I’ve Been Thinking About the End of the World

 It seemed to me that I had happened upon humanity upon the wane. The ruddy sunset set me thinking of the sunset of mankind. For the first time I began to realize an odd consequence of the social effort in which we are at present engaged . . . .
— H. G. Wells, The Time Machine

An image has haunted me since at least some time after my eleventh birthday when a school chum gave me a lovely one volume copy of The Time Machine and The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells:

A steady twilight brooded over the earth. And the band of light that had indicated the sun had, I now noticed, become fainter, had faded indeed to invisibility in the east, and in the west was increasingly broader and redder. The circling of the stars growing slower and slower had given place to creeping points of light. At last, some time before I stopped, the sun, red and very large, halted motionless upon the horizon, a vast dome glowing with a dull heat. The work of the tidal drag was accomplished. The earth had come to rest with one face to the sun even as in our own time the moon faces the earth.

The Time Machine (1895 version)

This image of the ancient sun, “a vast dome glowing with dull heat” rests forever on my mind and returns for me in readings as an instant image of the last days of a world, if not devoid of life, emptied of living humanity and, most likely, cleansed by time even of human artifact.

Wells, of course, as a man of science, grounded his description in rational predictive extrapolation from known geological and astrophysical principals. But even such a hopelessly unscientific fellow as C. S. Lewis (his Cosmic Trilogy notwithstanding) conjured this same bloated sun when he needed a bit of shorthand for a world on its death-bed. Consider Chapter V of the penultimate Chronicle of Narnia, The Magician’s Nephew:

Much more light than they had yet seen in that country was pouring in through the now empty doorway, and when the Queen led them out through it they were not surprised to find themselves in the open air. The wind that blew in their faces was cold, yet somehow stale. They were looking from a high terrace and there was a great landscape spread out below them.

Low down and near the horizon hung a great red sun, far bigger than our sun. Digory felt at once that it was also older than ours: a sun near the end of its life, weary of looking down upon that world. To the left of the sun, and higher up, there was a single star, big and bright. Those were the only two things to be seen in the dark sky; they made a dismal group. And on the earth, in every direction, as far as the eye could reach, there spread a vast city in which there was no living thing to be seen. And all the temples, towers, palaces, pyramids, and bridges cast long, disastrous-looking shadows in the light of the withered sun. Once a great river had flowed through the city, but the water had long since vanished, and it was now only a wide ditch of grey dust.

So many echoes of Wells. But here is added the dead, empty city. A world at its end, humanity and, indeed, life wiped away, but still humanity’s works stand mighty.

Almost a century before Well’s Time Machine and far in time from Lewis’ dead city under a swollen sun, the poet Shelley and his friend Horace Smith challenged each other to compose a sonnet on the subject of some newly discovered bits of Egyptian statuary. The result of the challenge was, on Smith’s side, a sadly overshadowed and forgotten poem, and on Shelley’s, Ozymandias, one of the world’s greatest elegies to humanity’s doomed striving against entropy. “Look upon my works ye mighty and despair!” Despair indeed, for these great works, intended and expected to last an eternity, have been reduced to dust in a few dozen lifetimes. One can almost see the red giant sun looming over Shelley’s antique land, as it looms over each of us, doomed to age and die on an aging Earth.

And Smith’s sonnet more explicitly tells us to consider our entropic future:

. . . some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London Stood, holding the wolf in Chace,
He meets some fragment huge and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

I think of an inversion of Conrad’s Marlow in Heart of Darkness sitting on the deck of the Nellie and intoning into the London night “This too [again will be] one of the dark places of the earth.” Smith’s hunter stands like John in New York, in Benet’s “By the Waters of Babylon”, like Charlton Heston’s Taylor in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty in The Planet of the Apes. So many apocalypses.

