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


Tthe 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 flea markets that I often frequented to buy novels and fanzines, and to check out the latest heavy metal albums. Its cover stained with moisture, its pages slightly torn, the book showed traces of previous ownership. The first humans on the moon, the title read. I later found out that the Turkish translation was gender-neutral but the original, The First Men of the Moon, was not.

At the time, I wasn’t very interested in science fiction. I bought the book because it intrigued me for some reason I couldn’t quite understand. But reading it was not a priority. At the time, I was in love with Russian literature; Gogol’s Dead Souls and Dostoyevsky’s Notes from a Dead House and The Karamazov Brothers had definitely changed something in me. I wanted to read the kind of literature that dealt with what I considered “the harsh socio-political realities”. As a result, I underestimated and ignored HG Wells, and his novel sat unread and unloved on my shelf for a long, long time.

When I moved from Ankara to Istanbul in my early twenties, quietly dreaming of becoming an author, 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 – the steep street of the pot makers. It was an apartment with a view, the real estate agent assured me. If you would put a stool under a corner of the only window in the living room, which was also my study and bedroom, and step on it and tilt your head far enough to the right, and provided the sky was clear and that there is not any mist rising from the horizon, you might see a burst of shimmering blue, a bar of the beauty of the Bosphorus, and even get swept away, if not by the sea itself, by the slightest promise of it.

Turkish-British novelist Elif Shafak has been chosen to give this year’s HG Wells talk Photography: Pål Hansen / The Observer

It was in this apartment, during those first days in Istanbul, that I started reading The First Men of the Moon. In a way, the lunar city of Wells, with its dazzling caves and erratic weather, was tied in my imagination to the ancient megalopolis I found myself in, with its winding streets and no less erratic characters. The Selenites, the socially complex and technologically sophisticated underground natives of the Moon, were not an easy group to understand. But again, as I would find out soon enough, neither do Istanbulites.

Wells, a writer of scientific training and prolific in 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 thirst for endless innovation, experimentation, and novelty, but he also feared the dark side of technology.

In his writings, Wells transmitted a plethora of futuristic prophecies, from space travel to genetic engineering, from the atomic bomb to the World Wide Web. No other fiction writer has seen the future of humanity as clearly and boldly as he has.

If he had lived at the very end of the 20th century, what would he have done with this world? I’m especially curious what he would have thought of the unbridled optimism characteristic of the time, an optimism shared by liberal politicians, political scientists and Silicon Valley. The pink 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 great global democratic village. The naive expectation that if you could only disseminate information freely across 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 care about the future of human rights, the state of right, freedom of expression or media diversity? The western world was seen as safe, solid, stable. Democracy, once acquired, could not be disintegrated. How could someone who has tasted the freedoms of democracy accept to abandon it to the winds?

Fast forward, and today that dualistic view of the world is shattered. The ground beneath our feet doesn’t feel so solid anymore. We have entered the era of anguish. Ours is the age of pessimism. Ours is a suffering world. If Wells were alive today, what would he think of this new century with its growing polarization, the rise of populist authoritarianism, and the mind-boggling pace of consumption – including the consumption of disinformation – all of which are exacerbated by technology? digital?

In addition to a remarkable body of fiction, Wells has written powerful political, social, and scientific commentaries. According to him, human history was increasingly becoming “a race between education and disaster”. He passionately believed that “human history, in essence, is a story of ideas.” Wells was not afraid to turn the arrows of his criticism on his own country and, sometimes, on himself. He could openly laugh at himself, explore his own follies and flaws, and vocally criticize Anglocentrism.

History is full of examples that show how the rise of nativism always goes hand in hand with the rise of binary oppositions. We versus them. Populist demagogues say loud and clear that you can either be a nativist – who prioritizes their country at the expense of building taller 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. These are the only two options, they say. But Wells, who was always interested in internationalism, skillfully demonstrates that it is possible to transcend this worn-out dichotomy. We do not have to lock ourselves in either the pride of ultranationalism or the injustices aggravated in the name of greedy globalism. And this point deserves to be recalled today, when we need international solidarity and international brotherhood beyond borders, at a time when we must remember our common humanity.

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

Democracy is not a medal that, once won, can be framed and hung on the wall to hide 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 needs to be fed all the time. The ballot boxes in themselves are not enough to maintain a true pluralist democracy. Let us not forget that many non-liberal and even downright authoritarian countries now hold “elections” every few years. Majoritarianism is not the same as democracy.

Thus, in addition to the ballot box, we need the rule of law, the separation of powers, free and diverse media, independent universities, women’s rights, LGBTQ + rights. When democratic norms and institutions are shattered and political language becomes increasingly combative and beset with martial metaphors, we enter dangerous territory. The monopolization of power is dangerous. No politician, political party and certainly no tech company should have absolute power in a society.

The story does not necessarily unfold in a regular, linear progression. New generations can repeat the mistakes their grandparents already made. When countries retreat, the first rights to be restricted are those of women and minorities.

Wells believed in a literature of ideas; an art that engages with the world and dares to ask questions. He envisioned a future where “women should be free like men”. Daring to write about taboos, he supported not only gender equality but also the sexual liberation of women, so that they are “in no way enslaved or subordinated to the men they have chosen”. I think it’s equally important that he advocates birth control at a time when it was not easy to do so.

HG Wells understood the inequality. He knew how the widening and deepening of inequalities would corrode human life and happiness. He also understood desperation. In his iconic Human Rights, he said: “Unless we can fight the growing perplexities of today, towards a new world order of law and security, unless we can keep the head and courage, in order to restore candid life, our species will perish, mad, fighting and chattering, 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, September 17, 2021 at the Ripples of Hope Festival in partnership with English PEN for their centenary program, Common Currency. Tickets for Free Expression Now, the latest event in PEN’s centenary celebrations, are available here.

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