The Shape of Things to Come, by H. G. Wells

Introduction

The Dream Book of Dr. Philip Raven

The unexpected death of Dr. Philip Raven at Geneva in November 1930 was a very grave loss to the League of Nations Secretariat. Geneva lost a familiar figure — the long bent back, the halting gait, the head quizzically on one side — and the world lost a stimulatingly aggressive mind. His incessant devoted work, his extraordinary mental vigour, were, as his obituary notices testified, appreciated very highly by a world-wide following of distinguished and capable admirers. The general public was suddenly made aware of him.

It is rare that anyone outside the conventional areas of newspaper publicity produces so great a stir by dying; there were accounts of him in nearly every paper of importance from Oslo to New Zealand and from Buenos Aires to Japan — and the brief but admirable memoir by Sir Godfrey Cliffe gave the general reader a picture of an exceptionally simple, direct, devoted and energetic personality. There seems to have been only two extremely dissimilar photographs available for publication: an early one in which he looks like a blend of Shelley and Mr. Maxton, and a later one, a snapshot, in which he leans askew on his stick and talks to Lord Parmoor in the entrance hall of the Assembly. One of his lank hands is held out in a characteristic illustrative gesture.

Incessantly laborious though he was, he could nevertheless find time to assist in, share and master all the broader problems that exercised his colleagues, and now they rushed forward with their gratitude. One noticeable thing in that posthumous eruption of publicity was the frequent acknowledgments of his aid and advice. Men were eager to testify to his importance and resentful at the public ignorance of his work. Three memorial volumes of his more important papers, reports, memoranda and addresses were arranged for and are still in course of publication.

Personally, although I was asked to do so in several quarters, and though I was known to have had the honour of his friendship, I made no contribution to that obituary chorus. My standing in the academic world did not justify my writing him a testimonial, but under normal circumstances that would not have deterred me from an attempt to sketch something of his odd personal ease and charm. I did not do so, however, because I found myself in a position of extraordinary embarrassment. His death was so unforeseen that we had embarked upon a very peculiar joint undertaking without making the slightest provision for that risk. It is only now after an interval of nearly three years, and after some very difficult discussions with his more intimate friends, that I have decided to publish the facts and the substance of this peculiar cooperation of ours.

It concerns the matter of this present book. All this time I have been holding back a manuscript, or rather a collection of papers and writings, entrusted to me. It is a collection about which, I think, a considerable amount of hesitation was, and perhaps is still, justifiable. It is, or at least it professes to be, a Short History of the World for about the next century and a half. (I can quite understand that the reader will rub his eyes at these words and suspect the printer of some sort of agraphia.) But that is exactly what this manuscript is. It is a Short History of the Future. It is a modern Sibylline book. Only now that the events of three years have more than justified everything stated in this anticipatory history have I had the courage to associate the reputation of my friend with the incredible claims of this work, and to find a publisher for it.

Let me tell very briefly what I know of its origin and how it came into my hands. I made the acquaintance of Dr. Raven, or to be more precise, he made mine, in the closing year of the war. It was before he left Whitehall for Geneva. He was always an eager amateur of ideas, and he had been attracted by some suggestions about money I had made in a scrappy little book of forecasts called What is Coming? published in 1916. In this I had thrown out the suggestion that the waste of resources in the war, combined with the accumulation of debts that had been going on, would certainly leave the world as a whole bankrupt, that is to say it would leave the creditor class in a position to strangle the world, and that the only method to clear up this world bankruptcy and begin again on a hopeful basis would be to scale down all debts impartially, by a reduction of the amount of gold in the pound sterling and proportionally in the dollar and all other currencies based on gold. It seemed to me then an obvious necessity. It was, I recognize now, a crude idea — evidently I had not even got away from the idea of intrinsically valuable money — but none of us in those days had had the educational benefit of the monetary and credit convulsions that followed the Peace of Versailles. We were without experience, it wasn’t popular to think about money, and at best we thought like precocious children. Seventeen years later this idea of appreciating gold is accepted as an obvious suggestion by quite a number of people. Then it was received merely as the amateurish comment of an ignorant writer upon what was still regarded as the mysterious business of “monetary experts.” But it attracted the attention of Raven, who came along to talk over that and one or two other post-war possibilities I had started, and so he made my acquaintance.

Raven was as free from intellectual pompousness as William James; as candidly receptive to candid thinking. He could talk about his subject to an artist or a journalist; he would have talked to an errand boy if he thought he would get a fresh slant in that way. “Obvious” was the word he brought with him. “The thing, my dear fellow” — he called me my dear fellow in the first five minutes — “is so obvious that everybody will be too clever to consider it for a moment. Until it is belated. It is impossible to persuade anybody responsible that there is going to be a tremendous financial and monetary mix-up after this war. The victors will exact vindictive penalties and the losers of course will undertake to pay, but none of them realizes that money is going to do the most extraordinary things to them when they begin upon that. What they are going to do to each other is what occupies them, and what money is going to do to the whole lot of them is nobody’s affair.”

