Let's start with a proposition: the opposite of gravity is ‘levity’. Yes?
No? Suit yourself.
Wells wrote this antigravitational journey-to-the-moon romp in 1900. It was serialised in the Strand Magazine from December 1900 to August 1901, with rather fine illustrations by Claude Shepperson, some of which are scattered about this blogpost. Thereafter it was published as a single volume by George Newnes in the dark blue livery pictured above. The story is narrated by Bedford, a failed London businessman who has sequestered himself on the coast at Lympne in order to write a play that, he hopes, will make him rich. He meets a neighbour, the eccentric scientist Cavor, who is working on creating an anti-gravitational material he calls ‘Cavorite’. With Bedford's help, Cavor builds a large sphere out of this material in which both men fly to the moon. There they find a complex lunar hive-society of ‘Selenites’ (named for Selene) living under the moon's surface in caves and tunnels, ruled by the ‘Grand Lunar’ (‘his brain case must have measured many yards in diameter’).
Bedford and Cavor are captured by the Selenites, and restrained with gold chains, a metal which turns out to be plentiful on the moon. They escape, but become separated. Bedford, believing Cavor lost, pilots the capsule back to the Earth, landing, improbably enough, on the same stretch of Kentish coastline from which they had departed. Back home he has difficulty persuading people of the reality of his adventure, in large part because he loses the Cavorite spacecraft when a curious boy named Tommy Simmons climbs into the unattended sphere and shoots off into space. But he still has some of the gold he brought back from the moon, and he enjoys literary success when he publishes his story in The Strand Magazine, so things pretty much work out for him.
In the final portion of the novel, Bedford reports that a Dutch electrician called Julius Wendigee, ‘experimenting with certain apparatus akin to the apparatus used by Mr. Tesla in America, in the hope of discovering some method of communication with Mars, was receiving day by day a curiously fragmentary message in English, which was indisputably emanating from Mr. Cavor in the moon.’ It seems Cavor has befriended the Selenites and persuaded them to allow him to call home. His messages are receive-only, but they flesh-out the details of Selenite society: individual Selenites exist in thousands of forms and find fulfillment in carrying out the specific social function for which they have been brought up: specialization is the essence of Selenite society, and all is under the control of the superintelligent Grand Lunar. The broadcasts stop abruptly, apparently because Cavor has guilelessly revealed to the Grand Lunar humankind's alarmingly warlike propensities. Bedford ends his narrative by imagining the Selenites overpowering the poor fellow:
Whatever it was that was happening about that apparatus we cannot tell. Whatever it was we shall never, I know, receive another message from the moon. For my own part a vivid dream has come to my help, and I see, almost as plainly as though I had seen it in actual fact, a blue-lit shadowy dishevelled Cavor struggling in the grip of these insect Selenites, struggling ever more desperately and hopelessly as they press upon him, shouting, expostulating, perhaps even at last fighting, and being forced backwards step by step out of all speech or sign of his fellows, for evermore into the Unknown—into the dark, into that silence that has no end…. [ch 26]
Lympne, where First Men starts, is on the same stretch of coast, west of Folkestone, on which Wells throughout 1900 was building his new home ‘Spade House’. I say he was building it: he actually hired a Folkestone builder called Dunk to construct it, based on plans drawn up by distinguished architect Charles Voysey (the whole thing was contracted for £1,760, although it ended up costing more like £3000). Wells stayed nearby during construction. ‘The builders laboured all through 1900, watched and fidgeted by Wells,’ say Norman and Jeanne Mackenzie, ‘who only had to walk a hundred yards from Arnold House to see how they were getting on. He could scarcely conceal his irritation at the slow and clumsy manner in which they worked’ [The Time Traveller: the Life of H G Wells (1973), 149]. It wouldn't be hard to connect the writing of this novel, especially its early sections, to this housebuilding context. Cavor blows his own house to smithereens when he first forges a sheet of Cavorite—it shields the pillar of air directly above it from gravity, causing an explosion that rips the sheet skyward and shatters his house. Then he builds a new kind of house of his own: which is to say, a shed-sized capsule or space-ship, complete with many windows and a door, in which the two men live for their week-long flight to the moon (the sheets of cavorite are disposed into roller-blind bundles, and uncurled to make the craft fly, which is a little ... puzzling. I'll come back to the scientific improbabilities of the story later).
