I have yet to meet an H. G. Wells book that I didn’t like, and First Men in the Moon is no exception. His scientific romances are always full of interesting concepts and he was all for turning Victorian ideals on their heads even during his own time.
When I was making my list of books to read I repeatedly called this one First Men on the Moon by mistake, but truly it is a tale of going deep inside the Moon to visit a strange, insect-like race that inhabits its Swiss cheese like interior. During Wells time, astronomers already knew that the Moon was made up of material similar to that of the Earth, but they also knew it was only about 1/3 the density. Their highly logical, though we know now totally wrong, conclusion was that the moon must be filled with tunnels that ran deep into the sphere. (In case you are interested, we know now that the Moon was basically made from an impact way back in Earth’s infancy, long before water had condensed on the surface. A large portion of the crust of the Earth was thrown into space and reconglomerated into a new sphere, leaving our iron core behind. The core of the Earth accounts for the difference in density.)
People first reach the moon thanks to an ingenious new metal called Cavorite, which is so named for the Doctor Cavor who creates it. His concept is that there are materials that are “opaque” to difference electromagnetic forces like light, and gravity is another such force. By combining different metals and chemicals, he is able to create a metal sphere that carries himself and the narrator off on their adventure to a Moon far different from what the Apollo astronauts found. Wells explanations of the natural history of the moon and its various species is especially enchanting if you have any biology in your background because the system of their society holds together with a totally inhuman but wonderful logic all its own.
I would definitely recommend this book, it was a fast and interesting read. I thought his portrayal of the detached and socially inept scientist Cavor was especially interesting, as well as seeing how the narrator and Cavor both interpret the same events differently.
By the way, did you know that many of Wells books are no longer under copyright, so you can get them for free? I read my copy on a Free Books app for my Surface, but you can also find them many places online.
To help me get ready for the H.G. Wells Sourcebook I am going to write for Steam Tour: An American Steampunk in London, I decided to read several of his scientific romances. I read the Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau several months ago, but it is always interesting to read an author’s whole canon in quick succession. My goal is to read War of the Worlds, First Men in the Moon, Tales of Space and Time and The Door in the Wall at minimum before the ezine comes out, but if you think I am missing something even better than what is on that list let me know!
My experience with War of the Worlds was a bit backwards, because I read League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol. 2, and the events of that book are closely related to Wells classic tale, and very faithfully adapted it turns out.
Like many of Wells books, this story started as a serial in magazines rather than as a novel from the beginning. The serial ran during 1897 and it was later compiled into a book in 1898. It is divided into two parts, The Coming of the Martians and Earth Under the Martians. The name of the Surrey-based narrator is never revealed, and he tells the harrowing adventure through his eyes as well as through his brother’s account of what happens to London itself when Martians descend and start an invasion.
One thing that I love about Wells stories is how much of the scientific knowledge of the times he includes in his tales. For instance, the arrival of the Martians is preceded by strange explosions visible on the surface of the red planet, and it takes the Martian pods several weeks to arrive to the outskirts of London. It then takes over a day for the metal to cool down enough for the pods to open. In the meantime, people have started to gather and even sell refreshments around the first pit where they crash-landed. I love that detail, and I absolutely believe it would happen that way. Soon, the festival atmosphere turns to terror when the Martians assemble their deadly heat ray, our narrator only escaping because he had been sent on an errand and was not in the pit with the scientists who first try to make contact. Through a series of near-misses and some quick thinking, the narrator survives the first wave of attacks by the be-tentacled Martians and their huge fighting machines, and tells the story of (in his view) the apex of society falling to pieces in the face of a cold and calculating enemy. He is surprisingly pragmatic about the whole affair, often likening the human race to insects or rodents who are disturbed by the machinations of people. This is not true of most of the people he meets on his way though, and there are several different kinds of madness worked into the narrative.
This is a tale of invasion, but also of devotion between a husband and wife, which took me by surprise. I have only just started to look at Wells personal life, but he carried on a number of affairs during his second marriage after divorcing his first wife, so the commitment shown by the narrator seems inconsistent with what I know of the author.
The first time I ever heard of War of the Worlds it was the story of its broadcast on Halloween 1938. The accounts vary, but in the days following several newspapers reported a wave of fearful folks who believed a real invasion was taking place. They opted to present 40 minutes of the hour-long tale as a series of simulated news bulletins, and this coupled with a lack of commercial breaks added to the realism. There was a disclaimer at the beginning of the show, but anyone who tuned in late could have gotten the impression that they were hearing something that was going on in real time. Most likely, the newspaper accounts of a panicked populace were blown out of proportion because of the competition between traditional print media and the new radio technology. (What?! The news was sensationalized? Never!)
I can definitely see why this book has been adapted and re-adapted several times and in different media. The aliens and their technology remains alien and stands the test of time better than say, First Men in the Moon. It is definitely worth a read, not just because it is a classic but because it is a genuinely interesting social commentary that transcends the time in which it was written.
Have you read it or seen a movie version? What did you think?
What is it about our many legged friends that makes them a popular trope in Steampunk?
۞ Monster Cephlapods have been the major focus of several classic works of Science Fiction and Fantasy such as H. P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulu, Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the 1830 Tennyson poem The Kraken. There is also a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story called Horror of the Heights that features a flying tentacled monster. In more recent times both the Kraken and Cthulu-like monsters have made appearances in Hollywood blockbusters like Hellboy and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (though you also get a good look at the Kraken after it is death in Pirates of the Caribbean: World’s End).
