Thursday, August 4, 2016

First Men in the Moon

I was recently re-watching the 1964 film First Men in the Moon, with special effects by Ray Harryhausen. This scene pictured above--with two of the characters looking out over the moonscape--is a textbook example of how science fiction can inspire wonder. It really makes you want to be there, doesn't it?

Watching the movie made me think that it had literally been decades since I had read the original H.G. Wells novel and that it's possible that I had only read it once. So I pulled it up on my Kindle and was immediately reminded of why Wells' fiction is considered classic.

The book works on so many levels. Wells and Jules Verne are considered to be the father of modern science fiction, in part because both men really did inspire wonder and uplift our imaginations.

Though the two men did differ in their views of what made for proper fiction. Verne felt his technological wonders, such as a submarine, had to be within the realm of possibility. It had to be realistic in an objective, technical sense

Wells just tossed in time machines and Cavorite, without any concern about whether such things are possible.

What is Cavorite? That's the Macguffin that propels First Men in the Moon (1901). It's a substance that literally cuts off gravity between itself and the source of gravity--such as the Earth. It's invented by an absent-minded professor named Cavor.. Cavor and the book's narrator, Bedford, build a sphere with Cavorite-lined shudders on the windows. By opening and closing the windows, they can cut off the effect of gravity from the Earth and allow the moon's gravity to draw the sphere to it.

Cavor wants to go to the moon just to learn stuff, though Bedford has a more mercenary outlook and wants to use Cavorite to make their respective fortunes. But whatever their long-term goals, they have to survive the moon first.

Because the moon is inhabited by an insect-like race Cavor dubs the Selenites, who have a vast civilization beneath the moon's surface. They capture the two humans, which leads to a truly exciting escape sequence.

So, in addition to inspiring our imagination, the book also works as a cracking good adventure story.

It could also be said to be an early example of Space Opera (though it has more social and political depth than later swords-and-planets Space Opera normally would).

It's also one of the earliest tales that examine the problem of establishing contact with a truly alien species whose language, thoughts and body language are all completely unhuman. It's an early example of world-building--constructing an alien civilization that runs on its own consistent internal logic.

And, like Verne, Wells did use his scientific romances to make social or political points. But First Men in the Moon is actually a bit complex here. We find that the Selenites have a single leader (the Grand Lunar) and that every Selenite is designed (physically and mentally) to fulfill a specific purpose--conditioned so that they are happy only when they are fulfilling that purpose. So a messenger is happy when delivering messages. A herder of moon-calves is happy only when herding moon-calves. And so on.

Wells often spoke of the idea of a Utopian one-world government being a good thing. But here, he presents us with a one-world government that is sometimes downright creepy and is very callous towards individuals. One essay I found online effectively argues that this showed Wells was a thoughtful and intelligent man who didn't blindly follow a specific ideology, but thought through all its implications, including unpleasant ones. He was a one-world government guy, but he recognized that this had the potential of going horribly awry.

For me, without minimizing the deeper aspects of the novel, it works primarily as a science fiction adventure. Cavor and Bedford's flight from the Selenites, battling them from time to time along the way, as they desperately try to regain the surface and escape the moon, really is great stuff. Bedford's desperate effort to find the sphere in a thick jungle before the sunset freezes away the atmosphere is nail-bitingly tense. As with so many of his novels, Wells did such a great job of giving us just-plain-cool things, that his larger points are nearly overshadowed.

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