The First Men In The Moon ( H.G. Wells)

Oh, for the good old days when men believed that the moon was inhabited by “Selenites” who lived in deep caves underground! If your only knowledge of this book is the 1964 motion picture, this novel will surprise you. This is no romantic comedy, although there are humorous moments. H.G. Wells, in his The First Men in the Moon takes two Englishmen, the eccentric inventor Cavor, and the ne’er-do-well Bedford, to the moon in a spherical spaceship using an antigravity substance called Cavorite. Fortunately for these ill-prepared astronauts, the moon has plenty of oxygen, so they don’t need a spacesuit with breathing apparatus. 

The First Men in the Moon has two unusual features. Firstly the title is not a typographical error or misprint. Cavor and Bedford are not merely the first men on the moon, but the first men in the moon, and this second fact is more significant than the first. It is curious that Wells chose to create a book in which lunar civilization is subterranean, rather than surface-dwelling, but it does make a kind of sense. Wells’ depiction of life on the moon has been rendered obsolete by what we now know of the moon. There is no snow on the moon (ice at best), no breathable atmosphere and no fast-growing flora on its surface.

However, even in Wells’ day, telescopes were strong enough to detect any building the size of a church on the moon, as Cavor explains at one point. Since it would be unlikely that an intelligent species would fail to create buildings higher than one story, Wells resorted to the next best solution, which was locating the alien society underground. The second unusual feature of the book is its use of an unreliable narrator. This is not a unique storytelling technique, and it had been used much earlier than Wells, for example in Gulliver’s Travels.

Indeed there are certain parallels to Gulliver’s Travels in the closing chapters of The First Men in the Moon, where Cavor describes the worst aspects of human behaviour to the appalled Grand Lunar. What makes it unusual in this book is that we do not associate Wells with this kind of distancing technique. Wells seems too straightforward in style to employ an unreliable narrator, although anyone who has read enough of Wells’ fiction will realize that he often employs irony in his tales. Be that as it may, Bedford is not a reliable narrator. Bedford’s story is self-aggrandising, and intended to offer a rose-tinted view of his behaviour on the moon. However, even here we can detect that Bedford is no shining character.

When Bedford meets Cavor, he is a man who has been ruined by bad business adventures, and he hopes to exploit the inventions of the naïve scientist in order to make his fortune. Wells was both a futurist and a social commentator. While he held great hope for the future of humankind, he also harbored great disdain for the people of his own time, and particularly with British Empire building. In The First Men in the Moon, the only reason failed-businessman Bedford goes to the moon is to find wealth in the form of minerals. In the end, the native inhabitants of the moon, called Selenites, determine humans are too warlike and a threat to the moon, leading to the novel’s unfortunate ending. The final chapters lack the narrative interest of the earlier story and content themselves with describing life on the moon.The prose here is sometimes workmanlike and rarely soars. Nonetheless, the book as a whole is a mostly engrossing work of speculative science fiction that broadens the mind.

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