Fiction Reviews


The First Men in the Moon

(1901/2013) H. G. Wells, Gollancz, £8.99, hrdbk, xi + 208pp, ISBN 978-0-575-11538-5

 

This is a very welcome SF Masterwork reprint (2013) of the well-known 1901 Wells novel.

Playwright, Mr Bedford, is staying in the countryside trying to get his muse for his next play when his thoughts are interrupted every afternoon by a passing, humming man. It transpires that this person, Mr Cavor, lives nearby and is trying to create a substance that blocks gravity. Bedford becomes intrigued seeing the commercial potential of such a discovery and so offers to help. The two construct a sphere surrounded by the gravity-blocking cavorite. Making it airtight they try it out with an expedition to the Moon.

They land on the airless lunar surface just before daybreak. As the Sun rises they discover that the Moon's air had been frozen during the night, but during the day it becomes gaseous again. They also discover that there is life and, as the novel progresses, they realise that there is more, far more, beneath the lunar surface than anyone realised…

H. G. Wells is, of course, Britain's grandfather of modern SF (Mary Shelley being its grandmother). With regards to his overall oeuvre, The First Men in the Moon was written just a sixth of the way through Wells' novel-writing career but at the end of his six-year intense period of writing when he produced a novel a year; a period which included nearly all of his major classics, including: The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898) and The Sleeper Awakes (1899). (Incidentally, all of which apart from the last, Gollancz a decade ago re-published in a single, omnibus edition.)

If you have not read The First Men in the Moon (which may be why you are reading this review) the chances are that if you are of a certain age your knowledge of the book is tainted by the entertaining 1964 film directed by Nathan (20 Million Miles to Earth) Juran with a screenplay by Nigel Kneale and Jan Read. It has to be said that that adaptation was interesting even if it was not perfectly faithful: there is an extra traveller accompanying Cavor, the air is absent from the surface (not just frozen at night) among other changes. (The 1964 film did though have a neat framing device in that US astronauts from the then future first landing on the Moon discover signs left behind of the previously unknown Cavor 'mission'.) Of course if you are of a different age you might know of The First Men in the Moon through one or both of the 2010 visual offerings: one an animation film and the other a BBC made-for-TV film.

If, in the early part of the 21st century, you are coming to the original The First Men in the Moon novel fresh then you do need to bear in mind that it was written over a century earlier and that the English language has drifted: for some this might make reading the book a little harder. This, and that the first 30 pages drag as we are introduced to the characters, does make it a little difficult to get into. I have to say that the principal characters of Cavor and Bedford, both as they are introduced and then as the novel progresses, are not the most charming of souls and come across as very self-centred. Furthermore, the distinct social class divides of the late nineteenth and early 20th century are evident in a number of places. Lastly, the book's early pages did in places confuse. I could not fathom why some passages seemed to be wasteful writing, and then the penny dropped: there are deliberately comedic episodes. Here, one is the argument between Cavor's handyman and gardener as to who should look after the fire, with the former telling the latter that as coal comes from vegetative matter it was his job: and so now we can see that the occasional comedy in the 1964 family film adaptation is appropriate. However with regards to the original novel, maybe the humour worked better a century ago. But once the sphere takes off, so does the sense of wonder and the book bulldozes along.

It is here where The First Men in the Moon really scores, with its sense of wonder (sensawunda). This begins not just with the notion of the antigravity cavorite, but also the zero-g environment of the voyage: remember this was written nearly two thirds of a century before the first man in space. The portrayal of the Moon is fanciful. Indeed it may seem too fanciful, but again we have to remember that this was a time when astronomers were seriously considering that there were canals on Mars! In this sense of entertaining, fantastical speculation, it is easy to see why the novel is a classic of early SF.

As for this Gollancz edition's production, this particular run of small, hardback SF Masterworks (there are other paperback SF Masterworks too) are particularly good value and their being hardback is most welcome as these books deserve longevity. You are positively encouraged to seek out others in the series. And the Chris Moore cover artwork is just the ticket. Finally, there is a short introduction by the writer Lisa Tuttle in which, among other things, she touches on the rivalry between Wells and Verne.

This is a book that those who truly love the SF genre should have on their shelves, and if they have not they should seek it out because they will welcome it, both for its own intrinsic read as well as for it taking us present-day readers back to SF's roots. Sterling stuff.

Jonathan Cowie


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