H.G. Wells and His “A Modern Utopia”

From The Lecture Series: Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature

By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut

If The Time Machine is in some sense a metacritical commentary on utopia, it certainly isn’t the only one H.G. Wells wrote. A Modern Utopia, his 1905 novel, certainly fits the bill. It is an odd book, not quite sci-fi, not quite utopia, despite the title, not quite a novel. So what is it?

Earth-like planet.
A Modern Utopia is set in a parallel world, on a planet just like Earth. (Image: AleksandrMorrisovich/Shutterstock)

Wells’s Voice and His Narrator

The book opens with a two-page segment called “The Owner of the Voice.” We know about the utopian narrative frame—the little story that tells us about the character who purports to be the author of the fiction.

The Voice isn’t just a double for the author; it’s also a double for the narrator.

The narrator is the one who actually visits the utopia, but he does not visit alone. He visits with an acquaintance he refers to only as the Botanist. The Botanist acts as a kind of dark or opposing double, so that each time the narrator finds a new feature of the utopia, the Botanist comes in and complains about that exact same feature. He’s also obsessed with an unrequited love.

This isn’t utopian in spirit; it’s like he doesn’t even want to be on this voyage to utopia. He represents erotic desire in contrast to the purely intellectual narrator.

This is a transcript from the video series
Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Quest for the Utopian Double

The utopian setting itself is based on doubling, not a different place on Earth. Not a different time either. This utopia is bigger. It’s set in a parallel world, on a planet just like Earth, except utopian. On a planet, in fact, where there is a version—a double—of each person currently living on Earth.

And that provides the main impetus of the story, the narrator’s quest for his utopian double. When the narrator and the Botanist arrive in the Modern Utopia, they look around a bit, learn a few things, and then the narrator decides he wants to meet and interact with the other version of himself. The Botanist, true to character, continues to pine for his true love, who had no interest in him on Earth and, the reader imagines, will be equally uninterested on utopian Earth.

Learn more about Thomas More’s Utopia.

The Concept of Doubles in A Modern Utopia

The doubling down on doubles speaks to late 19th-century scientific trends, especially in the fields of psychology and statistics, which were starting to set up research projects with experimental and control groups, including twin studies.

Perhaps the only way to find out if a society is a utopia is to compare it to something that has all the same features except whatever social, political, or economic approach you see as central to creating utopia.

The doubling within the text speaks to the doubling within the genre, to the idea that utopia as a genre is always both fiction and philosophy. It also always contains two societies, implicitly or explicitly: the utopian society and our own contemporary society.

And, of course, within contemporary society there’s a further doubling, since there’s the contemporary society of the characters and that of the readers, who may be contemporaries or not, since literature, of course, is not bound to its period.

Photograph of H.G. Wells.
Wells saw utopian writing as having more enduring potential than science fiction. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

H.G. Wells and Literary Longevity

Wells thought about the idea of literary longevity, and he saw utopian writing as having more enduring potential than straight-up futuristic or science fiction writing. Science fiction writers predict specific advances in science and technology, and those can get dated pretty quickly. Utopian writers, on the other hand, say “if only,” which means their visions are never lost.

So, what does Wells think about when he says if only? The parallel world in A Modern Utopia has lots of the features you might expect from a turn-of-the-century English writer who was basically a pretty modern, liberal person.

The Society of the Modern Utopia

The good people of the parallel planet are migratory. Women are considered totally equal, and motherhood is subsidized by the state. People need to earn over a specified amount in order to marry.

The Modern Utopia is racially diverse. Residential areas are in temperate zones, with children growing up in comfortable and beautiful areas. Research is encouraged through careful organization, unlike on our Earth.

And the Modern Utopia doesn’t outlaw nearly as many things as other utopias. The people enjoy good food and drink. They don’t eat meat, but not because it’s outlawed; it’s just that they’ve developed such a strong moral sense that there’s no one willing to slaughter animals. And everyone is healthy. There are very few fat people, and little baldness.

There’s no ownership of property and no inheritance, and new technology has dispensed with most manual and domestic labor. Crime is rare, and the state plays a pretty small role in people’s lives. The state is responsible for the well-being of children, but has absolutely no interest in regulating sexuality.

The Four Classes in the Modern Utopia

In the Modern Utopia, people fall into one of four classes: the Poetic, the Kinetic, the Dull, and the Base. The Poetic are creative, and responsible for art and for inventions. The Kinetic are energetic, and they include administrators, scientists, preachers, and actors.

The Dull are, the narrator tells us, “the stupid people.” The Base can be poetic, kinetic, or dull, but they turn their energies inward, having no moral sense.

Learn more about the critical utopia.

The Samurai of the World State

With this system of broad categories in mind, the founders of the World State—which is what its inhabitants call their world—created a classification that would be unattractive for the Dull or the Base, but that would provide leadership from among the Poetic and Kinetic: the Samurai. These people are the only ones who get to vote.

The Modern Utopia is not a representative democracy. All decisions are made by the Samurai. The narrator’s utopian double is a Samurai, part of the voluntary nobility that is essential in the scheme of the utopian state. The utopians can’t imagine a world in which all people are treated as equivalent, as having the same impact on the political system.

The Samurai live an ascetic life. They are allowed to marry, but can spend only limited time with their family, usually sleeping alone. Also, they must take a wilderness voyage one week of the year to push themselves.

Wells’s A Modern Utopia had an impact. A few small groups formed as a result of the novel and tried to live according to the precepts of the Samurai. However, his main contribution is in placing utopian fiction and science fiction in the same space, forcing us to see their intersections and also their differences.

Common Questions about H.G. Wells and His A Modern Utopia

Q: What is the lifestyle of the Samurai in the World State?

The Samurai in the World State live an ascetic life. They are allowed to marry, but can spend only limited time with their family, usually sleeping alone.

Q: What did H.G. Wells think about utopian writing?

H.G. Wells saw utopian writing as having more enduring potential than straight-up futuristic or science fiction writing.

Q: What are the four classes in the World State?

In the World State, people fall into one of four classes: the Poetic, the Kinetic, the Dull, and the Base.

Keep Reading
A Close Examination of Thomas More’s “Utopia”
The Satirical Utopia in “Gulliver’s Travels”
Literature, Edward Bellamy, and Utopian Activism