The “Martianized” H.G. Wells?
John S. Partington, ed. H.G. Wells in Nature, 1893-1946: A Reception Reader. Alph: Arbeiten zur Literarischen Phantastik, band 3. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2008. x + 514 pp. $115.95.
H.G. Wells. Star Begotten: A Biological Fantasia. Ed. John Huntington. Early Classics of Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2006. 156 pp. $22.95.
These two recent editions are, like most things, imperfect, but they both add usefully to Wells scholarship. Among the 53 reviews of 44 Wells publications that appeared in the prestigious British science journal Nature is geneticist and evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane’s review of Star Begotten on July 31, 1937, one of the two most important reviews that novel received. This specific relationship between the two editions is mirrored by Wells’s reference to Haldane in Star Begotten: “People like J.B.S. Haldane and suchlike pioneer biologists were trying to form a research society now” (74). There is also a Star Begotten reference to Nature (97), with whose 1919-38 editor, Richard Gregory, Wells remained productively friendly from the 1880s until his death. The other particularly important review was Olaf Stapledon’s in the London Mercury for June 1937 (the issue that concluded a three-installment serialization of Star-Begotten), and again Wells refers to his novel’s future reviewer in Star Begotten (see page 79). Huntington focuses on both the Haldane and Stapledon reviews in his Introduction to the novel. But it is Wells’s own essays in Nature that provide the best gloss on how Star Begotten should be read.
Before I get to that aspect of H.G. Wells in Nature, an overview of Partington’s collection is in order. Editor of The Wellsian from 1999 to 2008, he sees his edition “as a continuation” of “Robert Philmus and David Hughes’s splendid H.G. Wells: Early Writings in Science and Science Fiction (1975),” one of the few works that reprint Wells’s “scientific writings” (1). Part 1, which includes the 25 essays, reviews, and letters that Wells published in Nature, begins with “Popularising Science” on July 26, 1894 and ends with “The Illusion of Personality” (an abridgement of his University of London doctoral thesis) on April 1, 1944. This is not exactly to pick up where Philmus and Hughes leave off. The review entitled “Bio-Optimism” in Nature for August 29, 1895 was, as is mentioned in a footnote, first reprinted in the Philmus-Hughes volume. But most of this important Part 1 material is reprinted (often with letter responses and Wells’s responses to those letters) for the first time. As with the material that Philmus and Hughes reprint, this complete reprinting of all of Wells’s essays and reviews in Nature provides an indispensable record of his evolving scientific philosophy.
Part 2, the reviews of Wells’s own work, begins with an April 27, 1893 review of his Text-Book of Biology and ends with a July 29, 1944 review of his 42-44: A Contemporary Memoir upon Human Behaviour during the Crisis of the World Revolution. With the exception of The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and The Invisible Man (1897), Nature published reviews of all of Wells’s trail-blazing scientific romances and many of his utopian speculations. Again, most of this material has not been reprinted elsewhere. Part 3, “Other Mentions,” collects coverage in Nature of “Wells’s activities as a public figure” (1). It begins on December 20, 1894, with a note about a lecture that Wells had delivered (“Science Teaching—an Ideal, and some Realities”) and ends with the October 19, 1946 announcement of a meeting at which J.B. Priestley and others would pay tribute to the memory of the recently deceased Wells.
Partington has buttressed his “Reception Reader” (which includes in Part 1 the writings where Wells created the scientific context in which he wished his work to be received) with a formidable apparatus. Aside from his General Introduction and survey introductions to parts 1 and 2 (space limitations, we are told, precluded a Part 3 survey), there are multiple explanatory and identifying footnotes on almost every page, a lengthy alphabetical list of “Short Biographies,” and a lengthy “Bibliography” of publications referred to in the reprinted material. There is no index but, had page references been supplied, the biographical and bibliographical listings could have largely served the same purpose. Partington does not explain why he did not do this. Nor does he explain his excessive footnoting. The average reader of this volume would know, for example, that “hard-and-fast” means “Strict, inflexible” (127) and that, to take an example from the next page, “chariot” means “A wheeled conveyance, usually horse-drawn.” The same problem applies to the overlong list of Abbreviations. Only very naïve readers would require the meanings of “BC,” “e.g.”, “i.e.”, “Jr.”, and “Mr.” spelled out.
John Huntington’s apparatus for Star Begotten: A Biological Fantasia (first published in June 1937 when Wells was 70) is generally helpful, reliable, and not overdone, but there are some problems. His Note on the Text explains, reasonably enough, that the first UK edition, rather than the first US one, also published in June 1937, or the three-part serial publication concluding in June 1937 in the London Mercury, constitutes the copytext. But the reader will look in vain to discover who published the British and American book editions. The UK publisher, as Partington records (341), was Chatto and Windus; the American publisher was Viking Press. I noticed one mistake in the text itself: “the corners of her full mouth drooped gravely and at times he had a way of moving that was ... preoccupied” (49). That “he” should be “she.” This is not a mistake inherited from any of the three 1937 texts. Checking the London Mercury text, I noticed that the middle installment (May 1937) includes (between pages 44 and 45) a rather good but little known drawing of “H.G. Wells, 1937” by “SAVA” (presumably Sava Botzaris). I wondered why this portrait was not used on the jacket back flap instead of the stock photograph of Wells supplied by PhotoDisc. An opportunity missed, I think.
