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The First Men in the Moon

The First Men in the Moon is a 1901 scientific romance novel by the British author H. G. Wells. ' The novel tells the story of a journey to the moon undertaken by the two main protagonists, the impoverished businessman Mr Bedford and the brilliant but eccentric scientist Dr. Cavor. On arrival, Bedford and Cavor find the moon inhabited by an extra terrestrial civilization the two name as "Selenites". The novel can also be read as a critique of prevailing political opinions of the period, particularly of imperialism. The theme of a clash between civilizations is reminiscent of Wells' earlier and more famous work, The War of the Worlds. As in The War of the Worlds, it is hinted that the non-human civilization presented might reflect the way human society would develop in the far future. As such, the Selenite society depicted could be considered either a utopia or a dystopia, depending on which of its features one emphasizes.

Plot summary

Mr. Bedford is a British businessman with many financial problems. He is working on a play to bring in some money. He rents a small countryside house to get some peace while writing the play. However, every day a scientist passes by his house, making odd noises. After two weeks Bedford questions the scientist, Dr. Cavor, about his odd behaviour. It turns out that Cavor is developing a new material, cavorite, which is supposed to shield off gravity.

As they discover when some cavorite is prematurely produced, it shields off the Earth's gravity from air above, making that air weightless, and then shoots off into outer space by the pressure of the air below. Cavorite is later used to build a small spherical spaceship, which they use to travel to and land on the Moon.

At the Moon, the two men at first discover a desolate landscape, but as the sun rises, the (fictional) thick atmosphere of the Moon, frozen out overnight, begins to melt and vaporize. Soon strange fast-growing plants start to grow in the landscape, producing a very thorny vegetation called "bayonet scrub". Bedford and Cavor leave the capsule, but they get lost in the rapidly growing jungle, where strange creatures can be seen. Growing hungry, the pair sample native flora, described as fungus. Soon after ingestion a hazy Euphoria state overtakes them, and they wander drunkenly, speaking gibberish.

They are captured by the insect-like Moon men (referred to as "Selenites"), who have formed a relatively advanced society underground. After some time in captivity, Bedford and Cavor manage to flee. They are able to kill several of their captors and numerous other Selenites due to their superior strength that results partly because of previously having lived in the Earth's stronger gravity. When Bedford and Cavor reach the surface, they devise a plan to locate their spaceship, which involves them separating. Bedford finds his way back to the spaceship and returns to Earth; Cavor becomes injured and is unable to escape recapture by the Selenites.

Back in Britain, Bedford undertakes to publish the details of the story, including some additional material from Cavor received through one-way radio transmission from the Moon. Apparently, Cavor had enjoyed a period of relative freedom in the Lunar society, during which a few of their number learned English. He also managed to build or access a radio transmitter, which he uses to tell the story of his time inside the Moon using Morse code.

Cavor recounts near everything that happened to him after being re-captured, but some pieces of his story are not received due to curious "interference" with the radio signal. Through these messages, Bedford learns of Cavor's meeting with the "Grand Lunar", who is the ultimate ruler of the Selenites and the Moon. At this meeting, Cavor inadvertently portrays humanity as predatory, delighting in war, and with little redeeming value. In response, the Grand Lunar decides to cut off all contact with the Earth. Cavor's transmissions end in mid-sentence as he is trying to say how to make cavorite, and his fate is never revealed.

Influence on C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis explicitly stated that his science fiction books were both inspired by and written as an antithesis to those of H.G. Wells. Specifically, he acknowledged The First Men in The Moon to be "the best of the sort [of science fiction] I have read...." (From a letter to Roger Lancelyn Green).

The influence of Wells' book is especially visible in Out of the Silent Planet, the first book of Lewis' Space Trilogy. There, too, a central role in the story line is played by a partnership between a worldly businessman interested in the material gains from space travel (and specifically, in importing extraterrestrial gold to Earth) and a scientist with wider cosmic theories.

Also in Lewis' book, the two quietly build themselves a spaceship in the seclusion of an English country house, and take off into space without being noticed by the rest of the world (both Wells and Lewis, like virtually all SF writers until the 1950s, grossly underestimated the resources needed for even the smallest jaunt outside Earth's gravitational field). Moreover, like Wells' book, Lewis' reaches its climax with the Earth scientist speaking to the wise ruler of an alien world (in this case Oyarsa, the ruler of Malacandra/Mars) and blurting out the warlike and predatory nature of humanity.

However, in Lewis' book the businessman-scientist pair are the villains of the piece. Moreover, his scientist, Professor Weston, has a philosophy diametrically opposite to Cavor's, being an outspoken proponent of human colonization of other planets, up to and including extermination of "primitive natives". The role of the positive protagonist is given to the philologist Ransom, a Christian believer willing to act on his beliefs, "the kind of choice which Wells obviously would not have made".

Other influences, references and adaptations

Brian Stableford argues this is the first alien dystopia. The book could also be considered to have launched the science fiction sub-genre depicting intelligent Social Insects, in some cases a non-human species such as the space-traveling Shaara "bees" in the future universe of A. Bertram Chandler, in others (such as Frank Herbert's Hellstrom's Hive) humans who evolved or consciously engineered their society in this direction. Nigel Kneale co-adapted the screenplay (with Jan Read) for the 1964 film version; it is reasonable to assume that Kneale's familiarity with the work may have inspired the idea of the Martian hives which feature so significantly in one of Kneale's most-admired creations, Quatermass and the Pit. The First Men in the Moon has been adapted to film three times:

Cavorite was featured as a major plot device in the first volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Cavor (given the first name of Selwyn) also appears in the volume and is mentioned in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier.

Cavorite and Cavor also play a major role in the end of Scarlet Traces: The Great Game, with the Selenites also briefly depicted.

Cavorite, Cavor, and the Selenites are a large factor in The Martian War, where Cavor's ship takes Wells, his wife, and T.H. Huxley first to the Moon, then to Mars. In the story, the Selenites have been enslaved by the Martians, used as food creatures and slaves to build the canals and invasion fleet.

References

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