The First Men in the Moon (1901) – H.G. WELLS

Huzzuh for free books from work. Thank you, Pearson. That’s pretty much the only reason I picked this book up. Also ’cause I like H.G. Wells. I say that, and what I actually mean is, I like two other of his books. And movies. Yes, I’m a terrible person. I was vaguely aware before I started this that Jules Verne and Wells had a debate as to what kind of science fiction was the best kind (keeping in mind that this was when science fiction was still new and shiny), with Verne believing that the science was the most important part, and Wells believing that the fiction was the most important part. I’m beginning to understand that now…

Mr Bedford, an upper-class English gentleman, down on his luck, has moved to the seaside to write a play. There, he meets Mr Cavor, the ‘scientist next door’, who is working on a way to get to the moon. When Mr Bedford hears this, the businessman inside awakens, and convinces Cavor to pursue the project, so they might be able to make money from it. Succeeding, they go to the moon, and encounter one or two problems that they did not exactly see coming…

So, the first few chapters of this book made me laugh. I’m fairly sure I wasn’t supposed to. Though, I think the satirical undertones give me some kind of allowance. The notion that these two upper-class Englishmen are somehow suitable is laughable, considering what we now know about space travel. And I know, I should be accepting of the context, but seriously, a material that repels “gravity waves”? I understand now how frustrated Verne, a man very much of science, must have been with Wells.

On the plus side, once they actually land on the moon, everything gets much, much better. Wells uses the moon, and its alien inhabitants, to give a biting criticism of the British imperial mindset, and how British colonists operated. Bedford, in particular, is the most ridiculous character I have ever met. I’m not sure what he had in mind when he went to the moon (other than making money), but there are some people that should just not be allowed to represent humanity. He’s one of them. To be fair, Cavor is not much better, but he redeems himself somewhat by the ending of the novel, which did feel very tacked on. The story proper ends about four chapters before the end, allowing a rather long epilogue on topics that I won’t spoil for you.

I think a lot of contemporary science fiction authors should be given this kind of stuff to read. Not for the dodgy, dodgy science, but for the plotting and themes. I think science fiction works best when it is commenting on our own humanity, but mirrored in fantastical events. I suspect that a lot of contemporary authors feel the need to include giant space ships, scary aliens (that are inherently evil because they are not human), and needlessly complex plots that entail thousands of pages and characters. The First Men in the Moon is not the best novel in the world, but it is certainly a solid science fiction novel that deals with interesting ideas.

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3 thoughts on “The First Men in the Moon (1901) – H.G. WELLS

  1. […] is certainly true. As with a large number of other adventure novels of the time (see, for example, The First Men in the Moon), I find it very difficult to believe that these very proper English gentlemen could ever find […]

  2. I think the satire here is intentional. Essentially the two representatives of humanity are really examples of inhumanity, one of a man who puts profit over humanity and the other one who puts truth above it.

    Cavor at one point nearly wipes life off the Earth as I recall, and sees it as an acceptable risk. A boy dies at one point as I recall, and nobody is that concerned. Both characters are absolutely terrible human beings.

    Wells’ stuff is full of social commentary, and I think this one is also. The science is deeply dodgy, among his dodgiest (Wells was never that interested in science), but what makes it worthwhile isn’t that but the social commentary and the psychology of its appalling protagonists who as you rightly say are about as ill suited ambassadors for our species as it is possible to find. That’s not chance in my view, they are examples of us at our worst, and how we approach the aliens is I think also an illustration of how we sometimes approach other humans.

  3. matttodd says:

    Totally. Having just done a course on Imperial fiction, Wells’ point is a bit clearer now. It is satire, and of imperial forces in the colonies, doing things to the natives out of ideas of greed and profit, not out of altruism, no matter how misplaced.

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