What is this spirit in man that urges him forever to depart from happiness and security, to toil, to place himself in danger, even to risk a reasonable certainty of death? It dawned upon me up there in the moon as a thing I ought always to have known, that man is not made simply to go about being safe and comfortable and well fed and amused. Against his interest, against his happiness he is constantly being driven to do unreasonable things. Some force not himself impels him and go he must. – The First Men in the Moon; H.G. Wells
The First Men in the Moon – 3 out of 5 stars
We start the novel following the fates of Mr Bedford; a bit of a deadbeat, borderline bankrupt, currently trying his hand at becoming a playwright (with a fair degree of apathy and procrastination). Whilst not writing his first play, he meets the brilliant but impractically minded scientist Mr Carvor, who is on the cusp of creating an anti-gravitational material. Carvor is interested in the scientific endeavour, but the canny Bedford is quickly enthused with the practical (and lucrative) applications. It is a short step from the creation of the material (Carvorite) to the creation of a two man spherical vessel to escape the bounds of Earth’s gravity and travel to the moon. After a brief travel through space, the two men land just as the sun is rising, and encounter the previously undreamt of native creatures and plants that live on the surface and deep under the ground of the Moon – including the highly intelligent and potentially dangerous humanoid Selenites!
3 stars – Good. Solid writing, solid story, no major flaws. Might also have some exceptional parts offset by weaker components.
This is my twelfth book so far this year, and I am running nicely ahead of schedule on my GoodRead’s challenge of 70. It is also my first in SF Masterwork series from Gollancz for 2015, and (like most of the Masterwork series) was an enjoyable read. Despite being written in 1901 and suffering under the light of modern scientific knowledge, most of this book holds together. The inner-world of the Moon is well detailed, and the society of the Selenites (the Moon’s native inhabitants) seems exceptionally well fleshed out. Wells also set out a couple of strong themes in this book:
- I found the contrast between the cold, harsh existence of the Selenites, whom are genetically engineered to fulfil a societal purpose (I was strongly reminded of Huxley’s A Brave New World genetic roles) with the inefficient but human approach of self determination to be particularly effective. Of course, once feeling superior about humanity we are then reminded by Wells about our propensity to fight amongst ourselves, to kill each other for little to no reason, something entirely alien to the Selenites. I felt he might have highlighted these two as flip sides of the same coin; free-will comes with the freedom to be inefficient, stupid, murderous.
- The other major theme seemed to be around the spirit of adventure, of exploration. Carvor embodies this for me, blindly pushing the boundaries of science (noting that he nearly causes disaster when creating Carvorite), then rushing off to the Moon, again in an exploratory fever. It is Carvor who convinces Bedford, a man much in love with comfort, that the trip to the Moon is the right thing to do. The mercantile Bedford is caught up in Carvor’s enthusiasm, but this quickly wavers in the face of adversity.
Despite these positives, it is my view First Men is not as good as some other Wells, (I’m thinking specifically of War of the Worlds); the story seemed less developed, less structured, and the central characters didn’t really engage me. Indeed Bedford irritated me greatly at times, and was foolish, whiney, and occasionally cowardly. None of these endeared him to me, and this doesn’t bode well for the main viewpoint character of a novel. The ending of the story also seemed to occur some forty pages before the actual end of the book, which finishes on an extended epilogue. This wasn’t bad, but structurally it felt… off.
This book is entertaining, a good look through the way-back machine at a classic ‘scientific romance’ written by one of the most famous sci-fi writers of all time. As entertaining as it is, it is no Time Machine, it is no Island of Dr Moreau, it is no War of the Worlds.
It has however whet my appetite for my next Masterwork, The Penultimate Truth, by Philip K Dick, that I plan to read and review next month.