The Works of H.G. Wells: THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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The Works of H.G. Wells: THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON

Alexander Wallace stays with the Selenites.
We remember H. G. Wells for unleashing tripods bearing heat rays and black smoke on London, or giving Doctor Moreau his island full of experiments, or sending a man into the murky depths of the future, or giving a madman the power to become invisible. His oeuvre can feel like you’re in an old warehouse of prototypes for the science fiction and fantasy stories that you grew up with. I can confidently say that the man was a genius, even if many of his predictions did not come true; the ones that did are so prescient I think they make up for it. This is a man who predicted massive strategic bombing campaigns in The War in the Air and the atomic bomb in The World Set Free, and then lived until 1946, having seen both of those nightmares come to life in all their horror.

But it is not his nightmares we shall discuss here; it is one of his more optimistic dreams. This would be The First Men in the Moon, an account of a voyage to and through that pearl that hangs in Earth’s night sky. His approach is not the ruthlessly practical manner that Jules Verne does in From the Earth to the Moon; Wells was never the sort of writer who was immensely concerned with scientific accuracy (he makes the good decision in this book to avoid too detailed descriptions of how the vessel actually gets to the Moon), being something of the progenitor of ‘soft science fiction’ as opposed to Verne’s hardness that rivals bedrock. Indeed, Verne criticized Wells for not trying to use actual science to get his characters out of Earth’s atmosphere.
The core of this novel is an interaction between two characters: Bedford, the narrator, a businessman and attempted playwright, and Cavor, the scientist who develops the spaceship. Bedford is very much an audience surrogate as many modern science fiction works have, who exists to marvel at the strangeness of everything and to have various concepts explained to him (and by extension the reader).

Bedford is in some ways a blank slate (but the writers among us will know very well his frustration with his inability to write a play that he is satisfied with), and it is Cavor who is the more interesting character. He is introduced humming incessantly whilst strolling along a country road, and is unaware of the strange things he does when asked about them by Bedford. Cavor is a prototype of the Heinleinesque scientific hero, albeit one whose ending is drearier than those created by Heinlein. He is quite wealthy, more than a little eccentric, and is willing to put subordinates in danger in the name of progress. Eventually, the two men find themselves in a ball-shaped contraption that works via Cavorite, a synthetic substance that can resist the force of gravity.
On the moon, Bedford and Cavor find a world that is covered in snow and in bushes, with livestock and other animals that run about this tundra. Eventually, they end up misplacing the location of their craft, and find themselves in an underground cave system which hosts the civilization of the indigenous population of the moon: the Selenites. Through a complicated series of events, Bedford makes it home but Cavor does not.

In ending his main plot with that split, Wells inadvertently created something that many science fiction novels and many online works have emulated: the worldbuilding-heavy epilogue containing things that could not have been elegantly fit in the main narrative. My immediate thought was the epilogue to Andy Weir’s Artemis wherein he explains the economics of the world he has created. Fortunately, Wells knew that such information would interrupt his pacing, something that many writers nowadays would do well to remember.

There’s a certain pleasure I take in reading old science fiction that doesn’t quite resurface when I read works that are deliberately imitating them (e.g. The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, or the Old Mars and Old Venus anthologies edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois); there’s something about the fact that people truly believed that these were plausible in the lack of modern science that makes it strangely charming, bereft of the irony with which so many contemporary works are suffused. There’s an earnestness in Wells and Verne and their ilk that I find endearing, and The First Men in the Moon has plenty of it.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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