Conceptual Fiction is a regular feature, contributed by Ted Gioia, focusing on major works of fantasy, science fiction, magical realism and alternate history. These books are celebrated in recognition that literary experimentation with ways of conceptualizing reality has been as important as experimentation with language in creating fiction of lasting value. Dismissing these books as genre or escapist works has created a blind-spot in literary studies that this feature aims, in some small part, to rectify.
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 Moon (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 Moon (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.
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 Professor. In case you missed 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.