A very satisfying read: Wells manages to cover a few bases in this SF tale. As well as imagining a means of travel to the moon decades before it happened, he gives us some distinct characters, a robust alien culture, and some social commentary, not to mention action, humour and closing drama.
In a sense this is two books: the major one from the perspective of a knockabout young failed middle class entrepreneur, & the extended postscript from that of the scientist whose skill makes their amazing journey possible.
Our chief narrator, Bedford, is almost a Bertie Wooster character, a likeable dilettante with an inflated view of his own intelligence. He bumbles along through the adventures as something of an everyman, but Wells still gives him far more personality than a legion of subsequent SF characters. Wells wrote at a time when great discoveries still came more from individuals than the more anonymous efforts of companies and government departments that we expect today, so while of course this is wildly fantastic storytelling, the idea of Bedford bumping into an amateur scientist (Cavor) who makes a breakthrough that allows travel to the moon would not have been quite as hard for his contemporary readers to swallow. Without making it too blunt Wells plays with the interaction of a socially naïve but gifted scientist and a guy who essentially is interested in the money he can make out of the innovation.
Their boys’ own adventures once they arrive on the planet are a long way from the careful negotiation of experts one would hope for on ‘first contact’ – but probably a bit closer, for example, to the often farcical and brutal first meetings of European sailors with divergent indigenous people. Cavor’s concern at seeing Bedford’s avaricious instincts inflamed when he discovers the ubiquity of gold in the moon mounts into horror as, when their safety ingenuously appears to be threatened by the aliens, Bedford offers far more than ‘minimal resistance’ – indeed, he becomes virtually drunk in his relative superman capacities on the low G moon. Remember, though, that we see the action through Bedford’s eyes – Wells doesn’t let us just dismiss him as a buffoon, but rather carries the reader along with him until (some readers anyway) realise they’ve gone too far.
The book could just be read as a wild ride though a fascinatingly imagined alien world, but the story is informed by an awareness of some of the moral perils of cultural interaction.
This is made a bit more overt (but still within the story, it doesn’t become an essay, and is also a good device to further reveal/deepen the character) in the second part, a transmission from Cavor that gives greater detail about the structure of the sentient ant-like moon race. Cavor, seeing himself as a rational scientist, is impressed by the utterly logical ordering of the society, but is embarrassed by the emotional disquiet it sometimes causes him. For example, in responding to their practise of ruthlessly shaping the minds and bodies of their young to suit their future roles, he says:
It is quite unreasonable, I know, but such glimpses of the educational methods of these beings affect me disagreeably. I hope, however, that may pass off, and I may be able to see more of this aspect of their wonderful social order. That wretched-looking hand-tentacle sticking out of its jar seemed to have a sort of limp appeal for lost possibilities; it haunts me still,
While this is clever enough on it’s own in conveying both an alien culture and the distinct personality and values of Cavor, Wells adds the incisive:
although, of course it is really in the end a far more humane proceeding than our earthly method of leaving children to grow into human beings, and then making machines of them.
Sure the action scenes are a bit dated (that’s something modern writers, probably through the potency of the improved movie fights and car chases we’re so used to, tend to do a bit more effectively), but the ideas are strong, the characters interesting, the writing elegant – particularly in the lightly humorous expository chapters, and the whole informed by a more thoughtful and integrated awareness of moral implications than is common today.