It's almost too tempting to read this work via the biographical context out of which it was produced. Bedford, the hopeless writer, who lives and then writes-up his breakthrough adventure as a novel, is another of the many versions-of-Wells that appear in his fiction, named presumably on the principle that Bedford is a provincial town north of London just as Wells is a provincial town west of London. And real-life Wells, assembling First Men at the time as he was assembling his own house, may have been reflecting on the consonances between housebuilding and novelbuilding. Wells wills his novel into being, and it bears the imprint of his imagination; but he doesn't project it fully armed from his own split forehead. Indeed, more so than with his other science fiction, First Men draws on a template of a rich tradition of earlier lunar jaunts, anti-gravity speculations and fantastic voyages. So, similarly, Bedford must collaborate with another to actualise the adventure-that-becomes-the-novel: Cavor, the dreamer, the visionary, he who has the technical expertise to lay down the blueprint for the adventure-that-becomes-Bedford's-novel. Is his name a folded-together, sanded-down version of ‘Cha[rles] Voy[sey]’, Wells's architect, do you think? That makes more sense than the theory that the name has anything to do with the first Italian Prime Minister, I think.
And actually, I have a completely different theory as to how the name ‘Cavor’ figures in this novel. It still to do with houses, though. In a manner of speaking.
In a rather roundabout manner of speaking.
Anyway: if we want to talk to the originality of Wells's novel we need to lay our emphasis on the fourth, not the last, word in its title. Stories of reckless private individuals jollying off to the moon are in very plentiful supply, going back at least to Lucian (from whose Icaromenippus Wells quotes the epigraph to First Men's first edition) and positively thronging the bookshelves throughout the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries And antigravity was not only not Wells's original notion, it was so old an idea by 1900 as to be almost hackneyed. Joseph Atterley's A Voyage to the Moon (1827) is probably the earliest novel to utilize antigravitational propulsion to move its vessel from the Earth to the moon (I haven't been able to find an earlier example, at any rate). Percy Greg's Across the Zodiac (1880), in which an antigravitational propulsion named ‘apergy’ enables a voyage to Mars, was quite a notable success: a bestseller both imitated (John Jacob Astor's A Journey in Other Worlds  also uses ‘apergy’ to power its craft) and plagiarised: Across the Zodiac: A Story of Adventure (1896) by Edwin Pallander lifted the title and many of the details from Greg's novel, the antigravity in this case being created in this case by a gyroscope. By the time Wells was writing First Men the idea of antigravitationally powered interplanetary flight had become enough of a cliché to find itself the butt of the sciencefictional joke: C C Dail's Willmoth the Wanderer, or The Man from Saturn (1890), for instance, features an antigravity ointment, to be smeared onto whatever you want to fly. Which sounds like a convenient sort of product.
No: what is conceptually original in Wells's novel, aside from various specifics to do with Selenite society, is the notion that lunar inhabitants live inside their world, rather than on its surface. This idea was presumably a combination of Verne's Voyage au centre de la Terre (1864), complete with vast internal ocean, mixed-up together with the venerable old tradition of voyages to the moon, several of which are mentioned in the text itself: Lucian, Kepler, Verne's own Autour and the like. And this, in turn, points to what strikes me as the key aspect of the novel as novel: not its linear extrapolation of (for example) the possibilities of alien life so much as something more thematically robust:—an articulation of the difference between inside and outside. I would put it this way: the opposite of gravity is ‘levity’ and the novel First Men is a house. I'll explain what I mean by this in a moment.
It is true that some critics argue Wells took the idea of anti-gravity more seriously than I'm suggesting he did. Steven McLean’s Early Fiction of H G Wells: Fantasies of Science (Palgrave 2009) argues that Wells read and was inspired by an article that Professor John Henry Poynting published in Nature, ‘Recent Studies in Gravitation’ which discussed ‘whether the lines of gravitative force are always straight lines radiating from or to the mass round which they centre, or whether, like electric and magnetic lines of force, they have a preference for some media and distaste for others’ [quoted in McLean, 118]. After trying to ‘shield’ against gravity with various substances Poynting concludes that ‘it is not possible to screen the force of gravity’. It’s certainly possible to imagine Wells reading such an article and deciding to take the fiction-writer’s prerogative of disagreeing with its conclusion, although the timing here (Poynting’s article wasn’t published until August 1900, by which time, almost certainly, Wells had already written the bulk, and probably the whole, of First Men—the novel began serialisation in December. It’s just-about possible that Wells saw an early draft of the paper, since his old friend Richard Gregory was working at the journal; though surely this is unlikely. It’s also possible, and I’d say also unlikely, that Wells read the article in August and rewrote the early chapters in the light of it). But my point is that ‘anti-gravity’ was by this time common-currency of speculative writing; and the way Wells uses it deliberately downplays its seriousness. His narrator, Bedford, is a self-declared scientific ignoramus, has never heard of ‘helium’, makes a number of obvious scientific blunders in his account and so on.
