In a novel written on the eve of World War I, H. G. Wells imagines a war “to end all wars” that begins in atomic apocalypse but ends in an enlightened utopia.
Writing in 1913, on the eve of World War I's mass slaughter and long before World War II's mushroom cloud finale, H. G. Wells imagined a war that begins in atomic apocalypse but ends in a utopia of enlightened world government. Set in the 1950s, Wells's neglected novel The World Set Free describes a conflict so horrific that it actually is the war that ends war.
Wells—the first to imagine a “uranium-based bomb”—offers a prescient description of atomic warfare that renders cities unlivable for years: “Whole blocks of buildings were alight and burning fiercely, the trembling, ragged flames looking pale and ghastly and attenuated in comparison with the full-bodied crimson glare beyond.” Drawing on discoveries by physicists and chemists of the time, Wells foresees both a world powered by clean, plentiful atomic energy—and the destructive force of the neutron chain reaction.
With a cast of characters including Marcus Karenin, the moral center of the narrative; Firmin, a proto-Brexiteer; and Egbert, the visionary young British monarch, Wells dramatizes a world struggling for sanity. Wells's supposedly happy ending—a planetary government presided over by European men—may not appeal to contemporary readers, but his anguish at the world's self-destructive tendencies will strike a chord.