Elif Shafak: How the 21st Century Would Have Disappointed HG Wells | Books

The first got my fingers in a book written by HG Wells, I was a student in Turkey. I found an old edition in an arcade of small thrift stores that I often visited to buy novels and fanzines and to check out the latest heavy metal albums. The cover was stained with moisture, the pages slightly damaged, the book showed signs of previous ownership. The first humans in the moon, the title reads. Later I would discover that the Turkish translation was gender neutral, but that the original, The First Men in the Moon, was not.

At the time, I was not very interested in science fiction. I had bought the book because it had fascinated me for a reason I could not quite understand. But reading it was not a priority. Back then, I loved Russian literature; Gogol’s dead souls and Dostoevsky’s notes from a dead house and the Karamazov Brothers had permanently changed something in me. I wanted to read the kind of literature that dealt with what I saw as “the harsh socio-political realities”. Therefore, I underestimated and ignored HG Wells, and his novel remained unread and unloved on my shelf for a long, long time.

When I moved from Ankara to Istanbul in the early 20s and quietly dreamed of becoming a writer, I had no particular reason to take HG Wells with me, but I did. I rented a small apartment near Taksim Square, on a street called Kazanci Yokusu – Steep Street of Cauldron Makers. It was an apartment with a view, the real estate agent assured me. If you placed a stool under one corner of the only window in the living room, which was also my study and bedroom, and stepped on it and tapped your head far enough to the right, and provided the sky was clear and there was no fog, rising from the horizon, you could see a slice of sparkling blue, a slash of Bosphorus beauty and even let yourself 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 Photo: Pål Hansen / The Observer

It was in this apartment in the early days of Istanbul that I started reading The First Men in the Moon. Somehow, Wells’ moon city with its dazzling caves and irregular weather is connected in my imagination with the old megalopolis that I found myself in, with its snake streets and no less irregular 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 soon discover, and neither were the Istanbulites.

Wells, a writer trained as a scientist and productive across many genres, was uniquely positioned to invent stories that thrived on interdisciplinary knowledge. This set him apart from most of his literary contemporaries. Not only did he understand our existential urge for innovation, experimentation, and endless novelty, but he also feared the dark side of technology.

In his writings, Wells conveyed an abundance 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 looked clearly and boldly into the future of humanity as he did.

Had he been alive at the end of the 20th century, what would he have made of that world? I am particularly curious to know what he would have thought of the unbridled optimism that was characteristic of the era, an optimism shared by liberal politicians, political scientists, and Silicon Valley. The rosy belief that Western democracy had triumphed once and for all, and that thanks to the spread of digital technologies, the whole world would sooner or later become a great democratic global village. The naive expectation that if one could only spread information freely across borders, people would become so 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 – then why should you worry about the future of human rights, the rule of law, freedom of expression or media diversity? The Western world was considered safe, solid, stable. Democracy, once achieved, could not be dissolved. How could anyone who had tasted the freedoms of democracy ever agree to discard it for the wind?

Fast forward, and today this dualistic way of looking at the world is shattered. The ground beneath our feet no longer feels so solid. We have entered the age of Anxiety. Ours is the age of pessimism. Ours is a world that hurts. If Wells were alive today, what would he think of this new century with its growing polarization, rising populist authoritarianism, and the confusing pace of consumption – including the consumption of misinformation – all exacerbated by digital technologies?

In addition to a remarkable fiction, Wells wrote powerful political, social, and scientific commentary. According to him, human history became more and more “a race between education and disaster”. He passionately believed that “human history is essentially a history of ideas”. Wells was not afraid to turn the arrows in his critique of his own country and at times against himself. He could openly make fun of himself, explore his own foolishness and faults, and was vocally critical of Anglocentrism.

History is full of examples that show how the emergence of nativism always goes hand in hand with the rise of binary opposites. U.S against them. Populist demagogues loudly claim that you can either be a nativist – prioritizing their country at the expense of building higher walls, locking all doors 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 infinitely interested in internationalism, deftly demonstrates that it is possible to transcend this terrible dichotomy. We do not need to trap ourselves in either the hubris of ultranationalism or the injustices that are exacerbated in the name of greedy globalism. And this point is worth remembering today, where 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 shown 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 effects of global warming. We have massive challenges ahead of us as humanity, and no one can be solved by myths of exceptionism, nativism or isolationism. It is a shame that at a time when we so obviously need international cooperation, we have ended up with a kind of vaccinationalism. All of this would have disappointed Wells if he were 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, controls and balances, diversity and inclusion, cooperation and coexistence. As such, it must be nurtured all the time. The ballot box in itself is not enough to maintain a proper pluralistic democracy. Let us not forget that many illiberal and even clearly authoritarian countries today hold “elections” every few years. Majoritarianism is not the same as democracy.

So in addition to the ballot box, there is a need for the 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 more and more combative and attacked by combat metaphors, we enter a dangerous area. Monopolizing power is dangerous. No politician, no political party and certainly no technology company should have absolute power in a society.

The story does not necessarily take place in a stable, linear development. New generations can repeat the mistakes their grandparents already made. When countries slide backwards, the first rights to be curtailed are women and minorities.

Wells believed in a literature of ideas; art that engaged the world and dared to ask questions. He envisioned a future where “women must be free as men”. Dare to write about taboos, he supported not only gender equality but also the sexual liberation of women, so they would “in no way be slaves or subordinate to the men they have chosen.” I find it just as important that he advocated contraception at a time when it was not easy to do so.

HG Wells understood inequality. He knew how expanding and deepening inequalities would erode life and human happiness. He also understood desperation. In his iconic Human Rights, he said: “Unless we can fight our way through today’s growing confusion to a new world order of law and security, unless we can keep our heads and courage to restore an honest life, our species will perish, mad, fight. and gibbe, a dwindling swarm of super-Nazis on a ruined land. ”

  • This is an abridged version of Elif Shafak’s PEN HG Wells lecture given on Friday, September 17, 2021 at the Ripples of Hope Festival in partnership with English PEN for their centennial program, Common Currency. Tickets for Free Expression Now, the last event of PEN’s centenary celebrations, are available here.

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