In 1946, H.G. Wells, author of The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man and other classics of science fiction, published one of the most despairing visions of human existence ever written. Its conclusions were so grim that Colin Wilson, writing of Wells in The Outsider, called it “the most pessimistic single utterance in modern literature,” beating out such heavy contenders as Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea and T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men.The title of this work, Mind at the End of its Tether, should suggest the dead end that Wells believed the human experiment had reached. Wells was an early futurologist; one of his first books, Anticipations, published in 1901, showed his talent for grasping what lay ahead. The future had always held out promise for Wells, and the possibility that mankind would solve its problems and focus its energies on creating a better world. But now, in the aftermath of WWII, that promise seemed broken and that possibility annulled. A “frightful queerness has come into life,” Wells wrote, and the “reality glares coldly and harshly” that “something is happening so that life will never be quite the same again.”
As many of us today are confronted with a world that is increasingly confused and confusing, we may find some comfort in recognizing that Wells was there first and saw it coming. Events, which “had been held together by a certain logical consistency,” he saw, were now let loose and “everything was driving anyhow to anywhere at a steadily increasing velocity…” Whatever pattern had held the multiplicity of life in some sort of coherence was gone, and as his contemporary W. B. Yeats said, “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” What had before seemed an ordered sequence was now shown to be what it had always been: chaos.
Wells himself was sick at this time, and as his last book was published he was closing in on death; he died in August, 1946 at the age of 79. Much of his despair can be chalked up to his illness. But not all of it. And for those who knew Wells’ work, the bleak “outlook on Homo Sapiens” he was now presenting – the title of a book Wells published a few years earlier –was something of a surprise. The savant and visionary who wanted to “bind a harder, stronger civilization like steel around the world” – as the protagonist of his disturbing parable “The Croquet Player” declares we must do – had given up. “The shape of things to come” – the title of another major work – which had earlier suggested something grand and adventurous, was now simply terrifying.
Wells had, it’s true, earlier dark moments. In The Time Machine, his first major work, he shows a humanity that in the far future has degenerated into two races, the bestial, savage Morlocks, dwellers in the underground, who dominate and feed on the beautifully ineffectual surface dwellers, the Eloi. But Wells had always hoped and believed that the human race would get its act together and outgrow its stupidity and laziness. The saving grace might come in a super-nutrient as in The Food of the Gods or it might appear in the skies, as happens in In The Days of the Comet. But something would bring about the change in attitude that was necessary for mankind to grow up. Now, in his last days, he decided he was wrong.
The world, Wells had come to see, was “at the end of its tether,” and “the end of everything we call life is close at hand and cannot be evaded.” There was “no way out, round, or through” and “extinction is coming to man like a brutal thunderclap of Halt!” Participants today in Extinction Rebellion may feel they are on the cutting edge of social protest, but Wells was there decades before them. But where they may think that stopping traffic on Westminster Bridge or blockading airports can turn things around, Wells had no such optimism. Time was up for the human race, and there was no way of avoiding it. “The stars in their courses have turned against him,” he was convinced, and man will end his days “like drunken cowards in a daze or poisoned rats in a sack.”
What brought this proponent of reason, rationality, and science to such a conclusion? If illness could not account for Wells’ despair, what else might suggest an answer to it? Why did one of the great prophets of scientific progress and the rational society end his days with such a sense of hopelessness? One comment made at the time of the book’s publication may help provide an answer. As Wilson points out, one of Wells’ contemporaries suggested that the book was “an outburst of peevishness at a world that refused to accept him as its Messiah.”
There is likely some truth in this. George Bernard Shaw, Wells’ onetime Fabian colleague and intellectual sparring-partner, once complained that he had solved all the world’s problems but no one paid any attention, and carried on as usual. Shaw never reached Wells’ despair, but in St. Joan he did ask God how long it would be before the earth would be ready to receive its saints. Wells could very well have felt the same. But peevishness hardly describes the sense of utter hopelessness that permeates Mind At the End of Its Tether. It may be that in this last work, as Rudy Rucker comments, Wells “rants, inveighs, rambles,…and loses the thread of what he’s talking about.” But if one sees that the house is on fire, a polite notice to that effect is hardly the appropriate response.
