Friday, August 04, 2017

Star Begotten: A Monstrous Rebuttle [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Star Begotten by HG Wells is one of those novels that you rarely see. The science fiction people tend towards the early stuff: The Time Machine, Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, and The War of the Worlds, while the sociological types prefer the later books like Men Like Gods, The Sleeper Wakes, and The World Set Free. Lastly, the literary types ignore the SF altogether (write it off as a passing phase) and focus on the novels like Wheels of Chance, Ann Veronica, or The Secret Places of the Heart. I can honestly say I am not any of these. I am a monster fan. And Star Begotten is an interesting book to me.

Star Begotten was written in 1937, nine years before Wells’ death. Wells’ reputation by this time was not what it was in 1898 or even 1915. By the late 1920s, he was reprinting his glory days in pulps like Weird Tales and Amazing Stories. He must have seemed pretty old fashioned to many. George Orwell described him as being too sane for the mad world of the 20th Century. With the events of the Russian Revolution and afterwards, his socialist ideas were becoming unpopular. (He does address this and many others things in the novel.) I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that Star Begotten came and went, only to be resurrected by Manor Books during the 1970s SF paperback boom. (This is the edition I keep encountering in second-hand stores.)

The plot of Star Begotten is easy to describe because there is so little of it. Basically, we follow an idea that a writer comes up with, that Martians are bombarding humanity with cosmic rays in an attempt to “Martianize” us. Wells debates the idea in several long “talking heads” sessions between writers, doctors, and other learned men, but never puts the idea into action. (There is a subplot about how the writer Davis realizes his wife is one of the “Martainized” people and his newborn son is likely one, too.) This static “idea story” had become the norm for him after abandoning the more plot-driven adventures of his early career for dystopic lectures in his later books. As GK Chesterton put it, "Mr Wells is a born storyteller who has sold his birthright for a pot of message..." The exciting moments of the first SF tales - like the descent into the Morlocks’ tunnels, encountering the beast men, fleeing the invisible man, or crossing the devastation of the Martians’ conquered Earth - are not here. Star Begotten is a mental book, filled with many big ideas on humankind, civilization, media, and art. It is as such that we must approach it: Wells’ summing up all his work and ideas.

Now I have been accused of minimizing Wells’ greatness in previous articles. I make no apology for this. I am not a scholar of great literature. I have nothing to add there. I am a student of monsterdom. So if you are looking for tracts on Socialism or Literature or any other higher ideas, move on. I am a monster fan and that is what I do. And here is why Star Begotten is interesting to other monster fans: In this book, Wells gets to look back at his earlier work, The War of the Worlds in particular, (he pokes fun at himself with: “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”) and address how readers took that book, and to rethink the monsters he used in that classic. It’s not often that writers get to do this.

Through the debates on the theoretical Martians, Wells redesigns them. He discards the cruel squidgies with tentacles and blood injections, and instead presents a kinder, gentler Martian:
'Yes, Mars was cool long before earth was. A longer past, a hotter summer and a harder winter—the year of Mars is twice the length of ours—a larger body and a larger brain. With more room for memories—more and better memories—and more space for ideas, more and better ideas. And so the problem comes down to this. What sort of mind would a man have if he had a longer ancestry, an ampler memory, a less hurried Life?'
The gentle giants of Mars are redefined as “quite nice monsters.” Wells no longer wants to shock and horrify as he did in the early years of 1894-8, that great monster-spawning instinct that gave us intelligent ants, killer squid, communal spiders, and a host other great creatures. Instead he wants to extrapolate scientifically, thinking of what Mars was like and how evolution would have sculpted the Martians both mentally and physically. Only after this, once the nominal hero of the story accepts that the Martians exist, do we finally get to see how it affects him. The final chapter confronts a writer who sees all his previous work as misguided nonsense, who destroys his unfinished masterpiece and finally realizes he need not be depressed about the coming new race. Not only is his wife and child part of this new, better kind of human, but he is one of them too.

The obvious stepchild of Star Begotten is John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (1957). Many know it better by its film title, Village of the Damned (1960, and the John Carpenter remake in 1995). Unlike Wells, Wyndham makes the plot move with some energy. The UFO craze of the 1950s supplies the aliens with a more direct access to humanity, visiting the village one night and impregnating all the viable females. The children born of this night are mutants with very similar hair and telepathic abilities. Wyndham does a great job of exploring how humans would feel when homo superior shows up and it is their own children. Wells suggest the idea but never runs with it. Like many 1950s SF films, the subtext seems to be about Communist infiltrators.

As I said at the beginning, Star Begotten has largely been ignored by science fiction and monster fans. But not all writers were unaware of it. One who was familiar is Nigel Kneale in Quatermass and the Pit (1957) in which the discovery of fossils proves that humans were mutated by a dying Martian race. Another is Manly Wade Wellman in Sherlock Holmes’ War of the Worlds (1975) who chooses Wells’ redesigned Martians (or aliens) over the squidgies of 1898. Star Begotten is not the influential masterwork that The War of the Worlds is, but I can recommend it to any writer interested in how to create an alien by extrapolation, or how to re-design one you’ve already created.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

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