Review: ‘The Lord of the Dynamos’ by H. G. Wells

‘The Lord of the Dynamos’ is a short story by the British science-fiction author H. G. Wells (1866-1946). It first appeared in the Pall Mall Budget in September 1894, and describes a worker on the London Underground who worships one of the electric dynamos powering the trains at Camberwell.

It’s easy enough to summarise the plot of ‘The Lord of the Dynamos’. James Holroyd works as the chief attendant of the three dynamos which keep the trains running on the electric railway of the London Underground. He is assisted by Azuma-zi, a man who appears to be of African origin (although Wells’s narrator also refers to him as ‘the Asiatic’); Holroyd refers to him as ‘Pooh-bah’ and generally has little respect for his African colleague.

Azuma-zi is obsessed with the largest and newest of the three dynamos, and worships it as though it were a god. He spends his time watching it and Holroyd beats him to get him back to work. Over time, Azuma-zi senses that the ‘Lord of the Dynamos’, as he brands the largest of the three dynamos, is hungry for a human sacrifice, but he waits for a sign from the machine.

Then, one day, Holroyd catches Azuma-zi fiddling with the dynamo’s switches, they struggle, and Holroyd ends up snarled up in the machine, dying a hideous death. Azuma-zi feels ‘strangely elated’ by his boss’s death, and believes he has won favour with ‘the Lord Dynamo’.

A scientific manager shows up to inspect the machine and determine what happens, and while he is examining the dynamo, Azuma-zi develops the notion that his god is hungry for another sacrifice. However, the scientific manager is able to resist the man’s attempts to push him into the dynamo, and instead, after a furious tussle, it is Azuma-zi who ends up caught in the terminals of the machine, his face ‘violently distorted’ as he dies.

The scientific manager realises this is how Holroyd died: at the hands of Azuma-zi, who thrust him into the dynamo. The story ends with the narrator observing that ‘worship of the Dynamo Deity’ was ‘perhaps the most short-lived of all religious’, yet nevertheless attracted both ‘a Martyrdom and a Human Sacrifice’.

Of all of Wells’s short stories, ‘The Lord of the Dynamos’ is perhaps the one that has aged the least well because of its depiction of an African character. If the prejudice ended with the character of Holroyd, one could understand how this was part of Wells’s creation of an antagonism between the white attendant and his black assistant; but the narrator, too, appears uncertain of Azuma-zi’s actual ethnicity (calling him both ‘negro’ and ‘Asiatic’).

But the very idea of a foreigner being sufficiently impressed by the dynamo’s technical mastery to start worshipping it as a god also dates the story as very much a product of late Victorian attitudes to African (and Asian) colonial subjects.

However, I think that whilst Wells’s choice of a foreign worker for the antagonist of ‘The Lord of the Dynamos’ is unfortunate, the broader point he is making remains valid: that the decline to traditional religion will not necessarily lead to a denial of the religious impulse. Instead, that religious urge will be channelled in other directions, such as new science and technology.

Indeed, I think we’re seeing that now, in the 2020s, as more and more people who reject conventional monotheisms are embracing ideologies which, whilst secular at their core, are in other respects indistinguishable from those ancient religions. Martyrdom, human sacrifice, the belief that some great truth is being communicated: these are all features of many religions, and they also characterise Azuma-zi’s worship of the machine.

Indeed, fifteen years after Wells ‘The Lord of the Dynamos’, E. M. Forster wrote one of the first great science-fiction stories of the twentieth century, ‘The Machine Stops’, in which a great machine (not unlike ‘Lord Dynamo’ from Wells’s story) is worshipped as a deity by the citizens of a future state. Forster remarked that he wrote this story as a response to another of Wells’s works, but in many ways ‘The Machine Stops’ picks up on this notion of machine-worship which ‘The Lord of the Dynamos’ had already begun to explore.

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