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“Shall We All Commit Suicide?”: Churchill’s Scientific Imagination – Part 2
Continued from Part 1
Scientific dystopia: “Fifty Years Hence”
His “Armistice dream” (Part 1) is Churchill’s utopia lost. His impending scientific dystopia is outlined with Orwellian power in “Fifty Years Hence.” This stark vision was first published in The Strand in December 1931. In 1932 it appeared in his collection of essays, Thoughts and Adventures. “An acid test of Churchill’s relevance,” it offers not only predictions but “a diagnosis of the predicament of modern man.”13
Churchill’s premise is that scientific power has accelerated the pace of change. It has come to dominate humanity in unprecedented ways: “None of the generations of men before the last two or three were ever gripped for good or ill and handled like this.”14 The remote past is no longer a guide to the future. Would-be prophets must discard methods employed by historians in favor of scientific extrapolation:
There are two processes which we adopt consciously or unconsciously when we try to prophesy. We can seek a period in the past whose conditions resemble as closely as possible those of our day, and presume that the sequel to that period will, save for some minor alterations, be repeated. Secondly, we can survey the general course of development in our immediate past, and endeavour to prolong it into the near future. The first is the method of the historian; the second that of the scientist.
Only the second is open to us now, and this only in a partial sphere. By observing all that Science has achieved in modern times, and the knowledge and power now in her possession, we can predict with some assurance the inventions and discoveries which will govern our future. We can but guess, peering through a glass darkly, what reactions these discoveries and their application will produce upon the habits, the outlook and the spirit of men.”15
A scientific break in continuity
That remarkable passage deserves wider currency. Churchill is known for his immense industry and has a well-deserved reputation as a historian. Yet he was acutely aware that the modern period—thanks largely to science—was in crucial respects unprecedented. It was a break in the continuity of human history. It demanded new modes of historiography, including the occasional practice of “future history.” It must account (as best it can be constructed) for what has not yet happened.16 Here Churchill discards the conventional historian’s method of looking to the past for archetypes. Instead, using extrapolation, he applies to the task of writing future history a scientific (and science fictional) mode of imagination.
In “Fifty Years Hence” Churchill offers both utopian and dystopian appraisals. His utopia is an amusing pastoral vision of teeming cities transformed into uncrowded countrysides. Their inhabitants enjoy gardens and glades, “wireless telephones and television,” vat-grown chicken breasts, and other “synthetic food.” Since this is a Churchillian utopia, readers are assured that the “the pleasures of the table” will remain available. “That gloomy utopia of tabloid meals need never be invaded. The new foods will from the outset be practically indistinguishable from the natural products, and any changes will be so gradual as to escape observation.”17
But this gardener’s and gourmet’s paradise is less persuasively defined than Churchill’s Orwellian nightmare. This is introduced by allusions to Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1931) and Karel Capek’s Rossum’s Universal Robots (1920). Humanity falls into spiritually empty materialism. It is then ultimately displaced altogether by a posthuman race of bio-engineered android slaves, serving a power-hungry despotism.18
Coming, and soon….
Churchill warns that the new age will soon be upon us:
The production of such beings may well be possible within fifty years. They will not be made, but grown under glass. There seems little doubt that it will be possible to carry out in artificial surroundings the entire cycle which now leads to the birth of a child. Interference with the mental development of such beings, expert suggestion and treatment in the earlier years, would produce beings specialized to thought or toil….A being might be produced capable of tending a machine but without other ambitions.”19
Unusually alert to the possibilities of science, Churchill was just a little off in his estimate of when artificial gestation might be fully realized. But Capek’s science fiction classic was no mere political parable or fanciful prophecy. It was a stimulus to an even more sobering exercise of future history, with an important moral for the present.
The key to all futures, Churchill suggests, will be atomic energy. “Nuclear energy is incomparably greater than the molecular energy which we use today,” he writes. “There is no question among scientists that this gigantic source of energy exists. What is lacking is the match to set the bonfire alight, or it may be the detonator to cause the dynamite to explode. The Scientists are looking for this.”20 Given such prospects, the social outcome—utopian or dystopian—will depend on humanity’s psychological and moral qualities.
Man’s unchanged nature
On this issue Churchill is an equal-opportunity prophet. “The nature of man has remained hitherto practically unchanged,” he writes. “Under sufficient stress—starvation, terror, warlike passion, or even cold intellectual frenzy—the modern man we know so well will do the most terrible deeds, and his modern woman will back him up.”