Wells had, in fact, been giving if not a polite then certainly an eloquent assessment of the state of the world for some time before this. For the last twenty years he had focussed his energies on what for some of his contemporaries was an annoying hobby horse, what Wells called “the World State,” or “the New World Order” – the title of another book – or “the Open Conspiracy.” This was the idea that creative, influential individuals around the globe – scientists, engineers, industrialists, educators, politicians, but also writers and artists – should ignore national boundaries and pool their resources and combine their efforts to create a planetary government that would transcend the nationalist squabbling that had led to the catastrophe of WWI and be capable of meeting the challenges of the modern world  .
As Wells wrote in The Open Conspiracy, published in 1928, “The world is undergoing immense changes. Never before have the conditions of life changed so swiftly and enormously as they have changed for mankind in the last fifty years. We have been carried along - with no means of measuring the increasing swiftness in the succession of events. We are only now beginning to realize the force and strength of the storm of change that has come upon us.” We may look back on life a century ago as quaint and calm compared to our own hectic pace. But the relentless change fostered by technological advance that we are subject to today, had its roots back then, and Wells was only too aware of it.
It is unfortunate that for some Wells’ idea of a New World Order has taken on dark connotations, having nothing to do with what Wells had in mind, and has been left to not-so-open conspiracy theorists to use for their dubious purposes. In their hands it has degenerated into something like the odious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which promulgated the myth of a global Jewish conspiracy and fuelled Hitler’s Final Solution. Wells had no interest in totalitarian governments or global finance; his New World Order would in fact be a safeguard against these, as anyone who takes the trouble to read his books will discover. Wells had no interest in the “standardization” of the world, of inaugurating a global conformity or in transforming the planet into a world-wide marketplace. With his otherwise critical contemporary, the writer and artist Wyndham Lewis, he believed in a world government that would maintain local – national – differences, not impose uniformity.
What Wells wanted was to create a society equipped to deal with “the immense new possibilities and the immense new dangers that confront mankind.” As he writes:
It seemed to me that all over the world intelligent people
were waking up to the indignity and absurdity of being
endangered, restrained, and impoverished, by a mere
uncritical adhesion to traditional governments, traditional
ideas of economic life and traditional forms, and that these
awakening intelligent people must constitute first a protest
and then a creative resistance to the inertia that was stifling
and threatening us. These people I imagined would say first,
“We are drifting; we are doing nothing worthwhile with our
lives. Our lives are dull and stupid and not good enough.”
Then they would say, “What are we to do with our lives?”
This question, in fact, was the original title of the book, and Wells came back to it again and again; this is why Colin Wilson considered Wells an “existentialist,” although one rather different from Sartre and Co. on le Rive Gauche. Wells had realized that not only had the world changed, in the sense that through increased means of travel “distances had been abolished” and that through increased means of communication, knowledge had grown exponentially, to give two examples of the “immense changes” that taken place since the end of the Great War (Wells, it should be remembered, had coined the phrase “the war to end all wars” about WWI and had written a book about it). A new kind of person was coming into being too. Wells himself was one of them, but there were others.
In Experiment in Autobiography Wells wrote that for much of its existence, mankind had been “up against it,” meaning that the sheer struggle to survive had, for the vast majority, taken up the whole of life. But now that had changed, and what was once the whole of life, had become merely its background. “People can ask now what would have been an extraordinary question five hundred years ago. They can say, ‘Yes, you earn a living, you support a family, you love and hate, but – what do you do?”
A new human being was emerging from the chaos of the past, Wells believed, one not satisfied with living in the same way that his ancestors had, and driven by an appetite for a fuller, more creative, more meaningful life. Mere living itself was not enough. It demanded direction and purpose. “Conceptions of living,” Wells wrote, “divorced more and more from immediacy [the struggle to survive] distinguish the modern civilized man from all former life.”
Wells, of course, would be the first to include women in this; he did, in fact, popularise the term “the New Woman” in his novel Ann Veronica, to characterize early feminists. The old world of mess and muddle, which had collapsed in the madness of WWI, was not able to give these new men and women the life they needed. So Wells decided it was time for a new one.
If you want a novel to carry you along with its story, or to immerse you in the complexities of its characters, you may find this one disappointing, as many of Wells’ old readers did. The plot, what there is of it, is thin – the main character’s life - and is really a frame on which Wells hangs extended essays . In later novels the plots are practically non-existent and the characters merely mouthpieces for Wells’ ideas; the new generation of writers, like Virginia Woolf, held Wells to account for this (and he had a famous exchange about it with Henry James). But if you find ideas and their pursuit thrilling, then Wells’ first attempt to use the novel as a means of bringing order and clarity to the muddle of life, will not fail you.
