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English Major Starts her Education, Part 2: To the Moon!

August 1, 2008

“That’s just it. You think every other mind wants to know…It isn’t one man in a million has that twist. Most men want – well, various things, but very few want knowledge for its own sake.” Bedford, in The First Men in the Moon

Yesterday, the NASA Phoenix lander got its metal hands on Martian water samples and I finished H.G. Wells 1901 novel The First Men in the Moon (not to be confused with the tragic 1964 movie adaptation motivated by NASA’s actual missions to the lunar surface). The story follows Cavor, a pure scientist and Bedford, a pure businessman as they invent a substance that repels gravity, hop in a sphere covered with it and lift off to the moon.

When they get there, the run into the inhabitants, the Selenites, who are both deeply alien and recognizably human, because the novel’s point of view, from Bedford, constantly matches them with human aspects and human motivations.

Wells doesn’t make them evil, as much as makes them unknown and certainly not interested in what the humans have to offer for wider contact. Cavor and Bedford, poked and prodded like animals, turn to fight after serious error in communication. Cavor thinks they can be saved if only they can go deeper into Selenite civilization, find their philsophers and scientists and speak to them in the universal language of mathmatics. Bedford suggests they take their gold handcuffs (as it is, of course, the most common element of the moon), escape back to Earth and show up with reinforcements to take all the gold. The Selenites can be taken, the lower moon gravity makes their forms spongy and susceptible to even Bedford’s weak punch.

It’s not quite an “but it was all a terrible misunderstanding!” story, but it reminds me of The Sparrow, where when humans are faced with the alien, it is so inexplicable, so horrifying in its strangeness, that there is no other end but a violent, but singular moment of interplanetary culture clash. But as the reader shakes their head and says “What a shame”, there’s a secondary realization of being on the receiving end of an inescapable alienness is exactly what even the most well intentioned of humans would do if such a thing showed up on their front door.

In more moon related fiction – a reading of “Black, Gray, Green, Red, Blue: A Letter From a Famous Painter on the Moon” at KQED’s Writer’s Block.

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