As in “Shall We All Commit Suicide?” Churchill urges us to consider the consequences of clinging to old attitudes. He argues eloquently that human survival depends on setting aside selfish materialism in favor of developing our capacities for “Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love.”21
A hinge of fate
It is neither Churchill’s fault nor his preference that he was destined to be famous, not as an advocate of mercy, pity, peace, and love, but as a leader who could offer only blood, toil, tears, and sweat.
Churchill’s all too well justified foreboding culminates in an apocalyptic vision of scientific dehumanizing, practiced by tyrannies:
…powers will be in the hands of men altogether different from any by which human nature has been moulded. Explosive forces, energy, materials, machinery will be available upon a scale which can annihilate whole nations. Despotisms and tyrannies will be able to prescribe the lives and even the wishes of their subjects in a manner never known since time began. If to these tremendous powers is added the pitiless subhuman wickedness which we now see embodied in one of the most powerful reigning governments, who shall say that the world itself will not be wrecked, or indeed that it ought not to be wrecked? There are nightmares of the future from which a fortunate collision with some wandering star, reducing the earth to incandescent gas, might be a merciful deliverance.22
“The science fictional sublime”
In that passage Winston Churchill is sublime. Readers travel beyond our planet’s problems to its end. His fearful vision resides within a moral framework. This variety of what I would call the science fictional sublime is rare in Churchill’s writing. Nevertheless, it is altogether characteristic. Nor was it a late development in his canon.
A similar invitation to anticipate future catastrophes appeared thirty years earlier. It arose in Churchill’s 1900 novel Savrola, its protagonist an idealized self-portrait of the author. One night, Savrola gazes at Jupiter through a telescope. Its “world of boundless possibilities enthralled his imagination.” He thinks of “the incomprehensible periods of time that would elapse before the cooling process would render life possible on its surface. Even if evolution leads to an extraterrestrial utopia, Churchill concludes, “the cooling process would continue.” The development of life would end. Then “the whole solar system, the whole universe itself, would one day be cold and lifeless as a burned-out firework.”23
This imposing meditation might easily be a précis the dying planet in an expiring solar system at the end of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895).
In Savrola, Churchill provides in concise form an elegant variation on one apocalyptic theme of that great scientific romance. Through the iron determinism of thermodynamics, human history, all individual achievements, will ultimately be rendered meaningless. They will plunge into oblivion by the final extinction of life everywhere. If that is so, Churchill challenges us to wonder, what is the point of ambition or achievement?
An affinity with Wells
As these utopian and dystopian speculations demonstrate, there are striking imaginative affinities linking Churchill with science fiction. His quarrels with H.G. Wells have often been remarked, especially over the British Empire, which Wells despised and Churchill defended. They argued over what Churchill rightly saw as Wells’s naive approval of the Soviet Union. Yet Churchill lavishly praised Wells as an “unquestionably great English writer.” After castigating Wells’s political views, Churchill turns to Wells as writer. Here, Wells is “the gifted being” with his “gay and daring fancy…
I am a great reader of Wells. It must be more than thirty years ago that I first discovered his Select Conversations with an Uncle…. I responded at once to his intellectual stimulus and literary dexterity; and when I came upon The Time Machine, that marvellous philosphical romance, not unworthy to follow at some distance, but nevertheless in the train of, Gulliver’s Travels, I shouted with joy. Then I read all his books. I have read them all over since. I could pass an examination in them. One whole long shelf in my small library is filled with a complete edition…. Here is entertainment and frolic…shrewd ideas of peace and war. Here are prophecies of the future, not a few of which we have lived to verify and endure.24
This panegyric continues for several paragraphs. It reveals mental and stylistic affinities, shared tastes and concerns, more than direct personal influences. These are the tones of someone who has discovered a kindred spirit. Yet WSC’s life and writing didn’t change as a result of that encounter.
Wells and the tank
A similar though more subtle appreciation of Churchill’s Wellsian affinity appears apropos tank development in The World Crisis. Churchill notes that the idea of an “armoured land vehicle” had a long history. It was no individual’s idea, including himself. Still, he says, H.G. Wells, in 1903, “practically exhausted the possibilities of imagination in this sphere.”25
Clearly Churchill had been much taken with Wells’s story “The Land Ironclads.” This piece, like Wells’s other science fiction, may have influenced Churchill’s writing and thinking. But it is more likely to have provided a kind of ratification of directions in which Churchill was being independently led by his own powerful imagination, to envision more clearly than most of his contemporaries the military and social implications of science.
