Men Like Gods by H. G. Wells

Barnstaple receives final instruction before his cross-time journey home. Portion of a George Bellows illustration from the 1923 edition of Men Like Gods.

Barnstaple receives final instruction before his cross-time journey home. Portion of a George Bellows illustration from the 1923 edition of Men Like Gods.

Men Like Gods by H. G. Wells might be subtitled “Mr. Barnstaple takes a holiday” as that’s a pretty good summary of the basic plot. This 1922 book is partially intended as a Utopian novel and follows the usual convention of having an average, modern human transported into a Utopian world to represent the reader as he uncovers the workings and nature of Utopia. As might be expected of Wells, he goes the extra step to give the novel a science fiction wrapper and in the process, establishes not one but several new genres of science fiction. Just as all time travel novels trace their heritage back to Well’s book, The Time Machine, all parallel universe, multiverse, para-time, cross-time, and alternate history novels descend from Men Like Gods.

Let’s get the plot out of the way first as that’s the least interesting aspect of the book. Mr. Barnstaple is a down-trodden enlightenment liberal who writes for a leftist newspaper. He’s given up hope of changing the world. He’s depressed, hates his job, is annoyed by his family. He determines a solo holiday is the only thing that will save his sanity and sets out for no where in particular in the Yellow Peril, his little two seater car. Coming around a curve in the countryside, he and two other vehicles are suddenly swept out of this world and find themselves in a strange land near the smoking wreckage of a scientific experiment gone wrong. They soon meet some inhabitants of this new world and find it’s similar to Earth but a thousand years in the future. Needing a name for the place, they decide to refer to it as, wait for it, Utopia!

As Barnstaple learns about the amazing world, he realizes it embodies all the ideals he believes in. The others in his party, being more conservative, particularly a narrow minded priest, see the world as degenerate. They make nothing of the peace, prosperity and happiness all around them. Instead they see people who don’t wear enough clothing, don’t have religion, aren’t capitalists, and offend in numerous other ways. With the exception of Barnstaple, the Earthlings soon hatch an ill-conceived plot to take some Utopians hostage, thinking they can use that as a spring board to world-domination and remake Utopia in the image of Earth. I won’t give away too much but there’s never any doubt Barnstaple will survive the goings-on and soon enough is sent back to Earth all the wiser and now with a renewed sense of hope that Earth can someday become like Utopia if we all work hard at improving things.

What sets the book apart from other Utopian novels and gives it an honored place in the annals of science fiction is the first description of the multiverse, the first hint that multiple universes could be “parallel” to and even duplicates of our own; in this case only time-shifted some thousand years. Utopia is in a universe that is essentially an alternate time line of Earth’s universe. The book also postulates that while some universes are nearly identical, others may be wildly different. It’s also the first description of a technological method of cross-timeline travel between parallel universes. As if that’s not enough, there’s a description towards the end of the Utopian’s plans to leave their planet and explore the stars using space travel technology that allows them to bypass normal spatial distances by taking a shortcut; it’s essentially an early description of hyperspace, subspace, warp drive or something along those lines. And for his last trick, Wells explains away the ability of the Earthlings to communicate with the Utopians (who obviously are unlikely to speak English) by explaining that they evolved telepathic abilities. They speak using their minds and we hear them in whatever language we naturally understand, provided we know a word that fits the concept they’re thinking to us.

Here’s the actual description of the multiverse:

Serpentine proceeded to explain that just as it would be possible for any number of practically two-dimensional universes to lie side by side, like sheets of paper, in three dimensional space, so in the many dimensional space about which the ill equipped human mind is still slowly and painfully acquiring knowledge, it is possible for an enumerable quantity of practically three dimensional universes to lie, as it were, side by side and to undergo a roughly parallel movement through time.

Travel between parallel universes is accomplished using a machine that takes a cube-shaped chunk of the universe you’re in and “rotates” it through a higher dimension, causing it to come into contact with some nearby universe. The first test of the technology works but the machine explodes killing the operators. By the end of the book, the machine is not only rebuilt but improved, made portable and, as an added bonus, can even control which Universe it connects with, conveniently allowing Barnstaple to be sent home. Interestingly, because Barnstaple arrived accidentally in a moving car and the Utopians wish to return him the same way, they set up an arrangement reminiscent of Back to the Future in which Barnstaple must drive along a segment of roadway, hitting a trip wire strung across the road, triggering the cross-time machine at precisely the right instant to transport his moving car.

