The British author H. G. Wells (1866-1946) was a prolific writer of novels, scientific romances, and non-fiction. His late work All Aboard for Ararat, which was published in 1940 against the backdrop of world war, is not one of his most celebrated books, but it’s an interesting example of ‘late Wells’ and a fun update on the Noah story from the Old Testament.
To summarise the ‘plot’ (or structure) of All Aboard for Ararat: an author and thinker named Noah Lammock (who is a blatant stand-in for Wells himself) receives a visit from an old man with a white beard, who quickly reveals himself to be none other than God himself. God tells Noah that he has selected him (on the basis of his name, of course) to be a new Noah, build an Ark, and preserve that which deserves to be saved from the next Flood.
The book has five chapters, and the first, which takes the form of an extended dialogue between God and Noah establishing this setup and discussing the idea of a new Ark, is by far the longest in this short work. The rest of the book sees Noah continuing his conversation with God about religion and the state of the world in 1940, talking to a water vole (yes, really), and then finally building and launching the Ark. The last two chapters briefly sketch in what life on the Ark is like for those who have been chosen to survive the deluge.
All Aboard for Ararat is grouped with the ‘romances’ in J. R. Hammond’s excellent An H. G. Wells Companion, and it’s definitely not a ‘novel’ in the traditional sense. He also calls it a ‘fantasia’. Indeed, it’s mostly a dialogue between God and man (represented by Noah), and in many ways it can be viewed as a discussion between God and H. G. Wells: Noah clearly has similar views to Wells, and at one particularly tongue-in-cheek moment, God even appears to confuse Noah with Wells, claiming that the former wrote The Time Machine. (God also outs himself as a ‘Baconian’, claiming that Francis Bacon wrote the works of Shakespeare.)
Hammond also categorises All Aboard for Ararat as one of Wells’s works of ‘theological speculation’. It’s perhaps surprising, for one who was a committed atheist, that Wells projects a remarkably sympathetic outlook towards Christianity and religious belief in this book. He even has God defending what he wrote in the Bible and performing some impressive sleights-of-hand when it comes to factual details (for example, he tells Noah that he really did create the world as recently as 4004 BC, but he created it with a built-in history, so that Adam had a belly button despite not being born of woman, and so on).
Of course, this sort of thing isn’t that far removed from the old Christian line that God planted dinosaur fossils in the ground to test man’s faith. But All Aboard for Ararat is a whimsical and light-hearted work which is not meant to be taken as seriously as Wells’s non-fiction. One suspects that Wells lost interest in the conceit towards the end, as the dwindling chapter lengths (the penultimate one even opens with a section written in capitals which sketches very briefly what happens on the Ark, in a hilarious prefiguring of a panicked student submitting their essay at one minute to midnight with the words ‘ADD CONCLUSION HERE’ on the last page).
But for all its whimsy, All Aboard for Ararat does have a serious purpose. In the Companion, Hammond notes that Wells regarded theology as ‘an arena for clean fun that should do no harm to any properly constituted person’. But that opening chapter reflects on the crisis that was gripping the world during the dark early days of the Second World War, when the Allies were on the backfoot and defeat looked like a bleak but increasingly possible prospect. In his conversation with the water vole, Noah discusses Communism as a kind of religion, a replacement for Christianity.
In short, then, All Aboard for Ararat is a slight book dealing with big ideas. The casting of these ideas in the form of a ‘fantasia’ is a clever move on Wells’s part, since it somehow makes the discussion of a serious crisis more accessible and approachable. It is a book about ‘salvaging civilisation’ in the most literal sense, saving what is worth saving from the wreckage.