To step away from the pedantry for a moment: the larger point is that First Men is a novel that, designedly, I think, can be read in two very different ways. We can of course read it as ‘straight’ science fiction, an exciting adventure in interplanetary exploration, meeting aliens and learning the world, all tinged with some lovely touches of sense-of-wonder. This, I would say, is how the novel is generally read, particularly in the SF and SF-scholarship community; and it is a perfectly decent way of apprehending the novel. But there's another of reading First Men:—as a joke, or confidence trick, or blague, as being about (in other words) narratorial unreliability. This is also, I'd say, an inside-outside binary of reading, although in this case the side of which we're in, or out, is the joke itself. Let's put it this way: the first kind of reading, as straight SF, would place First Men in the tradition of such nineteenth-century interplanetary voyages as Verne's De la Terre à la Lune (1865) and Lasswitz's Auf Zwei Planeten (1897). This was how I first read the novel, as a teenager. But the second type of reading would see it as sharing a pedigree with Poe's great story, ‘The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall’ (1835). That tale also concerns a visit to the moon, this time in a balloon filled with a mysterious gas, ‘a constituent of azote so long considered irreducible [with a] density about 37.4 times less than that of hydrogen’ [Poe, ‘Hans Pfaall’, 958]. This spacecraft, launched on the 1st April, spends nineteen days flying through the attenuated (but not entirely vacuous) interplanetary atmosphere, before tumbling ‘headlong into the very heart of a fantastical looking city, and into the middle of a vast crowd of ugly little people.’ [‘Hans Pfaall’, 993]. Pfaall has returned to the Earth accompanied by one of these lunar aliens, as proof. And here he breaks off his narration, with the promise of more interesting revelations to come if the burghers of Rotterdam are only prepared to give him the money necessary to pay off his creditors. In a page-long coda Poe relates ‘astonishment and admiration’ of the people of Rotterdam, and then immediately undercuts the veracity of the narration by itemising certain salient facts: that ‘an odd little dwarf and bottle conjurer, both of whose ears, for some misdemeanour, have been cut off close to the head, has been missing for several days from the neighbouring city of Bruges’, that ‘the newspapers which were stuck all over the little balloon were newspapers of Holland and therefore could not have been made in the moon’, and that Pfaall himself ‘the drunken villain’ has been seen drinking ‘in a tippling house in the suburbs’ with the ‘three very idle gentlemen styled his creditors’ [‘Hans Pfaall’, 996].
Poe’s appetite for hoaxes is one aspect of his genius for which critics today have little sympathy, and the heavy-handed ‘it was all a confidence trick!’ ending to this story has perhaps done more to sink ‘Hans Pfaall’ in critical estimation than anything else. Criticism nowadays has little purchase on the hoax as literary form. Once the critic has distanced herself from the anxiety of ‘being taken in’, and once the acknowledgment has been made that hoaxes are supposed to be funny, there is little more to say apart from laboriously explaining the joke—and a joke explained ceases to be funny. So: Harold Beaver plots out the various fooleries in the text, notes that Pfaall lifts-off on April Fools Day, that his balloon is shaped like a ‘fool’s cap’, and that the burgermeisters all have ridiculous names (Professor Rubadub, Mynheer Superbus Von Underduk and so on), and concludes that his hoax inverts normal expectations, and turns the logical world upside down. ‘Invert “phaal”’, Beaver notes (referring to one of Poe’s variants of the name ‘Pfaall’), ‘what sound do you hear but “laugh”?’ [Beaver, 339].
I have previously tried to make the argument (in this book, if you're interested) that Poe's tale, rather than being straight buffoonery, in fact actualises a dialectical relationship between the hoax and the serious speculative extrapolation. At any rate, I don't want to rehearse all that here any more than you want me to do so. But this all does have a bearing on how we might read First Men.
