Orwell or Wells—Can Science Save Humanity?

Will Science save humankind, or lead us to our doom? The Internet is buzzing lately with various online outlets reprinting this article by Richard Gunderman in The Conversation, about a debate between H. G. Wells and George Orwell on this topic.

H.G. Wells, best known for his science fiction novels such as The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, believed science was the best hope for humanity’s future. George Orwell, an essayist, critic, and author of 1984 and Animal Farm, took a less optimistic view.

The article makes it sound like a lively back-and-forth argument ensued, but from the essays cited, it seems rather one-sided. In the early 1940s, H.G. Wells was in his late 70s and near death. George Orwell was in his late 30s, (though not too far from his own death at 46). From what I can glean, this was mostly Orwell criticizing Wells, not the other way around.

Before we explore the ‘debate,’ let me define terms. Science is a systematic process for gaining knowledge about the universe through experimentation. Since it involves the accumulation of knowledge, it’s unlikely that Science, by itself, can either save or destroy humanity. I think of Engineering as the application of scientific knowledge to design, invent, and produce useful products.

When both Wells and Orwell refer to Science, I think they meant to include Engineering. For the purpose of this blogpost, I’ll use that same shorthand meaning of Science.

Wells grew up in an era far different from Orwell’s. He saw the rapid development of science—automobiles, submarines, airplanes, relativity, skyscrapers, rocketry, and medicine—and foresaw amazing wonders that would benefit mankind. He figured the same scientific process that could produce those wonders could also lead to better government if we placed scientists in charge.

Let’s give Wells some credit, though. He was no Pollyanna. Many of his novels portrayed the misuse of science for destructive ends. But George Orwell seized on some of Wells’ more optimistic—though lesser known—writings.

In the early 1940s, Orwell watched with growing horror at the growth of Hitler’s Germany and saw it as the embodiment of Wells’ ideas, a nation of submarines, rockets, and airplanes, with science-minded people running the show. To Orwell, Deutschland was no Utopia. He castigated Wells in a couple of scathing essays.

In his article in The Conversation, Gunderman claims the debate is still relevant today. It’s been 75 years since Orwell penned his criticisms; have we learned enough to settle the argument?

Since that time, Science has split the atom to provide electricity, visited the Marianas Trench, landed on the Moon, built and commercialized the Internet, put instant communication in our pockets, sent probes to explore the outer planets, multiplied crop yields, mapped the human genome, and extended lifespans through medical breakthroughs.

On the other hand, Science also brought us nuclear weapons, the Apollo 1 fire and two space shuttle disasters, Chernobyl, computer viruses, armed drones, and electronic spying. Soon, perhaps, an artificial intelligence Singularity may be looming.

In my view, science is a tool, like a knife or hammer. People can use it for good or evil. It amplifies our capacity for both. The concepts of good or evil reside in the individual human mind. To ask if Science will save humanity is like asking if a hammer will save humanity. It depends on how we use the tool.

The real question is whether our good natures will prevail over our evil ones. I think there are far more good people than evil ones, but the evil ones have greater influence per capita. For some reason, a few clever evil people can sway many good people to their side.

So far, across the span of human time our good natures have won out and the products of science have proffered more benefits than harm. On average, life is better now than in the past, for most. But it’s a close thing, and our history shows frequent backsliding.

Whether humanity achieves Utopia, destroys itself, or some outcome in between, Science will deserve neither credit nor blame. Only the human capacity for love or hate will determine our future. And that’s the realm of fiction writers like—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Been to Utopia and Dystopia, and I prefer…

Judging from recent literature, the future looks bleak. The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, Delirium, Matched, Legend, and others paint visions of worlds much worse than our own.

Without question, these books sell well. Some have become movies. We readers have a fascination with dismal futures, possibly because:

  • They make our own present seem better by comparison;
  • We like to imagine the end result of current downward trends;
  • The character’s stakes are high, the conflicts larger than life;
  • We identify with being a victim of society;
  • It’s inspiring to read about characters making the best of things in the worst of places; or
  • Millennials, raised in the shadow of 9-11, actually believe their future will be worse than their present.

city-654849_960_720From the writer’s point of view, dystopias have this advantage—at least one of the book’s conflicts is baked in from the start. There will be some sort of man vs. society conflict going on. Whatever other conflicts are present, you’ll find a struggle between the individual and the state. By contrast, in utopias, conflict is harder to come by.

For this post, I’ll define utopian literature to refer to fiction set in a future world that’s better and more technologically advanced than our own, but is not necessarily a perfect world. Dystopian literature is fiction set in a future world worse than our own (with either more advanced or less advanced technology), it’s but not necessarily a completely hellish world.

spaceship-499131_960_720Utopian literature doesn’t seem to be selling as well as its dystopian opposite. Such books once rocketed off shelves. Almost all science fiction written in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s assumed society and technology would advance and life in general would improve.

Such utopian books didn’t portray perfect futures. The characters suffered from problems and challenges as dire as those in any novel. After all, if someone traveled to our present from almost any period in the past, they’d view our modern era as utopian, thanks to our long life spans, medical advancements, reasonably plentiful food, and readily available technology. We look around us and see no end of problems, but in the eyes of our ancestors, we all inhabit Utopia.

Does the prevailing literary mood reflect society’s predominant attitude toward technology? In the 1940-1970 period, could it be that the Space Race, combined with the baby boom (which produced a huge number of youthful readers), result in a yearning for optimistic literature?

Might it be that today’s readers no longer hold a positive view of technology? Has the rise of terrorism, increasing surveillance, climate change, cybercrime, and a fear of artificial intelligence biased the current book-buying public against science?

Possibly, but Baby Boomers had “bad” technology, too—namely, the Bomb. And Millennials have plenty to be optimistic about, such as driverless cars, household robots, 3D printing, hyperloops, missions to Mars, etc.

If each generation knew both good and bad technology, then why would they hold such different attitudes toward it? Or is it something besides a prevailing view of science?

Could it be all due to the Boomers alone? Maybe that “pig in a python” generation is, all by itself, influencing literature as its population ages. That is, when Boomers were young and optimistic, they preferred Utopia, but as they became older, sadder, and wiser, they pulled up stakes and moved to Dystopia.

Hieroglyph coverWhatever the reason for the current literary preference, some evidence indicates the reaction against dystopia and back toward utopia has begun. In 2011, author Neal Stephenson helped found Project Hieroglyph which seeks fiction and nonfiction depicting a positive future. The published anthology, Hieroglyph, is on my list of books to read.

I prefer utopian fiction. Being a techno-optimist, I prefer to think the future will be better than the present, and reading such books keeps me in that mindset. However, I’m not Pollyannaish; I know society could well backslide, much as the thousand year Dark Ages followed the Roman Empire. Further, I know readers of dystopian books don’t necessarily believe the future of the real world will be dismal.

Let me know your position on this spectrum. Do you read solely utopian, or solely dystopian books? Or perhaps you don’t care, so long as the book is good. Your comment may influence the type of fiction to be written by—

Poseidon’s Scribe