“At home, if not altogether happy”
Churchill preferred Wells over Jules Verne on grounds of modernity. While Verne “delighted the Victorians,” Wells “took up his work in the 20th.” Thus Wells recorded “a far more complex scene.” Sadly too, “Wells saw the bloody accomplished fact, illustrating his pages while their ink was wet.”26
Born a Victorian, Churchill shows himself at home, if not altogether happy, in the post-Victorian world. His sympathies are for writers, whatever their chronological roots, who remain a vital part of the 20th century. The subtleties of elite avant-garde modernists like T.S. Eliot, Henry James, and James Joyce had little appeal. He was much more responsive to—and familiar with—science fiction masters like Wells, Capek, and Stapledon. In a century dominated by scientific applications, they dealt with themes of more pressing urgency and greater philosophical moment.
Churchill’s ability and willingness to adopt science fiction forms is an underappreciated sign of his literary versatility, skill, and power. His imaginative affinity with scientific techniques, themes and writers speaks to his openness toward the future. Particularly, it displays his capacity to imagine the social consequences of science. Thus derives his remarkable ability not only to survive the future, but to shape it for the better.
13 James W. Muller, ‘“A Kind of Dignity and Even Nobility’: Winston Churchill’s Thoughts and Adventures,” in The Political Science Reviewer, 16 (Fall, 1986), 297.
14 Winston S. Churchill, Thoughts and Adventures (1932; reprinted London: Thornton Butterworth, Ltd., Keystone Library ed., 1934), 270.
15 Ibid., 273.
16 For the backgrounds of future history as a form of imaginative literature, see Paul K. Alkon, Origins of Futuristic Fiction (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987).
17 Thoughts and Adventures, 276.
18 Churchill mentions the surprise Capek’s play about robots (in which that term was first used) elicited in London. WSC does not mention, but doubtless alludes to, Stapledon’s Last and First Men. Churchill notes a book in which race of beings “mastered nature, enjoyed pleasures and sympathies incomparably wider than our own… But what was the good of all that to them?…. No material progress, even though it takes shapes we cannot now conceive, or however it may expand the faculties of man, can bring comfort to his soul.”
19 Thoughts and Adventures, 277.
20 Ibid., 274.
21 Ibid., 279.
22 Ibid., 278.
23 Churchill, Savrola: A Tale of the Revolution in Laurania (1900; reprinted, New York: Random House, 1956), 34-35.
24 Churchill, “H.G. Wells,” Sunday Pictorial, 23 August 1931, reprinted in The Collected Essays of Sir Winston Churchill, 4 vols. (London: Library of Imperial History, 1975), III, 52-53. Churchill was over 70 when he remarked: “Wells is a seer. His Time Machine is…one of the books I would like to take with me to Purgatory.” It is pleasant to know that in Churchill’s view, even the burdens of Purgatory may be lightened by a choice library.
25 The World Crisis, vol. 2, 1915 (New York: Scribner, 1923), 69-70.
26 Churchill, “H.G. Wells” in Essays III, 53.
Paul K. Alkon (1935-2020) was a Leo S. Bing Professor of English Literature at the University of Southern California, beginning in 1980. A specialist in 18th and 19th century French literature and science fiction, he was a glorious exponent of Churchill’s literary flights of fancy. His book, Winston Churchill’s Imagination, teaches us of Churchill’s engagement his own imagination outside of the political sphere. Its chapters cover Lawrence of Arabia, Charlie Chaplin and Churchill’s film-writing story, Churchill’s alternative history from Marlborough to the American Civil War, and his “last testament in the realm of imagination,” The Dream.
Fred Glueckstein, “Great Contemporaries: Churchill and Wells, the Two Futurists”
Justin Lyons review of Larry P. Arnn, Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill and the Survival of Free Government.
Manfred Weidhorn, A Harmony of Interests: Explorations in the Mind of Sir Winston Churchill (Rutherford, Madison, Teaneck, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press,1992), on the Wells-Churchill relationship, 25-30, 40-44.