Over 700+ pages in three volumes, Wells turns his vital analytical mind to politics, business, finance, psychology – C.G. Jung makes an appearance – history, culture, sex, and much more. As a novel of ideas it is a page-turner, much better than Aldous Huxley’s attempts at the same genre. (Huxley’s Brave New World, in fact, was written as a criticism of Wells’ various utopias; Wells called it “that Bible of the impotent, genteel Huxley…” and complained that “there are those who cling… to the persuasion that a unified world must be a uniform and stagnating world.”) It was for this reason that Colin Wilson, a dedicated Wells reader, remarked that Wells was “the greatest novelist of the twentieth century” and that his later, didactic novels are the most interesting.
When The World of William Clissold appeared, Wells was at the height of his fame and influence. He hob-knobbed with world leaders, politicians, financers, artists, intellectuals and had every reason to believe that his message would get across and be taken seriously. He had, however, the besetting sin of most geniuses: he was impatient. And he was working with unwieldy, highly resistant material: human intransigence. But Wells was a born educator; readers familiar with his Outline of History and The Science of Life – written with his son G.P. Wells and Julian Huxley, brother of Aldous – know that his appetite for knowledge and ideas is infectious. Wells knew it would take time for his call to join the Open Conspiracy to reach the people it needed to. His job was to keep sending out the message. So he did.
In books, pamphlets, speeches, articles, interviews, radio broadcasts and in any other way he could, Wells addressed the need for a World State, directed by intelligent, creative men and women, and not ineffectual, election-minded politicians or greedy, profit-hungry businessmen.
In The Way the World is Going (1928), the mammoth The Work, Wealth, and Happiness of Mankind (1931), The New America: The New World (1935), The World Brain (1938), The New World Order (1939) and other tracts, Wells broadcast his sociological call-to-arms. Many heard it and responded positively, but the title of a book published in 1936, The Anatomy of Frustration, gives an idea of the level of success Wells felt he had achieved.
Like The World of William Clissold, The Anatomy of Frustration is a work of social philosophy masquerading as a novel. It is supposedly a commentary on a 12 volume account of the problems facing mankind, written by the scientist and industrialist William Burroughs Steele, who has retired to a villa on the Riviera, in order to address the crises confronting humanity. By the “dirty thirties,” with the rise of fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany, and Stalin’s increasingly paranoid grip on Russia – which Wells visited just before and just after the revolution – the idea of an Open Conspiracy able to change the world in spite of politicians was looking rather naïve. Wells’ optimism seemed a quaint leftover from a gentler, kinder age. And although his books still sold and he was still regarded as an important figure, the enthusiasm and energy that had initially fuelled his mission were increasingly seen as an annoying persistence in promoting a cause that fewer and fewer people took seriously.
Wells himself began to feel that the times were against him. By 1938, “a certain defeatism” had “invaded” his mind, brought on by “the spectacle of evil”: “the wanton destruction of homes, the ruthless hounding of decent folk into exile, the bombing of open cities, the cold-blooded massacres and mutilation of children and defenceless, gentle people…”, a litany of inhumanity that sadly suits our own time. This had “come near to breaking my spirit altogether,” Wells wrote. He did not give up, though, and continued to preach the glad tidings of a possible better world, even if that world turned an increasingly deaf ear to what he had to say.
What is striking today is how much of our own world Wells saw coming. He knew early on that the problems facing the modern world were not local but global. Climate change and species extinction? What Wells called “Triumphant Democracy” – his ironic name for Carnegie style capitalism (Wells was a socialist but had no truck with Marx) – “was essentially the rape of virgin resources that could never be replaced.” This rampant abuse “poured across the continent, destroying forests and so changing the climate for the worse, ploughing up pasture that became sandy deserts, exterminating animal species, using up coal, oil, mineral wealth as though there was no end to any of these things…” Wells saw even then that we were “destroying the forests of the world at headlong speed…killing off whales, seals, and a multitude of rare and beautiful species…”
Terrorism? “…the steady increase of bombmaking and bomb throwing in the world…is a growing feature of the normal social life… In a world of deepening misunderstanding and grievances, there is no reason to doubt that they will become as common as road accidents…”
Corporate dominance over government and globalization? “…there are many people, especially in America, who imagined that “Business” might ultimately unify the world and governments sink into subordination to its network…”
Economic migration? “…population is distributed and redistributed in accordance with the shifting requirements of economic production.”
