«The World Set Free» Review

Intern, Information & Publications Program
February 6, 2023

This article constitutes a review of “The World Set Free,” by Herbert George Wells, a 1914 novel that anticipated the introduction and use of nuclear weapons. Remarkably, Leo Szilard, one of the initiators of the Manhattan Project, read the book in 1932, one year before he discovered the neutron chain reaction. But what are the prospects presented in the novel?

Did it predict any turns in the real history of nuclear energy uses? What ideas the plot was based on? — Let us figure it out.

What the book is about

The novel The World Set Free begins with a recollection of the history of mankind, a history of man finding means to deal with the power of nature. He observed its consequences in everyday life, but the quest to “catch the Sun”  went on clumsily and slow-pacedly. Man’s sight so primitive and mind so crude.

What Wells names as a reason for this blindness of the mind? – Individualism and egoism. As opposed to these “evils”, the world was moved by occasional flashes of geniality and care for the common good.

The development of a plot starts with the story of Holsten, one of such “flashes”. Since his childhood, he had a passion for science and a selfless and curious spirit. Such a combination of qualities allowed Holsten to discover a way to unleash the power of atomic bonds, finding an almost infinite source of energy.

When the great invention was introduced to the world, humanity was not ready for such rapid technological advancement. Soon, economical and social collapse occurred. Wells puts the blame on “insensate unimaginative individualism of the pre-atomic time” and outdated legislature (based on respect towards individual’s rights and private property, by the way).

Then the war in which every part of the world was engaged begins for no particular reason. As the nuclear materials were widely available, atomic bombs were used by all sides. Resulting devastation led the leaders of the world to gather for a conference in Brissago, Switzerland. Participants of the conference recognized patriotism, egoism, private property and outdated legislature as something to eliminate in order to build a new peaceful world. That is on what principles a new collectivist World State was established.

Only one country refused to obey the new order. Its leader decided to deploy atomic bombs to attack the conference and seize control over the disarmed world. His plans, however, were disclosed and halted.

The story ends with a lengthy description of the new world order and its underlying philosophy using the monologues of a “new intellectual”, Marcus Karenin.

A Socialist Utopia

Herbert G. Wells belonged to a group of “Edwardian novelists who deliberately incorporated their views into the plot, characters’ monologues and the author’s comments – that is, the whole book The world set free is stitched with his ethical, historical, economical and political discourse. At this point, it is necessary to clarify which grounds this discourse was based on.

As Wells was a committed Fabian socialist, ensuring consequences included complete repudiation of individualism in favor of collectivism. This is the philosophical line the author continues to hold throughout the whole book, and indeed the whole plot is twisted around the combat of “evil ego” with “collective good”.

From the first pages we can observe the view on scientific advancement borrowed from dialectic materialism. Wells believed that the history of the world is a struggle between man and the power of nature: in a venture of “Catching the Sun”, his self-concentrated cycle of life and death continues to go on oppressed by the need for survival, but once the Sun is caught, man can live for creation and curiosity as things-in-themselves. Therefore, the world revolution is to come through scientific revolution. Now we can see how authentic leftist hopes for some infinite resource – that will cover the major flaw in their political system – are embodied in Holsten’s discovery. The author underscores Holsten’s particular state of mind in the day following the discovery, a sense of “otherness” to the cycle of the unambitious life of people around.

Wells contemplated one more time on his desired ”incompatibility of the great world order foreshadowed by scientific and industrial progress with the existing political and social structures” in Experiment in Autobiography in 1934. Notably, this is a year after Leo Szilard filed for his patents on the nuclear fission reaction. Fortunately for us, the “incompatibility of the great world order” did not occur.

The war to end war

Throughout the novel, Wells sticks to the idea of war as a “shake-up” of old order to establish the new one, expresses the need of “some brutal force, grown impatient at last at man’s blindness, [that would] have with the deliberate intention of a rearrangement of population upon more wholesome lines, shaken the world”. Looks like another variation of the age-old idea of destroying the old world to build a new one. This idea occurs persistently throughout Wells’ works (like the eponymous book The War That Will End War and A Modern Utopia).

In The World Set Free, the nuclear war destroyed not only the major cities, but people’s certainty and poise. Then, the builders of a new world came with their morals and methods.