Most often at the ends of these worlds there is a survivor to observe “the lone and level sands.” The Time Traveler sees the final snows of Earth’s condensing atmosphere; Polly and Digory look on the bloated sun and empty city of the Witch’s world; Matthew Arnold and his unnamed love stand at the window hearing the “long, withdrawing roar” of the sea of faith in “Dover Beach”. But there is one notable but little-noted work in which not a single human observer survives in the landscape of apocalypse. In 1920, the dark shadow of the trenches still brooding on Europe’s collective mind, Sara Teasdale gave us a beautiful and hopeless little poem usually titled “There will come Soft Rains”:

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

The first septet (save the fence wire) is all wild nature. The wire in line 6 and the war in line 7 are the pivot of the piece. Most of the last three couplets is about absent humanity: “war”, “mankind”, “we”. But “we” are not in the landscape. We have left the landscape to nature, and nature is indifferent. Unlike so many other imaginings of human autumn and winter, Teasdale allows of no survivors in her vision. Where Horace Smith imagined a future hunter, Shelley a traveler from an antique land, Wells a traveler in time, Lewis children with world-jumping magic,, and Arnold a meaningless meaning of faithfulness to a companion in a faithless world, Teasdale does not shy away from a world with neither humanity nor human meaning.

Teasdale’s audacity is a rare thing. Think of Ray Bradbury’s post-nuclear-holocaust story titled after Teasdale’s poem. Bradbury’s 1950 “There will come soft rains”, part of his The Martian Chronicles, tells the story of the final days of an automated house, emptied of humanity by nuclear war. As in Teasdale’s poem, the landscape contains only nature and humanity’s artifacts, no humanity. But Bradbury does not allow himself to fully face humanity’s extinction. In the universe of The Martian Chronicles, humanity survives as a small colony on Mars, and , Bradbury expresses an extreme optimism in the title of the next and final story of the Chronicles: humanity’s stay on Mars will be “The Million Year Picnic”.

Evidently it is a difficult thing to imagine, as Teasdale somehow has, the absolute extinction of ourselves. As I’ve been considering this essay, I’ve looked back at a number of works and I found that complete pessimism is a rare thing. I made a little list of works, each with a flippant précis appended:

“Ozymandias” (Shelley/Smith, 1818) Fortune’s Wheel turns.

The Last Man (Mary Shelley, 1826) We are excruciatingly done!

The Time Machine (Wells, 1895) – It’ll be done a long, long, long time in the future and we’ll have an unimaginably long run.

“The Machine Stops” (E. M. Forster, 1909) There’s light at the end of the tunnel.

“There will come soft rains” (Teasdale, 1920) – We’re done and the birds don’t care.

“Twilight” (John W. Campbell, 1934) We’ll be done eventually, but we’ll build android replacements for ourselves.

Against the Fall of Night/The City and the Stars (Arthur C. Clark, 1948/1956) Same tunnel as Forster’s, but a whole lot longer.

“There will come soft rains (Bradbury, 1950) – We’re done for on Earth, but we’re picnicking on Mars!

The Magician’s Nephew (Lewis, 1955) It’s done in that other place but we’re okay.

Wall-E (Disney/Pixar, 2008) – Everything’s going to be okay in the end!


I won’t draw any conclusions from the fact that the two totally pessimistic works on my list, the two utterly without the offer of hope, are the two written by women. I expect I could look through my library a moment and find something hopeless by a man and something hopeful by a woman. What I find more interesting is the apparent need to provide light at the end of the existential tunnel.

As I was pondering the end of the world, I came across philosopher John Leslie’s The End of the World: The Science and Ethics of Human Extinction (1996) which discusses at length the likelihood that a particular individual – you or I, for example – would be kicking around closer to the beginning or the end of humanity’s run on the planet. I won’t get into the argument in any detail at all, but basically Leslie demonstrates that we’re most likely living close to the end of our run on earth. But, interestingly, Leslie still seems to find hope for our future, that we will outwit probability. Even after a few hundred pages of careful argument of mathematical probabilities, the philosopher desperately clutches at the straws of optimism.

As I read Leslie’s book I came to realize that his probabilistic argument rests on a continued expansion of human population to 10 billion and it remaining there until 2250. I couldn’t help thinking of the closing pages of Colin Tudge’s The Time Before History (1996) in which he argues that if humanity could drastically reduce its numbers by a voluntary two-children-or-less policy, then humanity’s run on earth could last indefinitely and with a high standard of living for all. Such a future would offer far more individuals a happy life than would continued population increase to the point of crash and/or extinction. Again there is hope, if we can control our disastrous drive to spawn large numbers of children.

