Written in 1901, The First Men in the Moon is one of H.G. Wells' earliest, most beloved, and possibly most misunderstood stories. The premise hardly requires recapitulation: the businessman Bedford gains the companionship of Professor Cavor, the inventor of an anti-gravity metal, and together they meet an insectoid alien race on the moon. It not only inspired a 1964 film adaptation featuring the stop-motion of Ray Harryhausen, but a lost 1919 silent film version and contributed, along with Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon, to Georges Méliès' A Trip to the Moon.
Many readers look upon The First Men in the Moon as one of the first dystopian tales of alien life. To this point, the Planetary Romances of the 18th and 19th centuries were criticisms of life on Earth. The invented aliens of de Bergerac and Voltaire being a means for the author to voice their own less-than complimentary observations. Not so with Wells. Wells, it is argued, quite plainly makes his lunar underworld a wretched, threatening insect-like coven. It is eugenic, deterministic, and totalitarian, and obviously these are evils, are they not?
Let Wells himself describe the society, through Professor Cavor:
"In the moon," says Cavor, "every citizen knows his place. He is born to that place, and the elaborate discipline of training and education and surgery he undergoes fits him at last so completely to it that he has neither ideas nor organs for any purpose beyond it. 'Why should he?' Phi-oo would ask. If, for example, a Selenite is destined to be a mathematician, his teachers and trainers set out at once to that end. They check any incipient disposition to other pursuits, they encourage his mathematical bias with a perfect psychological skill. His brain grows, or at least the mathematical faculties of his brain grow, and the rest of him only so much as is necessary to sustain this essential part of him. At last, save for rest and food, his one delight lies in the exercise and display of his faculty, his one interest in its application, his sole society with other specialists in his own line. His brain grows continually larger, at least so far as the portions engaging in mathematics are concerned; they bulge ever larger and seem to suck all life and vigour from the rest of his frame. His limbs shrivel, his heart and digestive organs diminish, his insect face is hidden under its bulging contours. His voice becomes a mere stridulation for the stating of formula; he seems deaf to all but properly enunciated problems. The faculty of laughter, save for the sudden discovery of some paradox, is lost to him; his deepest emotion is the evolution of a novel computation. And so he attains his end.
"Or, again, a Selenite appointed to be a minder of mooncalves is from his earliest years induced to think and live mooncalf, to find his pleasure in mooncalf lore, his exercise in their tending and pursuit. He is trained to become wiry and active, his eye is indurated to the tight wrappings, the angular contours that constitute a 'smart mooncalfishness.' He takes at last no interest in the deeper part of the moon; he regards all Selenites not equally versed in mooncalves with indifference, derision, or hostility. His thoughts are of mooncalf pastures, and his dialect an accomplished mooncalf technique. So also he loves his work, and discharges in perfect happiness the duty that justifies his being. And so it is with all sorts and conditions of Selenites--each is a perfect unit in a world machine....
These observations were made on the way to Cavor's appointment with the Grand Lunar. This engineered leader and the human scientist enjoy a conversation about Earth that winds its way around to the individualism of the race:
"...He searched me with questions. 'And for all sorts of work you have the same sort of men. But who thinks? Who governs?'
"I gave him an outline of the democratic method.
"When I had done he ordered cooling sprays upon his brow, and then requested me to repeat my explanation conceiving something had miscarried.
"'Do they not do different things, then?' said Phi-oo.
"Some, I admitted, were thinkers and some officials; some hunted, some were mechanics, some artists, some toilers. 'But _all_ rule,' I said.
"'And have they not different shapes to fit them to their different duties?'
"'None that you can see,' I said, 'except perhaps, for clothes. Their minds perhaps differ a little,' I reflected.
"'Their minds must differ a great deal,' said the Grand Lunar, 'or they would all want to do the same things.'
"In order to bring myself into a closer harmony with his preconceptions, I said that his surmise was right. 'It was all hidden in the brain,' I said; 'but the difference was there. Perhaps if one could see the minds and souls of men they would be as varied and unequal as the Selenites. There were great men and small men, men who could reach out far and wide, men who could go swiftly; noisy, trumpet-minded men, and men who could remember without thinking....'"
[The record is indistinct for three words.]
"He interrupted me to recall me to my previous statements. 'But you said all men rule?' he pressed.
"'To a certain extent,' I said, and made, I fear, a denser fog with my explanation.
"He reached out to a salient fact. 'Do you mean,' asked, 'that there is no Grand Earthly?'
"I thought of several people, but assured him finally there was none. I explained that such autocrats and emperors as we had tried upon earth had usually ended in drink, or vice, or violence, and that the large and influential section of the people of the earth to which I belonged, the Anglo-Saxons, did not mean to try that sort of thing again. At which the Grand Lunar was even more amazed.
"'But how do you keep even such wisdom as you have?' he asked; and I explained to him the way we helped our limited"
[A word omitted here, probably "brains."]
"with libraries of books. I explained to him how our science was growing by the united labours of innumerable little men, and on that he made no comment save that it was evident we had mastered much in spite of our social savagery, or we could not have come to the moon. Yet the contrast was very marked. With knowledge the Selenites grew and changed; mankind stored their knowledge about them and remained brutes--equipped. He said this..."
[Here there is a short piece of the record indistinct.]
"He then caused me to describe how we went about this earth of ours, and I described to him our railways and ships. For a time he could not understand that we had had the use of steam only one hundred years, but when he did he was clearly amazed. (I may mention as a singular thing, that the Selenites use years to count by, just as we do on earth, though I can make nothing of their numeral system. That, however, does not matter, because Phi-oo understands ours.) From that I went on to tell him that mankind had dwelt in cities only for nine or ten thousand years, and that we were still not united in one brotherhood, but under many different forms of government. This astonished the Grand Lunar very much, when it was made clear to him. At first he thought we referred merely to administrative areas.
