According to Theodore Strugeon, “a science fiction story is a story built around human beings, with a human problem and a human solution, which would not have happened at all without its scientific content.” Since the publication of Darwin’s science of evolution, mankind has been attempting to solve one of the major problems of our age – where will this sort of evolution lead the human race and what implications does this have regarding the significance of our ideas and essential humanity.
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The ideas and questions this science introduced thus helped give rise to the literary genre of science fiction, in which answers to these questions were sought. As the introduction of science brings about new capabilities for extended human understanding, both H.G. Wells and Arthur C. Clarke explore the darker side of evolutionary thought and where humans are heading both in terms of human society as well as in individual development.
In both stories, human society is presumed to have developed to a relatively utopian state at some point. This is only speculated upon in Wells’ story as the Time Traveler wanders through the green countryside of the future. Deducing what must have happened in the intervening years of his time travel jump from the evidence in front of him, the traveler describes how things must have been: “The ideal of preventative medicine was attained. Diseases had been stamped out … I saw mankind housed in splendid shelters, gloriously clothed, and as yet I had found them engaged in no toil. There were no signs of struggle” (Wells 49).
The society that develops following the interference of the Overlords in Clarke’s story help to establish something very similar to the society described by Wells’ traveler at an earlier point in its development: “Production had become largely automatic: the robot factories poured forth consumer goods in such unending streams that all the ordinary necessities of life were virtually free. Men worked for the sake of luxuries they desired: or they did not work at all” (Clarke 73). In both cases, the developments brought about as a result of science enabled mankind to turn his attentions to the fulfillment of desire.
Although utopia had been reached in both tales, this did not usher in the sort of explosion of ideas and culture that characterized the Renaissance period of earlier times. Instead, it led to the destruction of these elements of human existence. In Wells’ story, this is epitomized in the relatively bestial qualities of the inhabitants of his future world, the Eloi and the Morlocks. The traveler includes these ideas in his ruminations of what had led the human population to such a mindless state of existence.
“Hardship and freedom: conditions under which the active, strong and subtle survive and the weaker go to the wall; conditions under which the active, strong and subtle survive and the weaker go to the wall … Under the new conditions of perfect comfort and security, that restless energy, that with us is strength, would become weakness” (Wells 49-50). Art and culture have completely disappeared as the last ditch efforts of active minds to find meaning in a world now engineered for the perfect and effortless sustenance for future generations. This is exactly the case found in Clarke’s story as well, although found at an earlier stage.
As George and Jean Greggson consider moving to a specific isolated colony, the director explains the reason for its establishment: “The world’s now placid, featureless and culturally dead: nothing really new has been created since the Overlords came. The reason’s obvious. There’s nothing left to struggle for, and there are too many distractions and entertainments” (Clarke 149-150). With the destruction of any need for creative thought and competitive energy, the purpose of civilization takes a fundamental turn.
The two authors take a dramatically different although equally distressing approach to the end of mankind. This is reflected in a complete loss of individuality within the societies discovered by the ‘time travelers’ of both stories. Wells’ character discovers that the Eloi are nearly completely mindless in their blissful daytime activities while the Morlocks are equally mindless in their voracious appetite and only slightly more clever thinking. “After all, they were less human and more remote than our cannibal ancestors of three or four thousand years ago. And the intelligence that would have made this state of things a torment had gone. Why should I trouble myself? These Eloi were mere fatted cattle, which the ant-like Morlocks preserved and preyed upon – probably saw to the breeding of” (Wells 74-75).
The future humans of both stories transition into something no longer recognizably human, having lost the quality of mind that we consider makes us unique among the animals, but the humans of Clarke’s story are moving on to something too unknown to be judged. As Jan describes the last moments of Earth, he tells the Overlords through radio transmission that the mindless-seeming children of the last human generation have made an evolutionary jump beyond the bounds of matter to become a part of something larger than even the Overlords: “they’re on their way at last, to become part of the Overmind. Their probation is ended: they’re leaving the last remnants of matter behind” (Clarke 227).
Through both stories, it is only through the intervention of science that these fundamental questions regarding the human condition become answerable questions within these stories. By circumnavigating the time element, either through a time machine or through the elaborate end game of Jan Rodricks, science is able to give mankind an idea of what life would be like should mechanics manage to remove all elements of strife to introduce utopia.
Rather than leading to the type of Golden Age often anticipated, both stories illustrate how this final Golden Age was something more in the nature of a final death throe. While Wells indicates this inevitable decline and loss of everything human is irrefutable and irrevocable, Clarke offers hope in the possibility of the existence of an entirely different sort of existence. This existence is, admittedly, no more concerned with the concept of a once-human race or their various developments on Earth than is the obliterated planet of Wells’ creation, but there is a hope of the human race having contributed something lasting to the universal order.
Clarke, Arthur C. Childhood’s End. New York: Ballantine Books, 1953.
Wells, H. G. The Time Machine: The War of the Worlds. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Publications, 1968.