Short story: “The Country of the Blind” by H.G. WellsMarch 8, 2010
The Book: “The Country of the Blind” from The Time Machine and Other Stories by Herbert George (H.G.) Wells. First published in 1904 in Strand Magazine. The edition read was published in 1969 (copyright 1963) by Scholastic Book Services.
The Setting: An isolated mountain valley in the Andes of Ecuador.
The Story: A mountaineer, Nunez, falls off a mountain side into a valley. And lives! The valley is inhabited! Inhabited by people who have met no one from outside the community in 15 generations. And they’re blind! For 14 generations, the entire populous has been blind. Nunez remembers that “in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” He sets about trying to take over. He fails, and gets smacked down. The people of the valley can hear and smell him; they have the advantage. Plus, they have no idea they’re missing anything. They figure Nunez is crazy for using the weird words “sight” and “blind.” He gives up, becomes a villager, falls in love with a local girl. He wants to marry her, but her father figures Nunez is too stupid. The doctor thinks maybe those lumpy things in his eye sockets are the problem and proposes to remove them. He eventually agrees. At the last minute, he changes his mind and begins to climb out of the valley. And then he died. But he saw how pretty it was as he was dying.
The Science: The people of the valley have lived for fifteen generations after a disease afflicted them so that their children were born blind. Reasonable enough. All the genes were somehow affected by this disease, to the point of physically making the eyeballs shrivel in their sockets. It seems unlikely, but it’s a useful enough premise. The people become completely isolated by a terrible earthquake, or something. They develop a way of living, with lined pathways and tactile stimulus. They work at night and rest during the day. The develop a system of belief wherein the valley is all that exists and is covered by a smooth stone ceiling. Weird, but totally plausible. More a social science, but I give this story a thumbs up for plausibility.
The Reaction: I liked this story. An anthropologist by training, I was intrigued by the cultural adaptations made by the people of the valley. I was really put off by the hubris of the main character. I mean really. What kind of person shows up somewhere, sees a town, and says “I’ll be having that, thank you very much”? It seems ridiculous. And maybe it’s supposed to be a ridiculous lesson in imperialism. But I liked it. Short, and fun to read.
The Cover: See The Time Machine
Etc: According to Wikipedia, the story has rewritten in 1939 to have a totally different ending. One which sounds less good.
Next Up: The Food of the Gods by H.G. Wells