Released 39 years after his seminal sci-fi novel The War of the Worlds was published in 1898, and just two years before Orson Welles scared the bejeebers out of U.S. listeners with his radio play of that same novel, 1937’s Star-Begotten finds its author, H.G. Wells, returning to the Red Planet to tell us more about those mysterious and pesky Martians. Written when Wells was 71, this latter work — rather than being a tale of action and mayhem and a truly groundbreaking instance of the then-still-new science fiction (or, to use the term that Wells preferred, “scientific romances”) — is more a novel of ideas and speculation, of satire and bitter condemnation, and, I have a feeling, is a largely unknown work today. And that is a shame, as it is obviously a deeply felt work; an appeal to reason in a world slipping inexorably toward another world war.
In this short novel (it is roughly the same length as such early Wells classics as The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Invisible Man), we meet a youngish author named Joseph Davis. A writer of popular histories that uphold the glory and promise of humankind, and a man who has long since swept his own religious doubts under the mental rug, Davis, when we first encounter him, is a troubled soul. His wife has increasingly become a stranger, the imminent birth of his first child has left him in a panicked state, and his rosy-tinted histories have lately begun to strike him as so much bosh. And then he overhears a conversation at his Planetarium Club, in which several of the learned members discuss the possibility of mankind’s increasing intelligence being the result of the cosmic rays that are constantly bombarding us. Could this be deliberate? Could, say, those Martians be firing rays at us to change mankind, to make us better and brighter, to possibly… Martianize us?!?! That is what Davis and two of his cronies, obstetrician Holdman Stedding and philosophy professor Ernest Keppel, endeavor to riddle out, in this thoroughly engaging and passionate piece of work.
This is a book in which Wells, a former Socialist and member of the Fabian Society, as well as the creator of any number of utopian scenarios himself (in novels such as In the Days of the Comet, Men Like Gods and The Shape of Things to Come), subjects to scalding satire the Socialists and the creators of utopian literature, as well as the British government, the average intelligence of the common people, journalists, world dictators, modern religion and society in general. Though written 75 years ago, the critiques in the book are as relevant today, sadly enough, as ever. Take this passage, for example, as our three lead characters sit and discuss the situation. Says Keppel:
Our social order is bankrupt. It is not delivering the goods. It is defaulting and breaking up. War, pervading and increasing brutality, lack of any real liberty, economic mismanagement, frightful insufficiency in the midst of possible super-abundance — am I overstating the indictment?
This could almost have been written today, right? Though there is little to no action in Star-Begotten per se, the entire novel is filled with wonderfully well-written passages such as this one; you’ll feel like using a highlighter to underscore many of the choicer comments, as mankind’s lot is appraised and discussed by these three astute gentlemen. And as befits its satiric side, the novel also contains some one-liners guaranteed to make the reader chuckle, such as when Wells describes the music of 1937 as “raucous bang, bang, bump stuff” (which leads one to wonder how he’d feel about the heavy metal and hip-hop music of today!). Undoubtedly, though, the book’s most amusing moment comes when one of the Planetarium Club members declares, “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.” A rare instance of genuine humor in an otherwise quite serious novel; a novel in which the author, aghast at the state of a world teetering on the brink, tries to paint a picture of what COULD be, if only Man cared a little less for material gain. Of course, it was a lesson that was largely unavailing, so much so that in his introduction to the 1941 edition of his 1908 classic The War in the Air, Wells famously wrote “I told you so. You damn fools.”
Fortunately, however, it’s never too late to learn, and that is why Star-Begotten should be placed on the “must read” list of all thinking adults. It is an intelligent book that uses a sci-fi backdrop as a means of making dozens upon dozens of vitally important points. It may not feature the zap guns of the 1898 novel, but surely does strike home nevertheless! Concluding with a surprise ending of sorts and a note of tentative optimism, it is a Wells novel that is surely ripe for modern-day reappraisal.