Pessimism and a false scientific orthodoxy of the 1890s

H. G. Wells in 1931, remembering the way that a false scientific consensus be-numbed and hobbled the optimism of the late Victorians and early Edwardians, and indeed the world…

“… the geologists and astronomers of that time told us dreadful lies about the “inevitable” freezing up of the world — and of life and mankind with it. There was no escape it seemed. The whole game of life would be over in a million years or less. They impressed this upon us with the full weight of their authority, while now Sir James Jeans in his smiling [book] Universe Around Us waves us on to millions of millions of years. Given as much as that man will be able to do anything and go anywhere, and the only trace of pessimism left in the human prospect today is a faint flavour of regret that one was born so soon.”

This is from his 1931 preface to a new edition of his famous book The Time Machine (1895). Wells refers to the claim that the Sun only had a limited store of material to burn, and must inevitably cool as it would use this up before another million years had gone by — and with its depletion the Earth was also forever cooling.

Here is the Wells of 1894, noting the consensus of the day…

“On the supposition, accepted by all scientific men, that the earth is undergoing a steady process of cooling …” (“Another Basis for Life”, Saturday Review, 22nd December 1894).


New book – Arkwright

Allen Steele, Arkwright and the art of keeping the ‘golden’ spirit of sci-fi alive

I personally thoroughly enjoyed Arkwright – a novel about a science fiction writer, containing science fiction history from an age gone past, that tries to remind us what science fiction is capable of and can do as a genre. Arkwright is a book that wears its optimism on its sleeve. In an age when dystopias are ‘in’, this is required, I feel… a book that evokes a sense of wonder and hope.

The author Allen Steele grants the journalist a very short interview…

“I had a certain sense of purpose in writing Arkwright in that I’m tired of dystopian SF, particularly the sort that poses no solutions but just turns the demise of human civilization into a form of entertainment. If the end of the world comes, I promise you that it won’t be just like a movie or a game.”

For some reason the Kindle ereader version of this book does not appear via search on Amazon USA or UK. But going in through Google Search reveals the missing Kindle edition for the USA and UK (unavailable).

Going into with a USA VPN turned on (a free feature in the Opera desktop browser) reveals that the title is available to USA readers as a Kindle ebook, so presumably the lack of a Kindle edition in the UK is not as as result of the author being an Amazon-hater. My guess is then that, since the novel is about an author, it probably quotes snippets of pulp sci-fi texts which are public-domain in the USA but which are still caught up in the foul nets of copyright in the UK and Europe. Amazon’s Kindle platform is hyper-sensitive to that.

Update, August: looks like they just released an audiobook version!

Spiked interviews Matt Ridley

Spiked has a fair-minded interview with Matt Ridley (The Rational Optimist), June 2017: “Why you should be optimistic”

“People are not pessimistic about their own abilities as individuals to solve the problems that face them. As individuals, people are perfectly capable of being sufficiently optimistic and ambitious, sometimes unrealistically optimistic and ambitious about what they can achieve. But for humanity as a whole, it’s quite different. The bigger the canvas, the more pessimistic people are.”