Wells makes a variety of political observations about the failings of our own world including his complaints with the capitalism, Marxism, and socialism of his day. He describes an economic system in which each Utopian citizen lives a government-funded life up to the completion of a very elaborate and detailed education, after which they must choose a path in life that contributes to the world’s economy. They can choose to do anything they like, ranging from a required minimum that allows them to spend most of their life goofing off, to pursuing any career or endeavor, even acquiring wealth and using it as they choose. The Utopians lack any formal government or rulers. Much of the world operates on the “do-ocracy” principle common in hackerspaces. If you see something in the world that needs improvement, it’s up to you to do it, organize the doing of it, or pay someone to do it. At one point Crystal, a Utopian student who befriends Barnstaple, explains that society is based on The Five Principles of Liberty:

  1. Privacy – All individual personal facts are private between the citizen and the public organization to which he entrusts them, and can be used only for his convenience and with his sanction (and anonymously for statistical purposes only)
  2. Free Movement – A citizen, subject to discharge of his public obligations, may go without permission or explanation to any part of the planet.
  3. Unlimited Knowledge – All that is known, except individual personal facts about living people, is on record and easily available to everyone. Nothing may be kept from a citizen nor misrepresented to him.
  4. Lying is the Blackest Crime – Where there are lies there cannot be freedom. Facts may not be suppressed nor stated inexactly
  5. Free Discussion and Criticism – Any citizen is free to criticize and discuss anything in the whole universe provided he tells no lies either directly or indirectly. A citizen may discuss respectfully or disrespectfully, with any intent, however subversive. A citizen may express ideas in any literary or artistic form desired.

Before Barnstaple leaves, he makes one appeal to stay, speaking to a wise, old Utopian who explains that he must go back and that Earth will eventually follow the same course of history to become Utopian in its own time. He warns Barnstaple against attempting premature contact between the two universes until Earth has gotten its house in order:

What could Utopians do with the men of Earth? … You would be too numerous for us to teach … Your stupidities would get in our way, your quarrels and jealousies and traditions, your flags and religions, and all your embodied spites and suppressions, would hamper us in everything we should want to do. We should be impatient with you, unjust and overbearing. You are too like us for us to be patient with your failures … We might end by exterminating you.

Given the way their economy works, it’s fairly clear that it would fall apart pretty quickly if flooded with citizens who have the typical nature of modern humans. In the end, Men like Gods presents a Utopia that needs better humans to be workable, but at least it recognizes that, a fact that sets it above much of the Utopian literature that preceded it.

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes

Jaynes’ book atop books by a few authors who were influenced by his theory.

Julian Jaynes’ book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind is one of those books that just about everyone reads sooner or later. Jaynes is an example of the rare author who could write a scientific treatise that was both ground-breaking and readily readable by the general public. His book was published in 1976 and presented what has to be the most controversial theory ever in the fields of consciousness and religion. Despite the theory seeming completely outlandish at first glance, the book presents testable predictions all along the way. Many modern researchers believe Jaynes’ theory to be partially or completely wrong but there’s no question it has pushed research toward a better understanding of consciousness and religion. Daniel Dennett, who notes Jaynes was probably wrong at least about some particulars like the importance of hallucinations, still thinks his main thesis could be correct. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins commented that Jaynes theory is “either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between! Probably the former but I’m hedging my bets.” In addition to scientists, Jaynes’ theory also inspired two generations of science fiction authors from Philip K. Dick to Neal Stephenson (who based parts of Snow Crash on Jaynes’ theory). David Bowie acknowledges being influenced by this book during his work with Brian Eno on Low and has included the book on his list of 100 Must Read Books.

Julian Jaynes was an American psychologist interested in the origins of consciousness, which he defined roughly as what a modern cognitive scientist or philosopher would call meta-cognition – the awareness of our own thoughts or the ability to think about our own thoughts. In his early research, he specialized in animal ethology (the study of animal’s behavior, communications, and emotions). He began to focus on understanding how consciousness evolved in early humans and studied historical texts and anthropological evidence for clues. This led to his now famous theory that humans initially developed a bicameral mind and that modern consciousness was the result of a breakdown of the two parts.

Bicameral in this case is a metaphor, the word normally describes a type of government consisting of two independent houses. Jaynes came to believe that, as recently as 10,000 years ago, the human brain lacked both consciousness and the strong lateral connection via the corpus callosum that it has today. The two halves of the brain operated more independently but were able to communicate via verbal hallucinations. Humans at this time would have already evolved basic linguistic capabilities, but without the complex metaphors and self-referential aspects of modern language. People behaved in what we would describe today as a ‘zombie-like” way. They would have lacked the ability to reflect on or guide their own thoughts. In times of extreme stress or facing novel situations, the right side of their brain would communicate advice or commands to the left via auditory hallucinations that the person experienced as “hearing a voice”.