"'Our States and Empires are still the rawest sketches of what order will some day be,' I said, and so I came to tell him...."
[At this point a length of record that probably represents thirty or forty words is totally illegible.]
"The Grand Lunar was greatly impressed by the folly of men in clinging to the inconvenience of diverse tongues. 'They want to communicate, and yet not to communicate,' he said, and then for a long time he questioned me closely concerning war.
"He was at first perplexed and incredulous. 'You mean to say,' he asked, seeking confirmation, 'that you run about over the surface of your world--this world, whose riches you have scarcely begun to scrape--killing one another for beasts to eat?'
"I told him that was perfectly correct.
"He asked for particulars to assist his imagination.
"'But do not ships and your poor little cities get injured?' he asked, and I found the waste of property and conveniences seemed to impress him almost as much as the killing. 'Tell me more,' said the Grand Lunar; 'make me see pictures. I cannot conceive these things.'
"And so, for a space, though something loath, I told him the story of earthly War.
"I told him of the first orders and ceremonies of war, of warnings and ultimatums, and the marshalling and marching of troops. I gave him an idea of manoeuvres and positions and battle joined. I told him of sieges and assaults, of starvation and hardship in trenches, and of sentinels freezing in the snow. I told him of routs and surprises, and desperate last stands and faint hopes, and the pitiless pursuit of fugitives and the dead upon the field. I told, too, of the past, of invasions and massacres, of the Huns and Tartars, and the wars of Mahomet and the Caliphs, and of the Crusades. And as I went on, and Phi-oo translated, and the Selenites cooed and murmured in a steadily intensified emotion.
"I told them an ironclad could fire a shot of a ton twelve miles, and go through 20 feet of iron--and how we could steer torpedoes under water. I went on to describe a Maxim gun in action, and what I could imagine of the Battle of Colenso. The Grand Lunar was so incredulous that he interrupted the translation of what I had said in order to have my verification of my account. They particularly doubted my description of the men cheering and rejoicing as they went into battle.
"'But surely they do not like it!' translated Phi-oo.
"I assured them men of my race considered battle the most glorious experience of life, at which the whole assembly was stricken with amazement.
"'But what good is this war?' asked the Grand Lunar, sticking to his theme.
"'Oh! as for _good_!' said I; 'it thins the population!'
"'But why should there be a need--?'
"There came a pause, the cooling sprays impinged upon his brow, and then he spoke again."
Self-evidently Wells contrasts the nobility of the human spirit, even with its attendant faults, against the cruel tyranny of lunar society. Those with a knowledge of Wells' social critiques might reasonably interpret First Men in the Moon as a critique of the British class system and its attendant imperialism. The stratification of the Selenites could be seen as a variation on the drama of the Morlocks and Eloi of The Time Machine, published six years prior.
This reading misjudges Wells' own ethos, as demonstrated by later works like The Shape of Things to Come, published in 1933, and even A Modern Utopia, published a mere four years after First Men in the Moon. The short of it is that a eugenic, totalitarian state is exactly the one that Wells prescribes, where absolute freedom is permitted in exchange for any kind of self-determination. When given authority by his imagination to draft a world to his liking, The Englishman takes on the character of the Grand Lunar.
Thus does The First Men in the Moon revert back from an alien dystopia to an Enlightenment critique. It has only masqueraded for so long because Wells' own vision for society was so abhorrent that it would be unconscionable to consider the Selenites to be anything other than a dictatorship. We only say that, however, because we are on the far side of the Holocaust. It is difficult to conceive that, at the time of Wells, a doctrine of eugenics and centralized authority was a mainstream doctrine.
To paraphrase numerous satirists of the era, conservatives are those who adopt liberal ideas once liberals have worn them out. That is no less true about "the self-direction of human evolution". Some of the early adopters of eugenics were liberal movements like Wells' Fabian Society, who saw the genetic "enhancement" of human specimens as a means of abolishing human suffering. It became a cause of the Temperance and Suffragette movements for its promise of eliminating the "inherited evils" of alcoholism and unfit parenthood (often unfairly criticized, the Temperance movement were not merely moral busybodies, but were responding to a very real problem: rampant spousal abuse caused by drunken men seeking refuge from the crushing poverty and despair of the Industrial Revolution). Eugenics was seen as a humane way of dealing with the problem of developmental disabilities, and so forced sterilization of "defectives" was widely instituted throughout the Western world, including the United States and Canada. Some misguided souls still flirt with the idea, though under new, less-offensive labels like "transhumanism".
The fault of eugenic movements is deciding who qualifies as "defective" and whose genes should be passed on. In England, ideas of genetic merit went beyond demonstrable disorders and was judged on the basis of social standing. The poor and the criminal were deemed inferior, apparently under a belief that nature precedes nurture. In North America, the "primitive savages" were deemed unfit. In the Canadian province of Alberta, Aboriginal inmates of forced sterilization reached 25% of the total, even though they only comprised 2.5% of the provincial population. Young, poor and unmarried women were also disproportionately represented because of an assumed predisposition for prostitution. And, of course, in Germany the "impure" were Jews, Romani, and homosexuals amongst others. It requires very little effort to take an already skewed liberal response to unwanted social ills and hand it over to conservatives as a final solution to unwanted social groups.
We rightly decry eugenics and other scientific social dogmas as evil. That declaration blinds us to the actual message conveyed by someone like H.G. Wells in The First Men in the Moon. It was only at the very latest stages of his life that he questioned the efficacy - not the rightness, but the implementation - of eugenic thinking. In 1901, the Selenites, it may be said, were his ideal.