۞ Their bodies are also reminiscent of complex machines. The long skinny tentacles are like wires or tubes and their movement is powered by water, not unlike steam vehicles. As a bonus their bodies kind of look like they are wearing a helmet and goggles all the time, and if Steampunk had an official symbol I’m pretty sure it would be a pair of goggles (or maybe a gear).
۞ Brian Kesinger, the talented artist behind Otto and Victoria and the book Walking Your Octopus: Your Guidebook to the Domesticated Cephlapod, did an interview for ComicMix.com, and when asked about his choice to draw an octopus as a couture pet he answered:
“I find octopuses extremely fun to draw. It is a real challenge inventing eight different things for them to do in every image. They are nature’s original multi-tasker and they certainly have captured the imagination of a lot of people. Along with the squid and other Cephalopods, octopuses seem to be a sort of theme animal for steampunk so when I set forth trying to render an image of a high class Victorian lady and her boutique pet the choice was obvious. What was not obvious was how popular Otto has become since I first drew him a year ago. He has inspired fan art, tattoos and I’ve even seen girls cosplay Victoria and conventions around the country! And for that I am so grateful and it keeps me drawing octopus.”
Cephlapods are fascinating creatures that are about as far away from human as you can get.
۞ I used to work at an aquarium so I got a chance to spend lots of time observing octopus and my personal favorite cuttlefish. These invertebrates can move in three dimensions, jetting around the water column and feeding on smaller animals.
They are also totally visually stunning. Undulating tentacles aside, many of them can change color and shape at will, which makes them masters of disguise. Want to have your mind blown? Check out the PBS documentary below for more information about cuttlefish camouflage.
I’ve collected just a sampling of the Steampunk art featuring our many-legged friends out there on the interwebs. In most cases you can get the artist’s name by simply hovering over each image and you can open a gallery of larger images by clicking on any thumbnail. If you see something that is mislabeled or you know who is behind one of my unlabeled entries please let me know so I can give the artist the credit s/he deserves.
Click on any thumbnail to open the gallery of larger images.
First, some fun facts and context
- H. G. Wells (1866-1946) and his sci-fi classic of course predate the word “steampunk.” It even predates the term “science fiction.” In his own time, works like the Time Machine were called “scientific romances.” I believe it should be considered steampunk because it is a look into a futuristic past that never was, which means it is rife with possibilities for reinterpretation (like K. W. Jeter’s Morlock Nights) and the description of the machine itself has a definite steampunk gestalt due to the time period in which it was written. I wasn’t able to find any images of the machine from the original 1949 teleplay, but it is easy to find images and models of the iteration used in the 1960 film (pictured below).
- The book was actually published first as a serial novella in a magazine in 1895, and Wells received $100 upon completion. In the original serial Wells’ editor insisted on an extra stop in time and different type of human. This section was dropped when the whole story was compiled into a book, but you can still read the missing text at http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Grey_Man
- This story was the first time the term “time machine” was ever used, but not the first story Wells wrote about time travel. He published a short story 7 years earlier entitled The Chronic Argonauts. (You can read the full text at a variety of places on the web because in the USA it is no longer under copyright. For instance, http://www.colemanzone.com/Time_Machine_Project/chronic.htm,)
- Novels too wordy? You have several visual adaptations to choose from. A faithful feature film was made in 1960, a reinterpretation starring Guy Pierce in 2002 and it has also been reproduced as a graphic novel by Terry Davis.
Synopsis: The main character, only ever referred to by the narrator as “the Time Traveler,” explains to a group containing enthusiasts and skeptics in equal measure that time is the fourth dimension and he has engineered a way to travel through it. After showing them a demonstration using a model of his machine, he invites his guests to return in one week at which time he promises proof of his claim. A week later the others have all assembled around the Time Traveler’s table but the host is nowhere to be seen. He soon stumbles in ragged and distressed, and tells them of his harrowing adventure into the year 802,701 A.D. (influenced in no small part part Wells’ own socialist leanings) where humans have split into two distinct species. He first meets the gentle and incurious Eloi, what he later comes to think of as the heirs to an artistocratic past that removed the challenges of survival and therefore the need for intelligence. Like cattle, they are simultaneously provided for and consumed by Morlocks, who live a subterranean existence and continue to work on mysterious machinery in total darkness deep under the earth.
The Time Traveler’s journey takes him across the future landscape of Surrey which includes huge decaying structures like a museum (a metaphorical time machine allowing a glimpse into the past while the scientific ingenuity of his present brought him forward) covered with writing that can no longer be understood by the inhabitants of this new world. He also makes a friend in the form of an Eloi female named Weena, whom the Time Traveler rescues from drowning early on in his trip, but later loses her life because of his exploits. After he escapes from 802,701, he heads further into the future and encounters the red giant the sun has become and a rapidly cooling landscape void of any animal life but elephant-sized crabs.
Upon his return he tells his tale to his assembled guests, none of whom seem to believe him. The narrator wakes the next morning and feels the need to discuss the journey further, and arrives to find the Time Traveler about to embark on another sojourn in search of proof. He asks the narrator to wait for half an hour and all will be illuminated, but three years later he has not returned. In the epilogue, the narrator speculates about where the Time Traveler has gone and if he will ever return. He revisits the Time Traveler’s interpretation of his first journey, namely that the human race will completely devolve and his lamentation over the loss of intellect, but himself is heartened by the descriptions of tenderness and friendship between the Time Traveler and Weena.