The first thing we learn of Bedford, our narrator, is that he fled to Lympne having ‘come an ugly cropper in certain business enterprises’, on the run from ‘cantankerous creditors’. He says that ‘sitting now surrounded by all the circumstances of wealth’ he can ‘admit, even, that to a certain extent my disasters were conceivably of my own making.’ It is the very success of the fantastical adventures he is telling that has secured his latterday financial wellbeing, so it have proved very much in his interests to spin an entertaining yarn. His initial plan at Lympne was to live in an out-of-the-way place, on credit, and then abscond without paying his debts:
I laid in an eighteen-gallon cask of beer on credit, and a trustful baker came each day. It was not, perhaps, in the style of Sybaris, but I have had worse times. I was a little sorry for the baker, who was a very decent man indeed. [ch. 1]In other words, the novel opens with the narrator saying: do not trust me. He goes on to stress that he does not in the least understand the very things out of which the story he himself narrates is framed. Cavour lays out his plans, and Bedford says:
He talked with an air of being extremely lucid about the “ether” and “tubes of force,” and “gravitational potential,” and things like that, and I sat in my other folding-chair and said, “Yes,” “Go on,” “I follow you,” to keep him going. It was tremendously difficult stuff, but I do not think he ever suspected how much I did not understand him. ... Sometimes my attention failed altogether, and I would give it up and sit and stare at him, wondering whether, after all, it would not be better to use him as a central figure in a good farce and let all this other stuff slide.Farce: well, alright. Bedford goes on to give us a great deal of specific information about anti-gravity. Then we have two contradictory episodes: one in which a single sheet of newly forged Cavorite, cooling in its frame, reaches the temperature where its antigravitational effect comes into play, thereby rendering the entire column of air above it weightless, ‘squirting’ it into space, and sucking in new air in a whirlwind that blows Bedford and Cavour off their feet. This disaster only ends when the tempest rips the sheet from its apparatus and sucks it away, exploding the house in the process.
This makes sense, given the premise. But then, a few pages later, Bedford expects us to swallow the exact opposite circumstance: Cavor has constructed an entire spaceship lined on every side with Cavorite, such that when the metal is curled up into window-blind rollers it has no effect, but when all the blinds are rolled down except one the sphere will gently fall in the direction of the open window. Now, we may want to explain this in terms of what SF Fans call ‘hand waving’, and that's a perfectly fine way to read it; but we might also want to take it as what they call a dead giveaway. Which brings us to the final act, the section most specifically reminiscent of ‘Hans Pfaall’. Bedford concedes, in chapter 21, that he has no evidence that he went on his adventures at all: no Cavor, no sphere, no Selenites, only two bars of gold (for which we have to take his word), and the adventures themselves. Then:
When I had finished my account of my return to the earth at Littlestone, I wrote, “The End,” made a flourish, and threw my pen aside, fully believing that the whole story of the First Men in the Moon was done. Not only had I done this, but I had placed my manuscript in the hands of a literary agent, had permitted it to be sold, had seen the greater portion of it appear in the Strand Magazine, and was setting to work again upon the scenario of the play I had commenced at Lympne before I realised that the end was not yet. And then, following me from Amalfi to Algiers, there reached me (it is now about six months ago) one of the most astounding communications I have ever been fated to receive. Briefly, it informed me that Mr. Julius Wendigee, a Dutch electrician, who has been experimenting with certain apparatus akin to the apparatus used by Mr. Tesla in America, in the hope of discovering some method of communication with Mars, was receiving day by day a curiously fragmentary message in English, which was indisputably emanating from Mr. Cavor in the moon.Let's imagine that it is the fee from the Strand, rather than moon gold, that paid for Bedford's holiday in Italy (also conveniently remote from his creditors). These communications via the Dutchman Wendigee appear to provide third-party corroboration of the whole thing, making the publication in volume form, which we are now reading, all the more saleable. Wendigee may not strike us as so obviously a joke Dutch name as Poe's Professor Rubadub or Mynheer Superbus Von Underduk, but, when we remind ourselves that wendige is the Dutch for ‘superfluous’, ‘extraneous’ or ‘unrelated’ it may strike as joke-ish enough, especially when the content of these Rubadubesque bulletins reveal that Cavor has befriended Selenites with names like ‘Phi-oo’ and ‘Tsi-puff’ (Φ-ω, that is pho! is, as the dictionary puts it, ‘expressive of dismissive contempt’; and we can take ‘tsi-puff’ as a version of ‘tch!’), or that the entire lunar economy depends upon farming ‘mooncalves’, a mooncalf of course being ‘a dreamer, a fool or simpleton’.
