14 November 2016

H. G. Wells at 150: The Food of the Gods, and How It Came to Earth

Hardcover, 209 pages
Published 2010 (originally 1904)

Acquired March 2016
Read September 2016
The Food of the Gods, and How It Came to Earth
by H. G. Wells
In the middle years of the nineteenth century there first became abundant in this strange world of ours a class of men, men tending for the most part to become elderly, who are called, and who, though they dislike it extremely, are very properly called ‘Scientists’. They dislike that word so much that from the columns of Nature, which was from the first their distinctive and characteristic paper, it is as carefully excluded as if it were – that other word which is the basis of all really bad language in the country. But the Great Public and its Press know better, and ‘Scientists’ they are, and when they emerge to any sort of publicity, ‘distinguished scientists’ and ‘eminent scientists’ and ‘well-known scientists’ is the very least we call them. (1)
I found the first third of this novel hugely entertaining, mostly because of quotations like the above. The ways we stereotype scientists have scarcely changed at all in the past 112 years, and most of the jokes Wells makes about them, from their tendency to over-focus on the mundane to their inclination to produce incomprehensible graphs to their desire to eat free food at conferences, still hold true. At first, The Food of the Gods is about a pair of scientists, a chemist named Bensington and a physiologist named Redwood, who invent herakleophorbia a.k.a. boomfood a.k.a. the Food of the Gods, which causes organisms undergoing growth to grow without end: so soon there are giant chickens and giant babies, and once boomfood gets loose in the ecosystem, giant vines and giant wasps.

The last two-thirds of the novel explore different facets of the emerging world of Giants, but I found this material considerably less entertaining than what had gone before. The Food of the Gods is a very different kind of science fiction than Wells was writing in the 1890s, far less about horrific effect and predicting a terrible end for humankind, and more about comedy and a vague hope of a better world. But on the other hand, this is the first Wells story I can think of where he begins with a technological invention and traces it forward, seeing how it would change society. His earlier sf works tend to just jump forward to a realized future (The Time Machine) or to have the invention be a one-off with no social impact (The Invisible Man). Depicting the emergence of a realized future society is a new move for him. Though in this case it's a world ruled by giants, which I suspect is more fanciful than most.

There's also a joke about how much Frederic Harrison loved Comte. I feel proud that I got it. I wonder how many modern readers do?

Next Week: One last Wells woman-- this time for real. I learn about Amber Reeves from her novel, A Lady and Her Husband!

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