Only one of Huntington’s “Notes to the Text” struck me as misleading. A minor character, a press magnate named Lord Bendigo, prompts this far-fetched note 49: “His name seems to allude to Abednego, one of the three men who, thanks to the Lord, survived being thrown in a burning furnace by Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3)” (154). Bendigo is a town in central Victoria, Australia. Surely, Wells is taking a satiric swipe at the “colonial,” that is, Canadian newspaper baron Lord Beaverbrook (William Maxwell Aitken, 1879-1964). In a number of places notes should have been supplied. For example, a reference to “the Glory that was Greece” (45) and a lecture title, “The Grandeur that was Rome” (91), should both have been identified as quotes from Poe’s “To Helen.” And a reference to “Watsons” (103) needs to be explained in relation to Sherlock Holmes’s companion.
Huntington’s thoughtful “Introduction” is marred by one minor flaw—a character named Foxfield is mysteriously referred to as “Foxcroft” (12). And there is one major flaw which, to my mind, is so significant that it will require elaboration in the balance of this essay. Star Begotten (titled Star-Begotten by the London Mercury and Viking Press) is a mature, sophisticated, and witty novel, or “fantasia,” but it is not science fiction (and certainly not what William J. Scheick terms “ultra-science-fiction”). It is a realistic novel that could not have been written without the previous existence of science fiction (represented in Star Begotten by Wells’s own War of the Worlds). It seems that, because Huntington’s edition is one of Wesleyan’s Early Classics of Science Fiction, he could not make the essential point that, while a classic of its kind, that kind is not sf.
Star Begotten is described by its unidentified narrator in an opening statement as “the story of an idea and how it played about in the minds of a number of intelligent people” (38). Huntington summarizes that story as follows:
It recounts the life of the idea that Martians are using cosmic rays to alter human chromosomes and thus to take over the Earth. It describes how Joseph Davis, an author of popular histories, gets obsessed with the idea, worries about the birth of his child, and finally reconciles himself to the possibility that the mutation has already occurred and that he himself may be a Martian. Much of the novel involves discussions among three men—Davis, Professor Ernst Keppel, and Dr. Holman Stedding—about whether such an invasion is plausible and what it might mean. Midway through the story, popularizers and the press get hold of the idea and manipulate it, but the fad soon recedes. (1)
For Davis, all forms of the human other are suspect Martians, especially women and the Scottish. Consequently, it is his Scottish wife’s character that sets him off.
The narrator follows up his “story of an idea” paragraph with this important disingenuous rider: “Whether there was any reality behind this idea it is not the business of the storyteller to say” (37). But the answer is an unequivocal “no”: there is no evidence that Martians are messing with human chromosomes. Consequently, Star Begotten cannot be classified as sf; it is simply the story of a delusion. Its “idea” is confined to the mind or imagination. A reader would not realize this from the way the UK publisher Sphere Books blurbs the novel on the back cover of its 1975 paperback edition: “Such is the future H.G. Wells predicts for humanity—a new life for new men begotten by an unseen race beyond the stars. And this Utopia is preceded by a period of chaotic transition, amazingly like the headlines of today.” Sphere Books clearly believed that Star-Begotten had to be marketed as sf if it was to attract buyers. And Huntington, in a much more sophisticated way, plays along. He claims that the reality of Star Begotten is “ambiguous” (5).
The basis for the supposed Martian manipulators is a famous work of sf. Someone twice described as a “rufous man” (60, 62), one of the members of London’s Planetarium Club, drawn into a discussion about cosmic rays, suddenly supposes that they “came from Mars!”: “Some of you may have read a book called The War of the Worlds—I forget who wrote it—Jules Verne, Conan Doyle, one of those fellows. But it told how the Martians invaded the world, wanted to colonize it, and exterminate mankind” (62). And so the idea that we are being “Martianized” (63) takes root. Huntington usually defines unfamiliar words in his “Notes on the Text,” but he does not explain “rufous” (and he should have). It comes from the Latin “rufus” and means “reddish, or reddish-brown.” This is a deliberately engineered joke on Wells’s part. The narrator could simply have immediately identified the man as Laidlaw, the name he delays using until page 95. To describe the man in common language as red-faced would make the joke too obvious. The joke, of course, resides in the fact that the idea that we are being altered by rays from the red planet is advanced by a red man, someone who must himself have been Martianized!
The point is that one or more of the nova in an sf story must be a “fictifact” (to use Stanislaw Lem’s coinage). They cannot all be purely hypothetical or illusory. In Star Begotten, the four possible “nova”—(1) the evolutionary impact of cosmic rays, (2) the manipulating Martians, (3) manipulating extraterrestrials who are not Martians, and (4) advanced human beings on Earth—are all hypothetical or illusory. In the thematically somewhat similar In the Days of the Comet (1906), which was also reviewed in Nature, the life-transforming positive comet is a fictifact and so that novel is sf.
