By the Book - Literary Life Lessons

“Purely Scientific”: The First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells

I recently read H. G. Wells' science-fiction classic The First Men in the Moon, which is over a hundred years old, and it combines the future and the past.

There is not a single literary genre that changes as often as science fiction. While the genre is quite old with it roots in the seventeenth century, even novels written as relatively recently as the early twentieth century are almost unrecognisably different from books which we now call science fiction. I recently read H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon, a classic science fiction novel of over a hundred years old. Want to know what it’s about? Read on!

The First Men in the Moon is about two Victorian gentlemen, one, Bedford, a businessman attempting to write a play, and the other, eccentric scientist Cavor, who, by creating an anti-gravity device, travel to the moon. Once there, they soon discover that the moon is inhabited. Since the gravity is much weaker on the moon as it is on Earth, the people they encounter there are starkly different from human beings. After a clash between the two men and the so-called Selenites Bedford returns to Earth, leaving behind Cavor. Only later does Bedford realise that Cavor has been accepted into the extra-terrestrial society.

When this novel was first published in 1901, it was considered a scientific romance, which is commonly seen as an archaic term for what we now call science fiction. Scientific romances were often written by British authors, and, contrary to their American colleagues, they did not write about heroes or space exploration, but instead wrote about the influence of science on society, thus making it more philosophical rather than focusing on adventure. Scientific romances were novels in which “real” (or, to be more precise, realistic) science was employed to tell a story, and The First Men in the Moon is no exception.

Wells’ novel is filled with science, both real and fictional. For instance, it was common knowledge that the moon would have a weaker gravity than Earth, and the radio technology employed at the end of the novel is based on actual science. However, the discovery of the anti-gravity element Cavorite (named after its creator Cavor) is pure fiction. Wells even had to defend himself for this decision, because his contemporaries, including Jules Verne, attacked this novel because it wasn’t based on actual technology. Years later, Wells argued that his science fiction stories “do not aim to project a serious possibility; they aim indeed only at the same amount of conviction as one gets in a good gripping dream. They have to hold the reader to the end by art and illusion and not by proof of argument.”

I really don’t care about The First Men in the Moon’s lack of proper science. What I loved about this novel is how it took a close look at ourselves by comparing it to the fictional Selenites’ society. The Selenites are a complex people, and they find out when they are children what their specific functions are; some have stronger legs, so they can look after cattle, while others have bigger brains which allows them to think carefully, have scientific breakthroughs, and, eventually, even learn English after encountering Cavor. This idea, of people being born and bred for one particular purpose, actually reminded me of Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, another science fiction novel, written decades later in 1932. That novel, however, completely moves away from science and focuses on dystopian society, unlike Wells’ novel.

The science in The First Men in the Moon feels realistic, even though it’s quite impossible. Nowadays, for instance, we know that we need a huge team of extremely qualified people, as well as an almost limitless budget, in order to fly to the moon. It is ridiculous to think that two Victorian men, by creating an anti-gravity device, could reach the moon, and even go back home, with such ease. It might well be possible that, one hundred years ago, people actually did think that with the proper science, travelling to outer space would be within the grasp of even the commonest people.

This, and other elements in The First Men in the Moon, made me realise that the world has changed a lot in over a hundred years, and the novel could definitely be considered old-fashioned nowadays. I even read some reviews online, in which people claimed they could not possibly finish this book because the science in it simply does not make sense to a modern audience anymore. But to me, that’s part of the charm.

Science fiction is a genre speculates about the future by means of science. It is novels such as these, however, that give us an interesting view into the past.

Have you read The First Men in the Moon, or any other novels by H. G. Wells? Do you like classic science fiction? Or do you prefer the more modern take on this old genre? Please let me know in the comments! Also, don’t forget to follow me for more book-related posts!

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