In his preface, Wells forecasts (incorrectly) that A Modern Utopia would be the last of a series of volumes on social problems that began in 1901 with Anticipations and included Mankind in the Making (1903). But unlike those non-fictional works, A Modern Utopia is presented as a tale told by a sketchily described character known only as the Owner of the Voice. This character "is not to be taken as the Voice of the ostensible author who fathers these pages," Wells warns. He is accompanied by another character known as "the botanist." Interspersed in the narrative are discursive remarks on various matters, creating what Wells called in his preface "a sort of shot-silk texture between philosophical discussion on the one hand and imaginative narrative on the other.". In addition, there are frequent comparisons to and discussions of previous utopian literature. In terms of Northrop Frye's classification of literary genres, A Modern Utopia is not a novel but an anatomy.
The premise of the novel is that there is a planet (for "No less than a planet will serve the purpose of a modern Utopia") exactly like Earth, with the same geography and biology. Moreover, on that planet "all the men and women that you know and I" exist "in duplicate." They have, however, "different habits, different traditions, different knowledge, different ideas, different clothing, and different appliances." (Not however, a different language: "Indeed, should we be in Utopia at all, if we could not talk to everyone?")
To this planet "out beyond Sirius" the Owner of the Voice and the botanist are translated, imaginatively, "in the twinkling of an eye . . . We should scarcely note the change. Not a cloud would have gone from the sky." Their point of entry is on the slopes of the Piz Lucendro in the Swiss Alps.
The adventures of these two characters are traced through eleven chapters. Little by little they discover how Utopia is organized. It is a world with "no positive compulsions at all . . . for the adult Utopian—unless they fall upon him as penalties incurred."
The Owner of the Voice and the botanist are soon required to account for their presence. When their thumbprints are checked against records in "the central index housed in a vast series of buildings at or near Paris," both discover they have doubles in Utopia. They journey to London to meet them, and the Owner of the Voice's double is a member of the Samurai, a voluntary order of nobility that rules Utopia. "These samurai form the real body of the State."
Running through the novel as a foil to the main narrative is the botanist's obsession with an unhappy love affair back on Earth. The Owner of the Voice is annoyed at this undignified and unworthy insertion of earthly affairs in Utopia, but when the botanist meets the double of his beloved in Utopia the violence of his reaction bursts the imaginative bubble that has sustained the narrative and the two men find themselves back in early-twentieth-century London.
The world shares the same language, coinage, customs, and laws, and freedom of movement is general. Some personal property is allowed, but "all natural sources of force, and indeed all strictly natural products" are "inalienably vested in the local authorities" occupying "areas as large sometimes as half England." The World State is "the sole landowner of the earth." Units of currency are based on units of energy, so that "employment would constantly shift into the areas where energy was cheap." Humanity has been almost entirely liberated from the need for physical labor: "There appears to be no limit to the invasion of life by the machine."
The narrator's double describes the ascetic Rule by which the samurai live; this includes a ban on alcohol and drugs and a mandatory annual one-week solitary ramble in the wilderness. He also explains the social theory of Utopia, which distinguished four "main classes of mind": The Poietic, the Kinetic, the Dull, and the Base. Poietic minds are creative or inventive; kinetic minds are able but not particularly inventive; the Dull have "inadequate imagination," and the Base are mired in egotism and lack "moral sense."
There is extensive discussion of gender roles in A Modern Utopia, but no recognition of the existence of homosexuality. A chapter entitled "Women in a Modern Utopia" makes it clear that women are to be as free as men. Motherhood is subsidized by the state. Only those who can support themselves can marry, women at 21 and men at 26 or 27. Marriages that remain childless "expire" after a term of three to five years, but the partners may marry again if they choose.
A Modern Utopia is also notable for Chapter 10 ("Race in Utopia"), an enlightened discussion of race. Contemporary racialist discourse is condemned as crude, ignorant, and extravagant. "For my own part I am disposed to discount all adverse judgments and all statements of insurmountable differences between race and race."
The narrator is told, "In all the round world of Utopia there is no meat. There used to be. But now we cannot stand the thought of slaughter-houses. And, in a population that is all educated, and at about the same level of physical refinement, it is practically impossible to find anyone who will hew a dead ox or pig. We never settled the hygienic question of meat-eating at all. This other aspect decided us. I can still remember, as a boy, the rejoicings over the closing of the last slaughter-house".
The work was partly inspired by a trip to the Alps Wells made with his friend Graham Wallas, a prominent member of the Fabian Society.
Tellingly, Joseph Conrad complained to Wells that he did not "take sufficient account of human imbecility which is cunning and perfidious."
Several Samurai societies were formed in response to A Modern Utopia, and Wells met with one of them in April 1907 at the New Reform Club.
At a formal memorial service held on 30 October 1946, two and one half months after Wells's death, at the Royal Institution, William Beveridge read passages from A Modern Utopia, calling it the work that had influenced him the most.
Marie-Louise Berneri was critical of A Modern Utopia, stating that ""Wells commits the faults of his forerunners by introducing a vast amount of legislation into his utopia"" and that "Wells’s conception of freedom turns out to be a very narrow one".
According to Vincent Brome, Wells's first comprehensive biographer after his death, A Modern Utopia was widely read by university students and "released hundreds of young people into sexual adventure."
W. Warren Wagar praised A Modern Utopia, describing it and Wells' other Utopian novels (Men Like Gods and The Shape of Things to Come) as "landmarks in that extraordinarily difficult genre".
Wells biographer Michael Sherborne criticizes A Modern Utopia for depicting "an undemocratic one-party state" in which truth is established not by critical discussion but by shared faith. E.M. Forster would skewer what he regarded as the book's unhealthy conformism in his 1909 science-fiction story 'The Machine Stops.'"