Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Strange Story of "Star Begotten"

In a sense, this is also a version of The War of the Worlds, though relatively few people know about it, and it came about in an odd way.

By 1938, HG had finished his only two film projects, one of which was the futuristic "'>Things to Come." By then he must have realized that his early "scientific romances"---now called science fiction--- were enjoying a second wave of popularity, and might well be his most lasting works. He'd written a preface for a '>collection of seven of them, explaining his method, which was first published by Knopf in 1934.

Around this time he also met Olaf Stapledon, his most ardent admirer and the author of the stunning science fiction epic, '>Last and First Men. So it happened that for the first time in decades, HG wrote another science fiction novel, and it would be his last.

'>Star Begotten, published in 1937, is described by critic Frank McConnell as "The War of the Worlds rewritten from the vantage point of forty years later and with a startingly different conclusion."

It tells the story of a popular historian, author of books extolling the deeds of heroes, who suddenly realizes that earth is being invaded by aliens---not in spaceships or fighting machines, but by means of cosmic rays that subtly alter the characteristics of babies in the womb, so they are born different. He believes that his wife is one of those affected, as is his son.

The novel details his growing conviction---and that of others he confides in---that this invasion is taking place, and that it is the perfect way to invade a planet. Aliens don't have to conquer the planet, but simply become the inhabitants. Wells builds up the creepiness that subsequent generations would get from films like '>Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

But then the historian confronts his wife, who misunderstands him and believes he is claiming that he is one of the invaded people, the "star-begotten." And suddenly he realizes that he is. He realizes as well that it is a beneficent invasion, and the only way that humanity will go forward to its proper destiny. It is in a sense a natural mutation to a better being. So "Body Snatchers" suddenly becomes more like "'>Childhood's End" with more than a flavor of Olaf Stapledon. The new species they are becoming, as McConnell writes, "is not really a new species at all, but the human race, in process of becoming, exactly, human."

This book was Wells' last science fiction novel, and probably his least known. Yet it may have been his last word in and on the genre, in more ways than one.

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