A lot of good, even classic, science fiction stories are currently available for free as HTML, PDF or some e-reader format. I decided to feature some of these “freebee” pieces on a semi-regular basis this year. This is the second featured story.
I would guess that most of us who have read SF with any regularity have tried out at least one of the books by H.G. Wells. He is most famous these days for his four “grotesques,” all classics of the genre: The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and The Invisible Man. He also produced many classic short stories, which have been published in many collections and anthologies over the years.
Beyond these works, he also has several other SF novels that still find their way into print for curious readers: The First Men in the Moon, When the Sleeper Wakes and The Wonderful Visit among them. I thought The Wonderful Visit was a short book made too long by Wells’ desire to satirize rural England, but the other two were entertaining and groundbreaking works in their own respect. The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth (1904) is another novel of this ilk, not one of his major masterpieces but a solid read for those looking for “classic” SF. It was recently reprinted in the Gollancz SF Masterworks series, but by favorite edition features the Lehr artwork.
TFotG starts with the description of a collaborative effort between two scientists of different specialties: Mr. Bensington is a chemist and Dr. Redwood is a physiologist, but both had been leading lives of “eminent and studious obscurity”. Their unlikely correspondence results in the discovery of a miraculous chemical that spurs organic growth beyond all known natural boundaries. They named this growth factor Herakleophorbia, but over time it gets renamed “Food of the Gods,” shortened to “The Food,” or even “Boomfood” as the story develops.
Book I of TFotG is probably the most famous part, given that a number of terrible B-movies have been based on it. After some exciting results with animal blood and plant sap, the scientists decide to set up experiments with chicks on a local farm. The chicks soon grow into ostrich-sized chickens, wholly dependent on The Food during their adolescence. Unfortunately, the couple operating the farm, the Skinners, are extremely sloppy and The Food makes its way into thistles, creeper plants, a nest of wasps and a den of rats. This results in all sorts of mayhem, until the farm is destroyed by a party led by the scientists and a civil engineer named Cossar.
Cossar is an emergent hero in TFotG, a tough-talking and decisive man who shows up and spurs Bensington and Redwood into action. He demonstrates the adaptability and courage that Wells puts on the right side of his future history. Here, he casts away the yoke of Cousin Jane (a controlling relative) from the mind of Bensington before the rat-hunt:
. . . Bensington, still hatless, paddled down the steps and prepared to mount. “I think,” he said, with his hand on the cab apron, and a sudden glance up at the windows of his flat, “I ought to tell my cousin Jane—”
“More time to tell her when you come back,” said Cossar, thrusting him in with a vast hand expanded over his back….
“Clever chaps,” remarked Cossar, “but no initiative whatever. Cousin Jane indeed! I know her. Rot, these Cousin Janes! Country infested with ’em. I suppose I shall have to spend the whole blessed night, seeing they do what they know perfectly well they ought to do all along. I wonder if it’s Research makes ’em like that or Cousin Jane or what?”
Additionally, Wells spends an surprising amount of time portraying the Skinners as ignorant bumpkins, covering paragraphs with accented dialogue.
It was already dark—as dark at least as a clear night in the English June can be—when Skinner—or his head at any rate—came into the bar of the Jolly Drovers and said: “Ello! You ‘aven’t ‘eard anything of thith ‘ere thtory bout my ‘enth, ‘ave you?”
“Oh, ‘aven’t we!” said Mr. Fulcher. “Why, part of the story’s been and bust into my stable roof and one chapter smashed a ‘ole in Missis Vicar’s green ‘ouse—I beg ‘er pardon—Conservarratory.”
Skinner came in. “I’d like thomething a little comforting,” he said, “‘ot gin and water’th about my figure,” and everybody began to tell him things about the pullets.
“Grathuth me!” said Skinner.
“You ‘aven’t ‘eard anything about Mithith Thkinner, ‘ave you?” he asked in a pause.
“That we ‘aven’t!” said Mr. Witherspoon. “We ‘aven’t thought of ‘er. We ain’t thought nothing of either of you.”
As in The Wonderful Visit, the social structure of small-town England gets a mixture of satire and overt criticism. I’m not sure when he explicitly made his case for “selective breeding,” but he certainly seems to be warming the oven in this one.
Book II describes the early life of Caddles, a child raised on The Food. He is generally ostracized for his freakish size and forced to live apart from the local townspeople. The landowner, a prototypical villain named Lady Wandershoot, has him “earn is keep” in a chalk-pit. This section did not have the energy of Book I, but it was interesting in how Wells depicts the leaders of the town – the aristocrat, the vicar and the schoolmaster – revert to their short-sighted self-interest when faced with the challenge of raising Caddles.
Books I and II demonstrated an England ill-prepared for revolutionary change, and Book III explores a future history triggered by a small (in numbers) generation of giants who rebel against their forced isolation. Leading the charge are three Food-raised sons of the hero of Book I, Cossar. They try to demonstrate their goodwill by building roads and new living quarters for their miniature neighbors, but by this point the press has stoked fear and hatred for them.
A reactionary politician named Caterham is voted into power after tapping into the widespread fears that the new lifeforms birthed by The Food will soon take their place on Earth. The lack of adaptability in all but the very few in society is illustrated throughout TFotG, and Wells sees a future where the population fails to come to terms with the consequences of its own complacency and ignorance. This could be an allegory for the sweeping changes in technology and economy triggered by the Industrial Revolution, clearly missing the sentiment of Tolkien and other fantasy writers.
We glimpse the ascendency of Caterham through the eyes of a recently released convict, Wells’ way of showing how most of his contemporaries live their lives learning next to nothing. The Cossar brothers are clearly superior in intellect as well as size, and Bensington’s giant son’s love affair with the giant Princess inadvertently sets off violent reprisals. The events of Book III unfold in a manner sharing the allegory and absurdity of the rest of the novel, and Wells points to an ultimate ending quite different than that of The War of the Worlds (1898). It is a provoking departure from his earlier optimism. 6/10.