Book Review – Star Begotten by H.G. Wells
This short novel was first published in 1937, and seventy-five years later, I finally got around to reading it. It took me a while because I had to wait around for things like my parents to reach puberty, me being born, learning to read, and then realizing this book existed. I find this last thing surprising because, after reading it, I am amazed it does not have a cult following. There should be T-shirts and buttons for people who wish to identify themselves as Star-Begotten or Star-Born. Once you read it, you’ll know what I mean.
The story centers on Joseph Davis, a popular writer of romanticized histories, who comes to believe that some people differ fundamentally from most of us. They are more rational, possibly more talented and intelligent. Who are these people? Why are they different?
After what amount to BS sessions with his friends and associates, Davis entertains the hypothesis that genetic mutations caused by cosmic rays are responsible for this new step in human evolution. One of his compatriots suggests that since the mutations appear neither random nor harmful, they must be intentional. Martians (as a euphemism for aliens) are tagged as likely agents. There is an interesting contrast presented here in which people of today (well, people of 75 years ago) jump to unscientific, irrational speculation to explain how people are becoming more rational. Wells is indulging in a bit of dry, tongue-in-cheek humor with this, I suspect.
But the cause of the mutations is not the central point, it’s simply a dryly humorous plot device. The thought provoking question behind it is, ‘Is humanity really becoming more intelligent and more rational?’ And the other question is, ‘Should it?’
This is not your average kind of novel. In some ways, it’s a philosophical treatise on politics and humanity like Plato’s Republic or Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, except, unlike the latter, Star Begotten is enjoyable, optimistic, and well-written. It’s one of those books that can make you think, if you let it. It can give you ideas. And this may be why it never rose to cult classic status. Ideas can be uncomfortable things. This is what Wells himself says about them:
‘A notion is something you can handle. But an idea, a general idea, has a way of getting all over you and subjugating you, and no free spirit submits to that. Confronted with an idea the American says: ‘Oh, yeah!’ or ‘Sez you,’ and the Englishman says: ‘I don’t fink,’ or at a higher social level: ‘Piffle—piffle before the wind.’ These simple expressions are as good against ideas as the sign of the cross used to be against the medieval devil. The pressure is at once relieved.’ (Another case of Wells’ dry humor.)
There are about ten other sections, mostly assessments about the current state of mankind, that I marked because I thought they deserved to be shared. But this would make for a very long book review, or whatever this is, so I’ll refrain from doing that. I will, however, share this summation of how Wells says you can recognize these star-begotten people:
‘one characteristic of this new type of mind is its resistance to crowd suggestions, crowd loyalties, instinctive mass prejudices, and mere phrases, … these strongminded individualists … doing sensible things and refusing to do cruel, monstrous, and foolish things…’
Is humanity progressing? Is it overcoming its infancy? Is it becoming rational? I don’t know but I would like to believe so. I’ve met sane, intelligent people and I suspect there are a lot of them. If you think you may be one, Wells provides this cautionary statement in the voice of one of the book’s more cynical characters:
‘There are bad times ahead for uncompliant sane men. They will be hated by the right and by the left with an equal intensity.‘
I found this short novel refreshingly different from popular contemporary ‘action-packed’ and largely idea-barren novels. It is a thought provoking social commentary about ideas, the evolution of ideas, and human potential. The charming characters, bits of dry humor, and the hopeful, optimistic outlook also appealed to me. I highly recommend it for those seeking something other than mindless entertainment.
Star-Begotten e-book (free html format) on Project Guttenberg – http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks07/0701231h.html
Posted on August 14, 2012, in 5 Star Reviews, Book Reviews, Science Fiction and tagged Book review, H.G. Wells, Speculative fiction, Star Begotten, Star Born, Utopia. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.