This will be the end of my H. G. Wells series.
Back in 1996, I knew there were a few Wells fantasy and science fiction works I missed. I didn’t bother to read The Shape of Things to Come: The Ultimate Revolution. However, since I’ve seen the film based on it several times, Things to Come with a screenplay by Wells, I didn’t see the need to read it. (I’m quite fond of Raymond Massey thundering to the citizens of Well’s future city “Time enough to rest in the grave” after they bitch about their version of future shock.)
However, the “H. G. Wells” entry at the Science Fiction Encyclopedia shows I missed several other titles — though I’m sure they are minor works. Either I wasn’t paying attention 20 years ago or just not that ambitious.
Yet another reading project to get back to.
In future posts, I’ll be looking at some Wells’ related novels, and yes, I am working on reviews of books actually published in 2017.
Raw Feed (1996): Star-Begotten: A Biological Fantasia, H. G. Wells, 1937.
This 1937 novel by Wells evoked some of the same responses in me that his In the Days of the Comet did.
First, I liked Wells’ satire against everything from women’s fashions to politics and the psychology of his characters – particularly protagonist Joseph Davis, who vehemently writes propagandistic works of history to defend a sociopolitical order he has doubts about; Harold Rigamey, an “ultra-heretic” (I wonder if Wells had Charles Fort in mind) who writes wildly speculative essays throwing pseudo-science and science together; [I don’t wonder anymore.] Lord Thunderclap, a paranoid, conspiracy-mongering newspaper tycoon.
I liked several bits.
The public’s inability, due to the rapid rate of change even at the time of this novel’s writing, to give any but the most trivial and mundane reaction to even remarkable news (here the idea of extraterrestrial intelligence manipulating humans genetically) is mentioned. Wells sees Americans as too ready, in fits of anti-rational, anti-intellectual, misplaced egalitarianism, to denounce any new ideas and recognize no intellectual authorities over the common man and belittle ideas.
Wells, by this time in his life, with Hitler in Europe and war seeming more likely – specifically mentioned here, was getting more pessimistic and bitter, and denounced the “common mind” as violent, brutal, ineffective for the present world, nationalistic and wandering between extremes of revolutionary or reactionary furor. To Wells, humanity is awash in self-deception which causes him to unquestioningly accept outdated, and sometimes contradictory, institutions, customs and traditions.
However, though the main theme of his sf from 1904’s The Food of the Gods is a call for the destruction of the old, outdated, dangerous order with a new one (usually a “world state” that is socialist and ruled by a technocratic elite), there is no specific proposals for the new order which not only shows the novel’s failure as a call to reform but perhaps Wells’ increasing despair at being able to save the world.
George Orwell, a Wells fan, perhaps drew some inspiration (though most of it came, no doubt, from his own experiences) for 1984 from Wells’ attack on “mystical personifications like the People, My Country Right or Wrong, the Church, the Party, the Masses, the Proletariat.” A bit of 1984’s famous nomenclature may have been inspired by Wells writing: “Our imaginations hang on to some such Big Brother idea almost to the end.”
Wells’ also seems to have given up on his own former socialist comrades. Lord Thunderclap believes conspiring socialists have “a strong, clear plan for a workable human society … a hard, competent society”. Wells’ remarks, “He was probably the only man alive in England who believed in socialism to that extent.” Plot-wise, the novel follows the basic plot of The Food of the Gods: a group of exceptional children created by the intervention of an outside agency will create a better order.
The sf idea of “mutant” (sometimes in the technical sense of the word, sometimes just exceptional) children ushering in a new (though not always better) world is a tradition continuing at least through John Brunner’s Children of the Thunder and Nancy Kress’ Beggar series.
This book is even mildly recursive sf in that one character mentions The War of the Worlds though he can’t remember the author. (Indeed, this novel is a variation on that novel’s story of Martian invasion. Here the invasion is done by changing men into Martians or whoever is sending the cosmic rays to Earth –and for our benefit as well as theirs.) Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men is explicitly mentioned.
Ultimately, though, this novel fails both as a realistic working out of its sf premise and as an allegorical call for reform.
Realistically, it fails on a several accounts.
First, though the idea of aliens inducing genetic mutations in humans is interesting, surely Wells must have known, even with the knowledge of genetics circa 1937, that you can’t induce specific mutations that way, and without specific mutations the method is useless.
Second, even after protagonist Davis suspects his wife may be “star begotten” and that the Martians who have induced the mutations may have sinister ends, he seems remarkably nonplussed by this. Indeed, Wells’ rarely deals with Davis’ marriage until the end when he finds out he’s “star begotten”.
Third, the relationship between Davis’ wife and “her people” is never explained. Is this a community of “star begotten” who has already coalesced together? Or does an entire family of mutants exist?
As allegory, the novel also fails. Not only is no specific plan for reform mentioned – somehow the clear-minded, consistent “star begotten” are just supposed to know to do something unspecified – but Wells undercuts his allegorical call for reform by explaining it in unrealistic terms. Is man’s only hope to wait for extra-terrestrials to genetically mutate his bestial side away? Evidently man is incapable of reform on his own. In effect, Wells says we are doomed if we don’t change our ways then says we can’t change on our own.
There is a final bit of personal curiosity. Wells’ criticizes humans’ primal nature as being amongst other things, “over-sexed” which, for a man of such voracious sexual appetites, is curious. Perhaps, he was feeling guilty about this side of him or just realized (or maybe not) he possessed, like all of us, an animal nature.