Elif Shafak: How the 21st century would have disappointed HG Wells

Delivering this year’s HG Wells lecture, the author of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World celebrates the late science fiction author’s dedication to fighting inequality

The first time I got my hands on a book written by HG Wells, I was a student in Turkey. I found an old edition in an arcade of little secondhand shops that I visited often to buy novels and fanzines, and to check the latest heavy metal albums. Its cover stained by damp, its pages slightly tattered, the book showed signs of previous ownership. The First Humans in the Moon, the title read. Later, I would discover that the Turkish translation was gender neutral but that the original, The First Men in the Moon, wasn’t.

At the time, I was not much interested in science fiction. I had purchased the book because it had intrigued me for a reason I could not quite comprehend. But reading it was not a priority. Back then, I was enamoured with Russian literature; Gogol’s Dead Souls and Dostoevsky’s Notes from a Dead House and The Brothers Karamazov had permanently shifted something within me. I wanted to read the kind of literature that dealt with what I saw as “the harsh socio-political realities”. Hence, I underestimated and ignored HG Wells, and his novel remained on my shelf unread and unloved for a long, long while.

When I moved from Ankara to Istanbul in my early 20s, quietly dreaming of becoming an author, I had no particular reason to bring HG Wells with me, but I did. I rented a small flat nearby the Taksim Square, on a street called Kazanci Yokusu – the Steep Street of Cauldron Makers. It was a flat with a view, the estate agent assured me. If you placed a stool under one corner of the only window in the sitting room, which was also my study and bedroom, and stepped on it and craned your head far enough to the right, and provided the sky was clear and there wasn’t any mist rising from the horizon, you could catch sight of a sliver of shimmering blue, a slash of the beauty of the Bosphorus, and even allow yourself to be drawn in, if not by the sea itself, by the faintest promise of it.

Turkish-British novelist Elif Shafak
Turkish-British novelist Elif Shafak was chosen to give this year’s HG Wells lecture Photograph: Pål Hansen/The Observer

It was in this flat, during those early days in Istanbul, that I started reading The First Men in the Moon. Somehow, Wells’s lunar city, with its dazzling caverns and erratic weather, connected in my imagination with the old megalopolis that I found myself in, with its serpentine streets and no less erratic characters. The Selenites, the socially complex and technologically sophisticated underground natives of the moon, were not an easy bunch to understand. But then again, as I would discover soon enough, nor were the Istanbulites.

Wells, a writer trained as a scientist and prolific across many genres, was uniquely positioned to invent stories that thrived on multidisciplinary knowledge. This distinguished him from most of his literary contemporaries. He not only understood our existential craving for innovation, experimentation and endless novelty, but he also feared the dark side of technology.

In his writings, Wells conveyed a plethora of futuristic prophecies, from space travel to genetic engineering, from the atomic bomb to the world wide web. There was no other fiction writer who saw into the future of humankind as clearly and boldly as he did.

Were he to have been alive at the very end of the 20th century, what would he have made of that world? I am especially curious to know what he would have thought about the unbridled optimism characteristic of the era, an optimism shared by liberal politicians, political scientists and Silicon Valley alike. The rosy conviction that western democracy had triumphed once and for all and that, thanks to the proliferation of digital technologies, the whole world would, sooner or later, become one big democratic global village. The naive expectation that, if you could only spread information freely beyond borders, people would become informed citizens, and thus make the right choices at the right time. If history is by definition linear and progressive – if there is no viable alternative to liberal democracy – why should you worry about the future of human rights, or rule of law, or freedom of speech or media diversity? The western world was regarded as safe, solid, stable. Democracy, once achieved, could not be disintegrated. How could anyone who had tasted the freedoms of democracy ever agree to discard it to the winds?

Fast forward, and today this dualistic way of seeing the world is shattered. The ground beneath our feet does not feel that solid any more. We have entered the Age of Angst. Ours is the age of pessimism. Ours is a world that is hurting. If Wells were alive today, what would he think of this new century with its increasing polarisation, rising populist authoritarianism, and the bewildering pace of consumption – including consumption of misinformation – all of which are exacerbated by digital technologies?

In addition to a remarkable body of fiction, Wells wrote powerful political, social and scientific commentary. According to him, human history was becoming more and more “a race between education and catastrophe”. He passionately believed that “human history, in essence, is a history of ideas”. Wells was not afraid of turning the arrows of his criticism towards his own land, and, at times, towards himself. He could openly make fun of himself, explore his own follies and flaws, and was vocally critical of anglocentrism.

History is full of examples that show how the rise of nativism always goes hand in hand with the rise of binary oppositions. Us versus them. Populist demagogues loudly claim that you can either be a nativist – who prioritises their country at the expense of building higher walls, locking all doors in order to keep “other people’s problems” at bay – or you can go and be part of a global elite. Those are the only two options, they say. But Wells, who was endlessly interested in internationalism, deftly demonstrates that it is possible to transcend this hackneyed dichotomy. We do not have to trap ourselves inside either the hubris of ultranationalism or the injustices aggravated in the name of greedy globalism. And this point is worth remembering today, when we need international solidarity and international sisterhood across borders, at a time when we need to remember our common humanity.

The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated how deeply interconnected we are. The climate crisis has made it all too clear that no part of the world will be immune to the impact of global warming. We have massive challenges ahead of us as humanity, and none can be solved by myths of exceptionalism, nativism or isolationism. It is shameful that at a time when we so obviously need international cooperation, we have ended up with a kind of vaccine nationalism. All of this would have disappointed Wells, were he alive today.

Democracy is not a medal that once earned can be framed and hung on a wall to hide the cracks. It is a delicate ecosystem, a living and breathing environment of interacting beings, checks and balances, diversity and inclusion, cooperation and coexistence. As such, it has to be nourished all the time. The ballot box in itself is not enough to sustain a proper pluralistic democracy. Let us not forget that many illiberal, and even plainly authoritarian countries, today hold “elections” every few years. Majoritarianism is not the same thing as democracy.

So, in addition to the ballot box, one needs rule of law, separation of powers, free and diverse media, independent academia, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights. When democratic norms and institutions are broken, and the language of politics becomes increasingly combative and beset by martial metaphors, we enter a dangerous territory. Monopolisation of power is dangerous. No politician, no political party, and certainly no tech company should have absolute power in a society.

History does not necessarily proceed in a steady, linear progression. New generations can repeat the mistakes that their grandparents already made. When countries slide backwards, the first rights to be curbed are those of women and minorities.

Wells believed in a literature of ideas; art that engaged with the world and dared to ask questions. He imagined a future where “women are to be free as men”. Daring to write about taboos, he supported not only gender equality but also the sexual liberation of women, so that they would be “in no way enslaved or subordinated to the men they have chosen”. I find it equally important that he advocated birth control at a time when it was not easy to do so.

HG Wells understood inequality. He knew how the widening and deepening of inequities would corrode life and human happiness. He also understood desperation. In his iconic The Rights of Man, he said, “Unless we can struggle through the mounting perplexities of today, to a new world order of law and safety, unless we can keep our heads and our courage, so as to re-establish a candid life, our species will perish, mad, fighting and gibbering, a dwindling swarm of super-Nazis on a devastated Earth.”

  • This is an abridged version of Elif Shafak’s PEN HG Wells Lecture, delivered on Friday 17 September 2021 at Ripples of Hope festival in partnership with English PEN for their centenary programme, Common Currency. Tickets for Free Expression Now, the final event in PEN’s centenary celebrations, are available here.

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Elif Shafak

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