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The First Men in the Moon

by H.G. Wells

by Ted Gioia

For as long as stories have been told, their narrators have
delighted in the possibility of traveling above the surface of the
Earth. When we recall the tale of Icarus, who suffered by soaring
too close to the sun, or hear the words of the psalmist—“Oh that I
had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away”—we recapture in
some degree the essence of this primitive longing. (Track down a
copy of the out-of-print study
Voyages to the
(1948) by Marjorie Hope Nicolson for
an expansive history of this literature.)

By the time we get to the works of Jules Verne
and H.G. Wells, these dreams are married to a
modern pride in technology and an unabashed
confidence in scientific advances. As such,
these authors created stories of a different
flavor, freed from the magical and mythical,
and married to a quasi-realistic narrative style.
Novels such as Verne’s
From the Earth to the
Moon (1865) and Wells’s The First Men in the
(1901) reveal, in a myriad of small ways,
that they were written by men who not only
dreamed about a lunar voyage, but who had some expectations
about its inevitability.

that film—ah, to be so lucky!—Fred MacMurray relied on flubber
to fly around in a levitated Model T Ford.

Wells has his own absent-minded professor, Dr. Cavor, who is the
inventor of this propulsion system that will send his (rocket-less)
ship to the moon.  But the good doctor would hardly be able to put
his ideas into play without the assistance of his more practical and
business-minded neighbor Mr. Bedord. Think of them as the
Victorian equivalents of Wozniak and Jobs. Wells’s concept of
science seems to revolve around workshop eccentrics of this sort—
readers may recall that his “time machine” was also the invention
of a single individual tinkering away at home. Here again Verne is
more realistic in his comprehension that only a large-scale effort
by a huge team, well financed and with a broad range of skills,
could ever make a lunar expedition into a reality.

But if Wells is vague on his applied science, he makes up for it in
his storytelling skills. His narrator, the scheming Bedford, sets an
amusing tone from the outset. He is evading creditors and trying
to put together his life after a failed business venture. His interest
in his neighbor’s scientific theories is pecuniary, pure and simple,
and he dreams of corporate profits and royalty streams. He
constantly interrupts his account of the Moon trip to offer
threadbare excuses and exculpatory explanations for his venal
behavior. He is little better than a scoundrel, but a lovable one all
the same, if only for his persistence in self-justification. His
colleague Cavor is as idealistic as Bedford is mercenary, and Wells
makes use of this contrast in temperaments to impart some bite
and irony to their dialogues and dealings.

After a failed experiment that blows the top off Cavor’s cottage
and causes damage to nearby homesteads, the duo are ready for
their trip. Wells’s concept of the Moon is similar to his
prognostications about the future in
The Time Machine. His
travelers encounter a lunar society, living underground, that is so
stratified and hierarchical, that the Age of Feudalism looks like a
hippie commune by contrast. This provides our author with a
platform for social commentary, but he doesn’t get as much
mileage here—certainly not as much as he is able to extract from
the fanciful scenarios of some of his other novels. Some readers,
however, may be grateful for the relatively small amount of
armchair philosophizing, which leaves plenty of room for fights,
escapes, close calls and other swashbuckling interludes.

Wells in this work—as in so many of his best known tales—sets up
a conflict between his protagonists and the amorphous
surrounding social forces. The villains in these stories are rarely
distinguished for their individuality and personal qualities, instead
we have the community of Morlocks in
The Time Machine, the
mysterious aliens of
The War of the Worlds, the packs of mutant
creatures in
The Island of Dr. Moreau. Usually these collectives
betray some affinity with the less desirable traits of the Victorian
society in which Wells came of age. Either they stand out for the
oppressiveness of their class structures or their imperialistic
tendencies or for some other aspect that would have been all too
familiar to Wells’s readers. It is to this author’s credit that he could
craft such well-paced adventures on the basis of so little
individualized villainy.

Perhaps we should not be surprised, then, that the inhabitants of
the moon in this novel bear a strong resemblance to the insect
colonies of Earth.  For this author, the most scary enemies are the
depersonalized ones.  The hordes, the unnamed masses, the
mobs—these are what frighten H.G. Wells.  Yet he portrays his
lunar society with such a sensitivity to its inner logic, that one
surmises that the novelist was both repelled and attracted by what
he was describing.

This emotional conflict is played out in human terms in the final
stages of Wells's plot.  Our author's two protagonists take different
paths, one returning to Earth and the other staying on the Moon.
Normally this parting of the ways would indicate the conclusion of
the story, but Wells add a section in which Bedford, now back on
terra firma, receives messages from Cavor from across the void.
This coda feels disconnected to the previous part of the book, but
it does give Wells more scope to mull over issues of social and
political structure that he could hardly have developed in the
earlier chapters, where the conflicts and rapid pacing of the
narrative hardly allowed time for such musings.

Soon after its release, this book was criticized for the
implausibility of its scientific claims—by Jules Verne among
others. The Frenchman asked Wells to produce this mysterious
flying metal that defied the law of gravity. Yet if we made such
demands on all science fiction novels, there would be few left to
delight and astound us. For novelists, there is a more important
force than Newton’s laws—the power of the imagination.  On this
scale,  Wells stands out today, just as he did a century ago. He gave
us a story that, long after real men went to the real moon, still
exerts a gravitational pull of its own on countless readers.

This article was originally published on Blogcritics.
Conceptual Fiction
Nonetheless, Wells—in stark
contrast to Verne, who
laboriously outlined the
technological details of how his
travelers were propelled to the
Moon—simply concocts a
phantasmagoric substance called
cavorite—an anti-gravity metal
that lets his explorers shoot off
into the stratosphere without any
need of fuel or engine or moving
parts. One is inevitably reminded
of “flubber” (a name created by
compressing the longer term
“flying rubber”), first introduced
to moviegoers in the 1961 Walt
Disney film
The Absent-Minded
. In case you missed
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

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Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

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

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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