Fiction Reviews


The Shape of Things to Come

(1933/2011) H. G. Wells, Gollancz, £9.99, hrdbk, 425pp, ISBN 978-0-575-09519-9

This is another hugely welcome reprint (2011) of Wells' 1933 SF classic from Gollancz and it is a clothbound hardback with gold leaf lettering and illustration on the front and spine, and it is only £9.99! How do the folk at Gollancz do it? Well, being out of copyright might have something to do with it, though the literary executors of Wells' estate may well get a cut.

The shape of Things to Come is of course a history of the future: every SF reader knows that. But if you have not actually read the book then you may not be aware of the detail (and really must take up Gollancz on this opportunity to bag yourself a decent copy). In the book's 'introduction' Wells' says that the manuscript of what follows comes from the late Dr Philip Raven who uses a technique described by J. W. Dunne to effectively see the future during dreams.

What follows is a history of the (then) future spanning two centuries hence (up into the early 22nd century). Along the way, many predictions are made. Perhaps the most spot on was that that actually took place seven years after publication (eight after wells must have submitted the book's manuscript) was of a World War with Germany in 1940 (yes, the year was spot on), though Britain's neutrality and other aspects were far from the mark. But of course this is not the point. The Shape of Things to Come is in fact a socio-political book that uses SF as its vehicle. Wells was, as is well known, a socialist and much of his life was devoted to analysing and supporting that cause. His most memorable SF stories -- The Time Machine, The Island of Dr Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, When the Sleeper Wakes and The First Men in the Moon were all written between 1895 and 1901. Conversely, The Shape of Things to Come coming out some three decades later in 1933 was very much towards the end of his career: Wells died in 1946. So if you like, The Shape of Things to Come includes the best part of the most productive part of a lifetime's worth of Wells' musings albeit laid down as fiction. And so it does read more than a bit like some humanities text. Even so, do not let this detract you from marvelling at Wells' imagination as to what the world might be like from his 1933 perspective. OK, so in addition to a few palatable hits, there were many misses, but this itself should be of use to SF readers and urge us to caution from our early 21st century perspective to be wary of what are the current SF tropes (such as the possibility and nature of artificial intelligence or the singularity… You know the examples as well as I).

Readers of The Shape of Things to Come will encounter along the way there are a number of SF tropes. These include: global pandemic; a utopian world (of polymaths); and of course global war. In the course of these Wells predicts real-life occurrences including: the invention of submarine launched missiles (long-range air torpedoes) and conflict between secular and religious states.

Finally, some prospective readers might be forgiven for thinking that with the book The Shape of Things to Come they will be getting a novel version of the 1936 film Things to Come, directed by William Cameron Menzies in 1936. (Not to be confused with the dire and totally unrelated – apart from its obvious but spurious, publicity-seeking nomenclature claim linking Wells – Canadian film H. G. Wells': The Shape of Things to Come, 1979.)

Wells co-scripted Menzies 1936 film Shape of Things to Come but it is quite different from the book. The film tells the story of the future through the eyes of a family and its descendents. Again, the film predicts a second World War, but erroneously foresaw that it would feature chemical and biological warfare. The film also features a global pandemic before depicting the rise of a high-tech society and, in its closing scenes, the launch of a spacecraft using a Verne gun. Furthermore, the film does not contain the socio-political musings of the book. (And if you do seek the DVD of this classic then be sure to get the full-length version of Things to Come as until 2007 only shorter versions were around most of which have over half an hour missing.)

As previously mentioned, both the book and the film can be considered as part of that specialist sub-genre of SF, a 'future history'. Of course, now with the best part of a century already past, they can today be considered as belonging to another specialist category of SF, an alternate history. If anything this fresh perspective adds to the enjoyment of encountering these works.

Meanwhile, back at the release of the 2011 edition of the book The Shape of Things to Come, Gollancz have given today's SF readers a rare opportunity to get an excellent value and high quality edition of a work that is surely a key part of science fiction's heritage. Don't let it pass.

Jonathan Cowie


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