What we are dealing with here is something akin to the panic that accompanied Orson Welles’s radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds in 1938, the year following the publication of Star Begotten. Huntington notes the close temporal relationship (2), but he does not draw the logical generic conclusion. One can imagine a novel focusing on a panic-stricken American family responding to the false belief that horrific Martians are invading their country. But that novel would not be sf. One could imagine a similarly realistic novel about members of the Heaven’s Gate cult, who believed they only had to commit suicide in order to hitch a transporting ride aboard the Hale-Bopp comet-starship. Perhaps something similar that was not sf could be written about a group of Scientologists. Star Begotten belongs in the category of these putative realistic fictions about a fantasy.
Huntington, however, committed to his notion of Star Begotten’s “thorough ambiguity,” ends by relating it to “the development of an ironic SF” (26) that proceeds through Stapledon’s The Flames (1947) to Arthur C. Clarke and “the work of writers like Robert Sheckley, William Tenn, Kurt Vonnegut, and Philip K. Dick” (27). In spite of broad areas of influence between Wells and Stapledon and among Wells, Stapledon, and Clarke, any specific Star Begotten tradition is thoroughly bogus. The sf scenario or delusional ambiguity in The Flames may be unresolved, but the resolution in favor of delusive realism in Star Begotten is undeniable.
The obvious works with which to compare Star Begotten are Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) and Gene Brewer’s K-PAX (1995) and its sequels. In Piercy’s and Brewer’s novels an sf scenario is ambiguously balanced against a realistic psychiatric explanation and the alternatives are not resolved one way or the other. Consequently, in both cases, the sf label is justifiable.
Of course, a “creative” or perverse reading of Star Begotten might deliberately opt for its sf scenario. Manly Wade Wellman and his son Wade do just that in the concluding part of Sherlock Holmes’s War of the Worlds (1975). There the enemies Holmes and Professor Challenger confront are precisely the Martianized humans hypothesized in Star Begotten. It might be argued that John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) was similarly influenced, although rather different factors seem to have been involved.
What does make Star Begotten productively ambiguous is not the reality/delusion issue but the literal delusion/metaphorical reality one. In his review , J.B.S. Haldane suggests that the novel can be most persuasively read if the “Martians” are understood as “Marxians” (343). An alternative and more persuasive metaphorization would be to understand “Martianized” human beings as a more evolved, more rational, or just better educated group of men, women, and children. In Star Begotten, when Davis and Dr. Stedding discuss “exceptional children,” the doctor recalls “Some with biggish heads” (67). Wells himself was exceptional. Professor Keppel, the experimental psychologist in the novel, might be thinking of Wells when he claims that “A new sort of mind is coming into the world, with a new, simpler, clearer, and more powerful way of thinking” (109). He believes, like Wells, that “for the human brain, properly working, there is one wisdom and not many” (121). In this sense, Wells himself can be described as “Martianized.”
One of Wells’s essays in Nature is particularly apropos at this point: “The Discovery of the Future.” This 1902 Royal Institution lecture concludes with the first inklings of homo superior on her/his way to becoming something like the huge-headed “Man of the Year Million” (akin to the big-headed Martians of The War of the Worlds) that Wells projected in 1893: “There are many things to suggest that we are now in a phase of rapid and unprecedented development” (85). “If we care to look we can foresee growing knowledge, growing order, and presently a deliberate improvement of the blood and character of the race.” We may now be “creatures of the twilight,” but
All this world is heavy with the promise of greater things, a day will come, one day in the unending succession of days, when beings, beings who are now latent in our thoughts and hidden in our loins, shall stand upon this earth as one stands upon a footstool, and shall laugh and reach out their hands amidst the stars. (86)
We shall be star “gods” rather than star-begotten.
Such a moment of apotheosis should not be attributed to the merit of single individuals and hence it is preceded by a Swiftian recollection of our “twilight” nature: “There are surely moods in all of use [sic] when we can feel Swift’s amazement that such a being should deal in pride” (85). There is a parallel moment in Star Begotten: “What was it Swift said? That such a creature should deal in pride!” (119; emphasis in original). Partington’s reference in footnote 62 inaccurately cites A Tale of a Tub as the source. Huntington’s reference in endnote 61 more plausibly cites Gulliver’s Travels but records that “I have not been able to find the exact phrase in Swift” and quotes something similar from Wells’s Love and Mr. Lewisham (1891): “And, as Swift has it—to think that such a thing should deal in pride!” (qtd. 155). Super-human beings would have overcome this pride and be the result of education and/or evolution (not necessarily excluding cosmic rays).
Scheick, William J. “Towards the Ultra-Science-Fiction Novel: H.G. Wells’s Star-Begotten.” SFS 8.1 (March 1981): 19-25. Rpt. Scheick, The Splintering Frame: The Later Fiction of H.G. Wells. English Literary Studies 31. Victoria, BC: U Victoria P, 1984. 80-87.
Wellman, Manly Wade, and Wade Wellman. Sherlock Holmes’s War of the Worlds. New York: Warner, 1975.
Wells, H.G. Star-Begotten. 1937. London: Sphere, 1975.