The OF Blog: H.G. Wells, The First Men in the Moon

Friday, August 27, 2010

H.G. Wells, The First Men in the Moon

As I sit down to write here amidst the shadows of vine-leaves under the blue sky of Southern Italy it comes to me with a certain quality of astonishment that my participation in these amazing adventures of Mr. Cavor was, after all, the outcome of the purest accident.  It might have been anyone.  I fell into these things at a time when I thought myself removed from the slightest possibility of disturbing experiences.  I had gone to Lympne because I had imagined it the most uneventful place in the world.  "Here at any rare," said I, "I shall find peace and a chance to work!"

And this book is the sequel.  So utterly at variance is Destiny with all the little plans of men.

I may perhaps mention here that very recently I had come an ugly cropper in certain business enterprises.  At the present moment, surrounded by all the circumstances of wealth, there is a luxury in admitting my extremity.  I can even admit that to a certain extent my disasters were conceivably of my own making.  It may be there are directions in which I have some capacity; the conduct of business operations is not among these.  But in those days I was young, and my youth, among other objectionable forms, took that of a pride in my capacity for affairs.  I am young still in years, but the things that have happened to me have rubbed something of the youth from my mind.  Whether they have brought any wisdom to light below it, is a more doubtful matter. (p. 1)

Ask most readers to identify works that H.G. Wells, and almost all will respond with The Time Machine or The War of the Worlds.  Quite a few might also respond with The Island of Dr. Moreau or perhaps even The Food of the Gods, but chances are slim that among the first books named would be his 1901 novel The First Men in the Moon.  There are likely several reasons for this.  First, it may be that this novel doesn't quite have the gravitas of his more well-renowned works, although this belief is belied by several passages in this short novel.  Second, there might not quite be the memorable scenes on par with those in his more famous works, although some might argue that the scenes with the heroes among the Selenites are certainly vivid.  If anything may account for The First Men in the Moon's relative anonymity, it may be simply that it was conceived as a satire and while Wells added elements of an adventure story to it, the tale's heart is a satire of 19th century SF and of certain dominant social attitudes at the time.

The First Men in the Moon reads like a pastiche of two of Jules Vernes' most famous works, From the Earth to the Moon and Journey to the Center of the Earth.  From the rather elevated language employed to introduce the work and to create a sense that this is a retrospective account rather than anything that would contain anything "threatening" to the characters to the mixture of the plausible and the ridiculous to explain how the protagonists manage to reach such fantastical places, there is certainly an echo of Verne's fiction in this book.  If anything, Wells takes such qualities and ramps up the pseudo-scientific elements to nearly ridiculous levels.  For much of the novel, the story borders on slipping from a satire of these late 19th century adventure/SF novels into the realm of a parody, or rather a weak attempt at a parody.  Bedford (the narrator) and Cavor (the scientist-leader) really do not come into their own until they come in contact with the underground Selenite population. 

The Selenites, whose insectoid bodies and alien cultures are so baffling to the intrepid explorers, signal the shift of the story toward something a bit more serious, as he begins to focus much more on people, their dreams and aspirations, as well as how easily their fears and superstitions can poison attempts to understand foreign ideas and cultures.  Written during the worst part of the Boer War in South Africa, much of the conflict that dominates the latter half of the novel references conflicts such as that while spoofing and undermining the concepts found in the first Edisonaides and other such thinly-disguised attempts to glorify the imperialist ambitions of that era.  Toward the end of the novel, all of this is summarized in a dialogue between Bedford and Phi-oo, the leader of the Selenites:

'You mean to say,' he asked, seeking confirmation, 'that you run about over the surface of your world - this world, whose riches you have scarcely begun to scrape - killing one another for beasts to eat?'

"I told him that was perfectly correct.

"He asked for particulars to assist his imagination.  'But do not your ships and your poor little cities get injured?' he asked and I found the waste of property and conveniences seemed to impress upon him almost as much as the killing.  'Tell me more,' said the Grand Lunar; 'make me see pictures.  I cannot conceive these things.'

"And so, for a space, though something loth, I told him the story of earthly War.

"I told him of the first orders and ceremonies of war, of warnings and ultimatums, and the marshalling and marching of troops.  I gave him an idea of manœuvres and positions and battle joined.  I told him of sieges and assaults, of starvation and hardship in trenches, and of sentinels freezing in the snow.  I told him of routs and surprises, and desperate last stands and faint hopes, and the pitiless pursuit of fugitives and the dead upon the field.  I told, too, of the past, of invasions and massacres, of the Huns and Tartars, and the wars of Mahomet and the Caliphs and the Crusades.  And as I went on, and Phi-oo translated, the Selenites cooed and murmured in a steadily intensified emotion.

"I told them an ironclad could fire a shot of a ton twelve miles, and go through twenty feet of iron =- and how we could steer torpedoes under water.  I went on to describe a Maxim gun in action and what I could imagine of the Battle of Colenso.  The Grand Lunar was so incredulous that he interrupted the translation of what I had said in order to have my verification of my account.  They particularly doubted my description of the men cheering and rejoicing as they went into battle.

"'But surely they do not like it!' translated Phi-oo.

"I assured them men of my race considered battle the most glorious experience of life, at which the whole assembly was stricken with amazement.

"'But what good is this war?' asked the Grand Lunar, sticking to his theme.

"'Oh!  as for good!', said I, 'it thins the population!'

"'But why should there be a need -?'

"There came a pause, the cooling sprays impinged upon his brow, and then he spoken again." (p. 158)

It is Wells' treatment of these scenes, not just in this particular moment but elsewhere as well, that elevates this novel from being just a parody and into a satire that not only has pointed things to say about early 20th century goals and aspirations, but something for us a century later, as sometimes we dream more of acquiring and seizing, by violence if necessary, than we do about learning how to live in brotherhood.  Although this sort of message is not an easy one to read (some may lament that it is "too preachy" or "too hippy-drippy"), it is one that Wells executes fairly well in this novel.  But social satires, particularly of beloved classics, as Verne's novels had already become by 1901, are not as well-liked as straight-up adventure tales and it is perhaps for this reason alone that The First Men in the Moon is not as well-known as many of Wells' other novels. 

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