19 July 2018

Review: The First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells

Trade paperback, 213 pages
Published 2005 (originally 1900-01)
Acquired August 2014

Read June 2018
The First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells
'One might go to the moon.'
     'And when one got there! What would you find?'
     'We should see – ! Oh! Consider the new knowledge!'
     'Is there air there?'
     'There may be.'
     I shook my head. 'It's a fine idea,' I said, 'but it strikes me as a large order all the same.' (29)
Longtime readers know I wrote a dissertation, now a nascent book project, about scientists in Victorian literature. As it stands, the book already features several H. G. Wells novels: The War of the Worlds (1897), The War in the Air (1908), and Ann Veronica (1909). But Wells wrote a veritable cornucopia of novels about scientists that I am slowly working my way through (cf., The Island of Doctor Moreau [1896], The Invisible Man [1897], The Food of the Gods [1904], Marriage [1912]), and my journey has most recently brought me to The First Men in the Moon.

This is the most significant of Wells's scientific romances that somehow I somehow did not read as a child, one of the prototypical lunar exploration stories. I think you see in it the transition from the earlier, macabre Wells to the later, more comic Wells. This doesn't have the darkness and urgency of Wells's 1890s scientific romances; its opening has more in common with the comic worlds of Food of the Gods, War in the Air, and The History of Mr Polly (1910), even if darkness and complexity rears its head as the story progresses.

The transformation of tone really works. The book begins with an unlikely pairing, Cavor and Bedford. As the above passage demonstrates, Cavor is a bit too abstracted for his own good, but Bedford, our narrator, is a bit too commercial for his. There's a lot of comic interplay as two very different men try to communicate with each other. Cavor doesn't care about the practical implications of antigravity at all, while Bedford can only imagine how to get rich off it; Cavor has never read Shakespeare because he only reads scientific papers, while Bedford never has because he only reads mass-produced trash like Tit-Bits. (Big Finish dramatizes this interplay very delightfully in their adaptation of the novel featuring Nigel Planer and Gethin Anthony. Their voices undoubtedly influenced the way I read Cavor and Bedford's dialogue.)

Once they go into space, things get darker, as they try to work out how to communicate with an alien species, to what turns out to be little benefit to humankind. It's one of those dark Wellsian satires, but perhaps not his best-- along this line, I think, say, The Sleeper Awakes (1910) is a better work. Still, the ending is a great one, perhaps Wells's most pessimistic... including the novels he wrote where the world is destroyed by nuclear war! The novel has some things to say about scientific knowledge, and why we pursue it, but it's not exactly flattering. Cavor himself is a typical abstracted scientist. I say "typical" but I feel like Wells was actually inventing, or at least perfecting, the type here. It's not all funny, given the unanticipated-but-perhaps-anticipatable consequences of Cavor's actions turn out to be quite dire. That's science and scientists for you, I suppose.

(My Penguin Classics edition has an introduction by science fiction writer China Miéville. It's excellent,* contextualizing the novel in the lunar exploration genre, in Wells's life and work, and in the genre of sf more broadly. I really liked what Miéville had to say about sf, perhaps because it is very similar to what I have to say about it, that there's a doubling effect. Sf is both metaphorical and literal:
the unreal will always be read metaphorically – what is the human mind but an engine to metaphorize and process metaphors intended and found? – but […] there is also pleasure in its literalism. […] [T]he enjoyment […] depends on the specific uncanny/estranging impact of literalizing the impossible: simply, it is a great, weird idea. Weirdness is good to think with, and it is also its own end. (xviii)
I use Cordwainer Smith's "Scanners Live in Vain" when discussing this aspect of sf because it does this very well. It's both a metaphor-- it's about a man who can't communicate with his wife-- and a literal weirdness-- it's about the idea that space is so strange you need to cut off your sensations with machines in order to survive it. Miéville has given me some nice language to describe my phenomenon. Anyway, like the best introductions, Miéville's reveals a deeper understanding of the work in question, and I highly recommend it even as a standalone piece of writing.)

* Except for one error: when comparing The First Men in the Moon to the similar, earlier book A Plunge into Space, Miéville says Plunge was by Eric Cromie and published in 1880 (xiv), when in fact it was by Robert Cromie and published in 1890.

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