The Works of H. G. Wells: Star-Begotten - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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The Works of H. G. Wells: Star-Begotten

Alexander Wallace uncovers the Martian alteration-program.
We live in an age of delusion. As we trudge through another year of a miserable pandemic, we have seen the rise of conspiracy theories that have gone against anything resembling reason. We first saw the COVID denialists and then the vaccine denialists, and the suspicious overlap between the two. We have, more recently, seen accusations of Satan-worship stemming from a music video and licensed shoes. As much as we may loathe it, this is nothing new. An entire bloody war was started because a newspaper concocted a story about sabotage on a ship, leading to the conflagration that wrested Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines from Spain and propelled the United States to global hegemony.

It is this mindset that H. G. Wells looked to eviscerate in Star-Begotten, published in 1937. It is a story of individual delusion and collective delusion, and how these sorts of ideas promulgate themselves beyond all reason. Perhaps even more importantly, he shows who is likely to become enraptured in such tall tales, from his height unable to see what is actually grounded.

Your protagonist is a certain Joseph Davis, who reads as, on the surface, a fairly typical middle-class Edwardian gentleman. He is an academic, having published some books and gained some notoriety for them. He is working on a massive tome of history that he promises will be ground-breaking but nevertheless never seems to get anywhere with it. His marriage is showing signs of faltering. He is an accomplished, educated man, but one who is succumbing to the ennui of modern life.

It is at a gentlemen's club (stop snickering, my fellow Americans) of which he was a member, as the ‘respectable’ men of the period were wont to do in the time period, he is exposed to the notion that becomes his obsession. Overhearing a conversation there, he becomes absolutely convinced that Martians are bombarding the Earth with particles that are leading to all sorts of changes in human evolution. It’s bizarre to our allegedly enlightened twenty-first century brains, certainly, but is it really all that out there compared to ‘Jewish space lasers?’
And it’s not just him that promulgates this strange idea. Davis consults a doctor who initially denies it, but then finds himself enraptured in the crackpottery. He then sends it to his colleagues, and between the two of them it spreads like wildfire. In other words, it is a viral meme in the original Dawkinsian sense.

What strikes me so much about the people who spread this quackery, Joseph Davis especially, is that they all seemed to be bored with life. Davis is a man who is unsatisfied with just about everything in his life. He never explicitly admits it, but to me he came off as someone looking for that rush you get when you feel like your life actually has a purpose. In our world of bullshit jobs, economic depression, and nationwide lockdowns, such a theme has so much resonance. Think back to June and July; one of the proffered reasons for the widespread rioting after the murder of George Floyd was lockdown-induced boredom. I’ve seen similar reasons proposed for the wide success of QAnon, to the point that it stormed the Capitol (from which I live merely miles).

Star-Begotten, ultimately, is about meaning, or more precisely a lack thereof. It is about the soul-crushing meaninglessness of modern life, where our jobs have no real effect on the world (and negative if it is present at all, most of the time). It is about how purpose aligns with truth, and our responsibilities to each. Of all of Wells’ work I’ve read, this is probably one of the most urgently topical today.

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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