First Men in the Moon, by H.G. Wells

first-men-in-the-moon-by-h-g-wells coverGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Various Companies
Published: 1901
Reviewer Rating: two and a half stars
Book Review by Vincent W. Sakowski

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Initially, I was uninterested, then leery, then somewhat reluctantly I conceded to read and review The First Men in the Moon, as this thought kept resounding:
It’s a turn-of-the-century science fiction story about a couple of men going to the moon — any idea how bad the science will be?

The answer: pretty bad.

Still, this novel is not without its charms.

But first, the story: It is seen through the eyes of Bedford, a bankrupt businessman, with delusions of becoming a playwright. He encounters a scientist, Cavor, who develops a new substance; soon called “Cavorite” which defies gravity. Seeing dollar signs, Bedford weasels into becoming his business partner. Together, they build a sphere, covered with Cavorite, and pack up and head for the moon– just to see what’s there. They make the trip in record time– only a few hours– find a place to land, and then their real adventure begins. The moon has a low gravity but with a highly oxygenated atmosphere, and there are also snow, plants, and several life forms, including a human-sized race called Selenites, which bear more physical resemblance to ants, and huge moon calves, which the Selenites feed upon. The duo is soon captured, but eventually, they make their escape, killing many Selenites in the process.

And the story continues as the two men separate to increase their chances of finding the sphere again . . .

As in The Time Machine, Wells uses the “unreliable narrator.” Bedford is no scientist, and claims to not even have the words to approximate what he encounters at times, especially when it relates to any scientific matters. Often the scientific details are vague, non-existent, or when they are relayed, they are wrong. The description of the moon, the ambiguity in the passage of time, everything about the sphere they use to get to the moon: propulsion, navigation, breaking in and out of the Earth’s atmosphere, and so on, all suffer from bad science. They don’t even have seats to strap into. But still, if you find the story unbelievable, you shouldn’t hold him accountable.

There are still plenty more reasons to criticize the irresponsible and immature Bedford, and there is an interesting comparison between him and Cavor. Bedford doesn’t even want to go in the first place– he is too afraid, and thinks it’s a foolish mission, but is forced to concede when Cavor tells him they are sealed in and it’s too late to change his mind. He’s not interested in learning or understanding the moon or its inhabitants. Bedford is out for personal– namely monetary– gain, whereas Cavor is interested in pursing science for its own sake: for new discoveries and learning opportunities. He has no interest in attaining fame, wealth, or power.

On a world where the two men are the invaders, Bedford takes violent action, indiscriminately killing the indigenous Selenites before they’ve even properly established a form of communication between them. He wants to burn down the foliage in order to help find their lost vehicle, and he’s more than willing to come back, wipe out any opposition, and exploit the moon’s resources– one of which is an abundant source of gold. So, while he is the protagonist, he is anything but heroic. Meanwhile, Cavor attempts to think through their problems and work towards non-violent solutions, although, he seems to be too passive in key moments.

For example, he realizes that he could establish an understanding with the Selenites through mathematics, yet he never steps forward and writes any numbers or equations. He just keeps thinking it would be a good idea, but then it’s too late and Bedford is literally busting heads. Later, Cavor tells him that he doesn’t want the moon’s secrets to be discovered and exploited. Humanity, in its present destructive, war hungry state is not ready for what the moon has to offer. It is also interesting that Bedford often speaks about “our violence” yet Cavor is only mentioned once as taking any violent action, and that is in self-defense after a situation is dangerously escalated by Bedford. So, once again Wells makes an interesting bit of social commentary through the words and actions of these “anti-heroes.”

One of the pleasant surprises of the novel was the insertion of humor. There are scenes such as their consumption of magic moon mushrooms, and in their attempts to communicate with the Selenites in enunciated, amplified broken English — but even they realize just how ridiculous such attempts are. Plus, never forget all of the errors in scientific facts. They’re pretty hard to miss.

Still, this book is an imaginative work of fiction, especially when it comes to the details of the Selenite society, which are rather extensive– with each Selenite bred and raised for a specific purpose, living in a massive underground complex which goes as deep as 200 miles below the surface. Once again, Wells takes the opportunity to point out the fears and errors of his own time, and people’s desire for attaining wealth, power, and fame, and simply taking pleasure in death and destruction for their own sakes — both on a personal level, and a national one. So, The First Men in the Moon is not an entirely bad novel– well, at least it’s not if you ignore all the errors in science, and the central premise that these men are actually travelling to our moon. If you take it as serious science fiction, you’ll never make it past Chapter Four, but if you approach it as a fantasy with a dash of social criticism, you might just make it to the end. That’s not asking too much, is it?

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