Friday, 4 April 2014

1901: 'The First Men in the Moon' by HG Wells

When I was a kid I won a comic strip-drawing competition at the library. I did this vast adaptation of the Doctor Who story, ‘Brain of Morbius’ on A1 sheets of card. I think the poor librarians were overwhelmed by the idiot-madness of my vast effort in cross-hatching and the sheer hours of cross-eyed effort that must have been involved, and so they invented a special category and gave me a prize – a lovely hardback edition of H G Wells with a bookplate inside. It was clear that they were trying to get me to read ‘proper’ science fiction, and not just stick to Doctor Who. A ploy if ever I knew one, but it was a good ploy.

‘The First Men in the Moon’ wasn’t in that omnibus. ‘The Time Machine’ and ‘War of the Worlds’ were, and of course, I devoured them and have returned to them several times over the years and thought about them a lot. Somehow the tale of Cavor going to the moon has eluded me and now I find that it’s more closely related to Doctor Who than any other of the Wells stories. I might have appreciated it even more as that Who-obsessed kid with the Terrance Dicks fixation.

It’s the outline of the story that’s most like Doctor Who. The impossible journey to the hostile planet; the good companions – one rather ordinary, the other madly scientific – coping with the local and rather alarming conditions. They meet strange new life forms and attempt to communicate with them. They learn all kinds of surprising things about the alien beings’ back-story. Someone is captured, someone gets free. Arduous things are gone through. Our heroes’ clothes get messy and torn. They try to hammer out some outlandish plans for escaping from this queer underground complex in which they are imprisoned. They try to reason with their captors. They are taken to a throne room, or a control room, and here the great leader or the beastly monarch confronts them and tells them all about a doomsday plan. A clock is set ticking. Will they escape? Will everything explode? Will the aliens be allowed to hatch their nefarious schemes?

So here it was at last – the story that underlies under almost every science fiction and fantasy story I love. It has everything. Even the scientist hero being dressed eccentrically as he potters in space in his selfish, demented way – with his cricketing cap, his slippers and his luminous legs… It’s the mythological quest into the heart of Hades – but peppered with Edwardian stuff – their outfits, their language, their slightly dizzy ideas about the universe. This is what adventures in space – or anywhere – are all about.

And – even though it’s groaning with plot contrivance – I adore the last chunk of this novel. When our narrator returns alone to Earth in the sphere, abandoning Cavor on the moon – we receive the rest of the story through handy Morse code and hear everything that’s been happening to our favourite professor. It’s a sweaty old contrivance – but it works, I think – not least because it allows Wells to end with the most wonderful of Gothic twists… He finishes the novel with the SF equivalent of the lone scribe writing his memoirs and ending abruptly with describing the footsteps he can hear behind him, and the hot breath of his enemy against his neck.

All the way through you can feel the fun that Wells is having… messing with old genres, making up new ideas out of old. He is inventing – for goodness’ sake – inventing a whole sub-genre – of the fusty, sparky professor who inveigles his way into hell and tries to reason with the gleefully unreasoning Satan before doing his level best to come home again in time for tea. Possibly my favourite genre of all. 

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