Monday, June 27, 2005


'>The First Men on the Moon was the last of Wells' most famous scifi novels, and perhaps their culmination. Though it is probably the least read today, Wells apparently thought it was the best of the group.

It combines the evocative descriptive writing of Dr. Moreau and War of the Worlds, with the pointed social analysis of The Time Machine and later dystopian novels. In its portrait of the Selenites (the moon dwellers) as biologically evolved as intelligent ants in an ant-hill society, it anticipates Brave New World, aspects of 1984 and even the Borg of Star Trek. And in some ways it reveals the dangers of world states, similar to what Wells himself advocated.

The story has two late nineteenth century Englishmen travel by spaceship to the moon, powered by an anti-gravity substance one of the men (Cavor). They are captured by the Selenites, though one escapes and returns to earth, and Cavor manages to send radio messages back until he is discovered. The book details the Selenite society, in which individuals have predetermined functions from birth, and are bred and trained for only that single purpose.

Eventually Cavor meets the Selenite leader, who is little more than a huge brain, known as the Grand Lunar. Cavor attempts to describe how earth works, and makes the mistake of describing human warfare, which alarms the Grand Lunar with its basic lunacy. He is also afraid that other humans will invade, and so prevents Cavor from passing on the secret of his anti-gravity Cavorite.

That Wells finds both the Selenites and earthlings to be scandalously deficient is not unusual in his work, or his life. H.G. Wells, who devoted his life to figuring out how to create world peace, was perpetually at war, with his society, with other writers (when he wasn't being a tremendous friend to them), and most of all, with himself. He had many harsh critics, but few made harsher judgments on his ideas and even his books than he did.

But war is an either/or event, and Wells knew the world is more complicated than that. He wrote famous dystopian stories and famous utopian stories. He got the reputation for being a champion of technology, and he was also its first and most specific critic. But what he always came back to was the middle way. The Selenites were so dependent on cold logic that they became machine-like, whereas emotion without self-knowledge and self-control leads humans to irrationally destructive, wasteful and cruel wars.

So this is another way in which Wells and Roddenberry are strikingly similar (and both, by the way, similar to the Swift of '>Gulliver's Travels.) In one Star Trek story after another, the middle way, the human way, is shown to be better than "higher" societies that are more rational, or without feelings or even bodies; and better than "lower" societies that are all physical.

But "better" isn't the right word either. In the original series episode, "'>Is There in Truth No Beauty?" the alien without a body who temporarily inhabits Spock, comments on the sharpness of human senses and the joy of physicality, but also on the terrible isolation of beings trapped in bodies, separate and alone.

Humans are what they are, and the combination of the physical and the spiritual, emotions and reason, individuality and feeling for each other and the world---all combine in the dynamic of the human soul. That combination, that dynamic, defines what it is to be human. That all humans are more or less at war with themselves is part of the deal.

There's been one film version of "'>First Men in the Moon" (except for the Melies short and a 1919 British silent feature that hasn't survived), made in 1964. It keeps the basic story (adding a female companion to the two men), keeps the Grand Lunar being scandalized by human wars, but loses the heart of the novel, the exploration of Selenite anthill society. It wraps it all in a clever modern flashback, then steals the ending of The War of the Worlds. Its chief virtue is the special effects of Ray Harryhausen.

There is also an audio interpretation available on '>CD of the novel featuring '>Leonard Nimoy and John de Lancie.

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