The conference in Switzerland and establishment of a new world government are described in an extremely positive tone. It seems that Wells honestly believed that “sudden simplification of human affairs through some tragical crisis” could bring some kind of mystical revelation to the world, and most of the people could come to a sudden agreement, a common mind. So, – miraculously – the council in Brissago turned out to be “magnificently representative” of the whole of humanity’s opinions without any electoral events!

Really?! In fact, the new leaders could impose anything on the drained world, covering themselves by the pretense to curb any possibility of the war’s return. Minds of the people were empty and accepting; there were few objections to the new reign, since people were in fear. The power was based not on reasonable judgment, but on blind emotion. Actually, that is exactly how bloody dictatorships come to power, but in the case of the world that was (ostensibly!) set free, there was no need for repressions, the necessary fear was already present — and here we go.

Rest Rust in peace, or the new world order

The two key builders of the new order deserve a “honorable mention” – Leblanc, an intellectual and Egbert, the (ex-)King of England.

Leblanc, “a little French rationalist in spectacles”, took the initiative to persuade and “to bring together all the rulers of the world and unify them”. Interestingly, after the introduction of this character the plot evolves in an exact accordance to the philosophy of Rationalism (which predicts some predetermined, intrinsic consequence to follow a particular event, regardless of context. One can discover the consequence deductively). Leblanc “was possessed of one clear persuasion, that war must end, and that the only way to end war was to have but one government for mankind”. He does not bother to think of why’s, he just deduced: somehow the reason for nuclear war is the presence of many states; if we eliminate them — there will be no nuclear war. Logic!

Another figure, King Egbert, young, easy-going, informal, light-hearted and progressive, genuinely infuriated me, to be honest. And, of course, “the king had never, as a matter of fact, carried anything for himself in his life, and he had never noted that he did not do so”. He was the one to give up his crown to set an example for the other rulers of the world. Wells established a figure of Firmin, an old-school university professor to confront Egbert from the position of classical multi-state politics. Firmin talked about the consent of the governed, about democracy, about elections. The young king laughed at Firmin’s face and did not care. Firmin finds himself silenced and humiliated.

Look, you wish to be like Firmin if you have any remainders of reason, do you? Well, Wells plays just a great trick on anyone who dares to object.

Now let us take a look at an establishment which the ideas of the founders spilled over into. We can see an elaboration on the Wells’ typical idea of an “utopian” World State, controlling all the means of production and where “every sort of property is held in trust for the Republic”, with no electoral college, no civil interest in politics, with “majority of population consis[ting] of artists”. Nuclear reactions became the source of unlimited energy and it ostensibly justified this social structure.

On the ethical side “it [was] proclaimed as if it were a mere secular truth that sacrifice was expected from all”.

This is how the brave new world looked like. This is another story, but you understand.

Substitute reality and people will believe you

Why to judge so strictly and why not to accept that the unlimited energy can indeed give every man an equitable share of resources, or a possibility of common mind, or the “virtue” of self-sacrifice as a matter of science fiction? Because the novel tries to bring all the conclusions of the fictional world to the real one through its readers. If not, then what are the chapters of voluminous contemplations about love, sex, education (and lots of issues that pertain to the immediate life of the reader) are for?

I find it necessary to comment on the main ideas of the book.

First, materialist-scientific dialectics. Wells claims that it is that it is primordial people’s individualism (!) that prevented them from discovering the laws of nature. Only when people’s primal concerns shifted from caring for their own lives, the age of technological unfolding began, and science was given the road (the Renaissance is meant here, most certainly). Wells depicts the civilization’s development some kind of the historical Maslow’s pyramid consisting of two levels: the lower one — self-concerned age of stagnation when all the people’s time is consumed by basic physical survival, and the higher one – age of scientific advancement when people are led by the desire to sacrifice their bright minds for common good and no longer bothered about themselves.

What if I say that exactly selfishness (that is – care for one’s own life and nobody else’s) was a fuel for scientific advancement? People for the first time in history took their lives in their own hands not begging for a tribe or God to give them happiness and flourishing. Wells crosses that all out and says that scientific curiosity appears as a phenomenon separated from the main course of life. Yes, curiosity is indeed inherent in man’s mind. But if he has no right to his work and can be disposed of at the whim of society, why make scientific discoveries?

