_A Modern Utopia_ (1905) by H.G. Wells deals with two men who are transported instantaneously to a distant planet that is physically identical to Earth. However, this planet contains a worldwide, kinetic, and socialistic Utopian society that differs radically from that of our own world. Wells dispenses with some of the disbelief involved with a certain amount of charm:
The whole world will surely have a common language, that is quite elementarily Utopian, and since we are free of the trammels of convincing storytelling, we may suppose that the language to be sufficiently our own to understand. (17)
Perhaps the first thing to note about _A Modern Utopia_ is that it contains some very perceptive criticism of Utopian literature:
There must always be a certain effect of hardness and thinness about Utopian speculations. Their common fault is to be comprehensively jejune. That which is the blood and warmth and reality of life is largely absent; there are no individualities, but only generalised people. In almost every Utopia-- except, perhaps, Morris's "News from Nowhere"-- one sees handsome but characterless buildings, symmetrical and perfect cultivations, and a multitude of people... without any personal distinction whatever. (9)
Does _A Modern Utopia_ escape these problems? Perhaps not entirely. But it comes close to doing so. First, there are the characters. The visitors to Utopia are the narrator, a portly, middle-aged version of Wells and a rather petty botanist, who is constantly mooning about a shallow romance of his youth. Shortly after they enter Utopia, they meet a blond-haired, sandal-shod, back-to-Nature spokesman (modeled on William Morris), who has nothing good to say about Utopia. Shortly before their departure, the narrator meets his double, a member of the _samurai_, or ruling class of Utopia. Other members of Utopia include a bewildered innkeeper, a polite but efficient bureaucrat, assorted criminals and social failures, an amiable supervisor of a toy factory, various students and business people, and W.E. Henley (who proves to be as irascible in this world as in ours). Wells's point is that his Utopia is populated with _individuals_-- and not all of these individuals are noble, wise, and virtuous. There must be restrictions in this Utopia, but there also must be flexibility enough to allow for some freedom and individual differences.
Wells also gives a certain amount of attention to architecture and engineering. He describes in some detail an Alpine inn, a train, a hostel in continental Europe, and some streets and buildings in the city of London. Wells envisions all of these structures as essentially modern in style. We can understand why Wells, writing at the turn of the twentieth century, might have a strong reaction against the ugliness and dirtiness of Victorian architecture. But readers living at the turn of the twenty-first century have lived for some time with modern architecture. They may be forgiven for feeling less enthusiastic about this style.
Two chapters are still timely today. The first is chapter six, which deals with women in a modern Utopia. (Wells felt that there should be some restrictions on marriage, but that women should be paid for rearing children.) The second is the penultimate chapter, which deals with race in a modern utopia (or, to be more precise, racism in our own society). In this chapter, the botanist reveals some repulsive racist traits that were all too common in Wells's day. The modern reader should read these chapters and judge how far (or how little) we have progressed.
There are some other areas of controversy or interest connected with the modern Utopia. Capital punishment has been abolished, but euthenasia for babies with certain birth defects exists. Criminals and misfits may be eventually banished to selected islands. There is a hint that Wells was not altogether satisfied with this condition. The _samurai_ tells the narrator that he is currently engaged in a project to reform or improve the approach to dealing with the exiles, but he does not suggest a specific solution. A third area of interest is the economy of Utopia. The Utopians have abandoned the gold standard in favor of units of energy. We have gradually moved off the gold standard, though we have not adopted units of energy... or have we? In these days of oil-hungry societies, are we not moving in that direction?
Many readers and critics argue that Wells's utopian novels do not measure up to his scientific romances, such as _The Time Machine_ (1895), or his mainstream novels, such as _Tono-Bungay_ (1910). There is justice in this criticism. But such criticism should not cause you to ignore _A Modern Utopia_. It is well written and thoughtful. It is still fresh after over a century.