The Book: The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells. Originally published in 1901. The edition read was published in by Ballantine Books (F687) in the early 1960s (no publishing date).
The Setting: Britain, the Earth. The Moon.
The Story: A failed businessman, Mr. Bedford, plans to write a play to pay off his debts. An eccentric scientist, Mr. Cavor, distracts him. The two team up for fun scientific discovery and profit. Cavor invents a material which neutralizes gravity. They build a glass sphere/spaceship with cavorite (the anti-grav material) shutters all around it. They get in and travel to the Moon. They arrive just as day breaks. They find a desolate plain, just as expected, but then are astounded to see vegetation sprout before their eyes. They start jumping around, have a jolly old time, and lose the spaceship. A terrible rumbling is heard, followed by the appearance of moonmen (Selenites) and mooncows (enormous maggot looking things) in the area. Terrified by the insect looking Selenites, Bedford and Cavor hide in the undergrowth and try to find their sphere. No luck. Starving, they eat some moon mushrooms, proceed to trip balls and get themselves captured.
Waking, they discover themselves chained in a room deep inside the moon. Freaking out about their situation, they break free from the Selenites. Bedford leaves carnage in his wake as he leads the escape. They get to the surface and find it’s nearly nightfall. They separate to search for the sphere. Bedford finds it. When he tries to find Cavor, he discovers a note suggesting that Bedford has been captured or, more probably, killed by the Selenites. Bedford gets in the sphere and somehow manages to get back to earth despite a total psychotic break en route.
Back on earth, and in Britain even!, he changes his name (to Wells), and writes up his moon experiences and gets it published (thus the book). But then he finds another scientist who has built some kind of radio receiver and is getting messages! From the moon! In English! And thus we learn the fate of Cavor… more or less.
The Science: Lots of stuff to talk about in this book, but I’ll just address three topics.
- Cavorite: A substance which neutralizes the effect of gravity. I’ll readily admit, I’m still not 100% clear on how this stuff works. But, apparently, the production of a slab of cavorite neutralizes the effects of gravity for any material atop it. Thus, when the first slab of the stuff was made, all the atmosphere above it went rushing off into space, causing a gap, followed by a rushing of air to fill the void. Now, this sounds great if it can be produced for commercial use – and that’s Bedford’s thought exactly. But when it comes right down to it, I don’t get it. I went back and reread the bit where Wells explains how the sphere works, and I cannot wrap my brain around it. It is another interesting example of how pre-heavier than air flight individuals conceived of the possibility of flight. But the stuff just doesn’t make sense to me.
- The Selenites: The Selenites are an insect looking, hive type race. The individuals are bred and molded (quite literally!) so that each Selenite has a distinct purpose in life and wants nothing more than to achieve that purpose and, moreover, finds it amazing that anyone could want something out of life than what they want. Cavor’s final missives include a lot of amazement (and not a little bit of revulsion) at the diversity of appearance in the species. Also, they are less dense creatures than humans, as Bedford discovers when he punches clean through one of them. More amazingly, there seems to be only one other form of animal life on the planet – the mooncow which they herd and butcher for food.
- Life on the moon: In and on the moon. Bedford and Cavor arrive on a desolate wasteland, just before daybreak. As daybreaks, the frozen atmosphere once again becomes a gas and plants begin to sprout from the surface at an amazing speed – literally before their eyes. That is a pretty neat little adaptation. It’s sensible, too, although what would be involved in shielding a seed from lunar night would be very extreme indeed. All other life exists primarily inside the planet. The interior of the moon is pitted and hollowed, with an ocean at the center. Since the interior is shielded from the extremes of the surface, most life has developed within. The Selenites, the mooncows, and some unknown, but terrifying, fish are all the animal life the moon has to offer. It’s a precarious eco-system. The real question is, why didn’t anyone see this from earth beforehand?
The Reaction: I didn’t love it. I felt like the narrative structure was weird. You have the story arc which ends with Bedford in Italy trying to write that play again, but then you get a kind of second ending with Cavor’s messages from the moon. Although Cavor’s messages have the interesting effect of calling the reliability of Bedford’s narration into question, which gives the book a whole new twist. It probably doesn’t help that I wasn’t able to wrap my head around the whole cavorite thing, which was essential to the story. I appreciate it, but I don’t anticipate turning back to read this book in the future.
The Cover: Two men, presumably Bedford and Cavor, appear to be captured and escorted by four or five Selenites. I think this is the scene right at or before Chapter the Fourteenth. One Selenite has a prod that looks rather like a fireplace poker. Really, I think this is a pretty good literal style cover. The humans aren’t in quite the right outfits; they were wearing Clint Eastwood style ponchos over their usual British clothes. And the Selenites look perhaps too normal and not weird enough, but these are quibbles. This is a perfectly acceptable, if not over exciting cover.
Next Up: Short story! “The Country of the Blind” by H.G. Wells.