The First Men in the Moon – classic review *spoilers!*

It’s pretty safe to say that H.G. Wells (Herbert George in first name terms) was one of the essential pillars of the Scientific Romance, which went on to become more commonly known Science Fiction during the height of the pulps in the 1920s. I always find the genre to be very reactionary and therefore self aware and self reflexive, and he lived through a great many scientific discoveries by Rutherford, the Curies, Einstein, Darwin et al. Because of this, we can see a multitude of his works dedicated to predictions such as his serial works Anticipations and his other fictional thought experiments.

Following on from the Island of Dr Moreau and the Time Machine, FMITM is another one of those post-Darwinian thought experiments – the Selenites (the moon people to you and I) actually dwell below the Moon’s surface (thus answering any queries about whether the title was supposed to be “on”) and have the whole living space arrangements run to an amazing efficiency. In rather stunning contrast, here come the “representatives” of our planet – Bedford, an ex clerk wishing to make the odd buck from writing a play, whose only drive to visit the moon was for the chance of commercial gain and Cavor, a rather eccentric scientist but without human empathy – totally driven by the thought of knowledge and discovery. At first glance, Cavor seems to be the buffer here, the Dorothy in the monomaniac Wizard of Oz crew, but alas, they both seem single tracked in their own objectives. Rather well known as a Fabian, Wells believed that science alone, without it being attached to social conscience, was extremely dangerous, as of course the materialistic and capitalist intentions of Bedford (Fabianism being a branch of socialism, don-cha-know.)

For a rather potted history of the story, two unlikely acquaintances lock horns as Bedford pens his play in what he believes to be a secluded place, encountering an odd breeze of hums at exactly the same time. Bedford is portrayed as one of those “pie in the sky” writers, who, when he feels under pressure as a clerk, thinks “why not, I think I’m creative so I’ll write a play”, finding it rather harder than anticipated. Who knows, the interruptions might be the tip of the iceberg. When confronting the source, he finds Cavor, the ubiquitous quirky scientist running experiments to create cavorite – a substance, when painted on certain objects, allows them to be free from the restraints of gravity and float. Remember that helium had been formally discovered in 1895, that was from the uranium ore cleveite (sounds similar to cavorite, right? Am I right?). After all, it is mentioned as a “fancy new element” (Wells, p16). I know that scientific accuracy is secondary to the genre in general, but with Luckhurst’s conditions of emergence usually at the back of my mind – as in the terms that he describes to be the catalyst to start a reactionary period of SF (such as a new era of scientific discovery/attitude etc.), and it makes sense for me with this particular time. Anyway – OK, now for the potted part.

So with this novum under our belts, we find ourselves on the trip to the moon, after Bedford’s to-ing and fro-ing of decision making. Wells makes the distinction between the men very clear in the chapter Mr Bedford meets Mr Cavor – “the understanding of a Cavorite monopoly grew up between us. He was to make the stuff and I was to make the boom.” (Wells, p18). Then they make it to the Moon, not without a little side jab at Verne:

“That’s perfectly easy. An air-tight manhole is all that is needed. That of course will have to be a little complicated;there will have to be a valve, so that things may be thrown out if neccessary without much loss of air.”

“Like Jules Verne’s apparatus in A Trip to the Moon?”

But Cavor was not a reader of fiction. (Wells, p28)

We find out that there is air on the moon (!), thin but manageable to get by. There is edible material, but has a rather intoxicated effect upon consumption (remember, students – this isn’t real… or IS IT!?). They come across life, of course, in the form of ant-like creatures the Selenites. Their communications are limited as they try to overcome the rather obvious barriers of interspecies intercourse. Again, the hints at the post Darwinian sentiment are very clear in Chapter 13 as Bedford says:

“The things are outside us… they’re different from us from the strangest animals on earth. They are a different clay. What is the good of talking like this?”

Cavor thought. “I don’t see that. Where there are minds, they will have something similar – even though they have been evolved on different planets. Of course, it was a question of instincts – if we or they were no more than animals – ”

“Well, are they? They’re much more like ants on their hind legs than human beings, and who ever got to any sort of understanding with ants?”

“But these machines and clothing! No, I don’t hold with you, Bedford. The difference is wide – ”

“It’s insurmountable.” (Wells, p.89)

It’s amazing to see how humankind felt as a reaction to this when it was first postulated – and of course, is a highly contentious point today. To feel that we may not be as insignificant as we at first appeared, that we share space with such creatures must have resonated so strongly amongst people of that period while these ideas were starting to stir.

As I’ve been describing a split between two things that Wells despised – materialism and a lack of social responsibility, it only seems fair for me to throw a materialist reference in there. Again, Bedford leads the charges. In Chapter 16, Points of View, as they beat off the Selenites to make their ecape, Bedford finds that his chains are made of gold! He pauses, his train of thought running back to the profit making idea, his hesitation despite the fact that he is bound by them (these ain’t all mind forged, they can also be physical manifestations!).

They become split from their journey, and as Bedford arrives back to Earth, we hear transmissions from Cavor, who has finally unlocked some information on the fascinating race. Like the ants that they bear resemblance to, they each contain similar aspects in terms of their different roles. As Cavor mentions, “Every citizen knows his place. He is born to that place, and the elaborate discipline of training and education and surgery he undergoes fits him at last so completely to it that he has neither ideas nor organs for any purpose beyond it.” (Wells, p181) There are bearers, workers, porters, ushers, scholars members of the neuter sex –  replacements are available so that the ants always have parentage, with the backdrop of hexagonal honeycomb hive – which would be seen in future literary offerings such as Hellstrom’s Hive. It’s all very Brave New World-esque before the event.

Talking of Brave New World, there is a very interesting moment that’s mentioned in the rearing of children. The use of the mechanical arm/hand as shorthand for the industrial and the era of the machine as seen in some science fiction (i.e. Dune and even SW), there is the idea that some of the insects have machine hands: “…replaced by huge single or paired bunches of three, or five, or seven digits for clawing, lifting guiding…that wretched-looking hand sticking out of its jar seemed to have a sort of limp appeal for lost possibilities; it haunts me still, although, of course, it is really in the end a far more humane proceeding than our earthly method of leaving children to grow into human beings, and then making machines of them.” (Wells, p184). Of course, we see the many angles of these arguments in many SF novels and assorted screen media to come!

Then comes erm, the thought piece from our representative, a Mr Cavor, in interview with the Grand Lunar – the leader of the Selenites. In these little soundbites of information, we can see how Wells viewed the dangers of science and knowledge without social responsibility and the ability to share, as Cavor says:

I explained to him how our science was growing by the united labours of innumerable little men, and on that he made no comment save that it was evident we had mastered much in spite of our social savagery, or we could have not come to the moon. Yet the constrast was very marked. With knowledge the Selenites grew and changed; mankind stored their knowledge about them and remained brutes – equipped. (Wells, p.198)

He then goes on to describe the nature of human war, as the Selenites watch on, incredulous. I wouldn’t rate him on diplomatic skills, that’s for sure, but that’s the way things go. He even egoes as far as saying ” 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” (Wells, p.200)

Utter facepalm! Anyway, communications break down after that, and I think Cavor wasn’t welcomed well after that little outburst. He wouldn’t get my vote. In a nutshell, the book is obviously has some pulpy moments in it – you could even go as far as to say it’s proto-pulp, with the bug eyed aliens, the edible intoxicating food, the fight and the “take me to your leader” mentality, but there are so many layers in it. It is extremely informative as to attitudes of the time and is worth a read/re-read.


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