Wednesday, February 12, 2014

towards the edges magnified and unreal - Wells writes well

The two lunonauts land their gravo-sphere in a moon crater just before sunrise.  Wells imagines that the moon’s atmosphere freezes into a kind of snow during the two weeks of darkness, and then rapidly, almost explosively returns to its gaseous state when the sun reappears.

The sunlight had crept down the cliff, it touched the drifted masses at its base and incontinently came striding with seven-leagued boots towards us. The distant cliff seemed to shift and quiver, and at the touch of the dawn a reek of gray vapour poured upward from the crater floor, whirls and puffs and drifting wraiths of gray, thicker and broader and denser, until at last the whole westward plain was steaming like a wet handkerchief held before the fire, and the westward cliffs were no more than refracted glare beyond.

This is a sample of Chapter 7, “A Sunrise on the Moon.”  Besides an element of chemical thermodynamics, and a bit of literal atmospherics (“shift and quiver”) this is just good invention and good writing.  No amount of science plops that wet handkerchief into the crater.

Much of the chapter is similar.  In the next chapter, the plants pop up, which is just as good.  “Beyond, out of gullies and flats that had been hidden from us, but not from the quickening sun, over reefs and banks of shining rock, a bristling beard of spiky and fleshy vegetation was straining into view, hurrying tumultuously to take advantage of the brief day in which it must flower and fruit and seed again and die.”

All of this seen “you must bear in mind… through a thick bent glass, distorting it as things are distorted by a lens, acute only in the centre of the picture, and very bright there, and towards the edges magnified and unreal” (Ch. 8).

Even if it is all made up, what reader does not want to see the creation of the moon-air?  I know the answer to that question: readers who claim to have no visual sensibility and skim or skip descriptive passages.  The rest of us will take that last phrase – “magnified and unreal” – as literal within the story but also a metaphor about how we are reading and what we are imagining.

Just thinking about these descriptive flourishes, I would call The First Men in the Moon the best written of the Wells novels I have read.

It is also the most comic – the most purely comic – a result, as I mentioned yesterday, of the necessity of winking at the long tradition of moon journeys.  Between the jokes and the nuggets of especially good writing, the novel was a treat.

Wells had a couple more modes which I will save for tomorrow, plus the adventure story mode which I will skip as more standard stuff.

Let me get these curiosities out of the way here.  Did you know that Jack Kirby stole the huge-brained, tentacled Kree Supreme Intelligence directly from The First Men in the Moon, Chapter 25, “the enhaloed supreme intelligence that hovered above me”?  Now I am talking about superhero comics.  Between one and zero Wuthering Expectations readers care about this.  Tolkien fans may want to compare certain passages from the flight through the caves in Chapters 15 through 16 to certain passages in the “Mines of Moria” section of The Fellowship of the Ring.


  1. I remember reading this when I was a kid. The atmosphere freezing, the plants going dormant, etc. It's great stuff, really terrific.

    The Supreme Intelligence (first seen by me in, I think, an issue of Silver Surfer) is stolen for the new Dr Who series, in the form of the Face of Boe. Reception, influence, etc. SF/F seems like its own closed world sometimes, but I suppose all literature recycles, feeds on its parents. I don't remember the caves.

  2. My spell checker was unhappy with many of the best Wells words, including "enhaloed." There is a sense that Cavor, in that scene, has been brought into the presence of an alien God.

    The actual use of those words is, come to think of it, preposterous, but that is a technical plot detail. Or else the narrator is doing something beyond embellishing.

    Superhero comics - about as closed, recycled genre as has ever existed. That is what it is, that is what it does.

    Look, I am not the only person who saw the Tolkien / Moria thing. Good, very good. And it says here that Tolkien wrote an unfinished short story in which a character mocks Wells's anti-gravity metal!

  3. Thanks for the Tolkien reference. I must certainly check that out. I think that it is super neat when writers throw these 'secret" little tributes to other works into their own books.

  4. This was one of my teenage self's favourites. Anything Wells was good by me then. Must dip back in again. It's almost all lost in the distorted and unreal edges of my memory.

  5. I thought about using the amazing sensory deprivation chapter where the narrator is trapped in the closed sphere ("Mr. Bedford in Infinite Space"), a tricky one because it is hardly has any place for descriptive writing at all. A quite different kind of good writing is required.

    It ain't Tolstoy, but it is a rich novel.

    My research, such as it is, has now informed me that the C. S. Lewis novel Out of the Silent Planet, which I have not read, is in some places a point by point parody of The First Men in the Moon. This is hardly the most famous Wells novel - fifth, maybe - so the number of references and tributes to it has surprised me.