I also, sadly, found myself reading Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us (2007), ostensibly a scientifically grounded speculation into what the world would be like if humanity disappeared as in Teasdale’s poem. What a hopeless piece of writing! As well as being rife with factual error and bad writing, this is a book with a social agenda that is not susceptible to argument. It pretends to be “What if?” but is actually, “This, Gentle Reader, is NOW, you selfish pig! You’re the problem! And when it really comes down to it, I don’t care about science!” A toxic Trojan horse of a book. And, to top it off, on page 272, in a typically ill-constructed (and cruelly compulsory) sentence, Weisman paraphrases Tudge, whom he never once cites:


“. . . henceforth limit every human female on Earth capable of bearing children to one.”

Compare Tudge’s hopeful argument, an optimistic argument based not simply upon a dread of Wells’ “huge red-hot dome of the sun” glowing over an empty future earth, but rather on humanity’s better angels:

In practice, common sense plus the experience of the past few decades shows that several preconditions must be met if the two-child family is to become the norm worldwide, all of which are difficult in practice, but are conceptually undramatic. First, all efforts must be made to minimize infant mortality. People must know that two children out of two are liable to survive. Second, everyone worldwide needs a pension, so that they do not need to rely upon their children when they stop working. Third, the trend in rich countries toward earlier and earlier retirement must be reversed, for if people retire earlier and the birth rate goes down, then within a couple of decades or less, we will find there are too few young recruits for the job market and indeed that only a small minority of the population is actually working. . . . As modern family planners say, the point is not to coerce but to empower. Coercion is obviously undesirable, but modern experience shows that it is also unnecessary.

The Time Before History, p. 320.

Tudge’s hopeful vision is awfully attractive: A world in which couples are happy with one or two or no children, where being single carries no stigma, where society smiles equally on all the small, happy, healthy, prosperous families, where humanity and nature both have a long life ahead of them on a green and pleasant Earth.

I hope there will come soft rains to that Earth, falling gently on both birds and humans. And I hope, in that fine future, and in this difficult present, every human will very much mind if any bird or tree perishes utterly, whatever the birds and trees might think about us.



“The City of the End of Things” by Archibald Lampman

If I were to write a scholarly paper on Archibald Lampman’s remarkable poem, “The City of the End of Things“, I would probably spend weeks or month in the Rutherford Library at the U of A reading everything written by Lampman and everything written about Lampman’s life and works.  I would definitely mention Shelly and I might mention Wells, Teasdale and Bradbury.  I would avoid mentioning Lewis and Ellison, although I might bring in Star Trek for fun.  I would meticulously footnote and be sure to add passages in Latin and possibly Greek.  I might throw in bits of Old English from “The Ruin” which so exquisitely descends into fragments as it progresses, and maybe a bit of Czech and Polish.

On the other hand, if I were writing a blog post about “The City of the End of Things” I would probably sit down in a hospital room — like the detective in that Tey novel — with a print-out of the poem, a notebook and pen, a smart phone with a failing battery, and my memory.  I would certainly mention Ellison and Star Trek, I might even bring in Robert Bloch.  I would probably not do anything like meticulous research (that might come another day) and I’d probably let the structure of the poem structure my post to a certain extent.

In fact, if I were to write a blog post about “The City of the End of Things”, I would probably write something unlike a scholarly article and quite like what you’ll find below.

Some of my most vivid memories of childhood are images of dying worlds, for example, the skittering giant crab-creatures under the red sky in Well’s The Time Machine, or Jadis’ empty city of Charn in Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew.  Long ago I met Shelley’s traveller from an antique land and Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” is an old friend, although it was only relatively recently that I found Bradbury’s inspiration in Sara Teasdale’s poem of the same name.