I can still see him as he said that in his high-pitched remonstrating voice. I will confess that for perhaps our first half-hour, until I was accustomed to his flavour, I did not like him. He was too full, too sure, too rapid and altogether too vivid for my slower Anglo-Saxon make-up. I did not like the evident preparation of his talk, nor the fact that he assisted it by the most extraordinary gestures. He would not sit down; he limped about my room, peering at books and pictures while he talked in his cracked forced voice, and waving those long lean hands of his about almost as if he was swimming through his subject. I have compared him to Maxton plus Shelley, rather older, but at the first outset I was reminded of Svengali in Du Maurier’s once popular Trilby. A shaven Svengali. I felt he was FOREIGN, and my instincts about foreigners are as insular as my principles are cosmopolitan. It always seemed to me a little irreconcilable that he was a Balliol scholar, and had been one of the brightest ornaments of our Foreign Office staff before he went to Geneva.

At bottom I suppose much of our essential English shyness is an exaggerated wariness. We suspect the other fellow of our own moral subtleties. We restrain ourselves often to the point of insincerity. I am a rash man with a pen perhaps, but I am as circumspect and evasive as any other of my fellow countrymen when it comes to social intercourse. I found something almost indelicate in Raven’s direct attack upon my ideas.

He wanted to talk about my ideas beyond question. But at least equally he wanted to talk about his own. I had more than a suspicion that he had, in fact, come to me in order to talk to himself and hear how it sounded — against me as a sounding-board.

He called me then a Dealer in the Obvious, and he repeated that not very flattering phrase on various occasions when we met. “You have,” he said, “defects that are almost gifts: a rapid but inexact memory for particulars, a quick grasp of proportions, and no patience with detail. You hurry on to wholes. How men of affairs must hate you — if and when they hear of you! They must think you an awful mug, you know — and yet you get there! Complications are their life. YOU try to get all these complications out of the way. You are a stripper, a damned impatient stripper. I would be a stripper too if I hadn’t the sort of job I have to do. But it is really extraordinarily refreshing to spend these occasional hours, stripping events in your company.”

The reader must forgive my egotism in quoting these comments upon myself; they are necessary if my relations with Raven are to be made clear and if the spirit of this book is to be understood.

I was, in fact, an outlet for a definite mental exuberance of his which it had hitherto distressed him to suppress. In my presence he could throw off Balliol and the Foreign Office — or, later on, the Secretariat — and let himself go. He could become the Eastern European Cosmopolitan he was by nature and descent. I became, as it were, an imaginative boon companion for him, his disreputable friend, a sort of intelligent butt, his Watson. I got to like the relationship. I got used to his physical exoticism, his gestures. I sympathized more and more with his irritation and distress as the Conference at Versailles unfolded. My instinctive racial distrust faded before the glowing intensity of his intellectual curiosity. We found we supplemented each other. I had a ready unclouded imagination and he had knowledge. We would go on the speculative spree together.

Among other gifted and original friends who, at all too rare intervals, honour me by coming along for a gossip, is Mr. J. W. Dunne, who years ago invented one of the earliest and most “different” of aeroplanes, and who has since done a very considerable amount of subtle thinking upon the relationship of time and space to consciousness. Dunne clings to the idea that in certain ways we may anticipate the future, and he has adduced a series of very remarkable observations indeed to support that in his well-known Experiment with Time. That book was published in 1927, and I found it so attractive and stimulating that I wrote about it in one or two articles that were syndicated very extensively throughout the world. It was so excitingly fresh.

And among others who saw my account of this Experiment with Time, and who got the book and read it and then wrote to me about it, was Raven. Usually his communications to me were the briefest of notes, saying he would be in London, telling me of a change of address, asking about my movements, and so forth; but this was quite a long letter. Experiences such as Dunne’s, he said, were no novelty to him. He could add a lot to what was told in the book, and indeed he could EXTEND the experience. The thing anticipated between sleeping and waking — Dunne’s experiments dealt chiefly with the premonitions in the dozing moment between wakefulness and oblivion — need not be just small affairs of tomorrow or next week; they could have a longer range. If, that is, you had the habit of long-range thinking. But these were days when scepticism had to present a hard face to greedy superstition, and it was one’s public duty to refrain from rash statements about these flimsy intimations, difficult as they were to distinguish from fantasies — except in one’s own mind. One might sacrifice a lot of influence if one betrayed too lively an interest in this sort of thing.

He wandered off into such sage generalizations and concluded abruptly. The letter had an effect of starting out to tell much more than he did.

Then he turned up in London, dropped into my study unexpectedly and made a clean breast of it.

