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THE WORLD SET FREE
We Are All Things That Make And Pass,
|PRELUDE||THE SUN SNARERS|
|CHAPTER THE FIRST||THE NEW SOURCE OF ENERGY|
|CHAPTER THE SECOND||THE LAST WAR|
|CHAPTER THE THIRD||THE ENDING OF WAR|
|CHAPTER THE FOURTH||THE NEW PHASE|
|CHAPTER THE FIFTH||THE LAST DAYS OF MARCUS KARENIN|
The World Set Free is a novel published in
1914 by H. G. Wells. It is not one of Wells' better-remembered works, but is
noteworthy for its depiction of fictional "atomic bombs" which eerily
prefigure the development of real nuclear weapons.
A constant theme in Wells' work, such as his 1901 nonfiction book Anticipations, was the role of energy and technological advance as a determinant of human progress. The novel opens: "The history of mankind is the history of the attainment of external power. Man is the tool-using, fire-making animal."
Scientists of the day were well aware that the slow natural radioactive decay of elements like radium continues for thousands of years, and that while the rate of energy release is negligible, the total amount released is huge. Wells used this as the basis for his story. In his fiction,
"The problem which was already being mooted by such scientific men as Ramsay, Rutherford, and Soddy, in the very beginning of the twentieth century, the problem of inducing radio-activity in the heavier elements and so tapping the internal energy of atoms, was solved by a wonderful combination of induction, intuition, and luck by Holsten so soon as the year 1933."
As fate or coincidence would have it, in reality the physicist Leó Szilárd read the book in 1932, conceived of the idea of nuclear chain reaction in 1933, and filed for patents on it in 1934. Wells did have some knowledge of actual atomic physics, Rutherford and Soddy's discovery of the disintegration of uranium. Soddy in a book called Wealth, Virtual Wealth and Debt praises The World Set Free.
In Wells' story, the "atomic bombs" have no more power than ordinary high explosive—but they "continue to explode" for days:
"Never before in the history of warfare had there been a continuing explosive; indeed, up to the middle of the twentieth century the only explosives known were combustibles whose explosiveness was due entirely to their instantaneousness; and these atomic bombs which science burst upon the world that night were strange even to the men who used them."
In the great tradition of science-fiction, he gives the obligatory double-talk explanation of how the bombs are supposed to work:
"Those used by the Allies were lumps of pure Carolinum, painted on the outside with unoxidised cydonator inducive enclosed hermetically in a case of membranium. A little celluloid stud between the handles by which the bomb was lifted was arranged so as to be easily torn off and admit air to the inducive, which at once became active and set up radio-activity in the outer layer of the Carolinum sphere. This liberated fresh inducive, and so in a few minutes the whole bomb was a blazing continual explosion."
This is nonsense, of course—even if the "inducive" does sound rather like the initiator used in modern nuclear weapons. No bomb could "explode continuously" without destroying itself. This is, of course, one of the problems that had to be solved in the development of the real atomic bomb. Nuclear weapons are, and need to be, just as "instantaneous" as a conventional explosive. Thus Wells' bombs were not truly prophetic at an engineering level. Nevertheless, it is startling to read:
"Certainly it seems now that nothing could have been more obvious to the people of the earlier twentieth century than the rapidity with which war was becoming impossible. And as certainly they did not see it. They did not see it until the atomic bombs burst in their fumbling hands... All through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the amount of energy that men were able to command was continually increasing. Applied to warfare that meant that the power to inflict a blow, the power to destroy, was continually increasing. There was no increase whatever in the ability to escape... Destruction was becoming so facile that any little body of malcontents could use it... Before the last war began it was a matter of common knowledge that a man could carry about in a handbag an amount of latent energy sufficient to wreck half a city."
Wells viewed war as the inevitable result of the Modern State; the introduction of atomic energy in a world divided resulted in the collapse of society. The only possibilities left were "either the relapse of mankind to agricultural barbarism from which it had emerged so painfully or the acceptance of achieved science as the basis of a new social order." Wells' theme of world government is presented as a solution to the threat of nuclear weapons.
"From the first they had to see the round globe as one problem; it was impossible any longer to deal with it piece by piece. They had to secure it universally from any fresh outbreak of atomic destruction, and they had to ensure a permanent and universal pacification."
"From nearly two hundred centres, and every week added to their number, roared the unquenchable crimson conflagrations of the atomic bombs. The flimsy fabric of the world's credit had vanished, industry was completed disorganised, and every city, every thickly populated area was starving or trembled on the verge of starvation. Most of the capital cities of the world were burning; millions of people had already perished, and over great areas government was at an end."
The Last War erupts in Europe, rapidly escalating from bloody trench warfare and vicious aerial duels into a world-consuming, atomic holocaust. Paris is engulfed by an atomic maelstrom, Berlin is an ever-flaming crater, the cold waters of the North Sea roar past Dutch dikes and sweep across the Low Countries. Moscow, Chicago, Tokyo, London, and hundreds of other cities become radioactive wastelands. Governments topple, age-old cultural legacies are destroyed, and the stage is set for a new social and political order.
The Last War is H. G. Wells's chilling and prophetic tale of a world gone mad with atomic weapons and of the rebirth of human-kind from the rubble.
Herbert George Wells (September 21, 1866 – August 13, 1946) was a British writer best known for his science fiction novels such as The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Time Machine. He was a prolific writer in the history of literature, and wrote works in nearly every genre, including short stories and nonfiction. He was an outspoken socialist, and most of his works contain some notable political or social commentary.
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