H.G.Wells should need no introduction, being one of the originators of science fiction in its current form (following-on from the pioneering Jules Verne). His most famous SF works include The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, and The First Men in the Moon. He also wrote a range of other fiction, including future predictions (The War in the Air – in 1908) and, particularly later in life, social commentaries; The History of Mr Polly being probably the best-known example. Some of his works combined elements of both: The Shape of Things to Come and Men Like Gods, for example.
Wells was a prolific writer and on checking his bibliography I didn't recognise most of the titles. This used to apply to The Autocracy of Mr Parham, one of his later works as it was first published in 1930, but something or someone must have prompted me to buy it since it appeared in my reading pile not that long ago. This is a strange book which it is difficult to categorise. It appears to be a relatively straightforward social commentary before veering off in an entirely different and fantastical direction less than half-way through the book, with the finale involving a further twist.
Mr Parham is a university academic of the traditional, classical sort, very much a snob and unhappy with many of the social trends of the time. Sir Bussy Woodcock is a self-made millionaire of sharp intelligence and great energy but lowly beginnings and no cultural education. This unlikely pair meet by chance and form an intermittent relationship, the businessman keen to learn something of culture and to understand the academic viewpoint, Mr Parham hoping to obtain funding to set up his favourite dream; a periodical of high quality (edited by himself, naturally) which would focus on influencing the great affairs of the state and society in general. There is much drily humorous observation in this part of the book, as these contrasting and fundamentally incompatible characters struggle to cope with each other.
Their relationship reaches a turning point when Sir Bussy becomes interested in the supernatural in general and séances in particular. Mr Parham doesn't believe in such nonsense but goes along with it and attends several such events. Then something happens – I can't say more without a major spoiler, so if you want to find out for yourself, stop reading here.
Their final séance is spectacularly successful as a Master Spirit is summoned, apparently from Mars, and takes over Mr Parham's body with the intention of showing humanity the errors of their ways and creating a new world order. The priorities of the Master Spirit, who subsequently styles himself the Lord Paramount, are remarkably similar to the views of Mr Parham, but in place of the academic's diffidence is a master demagogue, capable of swaying any crowd with his eloquence and persuading them to follow him. Except for Sir Bussy, who appears singularly unimpressed and reluctant to get involved. The Lord Paramount soon seizes power in England with a bloodless coup, and cultivates like-minded leaders of other countries, including Mussolini and a Dictator of Germany (not called Hitler – Wells wasn't that prescient!) before running into problems with the USA. Other difficulties occur and the Lord Paramount – increasingly reverting to Mr Parham – finds events gradually sliding out of his control towards catastrophe.
This is an intriguing tale which Wells uses to explore opposing social and political views of the period, with the fantasy element a vehicle for so doing. On the way, he creates a couple of memorable characters.