Wells is having fun with us, and there's no reason why we can't join in with the fun. Nor, as I suggest above, does this prevent us from taking the book seriously at the same time. A novel is a house in which are many rooms. The worst we could say (and I offer this tentatively) is that the Hans Pfaall mode, which perhaps begins to enter in with When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) and its daft sleeping-beauty premise, and which comes into a greater fullness here—that this mode marks a kind of shadow of distance falling between Wells and his properly Science Fictional writing. In Time Machine and War of the Worlds he is, very clearly, deeply (if playfully) serious about what he is doing. As we move into the 20th-century he begins to distance himself from that earnestness, to permit himself these kinds of ‘no, no, it's only a joke!’ strategies
So let's not follow him there. Let's instead take First Men seriously, and dig down a little further into a point I argue above: that the salient element in the novel's title is not the ‘Moon’ part so much as it is the ‘in’ part.
There's something really quite interesting going on in this novel, I think, to do with interiors and exteriors, a complex play of insides as against outsides. Wells the author is building himself a brand new house, on the south Kent coast, as he writes his novel; which means he is paying people (with, as it were, the two bars of lunar gold he fished out of science fiction, by way of writing brilliant stories about imaginary places that people wanted to read) to build him a house. A house, before it is anything else, is a machine for dividing the world into inside and outside. Insofar as science fiction is a literature of extraterrestrial voyages extraordinaires—and I say so because, of course, though such voyages are core SF there's a lot more to the genre than just that—then it is a literature that houses the world, that turns the whole globe into a house in which we, who live on its surface, are ‘inside’, and to which the whole dark and vacuous immensity of interstellar space is ‘outside’. So Wells, in need of more money, since building a house (or, since paying other people to build your house) is expensive, goes fishing in the moon for more gold. To that end he gets his Ca[rles]-Voy[sey] to design a new kind of dwelling. This is a house that can fly, but its primary function is as any house must be, to separate inside from outside by way of keeping those inside whole and keeping the outside out. The inside, with its zero-gravity, is dreamy:
... floating thus loosely in space [is] exceeding restful; indeed, the nearest thing in earthly experience to it that I know is lying on a very thick, soft feather bed. But the quality of utter detachment and independence! I had not reckoned on things like this. I had expected a violent jerk at starting, a giddy sense of speed. Instead I felt—as if I were disembodied. It was not like the beginning of a journey; it was like the beginning of a dream. [ch. 4]The Cavorite house keeps the killing vacuum and cold of space outside; but not only does it protect, as it were, topographically, it also creates a womblike suspension of time, or at least of the somatic rhythms that mark time, like eating and breathing:
It is a curious thing, that while we were in the sphere we felt not the slightest desire for food, nor did we feel the want of it when we abstained. At first we forced our appetites, but afterwards we fasted completely. Altogether we did not consume one-hundredth part of the compressed provisions we had brought with us. The amount of carbonic acid we breathed was also unnaturally low, but why this was, I am quite unable to explain. [ch 5]When they arrive at the moon, the novel reveals, as it were, its big twist: the moon is disclosed as a mode of hypertrophic interiority—is, indeed, interiority on the largest scale. Where the surface of the Earth is a kind of liminal space between Vernean interiors and dead exterior vacuum, the moon's surface alternates between these two, the entire lunar atmosphere freezing out and falling to the ground as ‘snow’ every fortnight, leaving the surface barren and open to space. First Men is a novel that posits the ‘house’ of the moon as all inside. Cavor is carried down a great shaft, by Selenite balloon:
This “great shaft” is one of an enormous system of artificial shafts that run, each from what is called a lunar “crater,” downwards for very nearly a hundred miles towards the central portion of our satellite. These shafts communicate by transverse tunnels, they throw out abysmal caverns and expand into great globular places; the whole of the moon's substance for a hundred miles inward, indeed, is a mere sponge of rock. “Partly,” says Cavor, “this sponginess is natural, but very largely it is due to the enormous industry of the Selenites in the past. The enormous circular mounds of the excavated rock and earth it is that form these great circles about the tunnels known to earthly astronomers (misled by a false analogy) as volcanoes.” [ch 23]Which is to say, it's a house the Selenites have, at least in part, built for themselves. The inside is illuminated:
... a region of continually increasing phosphorescence ... light due to the streams and cascades of water—“no doubt containing some phosphorescent organism”—that flowed ever more abundantly downward towards the Central Sea. And as he descended, he says, “The Selenites also became luminous." And at last far below him he saw, as it were, a lake of heatless fire, the waters of the Central Sea, glowing and eddying in strange perturbation, "like luminous blue milk that is just on the boil.”Like a sort of proto-TARDIS, Wells's moon has considerably more interiority than it has exteriority.
