Friday, December 26, 2014

The First Men in the Moon

So, it's late December, which has made this a great time to do anything but watch television. Or allow oneself to be snared into work-related pretenses of collegiality. Or go shopping. Or go to any garlanded and brat-infested public place. Or you know what, just don't go outside. Hic sunt leones. Or tiny little elves draped in tinsel, just as bad. Stay inside and catch up on some antiquated science fiction instead, I say.

But what to choose? Mary Shelley? Too bleak. Jules Verne? Too adventurous. Arthur C. Clarke? Too cold. Ray Bradbury? Too warm.

H.G. Wells... hmm. You know, there's about a dozen or more books by him which nobody has ever read these days, including myself. Clinical as Clarke and venturesome as Verne with Ray's romanticism and Mary's morbidity. Good old Wells. It's always curious to hear of writers whose careers took a nosedive after their most famous works, who peaked young. Like Mark Twain and others, it's supposedly the case with Wells that he simply became too much of a downer for the public at large as he grew old and bitter, so I launched into his latter stories expecting some entertainment to suit my holiday humbug.

In the case of the dystopian near-future imagining When the Sleeper Wakes it's quite obvious why nobody would touch it with a ten-foot pole in this day and age, "the negro police" being its all-purpose boogeyman. If Europe should be ruled by Europeans, would you have been ready to say the same of Africa? The Boer War must've really gotten to you, Herb old chap.

It's less clear why The First Men in the Moon would fail to catch the public imagination. Though wikipedia references it as inspiration to a host of authors we've all heard about today, though it's been adapted to film three times over since publication, it's a fair bet that nobody you've met has ever read it, or even heard of it. Why how come now? Sure, it's got no Weeny damsels in distress like The Time Machine but it does have greed and conflict and monsters and all that good stuff which usually sells like melange-cakes.

Maybe its because we really do know now that there are no giant ant-men living inside the moon. Then again, if scientific inaccuracy ever bothered anyone, the genre would never have gotten off the ground. If we have no trouble imagining shapeshifting reptiloids living in the earth's core, then the moon being a giant orbiting ant-hill certainly wouldn't stretch our boundless credulity.

Is it because of the relatively sad ending? Granted, Hollywood has taught the public to expect a nauseatingly saccharine wrap-up of any supposedly dangerous adventure, but science fiction in general has maintained a rather more somber outlook. SciFi fans half-expect the captain to go down with the ship. This ending is certainly more rosy than that of, say, The Road.

I think the problem most have with this story overall is its inhumanity. Wells' Selenites, one of the first examples of insectoid aliens, are too... alien. Not only are there no green-skinned women to romance, nobody you can put in a slave-girl outfit, but the Selenites are unaccustomed to the idea of human greed. Yes, theirs is a society in which biology is destiny and there is no changing one's role from birth to death but guess what? It works for them. There are no plucky young alien upstarts for us mighty ape-men to uplift to true civilization. Ooooh, now that's just too much.

Heroic deaths are one thing. We can swallow that, occasionally, some heroic macho-man dying heroically beneath a heroically waving flag (star-spangled or Union Jack, doesn't make much of a difference.) Telling the public that they're not already perfect in every way, that they may not be heroes by definition, that "the land of the comparatively free" (as Ambrose Bierce put it) is not the pinnacle of evolution and social development?
Tough sell.

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