“This Dunne business,” he began.

“Well?” said I.

“He has a way of snatching the fleeting dream between unconscious sleep and waking.”

“Yes.”

“He keeps a notebook by his bedside and writes down his dream the very instant he is awake.”

“That’s the procedure.”

“And he finds that a certain percentage of his dream items are — sometimes quite plainly — anticipations of things that will come into his mind out of reality, days, weeks, and even years ahead.”

“That’s Dunne.”

“It’s nothing.”

“But how — nothing?”

“Nothing to what I have been doing for a long time.”

“And that is —?”

He stared at the backs of my books. It was amusing to find Raven for once at a loss for words.

“Well?” I said.

He turned and looked at me with a reluctant expression that broke into a smile. Then he seemed to rally his candour.

“How shall I put it? I wouldn’t tell anyone but you. For some years, off and on — between sleeping and waking — I’ve been — in effect — reading a book. A non-existent book. A dream book if you like. It’s always the same book. Always. And it’s a history.”

“Of the past?”

“There’s a lot about the past. With all sorts of things I didn’t know and all sorts of gaps filled in. Extraordinary things about North India and Central Asia, for instance. And also — it goes on. It’s going on. It keeps on going on.”

“Going on?”

“Right past the present time.”

“Sailing away into the future?”

“Yes.”

“Is it — is it a PAPER book?”

“Not quite paper. Rather like that newspaper of your friend Brownlow. Not quite print as we know it. Vivid maps. And quite easy to read, in spite of the queer letters and spelling.”

He paused. “I know it’s nonsense.”

He added. “It’s frightfully real.”

“Do you turn the pages?”

He thought for a moment. “No, I don’t turn the pages. That would wake me up.”

“It just goes on?”

“Yes.”

“Until you realize you are doing it?”

“I suppose — yes, it is like that.”

“And then you wake up?”

“Exactly. And it isn’t there!”

“And you are always READING?”

“Generally — very definitely.”

“But at times?”

“Oh — just the same as reading a book when one is awake. If the matter is vivid one SEES the events. As if one was looking at a moving picture on the page.”

“But the book is still there?”

“Yes — always. I think it’s there always.”

“Do you by any chance make notes?”

“I didn’t at first. Now I do.”

“At once?”

“I write a kind of shorthand. . . . Do you know — I’ve piles of notes THAT high.”

He straddled my fireplace and stared at me.

“Now you’ve told me,” I said.

“Now I’ve told you.”

“Illegible, my dear sir — except to me. You don’t know my shorthand. I can hardly read it myself after a week or so. But lately I’ve been writing it out — some I’ve dictated.

“You see,” he went on, standing up and walking about my room, “if it’s — a reality, it’s the most important thing in the world. And I haven’t an atom of proof. Not an atom. Do you —? Do you believe this sort of thing is possible?”

“POSSIBLE?” I considered. “I’m inclined to think I do. Though what exactly this kind of thing may be, I don’t know.”

“I can’t tell anyone but you. How could I? Naturally they would say I had gone cranky — or that I was an impostor. You know the sort of row. Look at Oliver Lodge. Look at Charles Richet. It would smash my work, my position. And yet, you know, it’s such credible stuff. . . . I tell you I believe in it.”

“If you wrote some of it out. If I could see some of it.”

“You shall.”

He seemed to be consulting my opinion. “The worst thing against it is that I always believe in what the fellow says. That’s rather as though it was ME, eh?”

He did not send me any of his notes, but when next I met him, it was at Berne, he gave me a spring-backed folder filled with papers. Afterwards he gave me two others. Pencilled sheets they were mostly, but some were evidently written at his desk in ink and perhaps fifty pages had been typed, probably from his dictation. He asked me to take great care of them, to read them carefully, have typed copies made and return a set to him. The whole thing was to be kept as a secret between us. We were both to think over the advisability of a possibly anonymous publication. And meanwhile events might either confirm or explode various statements made in this history and so set a definite value, one way or the other, upon its authenticity.

Then he died.

He died quite unexpectedly as the result of a sudden operation. Some dislocation connected with his marked spinal curvature had developed abruptly into an acute crisis.

