Book Stats

  • A Standalone Novel
  • First published in 1914
  • This edition published by MIT Press
  • Tomorrow Fiction
  • 241 pages


Scientific innovation will change the world, but can anything change the innate desires of humanity? Perhaps one day there will be peace, but before peace, there will always be war . . .


H.G. Wells is well-known as a novelist. The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, these are all famous novels. And very good ones too. But what some people might not know so well is that Wells was also an essayist. In his own life, particularly in the twentieth century, he was regarded more as a thinker than a writer. He was a man more than happy to share his ideas with the world. ideas about society, technology, and culture. ideas about what the future might look like, and how we might get there as a species. Towards the end of his career, Wells often included these themes in his fiction, leading to books like The War in the Air and The Shape of things to Come. The World Set Free fits in with these latter texts. It’s not so much a novel, as it is an extended essay on Wells’ concerns for the future.

In terms of being a work of fiction, The World Set Free honestly isn’t that good. As a piece of entertainment, it has basically nothing going for it. There are a handful of good scenes, but even in such a short book they are drowned out by the essayist side of Wells’ writing. With the story divided into sections that have little in common between them, there’s not a whole lot of room for plot or characters. The final section is character-driven, and feels oddly disjointed after the more academic sections that comprise the rest of the book. There’s no central narrative to speak of, but then that’s not really the point of a book like this.

I find tomorrow fiction a very strange genre. At its core, it’s an attempt to realistically depict what the future might look like. As such, it’s essentially a vessel for the author’s politics and beliefs. Modern tomorrow fiction, or that which is still set in our future, is of no real interest to me. For me, the interesting part is not the predictions themselves, it’s looking back with hindsight and seeing which ones came to pass. And, conversely, which ones remained fictional.

For example, Wells was right about a major war that engulfed the whole world, though he optimistically put it as late as the nineteen-fifties. Likewise, he was the first man to use the term ‘atomic bombs’ to describe radioactive explosives. However, his atomic bombs are not accurate to what nuclear weaponry actually is. And while the First and Second World Wars did indeed lead to an alliance of nations, Wells’ depiction of an assemblage of kings laying down their crowns and forming a single world government did not come to pass. Or at least, he hasn’t yet. There are still kings in the world, so I suppose there’s still time.

The alternative future of Wells’ novel is fascinating, but it can’t make up for the overall failing of the more fictional elements. If you’re going to read The World Set Free, it is best to view it, not as a work of fiction, but for what it ultimately is. A one man manifesto for Wells’ idea of paradise.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Deeper Dive: The Radium Age

This particular edition of The World Set Free is published by MIT Press, as part of a series focused on proto-science fiction. That is, those works of the early part of the twentieth century, after the age of science romance like Jules Verne, but before the rise of the pulp magazines and the so-called Golden Age of science fiction. It’s an attempt to plug a hole in the history of the genre, mirroring works of fiction against the real-life story of Marie Curie, and her discovery of radium.

Projects like The Radium Age fascinate me. Marie Curie had little or no personal stake in science fiction. yet her scientific career maps easily onto a history of fiction. Given the Golden Age’s obsession with radioactivity, it’s only natural to put Curie at the heart of the study. One can’t help but wonder what other historical figures lived through such genre-defining times.

One response to “BOOK REVIEW: The World Set Free, by H.G. Wells”

  1. MONTHLY ROUNDUP: April 2023 – At Boundary's Edge Avatar

    […] Book: The World Set Free, by H.G. Wells […]


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