a utopian world government. Wells seems to anticipate the League of Nations, and eventually the United Nations, in viewing a world united to solve its problems, though he envisions unity so strong it would terrify the black helicopter crowd! The deadly element Carolinum is gathered up and carefully controlled, reminiscent of various arms control treaties still being implemented today. Not everyone is willing to go along peacefully with this surrender of power and authority, however…
Wells himself was a socialist, and seems to have sympathized with the plight of the working man (consider the Morlocks and Eloi in The Time Machine). He advocated the idea of World Government for most of his life, the same idea that finds realization in The World Set Free.
The book ends with a passionate yet melancholy vision in the chapter The Last Days of Marcus Karenin. Set years after the new society has been established, its aging chief educator Karenin arrives at a mountain retreat for a surgery he believes will take his life. In the days leading up to it, he muses on the direction society must go, the equalization of the sexes and the ultimate destiny of humanity in space.
Overall, the novel is fascinating and quite unconventional, though clearly not for everyone due to its rather overt political and philosophical agenda. Its depiction of the history of mankind and the devastating effects of future wars are haunting, however, and well worth reading.
The World Set Free, in fact, may have indirectly influenced the history of physics and the development of the atomic bomb!¹ Hungarian physicist Leó Szilárd (1898-1964) conceived of the idea of the nuclear chain reaction in 1933, a major step towards the development of nuclear reactors and nuclear bombs. The year before, in 1932, two things happened that helped Szilárd with his idea — he first read The World Set Free, and the neutron was discovered.
The existence of such a heavy uncharged nuclear particle emitted by radioactive atoms led Szilárd to the conclusion that such neutrons could penetrate the nucleus of other atoms, causing them to decay as well. This chain reaction could be used to release large quantities of radiation at once, to fuel power plants or serve as bombs.
Like Wells, Szilárd was very intrigued by socialist and utopian ideas, and he was apparently passionate about Wells’ work. Curiously, though, he stated later in life that The World Set Free didn’t influence his nuclear thinking very much at first:
The book made a very great impression on me, but I didn’t regard it as anything but fiction. It didn’t start me thinking of whether or not such things could in fact happen. I had not been working in nuclear physics up to that time.
Nevertheless, he later noted that the book came to mind in 1933, when an event at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science turned his attention to radioactivity. The trigger was a well-publicized statement by Ernest Rutherford that harvesting power from the atom was hopeless:
We might in these processes obtain very much more energy than the proton supplied, but on the average we could not expect to obtain energy in this way. It was a very poor and inefficient way of producing energy, and anyone who looked for a source of power in the transformation of the atoms was talking moonshine.
Szilárd was reportedly so annoyed by this statement that he conceived of the nuclear chain reaction in very short order!
It is somewhat ironic, then, that Rutherford’s earlier research partly inspired Wells’ novel. The dedication of the novel is as follows:
To Frederick Soddy’s Interpretation of Radium this story which owes long passages to his eleventh chapter acknowledges and inscribes itself
Frederick Soddy worked under Rutherford, and together they established that radioactive decay involved a transmutation of elements. Radium decays into radon, for instance, which decays into polonium, and so on. Soddy’s The Interpretation of Radium was published in 1910; it is not hard to find those passages in Chapter 11 that so affected Wells. For instance,
It is, indeed, a strange situation we are confronted with. The first step in the long, upward journey out of barbarism to civilisation which man has accomplished appears to have been the art of kindling fire. Those savage races who remain ignorant of this art are regarded as on the very lowest plane. The art of kindling fire is the first step towards the control and utilisation of those natural stores of energy on which civilisation even now absolutely depends. Primitive man existed entirely on the day-to-day supply of sunlight for his vital energy, before he learned how to kindle fire for himself. One can imagine before this occurred that he became acquainted with fire and its properties from naturally occurring conflagrations.
So the work of Rutherford and Soddy inspired the fiction of H.G. Wells, who in turn captured the imagination of Szilárd! Science fiction and science itself can play off each other in surprising ways, and The World Set Free gives us a wonderful example of this interplay.
1. The quotes are taken indirectly from the first chapter of Richard Rhodes’ excellent history, The Making of the Atomic Bomb.