Thursday, 15 April 2010

"Uless"

(Every post should start with a Kate Beaton comic)

Reading H.G Wells'
The First Men in the Moon I found myself preoccupied with the number of things about it that reminded me (mostly superficially) of later works. For example, in my head the Selenites look very much like the Bones, even though Wells tells us their bodies are insectoid.

They also look a lot like the underground dwelling gnome creatures from the land of Bism in C.S Lewis' The Silver Chair. Lewis was worryingly present during my reading of this book (he has been far too present on this blog recently) - his Out of the Silent Planet is strongly influenced by The First Men in the Moon. Except that Lewis' scientist is a rather scary imperialist and his religious man of letters is lovely and fits right in. Wells is a little more interesting with regard to his two major characters.


[Spoiler warning, but this thing has been out for more than a century]
The story: an out of work banker ruralises and considers becoming a playwright. He meets a scientist who lives in the area and is working on inventing a material that resists gravity. Alive to the commercial possibilities the banker (Bedford) gets involved. When Cavor, the scientist, invents the material, they travel to the moon where they lose their spaceship and anger some natives (by killing them). They also consume some magic mushrooms. Bedford finds the spaceship, loses Cavor, and flees to Earth taking with him lots of moon gold. Due to a Victorian equivalent of Balloon Boy the ship is lost (so is the child) and Bedford cannot return. Luckily he still has all that gold.
However, a scientist then begins to pick up radio signals from the moon which are from Cavor updating us on his life, the Selenites, and what he has learnt about them. Eventually he comes to a realisation that everything he has told them about Earth and war and colonialism (and the fact that he's the only one who knows how to make Cavorite, the anti-gravity substance) means that they would be wise to kill him. So they do, and that is the end.

The science is off, as Verne would complain, but that is clearly not the point. Because this is a fascinating portrayal of men from Earth encountering new land. When he first realises the possibility of space exploration, Bedford is ecstatic.

My imagination was picking itself up again. "After all," I said, "there's something in these things. There's travel--"

An extraordinary possibility came rushing into my mind. Suddenly I saw, as in a vision, the whole solar system threaded with Cavorite liners and spheres deluxe. "Rights of pre-emption," came floating into my head--planetary rights of pre-emption. I recalled the old Spanish monopoly in American gold. It wasn't as though it was just this planet or that--it was all of them. I stared at Cavor's rubicund face, and suddenly my imagination was leaping and dancing. I stood up, I walked
up and down; my tongue was unloosened.

"I'm beginning to take it in," I said; "I'm beginning to take it in." The transition from doubt to enthusiasm seemed to take scarcely any time at all. "But this is tremendous!" I cried. "This is Imperial! I haven't been dreaming of this sort of thing."

Once the chill of my opposition was removed, his own pent-up excitement had play. He too got up and paced. He too gesticulated and shouted. We behaved like men inspired. We were men inspired.
The Moon, it seems, has plenty of gold. Bedford is ecstatic.

Cavor is not treated particularly well either. He doesn't form a nice, unworldly contrast to Bedford and his grabby hands - he is callous (that the men who he employs in his research all die because of the cavorite is something he ignores), he never really shows much excitement at anything but science. When he receives his chance to be the narrator in the final chapters of the book, he comes across as quite as unpleasant as his companion. Bedford may think that writing a play needs only a couple of weeks, and he may think killing aliens and stealing their stuff is decent human behaviour - he's worldly, but he's also of this world, and human. He has probably read Shakespeare. He's too much of a philistine to bring any reading matter on his trip, but then he reads the cheap magazines he picks up at the last minute to remind himself that people exist. He's the one who can communicate - I don't think it's an accident that Cavor's narrative, when it comes, is broken and full of static, or that it breaks down mid-sentence into the nonsense word "uless" that probably means "useless".

And Bedford has genuine moments of enthusiasm and seeing (or I could be reading too much into this - he's the narrator for most of the novel, so if Wells wanted to draw attention to something exciting he had few other options). But you have bits like this as a result:

I turned about, and behold! along the upper edge of a rock to the eastward a similar fringe in a scarcely less forward condition swayed and bent, dark against the blinding glare of the sun. And beyond this fringe was the silhouette of a plant mass, branching clumsily like a cactus, and swelling
visibly, swelling like a bladder that fills with air.

Then to the westward also I discovered that another such distended form was rising over the scrub. But here the light fell upon its sleek sides, and I could see that its colour was a vivid orange hue. It rose as one watched it; if one looked away from it for a minute and then back, its outline had changed; it thrust out blunt congested branches until in a little time it rose a coralline shape of many feet in height. Compared with such a growth the terrestrial puff-ball, which will sometimes swell a
foot in diameter in a single night, would be a hopeless laggard. But then the puff-ball grows against a gravitational pull six times that of the moon. Beyond, out of gullies and flats that had been hidden from us, but not from the quickening sun, over reefs and banks of shining rock, a bristling beard of spiky and fleshy vegetation was straining into view, hurrying tumultuously to take advantage of the brief day in which it must flower and fruit and seed again and die. It was like a miracle, that growth. So, one must imagine, the trees and plants arose at the Creation and covered the desolation of the new-made earth.

Imagine it! Imagine that dawn! The resurrection of the frozen air, the stirring and quickening of the soil, and then this silent uprising of vegetation, this unearthly ascent of fleshiness and spikes. Conceive it all lit by a blaze that would make the intensest sunlight of earth seem watery and weak. And still around this stirring jungle, wherever there was shadow, lingered banks of bluish snow. And to have the picture of our impression complete, you must bear in mind that we saw it all through a thick bent glass, distorting it as things are distorted by a lens, acute only in the centre of the picture, and very bright there, and towards the edges magnified and unreal.

5 comments:

Celine said...

Have only read The Island of Dr Moraeu (sp?) and War of The Worlds, but I love what Wells does with characters and language in both books. Will have to give this one a try now ( thanks for the heads up!)

He was one prolific bastard wasn't he? (and, harking back to your Byron/Shelly cartoon, I believe he may have been another of our delightfully whorish man-sluts)

Celine said...

SHRIEK! I just saw the cartoon link at the head of this article! Made my day!

Aishwarya said...

I've acquired a couple of gorgeous editions of The War of the Worlds in the past year or so, and they've reminded me that I need to read Wells in more detail. I reread The Time Machine a couple of months ago, this for the first time, and I'm planning to revisit The Island of Dr. Moreau soon. (Also I read a horrendous book that featured him as a character, but that doesn't count). He does seem to have had an active and varied sex life!
(And I know! Isn't Verne adorable?)

Aadisht said...

Incidentally, one of the characters in Anathem is named after Jules Verne. As in, his given names are Jules Verne. Much like Wimpy's IIT-M Professor Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Reddy.

Anonymous said...

Hey this subject is really interesting. Keep it going guy !