H.G. Wells and Cixin Liu on Gender Roles and Military Might
The feminization of men as both a leading and lagging indicator of the state of society is a central theme in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. The same theme appears in Cixin Liu's Death's End.
The feminization of men as both a leading and lagging indicator of the state of society is a central and unexpected theme in H.G. Wells’ 1895 science fiction classic The Time Machine. I first read an exploration of this hypothetical in Cixin Liu’s Death’s End (2010), the third book in his Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy. Sometimes reading the “canon” is useful for no reason other than to illustrate that concepts or analyses that you thought were novel are in fact riffs on something another author explored first. Per Cormac McCarthy: “The ugly fact is books are made out of books.” While I have no evidence that Liu read The Time Machine, Wells still gets the originality points, and Liu’s work feels derivative when directly compared.
In both books, the argument goes like this: the feminization of men is a lagging indicator of a hyper-successful and decadent society. With all enemies vanquished, no threats on the horizon, and wildly successful technological progress, society becomes complacent. Not only is there no need for a physical advantage, but the lack of any conflict de-selects for masculine traits genetically and epigenetically. This sufficiently feminized society eventually becomes a leading indicator for a society at risk of being rapidly extinguished; it is hubris to believe dominance will persist indefinitely, and when a new or unforeseen enemy emerges, a society with no gender distinctions will face peril.
Thanks for reading Kinetic Reviews! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
I liked this evolutionary lens, and Wells was known to be something of a disciple of Thomas Huxley (“Darwin’s bulldog”). I will quote Wells at length, when his Time Traveler encounters the human-like “Eloi” for the first time, 8,000 years into the future. He is yet to discover that the Eloi are essentially being reared as cattle by the subterranean Morlocks:
I perceived that all had the same costume, the same soft hairless visage, the same girlish rotundity of limb. In costume, and in all the differences of texture and bearing that now mark off the sexes from each other, these people of the future were alike.
Seeing the ease and security in which these people were living, I felt that this close resemblance of the sexes was after all what one would expect; for the strength of a man and the softness of a woman, the institution of the family, and the differentiation of occupations are mere militant necessities of an age of physical force.
It seemed to be that I had happened upon humanity upon the wane. The ruddy sunset set me thinking of the sunset of mankind. For the first time I began to realize an odd consequence of the social effort in which we are at present engaged. And yet, come to think, it is a logical consequence enough. Strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness. The work of ameliorating the conditions of life - the true civilizing process that makes life more and more secure - had gone steadily on to a climax. Things that are now mere dreams had become projects deliberately put in hand and carried forward. And the harvest was what I saw!
The entirety of chapter 4 is reason enough to pick up the book.
On a similar note, here is Death’s End protagonist, Cheng Xin, waking from suspended animation hundreds of years into the future. She encounters the men on a version of Earth that has attained a perfect standard of living, with no violence or hardship present:
[They] had smooth, lovely faces; long hair that draped over their shoulders; slender, soft bodies — as if their bones were made of bananas. Their movements were graceful and gentle, and their voices, carried to her by the breeze, were sweet and tender.… Back in her century, these people would have been considered ultra-feminine.
…Most men from the Common Era tried to, consciously or otherwise, feminize their appearance and personality to adjust to the new feminine society.
…At one point a military commander exclaims, “Don’t you know that there are no more men on Earth?”
The people of Earth pay the price for their softened ways when the alien Trisolarans eventually find a chink in Earth’s metaphorical armor, causing mass casualties and destruction.
Some people will read the above excerpts and conclude Wells and Liu to be misogynists, but they are exploring an interesting and controversial question of the necessity for gender distinction in a society that has for the most part transcended the need for physical advantages. This is where the West largely finds itself, even in military matters. National defense policy is focused on developing more lethal soldiers via better technology not better physique.
The mere existence and popularity of the phrase “toxic masculinity” raises the question: is masculinity toxic to society, or have we prematurely decided that masculinity is no longer necessary and are now trying to bury it under the guise of being toxic? I think it’s a touch of the former and a lot of the latter, and any campaign to blindly vanquish traits that have traditionally mapped more to men (e.g., disagreeableness) is sure to lead to bad outcomes.
I will now wade away from the controversial waters of gender differences and their societal impact. There is an additional lens in which Wells and Liu’s conundrum is generalizable and agnostic to gender that is intimately relevant for Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic (WEIRD) societies today. As we optimize for the removal of discomfort and friction from our lives, are we digging our own graves?
The most simple and well known answer to this question is G. Michael Hopf’s aphorism “Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And, weak men create hard times.” But my favorite take is psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl on what creates resiliency in the human psyche: “If architects want to strengthen a decrepit arch, they increase the load which is laid upon it, for thereby the parts are joined more firmly together.” Finally, Ross Douthat’s Decadent Society (2020) is the best articulation in the past few years of all the ways in which our WEIRD lifestyles have produced a “civilizational languor.”
The extent to which gender differences (or lack thereof) play a role in our civilizational languor is a corner of the internet that right-leaning anons have covered with their shakily-argued 280 character thought leadership. My hope is that economics departments pick up this slack with rigorous research to explore gender similitude in a more meaningful and interesting way.
Aside: I picked up The Time Machine because I had some faded memories of watching the 1960 film several times when I was around 10 years old. I have no idea why my mom showed me this movie or why my friend and I enjoyed watching it so much, but it had an indelible impression on my subconscious in much the way I imagine a bad drug trip would (seriously, just google Morlocks from the ‘60 film).