I’ve always been playing catch-up with Canadian Literature — something of an embarrassment — so it was only late in life that I came across a quite startling end of the world in what might seem an unlikely place.  Archibald Lampman lived a short life, beginning shortly before the Confederation of the Canadas and living to see only the first three decades of the new Dominion.  Well known in life, he is, perhaps less remembered today except in CanLit circles.  Lampman was known as one of the “Confederation Poets”, along with Duncan Campbell Scott, now infamous as the author of Canada’s “Final Solution to the Indian problem.”  In 1895, four years before his death, Edmund Stedman placed Lampman’s short, unusual poem of alternate rhymed tetrameters, “The City of the End of Things” in his A Victorian Anthology, 1837-1895.

I can’t help but feel an echo of Lampman’s title in the title of Harlan Ellison’s “The City at the Edge of Forever,” perhaps the finest original Star Trek episode.  Indeed, Ellison’s almost empty City bears more than a passing resemblance to Lampman’s.  Ellison seems to have an affinity for titles of this structure: vis. “The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World” in his anthology Dangerous Visions.

But, back to “The City at the End of Things.  What a fascinating, intriguing, mysterious and allusive thing it is!

Lampman begins by describing the location of the City in “the Valleys huge of Tartarus” seemingly quite clearly placing the City in the Classical underworld.  The eighth line is the title, in position to become a refrain, although that never happens.

The second section (20 lines) expands on the description of the fiery, Hellish City.  In line 16 are mentioned the “thousand furnace doors” which bring to my mind the “aditus centum, ostia centum” of the Cumaean Sibyl’s cave in Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid.  Inhuman music is heard, no man is there, only fire and night.  Continuous noise, no cessation, no change.

The third section, twice the length of the first, begins with a description of the surprising robotic mechanical men who keep the City going.  While inhuman creatures may seem startlingly prophetic (and marvellously steampunk) for Victorian Canada, it strikes me that Lampman may be looking back to the bronze man Talos of Apollonius’ Argonautica and earlier, rather than ahead to Čapek, Asimov and Lem.  The second half of this section clarifies that not only are there not any humans like us in the City, but Death would shrivel our souls and snap “each thread of memory.”

The fourth section, twenty lines again, begins with a description of the City’s origin as the work of human hands.  But the builders have withered until only three remain in a room in a tall tower facing each other, “masters of [the City’s] power.”  And one other remains standing unmoving and immovable at the Northern Gate.  Of this one Lampman says:

In his pale body dwells no more
Or mind or soul, — an idiot!

In the final 24 line section Lampman lets us know that the three shall perish, the wheels will slack, the fires die, the sound fall to silence, and the buildings fall to rust and dust.  No tree or grass will grow in the dead City.  And then, the final four lines:

Alone of its accurséd state
One thing the hand of Time shall spare
For the grim Idiot at the gate
Is deathless and eternal there!

Well.  What to make of this?

Certainly interesting is the line count structure of two twenty line stanzas separating stanzas of 8, 2×8, and 3×8 lines.

Very interesting as well is the vision of an empty dead world at such an early date in a land itself politically new and so filled with “untamed” wilderness.

But something of a conundrum is the figure of the deathless, eternal, mindless and soulless Idiot.  Why is he eternal while the City and its builders must decay and fade?  The Idiot has no soul, no mind, no memories, no motion.  He is nothing but a shell, like the “empty nut” of line 44, the remnants of the hypothetical Man meeting Death in the City of the End of Things.

What is the Idiot except eternal meaninglessness?  Is Lampman suggesting that all meaning must decay? Or is he suggesting that Eternity, continuance without decay or change, would be a meaningless existence?  Perhaps he is just asking the question, “What are some implications of Eternity?  And is eternal, unchanging existence desirable?”  Perhaps this is the insight of The City of the End of Things:  there is only life where there is change and decay.

And, perhaps the Idiot, the one Eternal of the poem, is Death, the one Eternal of our world.

Three Classic British Science Fiction Novels

I just finished rereading Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 apocalyptic science fiction novel, Childhood’s End.  I also reread it a few years ago after a few decades away.  Clarke had been a favourite of my teen years, so I really can’t say how many times I’ve read the thing.  Through what I now realize is a fortunate coincidence, relatively recently I also reread John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (1957). That reread was spurred by the very enjoyable web comic FreakAngels by Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield, which is a dark riff on Wyndham’s dark novel.

