Facing a shelf of inherited classics that are falling apart, I decided to read them before deciding their face. These are their reviews . . .
“The First Men in the Moon” By H.G. Wells
I’m a Wells fan. I still contend that the best fiction opening I’ve ever read is War of the Worlds. That may be because his are about the first I ever read. But I stand by my evaluation. It’s simply beautiful word craft . . . “No one would have imagined at the close of the twentieth century that across the gulf of space. Intelligences greater than man’s, vast, cool, and unsympathetic regarded our Earth with envious eyes. . . ” Or something like that. I have to quote it from memory because my ‘friend’ Rebecca ‘borrowed’ it, to read and has yet to return it. =)
But this is not a review of War of the Worlds. First Men in the Moon must stand on its own. Wells reminds me again, why I like his style. I even tried (unconsciously) to emulate it, in my first stories, but now I’d say I’m more influenced by Stephen King. I don’t want to say that Wells’ style is unsuitable for modern audiences—if I did it would be a criticism of modern audiences lack of depth and attention span—but it can be harder to digest. It’s very . . . self-possessed. Very filtered. In contrast to the school which I frequent: ‘Don’t tell me the character ‘saw’ something, just show me what he saw, and I’ll know from the perspective that it is he, who saw it.’ We don’t want to see the narrator. We don’t want to be told a story, we want to be in the story!
I like both ways, Wells (as many were at that time) is a story teller. He’ll often break the ‘fourth wall’ and address the reader. “Imagine [he says to the reader] if you can, an immense hall . . . ” It’s boring and overly wordy according to modernly conditioned readers. But so are many classics, like Dracula, The Count of Monte Cristo, or Lord of the Rings. Broaden your tastes or skip this one.
So through that style, Wells tells an interesting and introspective story, about a failed business man who finds himself working with an absentminded scientist, to invent a substance, Cavorite, which blocks gravity (treated as a type of radiation) like how opaque glass can stop light and insulation can block heat. Hee hee. The science may be outdated, but what’s really funny is the series of terrible decisions made by the main characters. It’s almost as bad as Jurassic Park: The Lost World. They pack for a trip to the moon, but half the party (who has no scientific expertise) didn’t even think to bring anything to read for the flight. When they get to the moon, they are surprised to find life there. Plants growing on the surface, so they determine there must be air. How do they figure out if it’s enough to breathe? First they find out it’s oxygen by sticking a naked hand outside with a burning paper. Then they open a valve and depressurize their traveling sphere . . . not an airlock but the single-cabin-chamber. Finding they can bare it similarly to a high-altitude climb, they go aside dressed in regular clothes plus a blanket for the each of them.
They decide to go exploring immediately. You could forgive them for losing their space craft because of the rapidly growing foliage, but really, what kind of idiots would let themselves get out of sight of their oxygen/food/shelter supply? (It’s even more unforgivable when it happens the second time) Later, getting hungry and thirsty, they decide to try some local herbage . . . the characters don’t give us a good measure of time, so we might forgive them for eating out of desperation of starvation, but why did they go exploring on an empty stomach? Later, they meet humanoid beings on the moon, and the POV character, Bedford, becomes the embodiment of a self-centered, xenophobic stereotype and things quickly escalate to where—within minutes or hours of first meeting these intelligent beings, Bedford has already killed a dozen or two of them.
Now. I’ll grant Mr. Wells that many people are stupid, self-centered, and xenophobic/racist, whatever. But the utopian in Wells comes out (he was a socialist who believed in a benevolent dictatorship/aristocracy). Dislcaimer: I know now everything said or done in a story is not a depiction of what a writer thinks, but some things are. And I’d agree that in an imperfect world such an aristocracy is the only chance of an effective and good government. The libertarian view of let everyone, pretty much do what they want, and it will work out well holds little persuasion for me. But his solution, or what he hints at as a solution, is equally bad. Perhaps worse.
So, in another terribly decision, Cavor, the ‘brains’ of the enterprise, has been re-captured and is relaying his experience to Earth. He’s managed to convince the moon people that he is not an unthinking savage, despite his partner’s callous disregard of the lives of their fellow citizens. He then goes on to tell their supreme leader that he is the only one with the secret of making the cavorite . . . and that he comes from a homogenous species of beings that think the best thing in life is war. Yeah. That’s smart. No wonder this guy could choose such a reprobate for a partner to the moon. This lack of commonsense not only makes him a terrible candidate for earth’s ambassador, but like The Lost World degrades the author’s point.
Cavor’s stupidity draws attention to the obvious fact that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Does every human being actually relish war? I think even in the ‘uncivilized’ past, you’d find that farmers and country folk did not relish war. For the majority of history, you’d find that the people who liked war were people with no better employment. Gainfully employed people building things have little interest in leaving the product of their labor to go smash the product of someone else’s at the risk of their own lives.
Then what of the stupidity of the glorified, Grand Lunar (supreme leader of the moon)? He sits in judgment of the entire species based on one representative, who he admits to having trouble understanding?
But deeper this seems to reflect that Wells doesn’t understand the nature of the problem or solution of human society. For example, he identifies that the industrial/corporate world aims at turning people into machines. The better solution exemplified by moon people? Identify what you think each individual is best for (from birth!), then force them into that mold, including psychological conditioning so that they’ll want it whether they did naturally or not, and surgically altering/crippling them so that they are not fit for anything else. (And how exactly did they pick the Grand Lunar for his position . . . from birth?) And Wells through Cavor (or so I interpret it), thinks this is the better way!
Or another example? Someone is unemployed? Between tasks? Just drug them into sleep. Why would you want them awake if they weren’t working? What could a person possibly have to contribute to the world, if they aren’t doing something that you forced them into doing? Apparently the utopian mind sees no inherent value in a person just being a unique person. In fact, you could argue that the utopian sees the uniqueness as the problem. Which truly reveals the selfishness of its nature. Do we suppose anyone would want such a utopia if they were the ones crippled and predisposed to a life of work that they had no natural desire for? Of course not; they wish only that someone else had that lot and that they could profit from it.
But, there is some vivid description that makes the story bearable. Wells always paints a luscious landscape for me, however shallow the world’s imaging. In many places the story is carried solely by this trait (since the characters have not succeeded in recommending themselves). For example, he introduces the horror of a tentacled monster that the moon people fear, with such succinct description that we don’t much miss the fact that the monster never appears. I don’t have the text in front of me, but it was the impression I walked away with. I think from a literary standpoint that much of this is due to the brevity. The monster is mentioned with reverential fear, so we are just left with it’s unspeakable terror . . . we never get to see the monster’s zipper, so to speak.
In the end, while I much enjoy the style of Wells’ writing, I decided not to retain his work First Men in the Moon because of the odious utopian delusions, which could have been forgivable if only the characters weren’t shallow stupid creatures that compromised the credibility of all their backhanded criticisms of the society from which they came.