“This Lunar Sea,” says Cavor, in a later passage “is not a stagnant ocean; a solar tide sends it in a perpetual flow around the lunar axis, and strange storms and boilings and rushings of its waters occur, and at times cold winds and thunderings that ascend out of it into the busy ways of the great ant-hill above. It is only when the water is in motion that it gives out light; in its rare seasons of calm it is black. Commonly, when one sees it, its waters rise and fall in an oily swell, and flakes and big rafts of shining, bubbly foam drift with the sluggish, faintly glowing current. The Selenites navigate its cavernous straits and lagoons in little shallow boats of a canoe-like shape; and even before my journey to the galleries about the Grand Lunar, who is Master of the Moon, I was permitted to make a brief excursion on its waters. The caverns and passages are naturally very tortuous. A large proportion of these ways are known only to expert pilots among the fishermen, and not infrequently Selenites are lost for ever in their labyrinths. In their remoter recesses, I am told, strange creatures lurk, some of them terrible and dangerous creatures that all the science of the moon has been unable to exterminate.” [ch 23]
Discombobulated by their downward journey, prisoners of the Selenites, Bedford tried to cling to the default model of Earthly house: ‘think of a wet roof at sunset, Cavor! Think of the windows of a westward house!’ When Cavor does not answer he grows angry
“Here we are burrowing in this beastly world that isn't a world, with its inky ocean hidden in some abominable blackness below, and outside that torrid day and that death stillness of night. And all these things that are chasing us now, beastly men of leather—insect men, that come out of a nightmare! After all, they're right! What business have we here smashing them and disturbing their world! For all we know the whole planet is up and after us already. In a minute we may hear them whimpering, and their gongs going. What are we to do? Where are we to go? Here we are as comfortable as snakes from Jamrach's loose in a Surbiton villa!”Idea is the key, of course. It is by having ideas that H G Wells was able to go in the space of a decade from literally not being able to afford enough food to eat, to being able to shell out £3000 on a brand new house. And it is Cavor, the ideas man, is the one who remains in the inside-moon, after Bedford cracks, flees, staggers over the increasingly inhospitable exterior of the moon back to the Cavorite capsule and flies home alone. Ideas, of course, are interior things.
“It was your fault,” said Cavor.
“My fault!” I shouted. “Good Lord!”
“I had an idea!”
“Curse your ideas!” [ch 16]
It is this, I think, that underlies one of the book's strangest and most powerful episodes. Alone in the capsule, heading homeward again, Bedford makes manifest in himself the larger outside-inside dynamic of the book, and undergoes a profound existential crisis:
Incredible as it will seem, this interval of time that I spent in space has no sort of proportion to any other interval of time in my life. Sometimes it seemed as though I sat through immeasurable eternities like some god upon a lotus leaf, and again as though there was a momentary pause as I leapt from moon to earth. In truth, it was altogether some weeks of earthly time. But I had done with care and anxiety, hunger or fear, for that space. I floated, thinking with a strange breadth and freedom of all that we had undergone, and of all my life and motives, and the secret issues of my being. I seemed to myself to have grown greater and greater, to have lost all sense of movement; to be floating amidst the stars, and always the sense of earth's littleness and the infinite littleness of my life upon it, was implicit in my thoughts.As if anticipating the weirdness of fractal geometry. Bedford goes ‘inside’ Bedford to discover that he is observing Bedford from an immensity of ‘outsideness’, and that with this profoundly unhousing, unheimlich erasure of inside and outside he loses all sense of himself as a self. He revisits some episodes from his life in which he has, in some way, disappointed or perhaps betrayed a woman; and when he re-anchors himself by reading the Lloyds advert for a bike it is by way of, as the Marxists like to say, reifying that emotional, erotic contact, of taking it from ‘the drawing room’ to the open road, where the bicycle can roll (we don't need to spell out the humorous logic of the advert, ‘the gentleman of private means, and the lady in distress’—except to note that ‘forks’ refer to those parts of the bike-frame that hold the wheels, and ‘spoons’ hints at the kissing and cuddling the woman will permit the man, on account of how manly and wonderful he looks as he cycles around ... that is, it replays the emotional distress of Bedford's real-life interior entanglements with his lady as a commodified exterior cartoon). The whole chapter, ‘Mr Bedford in Infinite Space’ is a fascinating high-point in First Men, and that's because it takes the large-scale SF metaphor that the novel literalises, the moon, as object of desire and destination, hollow—and reverts it back from outside metaphor to inside metaphor. It invites us to read the whole crazy outside adventure as actually being about the inside of this one person. This is the point when the ‘straight’ SFnal reading of First Men hooks up with the ‘hoax’ Poe's Hans Pfaall reading. Outer space and inner space are, as the old New Wave SF fabulists liked to argue, iterations of one another. This is a story about following Wyndham's ‘outward urge’ all the way to the moon and discovering that your hugely hollow destination slides your own subjectivity along the Möbius strip we call ‘science fiction’ far enough to discover that the hollowness is your own, and all of external reality a kind of illusion.