And I realize as I write this that the theme of extraterrestrially mediated human evolution common to Childhood’s End and The Midwich Cuckoos (and FreakAngels) owe more than a little to H.G. Wells’ 1937 novel Star Begotten.  Wells writes of a group of friends who begin to suspect an alien force is manipulating humanity:  “Suppose that for the last few thousand years they have been experimenting in human genetics” suggests Wells’ protagonist Joseph Davis.

Sixteen years later Clarke wrote of Overlords who manipulate human society in aid of the Overmind who causes a global generation of human children to transcend genetics and take a giant evolutionary step (destroying their parents and the entire Earth as a bit of collateral damage).  And then, four years later, Wyndham narrowed the focus to the children of just the small English village of Midwich.  The new human children in Midwich are destroyed by means of an explosive device and humanity is, unlike in Childhood’s End, saved from its own future evolution.

Did Wyndham know Childhood’s End? Did he and/or Clarke know Star Begotten?  I don’t know how tight the British science fiction community was mid-century and, for the moment, I’m not going to research that question.  I do, however, find it intriguing that such similar science fiction treatments of eugenics appeared in the two decades from 1937 to 1957.  And there is something very interesting in the difference between 1937 and the 1950s.

“Starry changelings both,” Joseph Davis says hopefully at the end of Star Begotten, “And not afraid — even of the uttermost change.”  Where Joseph Davis strides bravely into the new, inhuman future, Clarke’s new humanity, while transcendent, is utterly alien, utterly indifferent, and utterly destructive. Jan Rodricks, Clarke’s Last Man, while apparently unafraid as the future destroys him, is helpless and impotent. And Wyndham’s Cuckoos are terrifying, a menace which must be destroyed.

It is hard not to conclude that public knowledge of Nazi eugenics programmes culminating in the death camps and the Holocaust would be fresh in the minds of Clarke and Wyndham and their readers in 1950s Britain. While Clarke tries to slip in some hope, first with the middle, Golden Age section and later with the transcendence of the new humanity, the vision of this eugenic future is wholy dark for humanity as we know it.  And Wyndham allows little room for coexistence between Man and Superman.
Between 1937 and 1953 eugenic utopia had been discredited, at least as a science fiction theme.  Of course, Huxley in Brave New World (1932) had responded to Wells’ utopian tendencies and Orwell, before the horrors of the death camps were fully realized, had worried about future social trends, but neither Brave New World nor 1984 deal with the terrors of directed evolution — eugenics by a longer name.  Galton’s vision of improving humanity through selective breeding was perhaps forever made horrible by the version brutally implemented by Hitler.

Eugenics, an idea which had been for half a century a subject of respectable conversation and debate had instantly become a horror.  This moral shift can be seen clearly in the three novels I’ve been touching on, three novels with very similar themes written by three very British novelists.  But the three novels draw quite interestingly different conclusions about those themes.

If you are feeling like reading a bit of vintage British science fiction, a session devoted to consecutive readings of Star Begotten by H. G. Wells, Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke, and The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham would, I think, be very rewarding.

Odd. I actually sat down thinking I was going to just write a little review of Childhood’s End, and look where I ended up!  Well, unintended consequences, I guess . . .


“Mind at the End of Its Tether” by H. G. Wells: a final testament of hope

I’ve just revisited H.G. Wells’ last book (apart from that thing on which he collaborated with Uncle Joe Stalin) Mind at the End of Its Tether, published in November 1945.  I feel I must emphasize at the outset that the title is not A Mind at the End of Its Tether — Wells is explicitly not saying in the title that his own mind is at the end of its tether (although that may have been a fact). No, this little collection of odd essays is about the coming end of “self-conscious existence” as the European intellectual elite had conceived it for centuries and also about the probable (from the late 1945 point of view) obliteration of Life itself:

. . . within a period to be estimated by weeks and months rather than by æons, there has been a fundamental change in conditions under which life, not simply human life but all self-conscious existence, has been going on since its beginning.

