The Weekly Machen
Only months before Europe burst into the flames of August 1914, H. G. Wells published The World Set Free, a “prophetic” bit of whimsy about war and the unification of modern states into a single world government due to the existence of nuclear weapons. (That didn’t go to plan, did it?) With his usual aplomb, Machen diagnoses the fatal flaws in Wells’ fantasy. Both men lived late enough to see the first use of atomic weapons, yet neither would experience the radical changes that “the world set free” would undergo. Wells passed away a year after Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 13, 1946; Machen on December 15, 1947.
Layton Crippen (d. 1916) is a forgotten figure with a string of publishing credits, but his Clay and Fire may be worth hunting down. In his article, Machen misremembered the title of the book.
Mr. Wells’ Radium Bomb:
“The World Set Free” by the Touch of a Button
May 11, 1914
“Man who used to weaken and die as his teeth decayed now looks forward to a continually lengthening, continually fuller term of years.”
Poor Homer, poor Dante, poor Shakespeare, poor Cervantes. They were born before the great period that Mr. Wells prophesies, the age of the world set free. This for them was altogether fortunate; they would not have thriven in the new age. They were narrow men, nationalists, full of notions about Greeks, Italians, Englishmen, Spaniards; men full of joy in the oddities and inequalities and angularities of things, each was convinced in his own way that beauty and delight came from that strangeness in the proportion that Bacon praises. There would be no place for them in “The World Set Free”; and Keats’s poetry would certainly have consigned the author to the lethal chamber. For it deals with ineffable beauties and longings and dolours of the spirit; and in the remade world there is nothing of all this. Mankind touches a button, and radioactivity does the rest.
The radium bomb is the god from the machine of Mr. Wells’s new story-essay. Physical science makes a great leap, radioactive forces become its servants. In consequence bombs are made which refuse to explode and become extinct.
On the contrary, each bomb thrown from the aeroplane becomes an Etna in a chronic eruption that persists through weeks and months and years, and when war breaks out the capitals of the world are turned into volcanoes of fire and utter destruction.
What Is Happiness?
And then, and therefore, the rulers of the earth take counsel together, and decree the world-state, the abolition of all nationalities, the abolition of all war, of all envyings, strifes, contestations, varyings; they decree, in fact, that the human heart is not the human heart any longer; that, considering the prevalence of fiery, volcanic, and irremediable bombs, desire and loathing and love and whimsicality are no more.
And, with all due respect to that high international Assembly of Brissago that the author has imagined, I am inclined to believe that it acted ultra vires; it is quite a waste of time for any assembly to vote a black skin white, or the human heart inhuman – bombs or no bombs.
But, frankly, it seems to me that the whole book and all its theories are vitiated by what I venture to consider Mr. Wells’s radical misconception of human happiness, what it is, and how it is gained. I remember that in an interview which he was once good enough to give me, we differed violently on the deep question of kitchen ranges and small coal. Mr. Wells said that what we wanted was the electric cooker – no fuss, no worry, no struggle with dirty coals and damp wood; but just a touch of a switch, the turning on of the electric heat, and your steak cooked for you before your eyes without any bother. You opened the little lids, you shut down the little lids, you opened them again: and Science had done your work for you; it was just like the cooking apparatus of the Single Gentleman, as described by Mr. Richard Swiveller.
The Joys of Discomfort
But I, on the other hand, maintained that the effort of making a good fire from stubborn materials was part of the sauce of the good cook’s life; and I say that I extend this principle and declare that the difficulty fought and overcome, the stubborn stuff of the world, whatever it may be, encountered and vanquished, makes a sauce of every human being’s life.
It seems to me that a great essay might be written on the supreme joys of discomfort, difficulty, terror, nay, of death itself. If the very savour and delight of life did not – by an amazing paradox I confess – lie in these strange elements, how would you get young men to row themselves blue in the face and weak in the heart, year after year, in the University Boat Race? Where would your Alpine Climbers come from, whence would you draw men who, for the sheer sport and joy of the thing, are willing to put their lives to the most hideous and awful risks?
Mikkelsen, the Arctic explorer, told me as he warmed his hands with relish before a roaring London fire, that he enjoyed the hideous discomforts and perils of his desperate adventures; that middle deep in Arctic slush, in the most imminent danger of his life, he was already planning out future expeditions – in the improbable event of his survival. So they get men for the submarines, so the Fire Brigade is manned.
Man Versus Machine
Mr. Layton Crippen, the author of a recently published and most remarkable book called “Fire and Clay” (Grant Richards), describes a race that pretty well corresponds with Mr. Wells’s ideal humanity; with the people who have everything done for them. Mr. Crippen is speaking of the wealthy American woman, who controls the forces of the world by touching a button. She has no trouble, no bother, no struggle with recalcitrant matter; and she is, so Mr. Crippen declares, the most discontented creature on earth. I can well believe it; for she is trying to live against nature.
But let me confess it, there is a real relish in disagreeing with a man thoroughly. Pigs and sheep and cows and hens and fields and horses – agriculture as he calls it – are barbarous to Mr. Wells; and he contrasts contemptuously “illiterate peasant industries” with the work of the power-driven factory.
The machine, in fact, is greater than the man. Truly, the Erewhonians of Butler were justified in their destruction of all machinery.
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6 thoughts on “Mr. Wells’ Radium Bomb”
“And then, and therefore, the rulers of the earth take counsel together…” Surely that’s a reminiscence of the beginning of Psalm 2, which so plainly fits our present conditions, which begins:
Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?
The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord, and against His anointed [His Christ], saying,
Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us.
Do we know what Machen thought of Huxley’s Brave New World? – it strikes me that he’s effectively imagined some version of it here (18 years before Huxley!), in his critique of “The World Set Free”.
As of yet, I have not found a reference to Huxley in Machen. Though I have no data, I suspect that Machen did not read Brave New World. However, if I come across any reference, I’ll post it. If it exists, I’m sure it would be a fascinating read.
It seems it would be interesting to have an accurate account of
[a]Machen’s known reading (my impression, by the way, is that he was not very much of a public library user)
[b]Machen’s personal library
My hunch is that Machen was not someone who read a lot of books but rather someone who spent much time with favorites such as Dickens.
Great topic. Last month, several items from Machen’s library went up for auction (courtesy of Machen’s family). However, ten of the eleven items were his own works. I wonder if it is possible to discover what remains intact.
It is certainly true that Machen had a favorite and perennial reading list. He claimed to have read 1) Pickwick once a year; 2) Don Quixote every two years; and 3) Rabelais every three years. He was versed in Poe, Twain, Stevenson and the Arabian Nights. According to Cox, he wrote a letter to M. R. James expressing his admiration.
Job duties cast a wider net. During his time for Literature, Evening News, T. P.’s Weekly, many other periodicals, he read books by a variety of authors: Wells, Blackwood, Masefield, Underhill, the Benson Brothers… the list goes on and on. His position as a reader for Benn, and less occasionally Gollancz, afforded more reading opportunities, including Charles Williams.
There is large body of nonfiction reviews he did for Walfords (A Reader of Curious Books) and the Academy on a wide variety of topics.
Dale, you’ve given more areas of research to investigate and more projects to consider… and I’m already busy!