This collection of strange and wonderful stories written between 75 and 116 years ago (as I write this in 2012) represents some of H.G. Wells’ lesser-known works. I found a copy in my local public library, which is one of my favorite places for finding new books, or, as in this case, old books.
There are a couple of things you may notice when you read these stories. One, of course, is how prophetic H.G. Wells was in terms of changes that occur in technology. When he talks of futures in which airplanes, superhighways, instant communication, and electronic appliances of various kinds are common, you must remember that when he wrote these stories, they weren’t.
Another is how little human society has changed in the last century. Wells was uncomfortable with the level of social and economic disparity of the late Victorian era, and his utopian novels such as ‘Star Begotten’ and ‘Men Like Gods,’ which are contained in this collection, show a bright future in which this is no longer the case.
Such idyllic societies remain a utopian dream, however. The system we have today is more like the one depicted in the dystopian view of the future provided in the novella ‘A Story of the Days to Come,’ which is also included in this anthology. This is a story of two idealistic young lovers who find themselves in virtual serfdom after borrowing against an inheritance at high interest rates. The passage below is how Wells describes the 22nd Century London they are born into:
‘The new society was divided into three main classes. At the summit slumbered the property owner, enormously rich by accident rather than design, potent save for the will and aim, the last avatar of Hamlet in the world. Below was the enormous multitude of workers employed by the gigantic companies that monopolised control; and between these two the dwindling middle class, officials of innumerable sorts, foremen, managers, the medical, legal, artistic, and scholastic classes, and the minor rich, a middle class whose members led a life of insecure luxury and precarious speculation amidst the movements of the great managers.’
This is a version of the future in which the economic conditions are very much like those of Victorian England. I won’t argue that things have not improved since, but the similarities between this dystopia and our current system are disturbingly obvious.
Of course, not all of the stories here are comments on society or economics. Some, like ‘The Magic Shop,’ are simply charming, if sometimes a bit odd. I particularly liked this story, though.
As for the collection as a whole, I highly recommend it. If you like speculative fiction, if you want to see some of the earliest and best examples of it, pick up this anthology or read any of the stories you can find from wherever you can find them.
- Men Like Gods (Novel – 1923)
- The Empire of the Ants (Short Story – 1905)
- The Land Ironclads (Short Story – 1903)
- The Country of the Blind (Short Story – 1904)
- The Stolen Bacillus (Short Story – 1894)
- The Flowering of the Strange Orchid (Short Story – 1894)
- In the Avu Observatory (Short Story – 1894)
- A Story of the Stone Age (Short Story – 1897)
- Aepyornis Island (Short Story – 1894)
- The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes (Short Story – 1895)
- The Plattner Story (Short Story – 1896)
- The Argonauts of the Air (Short Story – 1895)
- The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham (Short Story – 1896)
- In the Abyss (Short Story – 1896)
- Star Begotten (Novel – 1937)
- Under the Knife (Short Story – 1896)
- The Sea Raiders (Short Story – 1896)
- The Crystal Egg (Short Story – 1897)
- The Star (Short Story – 1897)
- The Man Who Could Work Miracles (Short Story – 1898)
- Filmer (Short Story – 1901)
- A Story of the Days to Come (Novella – 1897)
- The Magic Shop (Short Story – 1903)
- The Valley of Spiders (Short Story – 1903)
- The Truth About Pyecraft (Short Story – 1903)
- The New Accelerator (Short Story – 1901)
- The Stolen Body (Short Story – 1898)
- A Dream of Armageddon (Short Story – 1901)
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