I think too often Mind at the End of Its Tether is condemned or dismissed (or praised) as a disjointed (Orwell’s description) wallow in pessimism by an old man disappointed or even heartbroken over the failure of his life-mission as he feels that life winding down to an end he knows to be only days or weeks away.  When I consider another little book Wells published just before Mind at the End of Its Tether, I find the suggestion that Wells had lost hope and given up to be preposterous.  The Happy Turning concludes with an idea very similar to the conclusion of Mind at the End of It’s Tether:

So we found ourselves in agreement that the human mind may be in a phase of transition to a new, fearless, clear-headed way of living in which understanding will be the supreme interest in life, and beauty a mere smile of approval.  So it is at any rate in the Dreamland to which my particular Happy Turning takes me.  There shines a world “beyond good and evil”, and there, in a universe completely conscious of itself, Being achieves its end.

Well!  That’s nothing other than an evolutionary jump!

And how does Mind at the End of Its Tether end?

. . . my own temperament makes it unavoidable for me to doubt, as I have said, that there will not be that small minority which will succeed in seeing life out to its inevitable end.

What? Bloody convoluted British piling up of negatives to confound whether or not one is making a positive statement!  If I parse correctly, Wells is saying that, in fact, he can’t help but think that there *will* be that small successful group which will reach life’s inevitable end.

But what is that end?

I would argue that life’s inevitable end in Wells’ view is an intellectual evolutionary jump to the situation described in The Happy Turning, that world “beyond good and evil”, that “clear-headed way of living.”

Let’s look at the book.

I think the chapter headings can vital to an understanding of what Wells is arguing:

The End Closes In Upon Mind
Mind is Retrospective to the End
There is No “Pattern of Things to Come”
Recent Realisations of the Nature of Life
Race Suicide by Gigantism
Precocious Maturity, A Method of Survival
The Antagonism of Age and Youth
New Light on the Record of the Rocks

Here is the pattern of Wells’ discussion. Self-conscious life is facing conditions which will end it, but thought will look back to past patterns till the end because there is no pattern in the chaos of the future. So Wells himself looks back to the past through the lens of evolutionary biology and presents some patterns he sees, including a tendency to large body size, except in the case of humans who have evolved through a process of progressive infantilization. Just as humanity has survived by evolving a permanent arrested physical development, it is necessary that Mind remain vibrantly youthful if there is to be a future for life.

Throughout the book, Wells is frustratingly vague about the threats to Life he sees and use deceptive terms to describe exactly what he thinks is in danger.  Just as there may be a tendency to read the title as A Mind at the End of its Tether, it is easy to misunderstand Wells’ talk of “our universe” ending rather than “the Universe”: at one point he writes “our ‘universe'” and at another it is “Our universe”.  Wells is decidedly not talking about a rolling up of the firmament and God wandering off to start anew.   At most he is anticipating a nuclear sterilization of the planet. At least he is talking about a restructuring of human society and intellect into something his generation of old men would no longer recognize as human.

Now, in more detail:

Chapter One is partly a description of the Mind of Wells’ time, of the intellectual approach to existence that Wells sees in the common folk (keep calm and carry on) and in the educated classes (keep calm and carry on).  Wells describes what his own attitude has been:

The habitual interest in his life is critical anticipation. Of everything he asks: “To what will this lead?” And it was natural for him to assume that there was a limit set to change, that new things and events would appear, but that the would appear consistently, preserving the natural sequence of life.  So that in the present vast confusion of our world, there was always the assumption of an ultimate restoration of rationality, an adaptation and a resumption.  It was merely a question, the fascinating question, of what forms the new rational phase would assume . . .

But Wells has come to the conclusion that there has come a complete breakdown in predictability, perhaps an anticipation of Chaos Theory, and he seems to be anticipating Toffler’s Future Shock in his description of the trauma of a world in which “everything was driving anyhow to anywhere at a steadily increasing velocity.”  And his description of his mid-twentieth century world is remarkable:

Distance had been abolished, events had become practically simultaneous throughout the planet . . .

If 1945 appeared to be at Tether’s End, what would Wells have done if confronted with the world today?

Although Wells has stated that prediction is no longer possible, he predicts that

the normal multitude, which will carry on in this every contracting NOW of our daily lives — quite unawake to what it is that is making so much of our existence distressful and evasive and intensifying our need for mutual comfort and redeeming acts of kindliness.