As soon as I heard of his death I hurried off to Geneva and told the story of the dream book to his heir and executor, Mr. Montefiore Renaud. I am greatly indebted to that gentleman for his courtesy and quick understanding of the situation. He was at great pains to get every possible scrap of material together and to place it all at my disposal. In addition to the three folders Raven had already given me there were a further folder in longhand and a drawerful of papers in his peculiar shorthand evidently dealing with this History. The fourth folder contained the material which forms the concluding book of this present work. The shorthand notes, of which even the pages were not numbered, have supplied the material for the penultimate book, which has had to be a compilation of my own. Generally, Raven seems to have scribbled down his impressions of the dream book as soon as he could, before the memory faded, and as he intended to recopy it all himself he had no consideration for any prospective reader. This material was just for his own use. It is a mixture of very cursive (and inaccurate) shorthand, and for proper names and so forth, longhand. Punctuation is indicated by gaps, and often a single word stands for a whole sentence and even a paragraph. About a third of the shorthand stuff was already represented by longhand or typescript copy in the folders. That was my Rosetta Stone. If it were not for the indications conveyed by that I do not think it would have been possible to decipher any of the remainder. As it is, I found it impossible to make a flowing narrative, altogether of a piece with the opening and closing parts of this history. Some passages came out fairly clear and then would come confusion and obscurity. I have transcribed what I could and written-up the intervals when transcription was hopeless. I think I have made a comprehensible story altogether of the course of events during the struggles and changes in world government that went on between 1980 and 2059, at which date the Air Dictatorship, properly so called, gave place to that world-wide Modern State which was still flourishing when the history was published. The reader will find large gaps, or rather he will find large abbreviations, in that portion, but none that leave the main lines of the history of world consolidation in doubt.

And now let me say a word or so more about the real value of this queer “Outline of the Future”.

Certain minor considerations weigh against the idea that this history that follows is merely the imaginative dreaming of a brilliant publicist. I put them before the reader, but I will not press them. First of all this history has now received a certain amount of confirmation. The latest part of the MS. dates from September 20th, 1930, and much of it is earlier. And yet it alludes explicitly to the death of Ivar Kreuger a year later, to the tragic kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, which happened in the spring of 1932, to the Mollison world flights of the same year, to the American debt discussions in December 1932, to the Hitlerite régime in Germany, and Japanese invasion of China proper in 1933, the election of President Roosevelt II and the World Economic Conference in London. These anticipations in detail I find a little difficult to explain away. I do not think that they are of such a nature that they could have been foretold. They are not events that were deducible from any preceding situation. How could Raven have known about them in 1930?

And another thing that troubles me much more than it will trouble the reader is the fact that there was no reason at all why Raven should have attempted a mystification upon me. There was no reason on earth or heaven why he should have lied about the way in which this material came to him and he wrote it down.

If it were not for these considerations, I think I should be quite prepared to fall in with what will no doubt be the general opinion, that the writing of this History was deliberately chosen by Raven as an imaginative outlet. That it is indeed a work of fiction by a late member of the Geneva Secretariat with unusual opportunities for forming judgments upon the trend of things. Or, let us say, a conditional prophecy in the Hebrew manner produced in a quasi-inspired mood. The style in which it is written is recognizably Raven’s style, and there are few of those differences in vocabulary and locutions that one might reasonably expect in our language a hundred and seventy odd years from now. On the other hand, the attitude revealed is entirely inconsistent with Raven’s fully conscious public utterances. The idiom of thought at least is not his, whatever the idiom of expression. Either his marginal vision transcended his waking convictions or we have here a clear case of suppressions making their way to the surface. Is that what history is going to be?

I must admit that at first, while I was still under the impression that the whole thing was a speculative exercise, I was tempted to annotate Raven’s text rather extensively. I wanted to take a hand in the game. In fact I did some months’ work upon it. Until my notes were becoming more bulky than his history. But when I revised them I came to the conclusion that many of them were fussy obtrusions and very few of them likely to be really helpful to an intelligent and well-informed contemporary reader. The more attracted he was by the book, the more likely he was to make his observations for himself; the less he appreciated it, the less he was likely to appreciate a superincumbent mass of elucidation. My notes might have proved as annoying as the pencillings one finds at times in public library books to-day. If the history is merely a speculative history, even then they would have been impertinent; if there is anything more in it than speculation, then they would be a very grave impertinence indeed. In the end I scrapped the entire accumulation.

But I have had also to arrange these chapters in order, and that much intervention was unavoidable and must remain. I have had indeed to arrange and rearrange them after several trials, because they do not seem to have been read and written down by Raven in their proper chronological sequence. I have smoothed out the transitions. Later on I hope to publish a special edition of Raven’s notes exactly as he left them.

We begin here with what is evidently the opening of a fresh book in the history, though it was not actually the first paper in the folders handed to me. It reviews very conveniently the course of worldly events in recent years, and it does so in what is, to me, a novel and very persuasive way. It analyses the main factors of the great war from a new angle. From that review the story of the “Age of Frustration”, in the opening years of which we are now living, flows on in a fairly consecutive fashion. Apart from this introduction the period covered by the actual narrative is roughly from about 1929 A.D. to the end of the year 2105. The last recorded event is on New Year’s Day 2106; there is a passing mention of the levelling of the remaining “skeletons” of the famous “Skyscrapers” of Lower New York on that date. The printing and publication probably occurred early in the new year; occurred — or should I write “will occur”?

H. G. W.

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wells/hg/w45th/introduction.html

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02