As today, humans tended to build up models in their mind of people who are important in their social interactions, parents, tribal leaders, and the like. Jaynes believed the models existed in the part of the mind generating the hallucinations and that the voices often came to be perceived as originating from these people, even if they were not present; even if they were dead. Without the ability to introspect, people simply accepted the voices at face value and assumed they represented some kind of external reality. This predictably gave rise to the earliest religious beliefs: ancestor worship, divinity of kings, belief in an afterlife. It also served as an important social organizing structure that allowed early community groups to form.

This process worked well until about the 2000 BC, when civilizations were going through a periodic collapse. At this time, the growing population was leading to more frequent interactions between disparate groups of humans, resulting in a failure of the bicameral hallucination mechanism as a method of social coordination. If everyone in your group hears the same voices in their head, things work fine. If three or four groups suddenly start living together and everyone is hearing different voices in their heads telling them conflicting things, civilization doesn’t function smoothly anymore.

The result was a gradual breakdown in the bicameral structure of the brain due to the changed environment which gave a huge advantage to individuals whose brains had more direct communication between the two sides via the corpus callosum. This allowed metaphoric language and consciousness to co-evolve, gradually leading to humans who could think about their own thoughts and had the words to describe it. This would also be the origin of the idea of free will, at least in the modern sense. Prior to this time a person did what their brain directed but without any awareness or insight into the process. So, effectively, modern consciousness is a by-product of cultural and linguistic evolution.

The bicameral breakdown leads to the gradual decline of the right brain area that generated verbal hallucinations. Everyone remembered a time when people could hear the “gods” but only a few remain who can still hear their voices. Those people are sometimes elevated to the positions of priest, shamans, oracles or they are seen as insane, eventually classed as schizophrenics.

The whole thing sounds fantastically crazy at first, right? Jaynes says as much throughout the book. But, like any good scientist, he has worked out a series of testable predictions based on the theory in a variety of fields ranging from history to human physiology. Modern researchers have continued to test his theories and, so far, many of his predictions have been dead on. For example, he predicted the existence of an area in the right hemisphere of the brain capable of generating linguistic, auditory hallucinations that is now vestigial and usually dormant. We now know the right hemisphere contains a vestigial area that corresponds to the Broca/Wernicke area in the left brain. This is the part of the left hemisphere responsible for the production of language. He further predicted this vestigial area would be active in schizophrenics who hear auditory hallucinations. Today, with fMRI scanning and other modern techniques, this has been confirmed too. And the hallucinations these patients experience are often in the form of authority figures (parents, leaders, gods) admonishing or commanding them.

Jaynes did an extensive survey of early literature starting with the earliest known writings and progressing through later more well-known documents like Homer and the early writings of the Bible. He analyzes to what extent the authors or the subjects seem to be self-aware and notes a gradual progression through history of both self-awareness and evolution of language to describe self-awareness. The writers of the biblical Old Testament or the Odyssey, for example, show no evidence at all of being self aware, in contrast to authors of the New Testament or later Greek writings. This is complicated by works that have been re-written and changed by later authors, like some books of the Bible or the Epic of Gilgamesh. In these cases, he tries to tease apart what’s original and what was added later.

He suggests that traces of bicameralism might still be found not just in schizophrenia but in many aspects of modern religion (e.g. those occasional people who still hear voices or experience “possession”) or even in the common childhood experience of having invisible friends (some children experience actual auditory hallucinations of their imaginary friends speaking to them).

Some modern researchers discount the need for the physical changes in the corpus callosum and believe the linguistic evolution of metaphor alone may be enough to bear out the changes Jaynes’ theory describes. There is now a huge body of literature surrounding the Bicameral Mind theory; lengthy articles defending or attacking aspects of it. There are also now several variant theories. Lain McGilchrist has proposed not a breakdown in a bicameral mind but a separation and reversal in the two hemispheres of the brain. Michael Gazzaniga, a pyschobiologist has done extensive experimental work in the area of hemisphere specialization and has proposed a theory similar to Jaynes’.

Jaynes is an engaging and interesting author and, whether his theory eventually proves to be crazy or profound, you’ll find the book a great read. If you have any interest in philosophy, religion, consciousness, cognition, evolution, anthropology, literature, history, or any of a dozen other topics, you’ll love the book. It makes you think about things you would never have imagined otherwise.