The book from which I’ve taken these quotations, The World Brain, anticipates the need for what we take for granted: the internet and world wide web. Wells writes of the need for a “permanent organisation of knowledge, systematically assembled, continually expanded and renewed and made freely and easily available to everyone…”
Wells knew that the developments that could secure a better, more enlightened world, could easily be used against us. “Every fresh development of radio, of film, and mass information generally,” he wrote, “…are being subordinated more and more to government restriction and the service of propaganda” and are “rapidly being turned against our mental freedoms with increasing effectiveness.” And he knew that the coming age would be one of ruthless power seekers. “The world emerging from the next great war…will be a tougher world, more disunited than ever, abounding still more in concealment and secret preparations and the fears and suspicions they engender…More and more will the world be for the tough, for the secretive, the treacherous and ruthless…”
And he also knew how many people will react when the coming crises, which he saw were unavoidable, actually hit. Because of them “…the behaviour of people degenerates toward a panic scramble, towards cheating, over-reaching, gang organisation, precautionary hoarding, concealment and all the meanness and anti-social feeling which is the natural outcome of insecurity…”
As I write these lines, much of the world is going into “lockdown” because of the Covid-19 scare – “Coronamania” – with supermarket shelves emptied by panicky shoppers joking darkly about “the end of the world.” Wells did not believe in a personal survival after death (he did speak of our “continuation” as part of the “mind of the race”) but if he still exists in some posthumous form, he must be shaking his head and muttering in his Cockney voice, “Told you so.”
This list of Wells’ prophetic bullseyes regarding our post-everything world could go on. What can his warnings mean for us today? In an age of identity politics, of a variety of different pressure groups battling for their own agendas – fighting, as I call it in Dark Star Rising, a “war of all against all” – and of growing nationalism, what can Wells’ vision of a World State, able to deal effectively with global concerns – such as climate change – offer? Was it only a pipe dream, as many of his contemporaries thought? Is it a blueprint for “world domination” by some sinister elite, as many, ignorant of Wells’ real intent, claim it is? Or is it a possibility that may arise after the crises, that Wells saw coming and which we are confronted with today, have been, with any luck, overcome?
Let us at least hope that Wells’ personal despair at a world that politely ignored his warnings does not become for us a global acknowledgement that our collective mind is indeed at the end of its tether.
 Colin Wilson The Outsider (NY: Penguin Random House, 2016) p.22. This edition of Wilson’s classic has a new preface by me.  H.G. Wells The Last Books of H.G. Wells (Rhinebeck, NY: Monkfish Publishing, 2006) pp. 44-45.  Ibid. p. 45.  W. B. Yeats “The Second Coming” at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43290/the-second-coming  Ibid p. 43  Ibid. pp. 45, 47.  Ibid. p. 53.  Wilson p. 22.  Wells p. 37.  In 1980 Marilyn Ferguson used Wells’ idea of an Open Conspiracy as a model for her influential book The Aquarian Conspiracy, which brought together a variety of ‘alternative’ philosophies and became the handbook for what would later be called the New Age.  H.G. Wells The Open Conspiracy and Other Writings (Thirsk, UK: House of Status, 2002) p. 1.  Ibid. pp. 11-12.  H.G. Wells Experiment in Autobiography (London: Victor Gollancz, 1934) p. 16.  In this Wells is in good company. Thomas Mann, Robert Musil, Hermann Broch, and Aldous Huxley, novelists of ideas generally considered superior to Wells, were also advocates of “essayism.”  One exception is the late return to science fiction, Star Begotten (1937), in which the “new men” Wells writes of are the result of radiation beamed from Mars.  H.G. Wells World Brain (London: Methuen, 1938) p.257, 166. It is curious that Huxley’s dystopian vision remains a classic while Wells’ utopian efforts are, if not dismissed, relegated to the sci-fi ghetto. Brave New World is, of course, science fiction too.  Colin Wilson The Philosopher’s Stone (Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1989) p. 5.  It’s possible that Wells based his character on William S. Burroughs I, founder of the Burroughs Adding Machine Company, later the Burroughs Corporation, and grandfather of the beat writer William S. Burroughs.  Wells The World Brain p. 64.  Ibid. p. 154  Ibid. p. 190.  Ibid. p. 173.  Ibid. p. 180.  Ibid. p. 264.  Ibid. p. 63.  H. G. Wells The Outlook for Homo Sapiens (London: Secker and Warburg, 1946) p. 16.  Wells The World Brain p. 174  Ibid. p. 240.