Wells: The First Men in the Moon

July 27, 2009

The First Men in the Moon (1901)
H.G. Wells (Modern Library, 2003)
260 p. First reading.

In The First Men in the Moon, Wells gives us a romance of exploration and discovery with dark undertones. By means of a quaint device he sends Cavor, a brilliant but eccentric scientist, and Bedford, an unimaginative but practical man of the world, to the moon.  There they discover, not a barren wasteland, but a strange world inhabited by an alien race of intelligent cave-dwelling creatures.  It is an adventure story, an engaging speculation on the pitfalls of cross-cultural communication, and, by presenting an alien civilization as a foil, a meditation on human society and culture. We are not completely outclassed in the comparison.

There are some delightful episodes.  The enabling premise of the story is that Cavor has invented a new material — “Cavorite” — that shields the gravitational force, such that if the material comes between an object and the earth, the object becomes weightless.  As Wells tells it, a sheet of Cavorite is extremely dangerous: it makes the entire column of air above it weightless, which makes the air pressure of that column drop to zero, which causes the surrounding air to implode on it, becoming weightless in turn, and so generating a self-perpetuating “air geyser” that empties the earth’s atmosphere into space.  That may not be right, but it is dramatic, and the scene in which Cavor first succeeds in making Cavorite is spectacular: he blows the roof of his house into pieces.

The chimneys jerked heavenward, smashing into a string of bricks as they rose, and the roof and a miscellany of furniture followed.  Then overtaking them came a huge white flame. The trees about the building swayed and whirled and tore themselves to pieces that sprang toward the flare.  My ears were smitten with a clap of thunder. . .

Our atmosphere is saved only because the geyser’s suction pulls the Cavorite itself into space. (As you might suspect, this same suction subsequently becomes the means by which Cavor and Bedford launch themselves toward the moon.)

Even more enjoyable are their initial explorations of the lunar surface.  Who has not imagined the joy one would feel taking long, leaping moon-strides?  Their pleasure is augmented when they discover that the Selenites, sensibly enough, lack the strength to bound about in this way, so that in comparison the humans have a “superhuman” strength.  This advantage, which emerges organically from the premises of the story, is used to great effect, as when Cavor and Bedford scale an enormous cliff by pulling themselves up the sheer face with incredible ease.  But perhaps best of all is Wells’ evocation of the lunar surface, bursting with vibrant plant life and arched over by the strange lunar sky:

About us the dreamlike jungle, with the silent bayonet leaves darting overhead, and the silent, vivid, sun-splashed lichens under our hands and knees, waving with the vigour of their growth as a carpet waves when the wind gets beneath it.  Ever and again one of the bladder fungi, bulging and distending under the sun, loomed upon us.  Ever and again in vivid colour some novel shape obtruded.  The very cells that built up these plants were as large as my thumb, like beads of coloured glass.  And all these things were saturated in the unmitigated glare of the sun, were seen against a sky that was bluish-black and spangled still, in spite of the sunlight, with a few surviving stars.

A strong point of Wells’ writing is that he saves something for the end.  I imagine that a pitfall for science fiction writing — as I remember them, Brave New World and A Canticle for Liebowitz both suffered from this problem to some degree — is that a brilliant premise does not automatically produce an engaging story. A car chase on Mars is still just a car chase.  But in The Island of Dr. Moreau, and again here in The First Men in the Moon, Wells saves something fresh for the final chapters.

In this case we are given a natural history of the Selenites, describing their social organization, beliefs, politics, and science, and I believe Wells intends this to be the intellectual heart of the book.  The Selenites have a rationally organized, hierarchical social structure.  There is a single government headed by the Grand Lunar.  Selenite society is highly specialized, and the physical and mental abilities of individual Selenites are engineered to make them suitable for a particular role: farmer, miner, linguist, astronomer, etc.  They have a fairly well-developed science — at least those not engaged in physical labour do.  They have no discernable religion, nor any living memory of war or social strife.  Their society is rational and peaceful.

Is this portrait of Selenite society supposed to be attractive?  On one hand, the tone of the description is largely admiring, and Wells puts it into the mouth of Cavor, his most sympathetic character.  Wells himself was a prominent advocate of eugenics and socialism, and it is not impossible that he does intend us to view it approvingly.  On the other hand, we cannot help being reminded of Brave New World.  The Selenites have a caste system, and though each Selenite may be happy in his role, this is itself an indictment, for it means that they have no aspirations, no love of liberty, no curiosity about what lies beyond their immediate duty, no philosophical or transcendental dimension to their lives.  Too much water has gone under the proverbial bridge in the last century for me to see the Selenites with anything but disgust.  C.S. Lewis apparently agreed with me, for I believe he began writing his Space Trilogy as a response to the philosophical views informing The First Men in the Moon.   It has been some time since I read his books, but now I’ve an additional incentive to revisit them.


Related reading:
From the Earth to the Moon — Jules Verne
Out of the Silent Planet — C.S. Lewis
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

One Response to “Wells: The First Men in the Moon”

  1. […] a series of caverns and tunnels.  (The similarities of this social structure to that observed in The First Men in the Moon are striking.)  Nothing from our time has survived, save a few trinkets in a ruined museum.  […]

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