Thanks to the discovery of an anti-gravity metal, Cavorite, two Victorian Englishman decide to tackle the most prestigious goal – space travel. They construct a sphere that will ultimately take them to the moon. On landing, they encounter what seems like an utterly barren landscape but they soon find signs that the planet was once very much alive. Then they hear curious hammering sounds from beneath the surface, and come face to face with the Selenites, a race of insect-like aliens living in a rigidly organized hive society.
First published as a complete book in 1901, The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells is the author’s 9th novel in a career of many. While his bibliography is much vaster than I realized, finally reading this book is significant to me because it belongs to a quintet of his books that, as far as I can see, continue to be fairly well-known to this day. The other four are, to a greater extent, The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, and The Island of Dr. Moreau. These are all significant to me personally because it was Wells that first got me into reading outside of what I was familiar with, my late grandparents nurturing this interest by purchasing three of these books for me. The First Men in the Moon is one that I’ve always remembered but never got around to picking up until very recently.
I was surprised to find that this novel is considered a “scientific romance”, being a more fantastical tale of adventure and discovery and a precursor to science fiction. It was a lot quainter than I was expecting, making it more pleasing to read compared to the drier writing style of his other books. While much of his information is outdated, the story does follow serviceable rules and he makes an effort to explain the fictional material Cavorite, as well as the changes in environment on the Moon, as scientifically as possible. You can tell all the real-world facts are not quite there, but he’s not entirely playing by his own rules either. He does a good job of making it sound plausible, especially for the time that it was written.
The story follows a pair of Englishmen, Mr. Bedford and Mr. Cavor. The former is a businessman fallen on hard times who serves as the narrator and “writer” of the story, and the latter is an eccentric scientist who comes up with the anti-gravity material “Cavorite” and is the one who initiates the bold adventure to the Moon. The two build a spherical craft out of the material that doesn’t so much fly as negate gravity as needed. There was a surprising amount of depth to the characters and their relationship as the story developed. At first they are fast and polite friends, as expected, but as things progress and their situation is compromised you begin to see how Bedford is both an unreliable narrator and someone whose views contrast heavily with Cavor’s.
Cavor is deeply curious and pursues scientific discovery for its own sake, while Bedford is ultimately looking for an angle to exploit. He’s genuinely excited by the discoveries too, but wants to profit more than anything else. There is even a point, after getting drunk on Moon fungus in a fit of hunger, when Bedford starts ranting about the “white man’s burden” and mankind’s inevitable reaping of the Moon’s resources away from the Selenites. I was surprised that the novel seemed to cast a more negative light on this perspective, contrasting it with Cavor’s more naively innocent curiosity, considering the time period. I may be projecting modern sensibilities, but regardless I don’t think it is meant to be depicted favourably. Bedford came off as self-interested and underhanded, saved only by the fact that he has control over the story, allowing him to try to justify himself, though he ends up looking bad to me anyway. He is more impulsive and lashes out when engaging with the Selenites too, compared to Cavor, behaving violent and brashly in the face of clearly intelligent beings who are just as taken aback as he is.
For all its wonderment and adventurous nature, the story takes a considerably dark turn as well, which I really enjoyed, breaking from the formula of discovery, peril, and then escape that I had expected from it. It both excited the imagination and left things on a vaguely haunting note, giving emphasis on the dangers of encountering another intelligent race of beings and in how they might react to learning how poorly human beings treat each other. The Selenites were fleshed out really well, depicted in both idealistic and troubling ways. Their society seems utopian in some aspects, while in others dystopian if human individuality matters to you. There were surprising shades of grey to the whole situation. It wasn’t simply “aliens bad, humans good” or even vice versa as a commentary on society.
The First Men in the Moon is far from the first novel about lunar exploration, but it’s clear how influential of a work it is. It is often attributed as the first story to depict insect-like extraterrestrials that live in a hive society as well, which is so common nowadays that it is a little clichéd. I initially wanted to read this book to revisit where my reading interests began, but it has ended up becoming one of my favourite novels by H.G. Wells. If you have any interest in the forerunners of science fiction I highly recommend this book for that alone. Otherwise it is still a captivating adventure of exploration and extraterrestrial encounters, if a little quaint scientifically, that manages to be a surprisingly unsettling story by its conclusion.
My rating: 4 out of 5