Second idea — the technocrat World State. Few self-proclaimed rulers at the top got into power completely by chance. Ostensibly, “if any effective opposition arises [these rulers] shall ask it to come in and help”. How to determine what opposition is “effective” and what is “ineffective”? The author gave no answer. Then I will give. Usually, in such regimes, measures are considered effective if they are good for the society. Being just a group of individuals, society can not be a subject with its view on what is good or bad. Therefore, it is impossible to determine what is “effective”. Added to a cult of self-sacrifice, this approach will throw all the citizens of the World State into the power of some dictator’s whim.

With that being said, I do not recommend anyone to be fond of Wells’ ideas. The only thing that the book can teach (in a philosophical sense) – think critically and check if your philosophical views will be still firm in the “black day”. If a real “shake-up” will happen, people with ideas like Wells’ may take over the world, and we will be submerged into an omnipotent “utopian” World State.

The Nuclear Theme

In “The World Set Free” nuclear war rather serves as a background for the presentation of author’s political ideas, however, it is the only part that deserves credit. The novel masterfully predicts particular issues pertaining to the development of nuclear weapons: tragic cases of usage, appearance of a non-proliferation regime, regulations on nuclear materials, attempts to hide the weapons, and even creation of inspection bodies.

What is most important – Wells was the first to think of nuclear weapons. How his “atomic bombs” looked and worked is also curious. The bombs were “black objects, each with two handles like the ears of a pitcher”,” lumps of pure Carolinum, painted on the outside with unoxidised cydonator inducive enclosed hermetically in a case of membranium. A little celluloid stud between the handles by which the bomb was lifted was arranged so as to be easily torn off and admit air to the inducive, which at once became active and set up radio-activity in the outer layer of the Carolinum sphere. This liberated fresh inducive, and so in a few minutes the whole bomb was a blazing continual explosion.” The bombs were supposed to be thrown by hand from a plane.

Actually, the first “bombs” were thrown from the plane in 1911 during Italo-Turkish war in Libya – and were actually hand grenades. We can see that the arrangements of the novel’s “atomic bomb” were indeed drawn from a hand grenade, but still, air-dropped bombs were a new technology for 1914. To react considerably fast and embed it in a novel is a creditable achievement of its author.

In the novel, the “atomic bombs” were initially treated just as a new kind of conventional weapons. By the end of the war, the bombs were carried on almost every plane and were widely deployed in any armed collision. Wells underscores that the responsibility for unleashed weapon’s destructive power was not realized at all, either order’s givers or executors.

The particular notion of irresponsibility turned out to be true when the United States deployed nuclear weapons in Japan in 1945. I can not say about feelings of those who gave orders, but the interview of Paul W. Tibbets, a pilot who dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima is highly illustrative of the attitudes “on the spot”. Here is the excerpt from the New Yorker’s article “Usher: The Pilot Who Dropped The atomic Bomb on Hiroshima”:

“The squadron had had a hand in dropping ordinary bombs on quite a lot of cities by that time, and there wasn’t, Tibbets told us, a single man in the plane who would have thought of a phrase like “a new era in history.” “All we wanted was for the thing to go off right, after all our work,” he added. “

Now let us compare it to “The world Set Free”:

“Except for keen resolve to follow out very exactly the instructions that had been given him, the [armed plane pilot’s] mind was a blank.”

The prediction is fully accurate, and for a 1914 book it is a great deal!

Here are some other excerpts from the novel reminding me of existing procedures related to nuclear weapons:

Inspections: “No Balkan aeroplane was to adventure into the air until the search was concluded, and meanwhile the fleets of the world government would soar and circle in the sky. The towns were to be placarded with offers of reward to any one who would help in the discovery of atomic bombs”.

Withholding nuclear materials from the inspectors: “Shift them near the frontier. Then while they watch us here — they will always watch us here now — we can buy an aeroplane abroad, and pick them up. They must get the bombs away; there must be a couple of atomic hay lorries, the bombs could be hidden under the hay…”

Prototype of the Nunn-Lugar Act and Dismantling WMDs: “the bombs were to be taken to the new special laboratories above Zurich, where they could be unpacked in an atmosphere of chlorine”.

These turns are less exactly described, but still – principles were anticipated correctly.