We pass into the harsh glare of hitherto incredible novelty.

Welcome to the 21st Century, Mr Wells!

What I find troubling about Chapter One is Wells’ introduction of what he calls “The Antagonist”, some sort of almost-almost personal force which is Hell-bent on destroying life.  I have trouble reconciling Wells’ seeming acceptance that the world is purposeless and virtually lacking in causality with what seems a wholly unnecessary hypothesis of an Enemy of humanity.  He is vague to the point of meaninglessness about the nature of the Antagonist.  Is the Antagonist simply entropy?  Wells’ frequent references to radioactivity — they appear in almost every chapter — makes me wonder if the Atomic Bombs dropped on Japan just a few months earlier are not the root of Wells dread.  Or is the Antagonist something about human nature, a race-suicidal imperative which nuclear fission could only exacerbate?  I don’t know, but I don’t understand why Wells felt it necessary to personify this “force” as “The Antagonist”.

The brief second Chapter is simply a condemnation of religion as a usually malicious fiction but also a necessary anodyne for the common person in the face of the futility of life:  the priests help the people keep calm and carry on until they die.

Chapter III is probably the one that causes people to judge Wells a pessimist:

After all the present writer has no compelling argument to convince the reader that he should not be cruel or mean or cowardly.  Such things are also in his own make-up in a large measure, but none the less he hates and fights against them with all his strength.  We would rather our species ended its story in dignity, kindliness and generosity, and not like drunken cowards in a daze or poisoned rats in a sack.  But this is a matter of individual predilection for everyone to decide for himself.

In Chapter IV Wells looks at evolutionary theory as it stood in his time and then applies it to humanity and the problem he sees coming.  Wells suggests that within his lifetime there has been a huge change in the relations of the sexes in Britain, a hint that evolution continues in humans.  And then, he suggests that the sorts of forces which bring about these relationship changes “may play incalculable parts in the production of a new humanity” capable of adapting to the new world.  A hint of a sort of absent-minded eugenics as the future hope.

In Chapter V Wells suggests that the first law of Life is “the imperative to aggression” which leads to large body size.  As I understand modern evolutionary theory — and the comparative numerical and biomass success of, for example, whales and beetles — Wells is beyond wrong in this detail (as he is on the diet of basking sharks).  But Wells is correct in his main point in the chapter: species rise and fall, usually to be replaced by other species but sometimes a species rebounds from an evolutionary bottle-neck.  Again, Wells is closing on a hopeful note.

In the title of Chapter VI, “Precocious Maturity, a Method of Survival”, and in the Chapter itself, Wells makes clear the basis of his hope for the future:

time after time Nature has cut out an adult form from the record altogether, abolished it, and made some larval stage the sexually mature form.

Wells is arguing that the future must be made by the young in youth, and as he closes the next chapter, he states such explicitly:  “The young are life, and there is no hope but in them.”  Is this pessimism?  I think not!

Wells’ final Chapter brings the suggestion that a small minority of highly adaptable individuals will survive the coming “end”.  Wells recaps human evolution, pointing out the progressive infantilization which must continue into any viable future and then concludes with his convoluted affirmation of his own hope for the future.

Certainly Mind at the End of Its Tether is uneven and at times frustratingly vague.  But I cannot call it disjointed — there is a very strong coherence in Wells’ discussion. And there is nothing pessimistic in the little book!  This is the final testament of a man who has seen his world very nearly destroyed in two world wars, of a man who has seen his life long work of building peace repeatedly dashed — this is the final testament of a man in a time of vanishingly little hope who stands up and points to a young couple daring to begin a life together and announces “There are the new Lords of Creation!”

And, you know what? Those young people Wells passed the torch to are our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.  We’ve made it through the End Wells expected.  We are the New Humanity, navigating a world more complicated, chaotic and terrifying than Wells could have imagined or handled.   We navigate that world with all Humanity’s knowledge at our fingertips, in our back pockets. We chat instantly with a friend on the other side of the world, with people living off the planet, for goodness sake.  We are the Shape of Things to Come.

Let’s try to keep up the “mutual comfort and redeeming acts of kindliness”.