This is the second year that the book festival has run a lecture in conjunction with English PEN. In Introducing AC Grayling, Nick Barley, the director of the festival, quotes last year’s speaker Ali Smith, who’s talk was published by Penguin as a foreword to their reprint of HG Wells’ The Rights of Man. She had told him that when speaking to a child she had asked what fiction was. The child replied that fiction was ‘made up truth’. Barley thinks that this defines the role and power of fiction rather well and then asks if philosophy can match fiction in it’s ability to think and imagine. The best philosophers are brave thinkers and, as Barley puts it, the world needs a lot of them right now. AC Grayling is one of those brave thinkers. One of our best known philosophers and a great lover of the power of fiction.
Grayling views Wells as a literary hero. He was a prolific writer and a good example of where imagination can take us. Wells combined intense imagination and thought with a great desire to know as much as possible. He was self taught and among many during his time that valued not just knowledge but thorough understanding, a trait Grayling feels is displayed in his work. It is frequently clear that Wells had a deep understanding of what he wanted a particular story to tell the reader and was a great reader himself. Grayling is unsurprised by this passion for reading, as any writer or aspiring writer should know that to write is to read. You can’t succeed at the first task without doing a great deal of the second.
There are questions about some aspects of Wells’ work. The good points of anyone’s work should be appreciated and the bad ones explored but, as Grayling points out, the context of his time and contemporaries must be considered. Some of his thinking was heavily influenced by the rise of eugenic thought after the revelations of Darwin’s evolution. However, Wells enjoyed taking an idea, considering the potential consequences and following them through to their logical conclusion. The Time Machine explores two possible end points of a drive towards a perfected human race, both of which end poorly. It seems to suggest Wells thought perfection an unrealistic goal as it was struggle and imperfection that made us human and made us live. Grayling proposes that if we could transport Wells to 2016 and give him the complete history of the decades since he lived, he would probably agree with many modern ideas about life and indeed eugenics.
Wells was a great believer in science literacy. Not that everyone should be a scientist, but that every member of the electorate should be able to understand what is happening in the field and appreciate the details of news reports on the subject. Grayling despairs at the acres of print given over to football compared to the mere inches expected to adequately report on every domain of science. An appreciation of the discoveries and future possibilities of science is vital. Grayling speaks of a conversation he had with one of the scientists involved in the search for the Higgs Boson. He asked how exciting it was to finally be going to print with the confirmation that the particle had been found. The reply surprised and delighted him. The man felt that while it had been extremely exciting, it would have been even better if they had not found it because then there would have been a whole knew avenue of work to explore.
It is that kind of attitude that Wells would probably have appreciated. He felt that the best way of showing the importance and impact of science is to tell people stories. To show them what science is and where it might take us. When writing science fiction Wells stated that you must have one impossible thing and have everything else utterly plausible so as to give that impossible thing the largest possible impact. The Time Machine touched on Darwinian and eugenic thought but also beautifully explored contemporary ideas about the physics underpinning the universe. Time was considered the 4th dimension and if you could travel in every other dimension then why not the 4th? Wells took that question and explored its consequences.
Part of the role of fiction can be to take science as it is and explore its potential consequences. Wells took the practice he had used in fiction and applied it to the problems of society. With one world war behind them, another looming, and fears of aerial warfare becoming a main form of conflict, Wells and his contemporaries began to see two inevitable conclusions. Either we would find ever more destructive ways to wipe each other out or we would need to find a way to establish a world government to keep the peace. Wells was at the forefront of the group attempting to warn people about the potential horrors of aerial warfare and prevent them from ever happening.Sadly once the cats of science and technology had been let out of the bag, nothing could persuade them back again. When war started again it wasn’t until the atom bomb that their greatest fears about aerial warfare were realised and the world has been reeling ever since.
Wells took to trying to put the world to rights through writing. He wrote about the need for universal legal structures and universal human rights. While his contemporaries took to opening schools to try and educate the young in order to prevent future catastrophes, Wells recognised that education was not limited to the classroom. If people could be persuaded to be lifelong self educators then society would improve. Churchill once declared that the strongest argument against democracy was a minute’s conversation with the average voter. Wells wanted to push for a thoughtful, educated electorate invested in the common wheel, which 2016 is showing to be a rather wise goal.