I can't profess to explain the things that happened in my mind. No doubt they could all be traced directly or indirectly to the curious physical conditions under which I was living. I set them down here just for what they are worth, and without any comment. The most prominent quality of it was a pervading doubt of my own identity. I became, if I may so express it, dissociate from Bedford; I looked down on Bedford as a trivial, incidental thing with which I chanced to be connected. I saw Bedford in many relations—as an ass or as a poor beast, where I had hitherto been inclined to regard him with a quiet pride as a very spirited or rather forcible person. I saw him not only as an ass, but as the son of many generations of asses. I reviewed his school-days and his early manhood, and his first encounter with love, very much as one might review the proceedings of an ant in the sand. Something of that period of lucidity I regret still hangs about me, and I doubt if I shall ever recover the full-bodied self satisfaction of my early days. But at the time the thing was not in the least painful, because I had that extraordinary persuasion that, as a matter of fact, I was no more Bedford than I was any one else, but only a mind floating in the still serenity of space. Why should I be disturbed about this Bedford's shortcomings? I was not responsible for him or them.
For a time I struggled against this really very grotesque delusion. I tried to summon the memory of vivid moments, of tender or intense emotions to my assistance; I felt that if I could recall one genuine twinge of feeling the growing severance would be stopped. But I could not do it. I saw Bedford rushing down Chancery Lane, hat on the back of his head, coat tails flying out, en route for his public examination. I saw him dodging and bumping against, and even saluting, other similar little creatures in that swarming gutter of people. Me? I saw Bedford that same evening in the sitting-room of a certain lady, and his hat was on the table beside him, and it wanted brushing badly, and he was in tears. Me? I saw him with that lady in various attitudes and emotions—I never felt so detached before ... I saw him hurrying off to Lympne to write a play, and accosting Cavor, and in his shirt sleeves working at the sphere, and walking out to Canterbury because he was afraid to come! Me? I did not believe it.
I still reasoned that all this was hallucination due to my solitude, and the fact that I had lost all weight and sense of resistance. I endeavoured to recover that sense by banging myself about the sphere, by pinching my hands and clasping them together. Among other things, I lit the light, captured that torn copy of Lloyd's, and read those convincingly realistic advertisements about the Cutaway bicycle, and the gentleman of private means, and the lady in distress who was selling those “forks and spoons.” There was no doubt they existed surely enough, and, said I, “This is your world, and you are Bedford, and you are going back to live among things like that for all the rest of your life.” But the doubts within me could still argue: “It is not you that is reading, it is Bedford, but you are not Bedford, you know. That's just where the mistake comes in.”
“Confound it!” I cried; “and if I am not Bedford, what am I?” [ch. 20]
Which brings me, finally, to my thesis as to why Wells's ingénieur figure, his ideas-man, the person who enables the entire fantastic voyage, is called Cavor. Of all names! It's another iteration of Wells's hard-won Latin, an accomplishment that saw him into the Normal School and of which he was rather proud. Cavor is the first-person singular present passive indicative of cavō, and cavō means ‘I make hollow, hollow out, excavate’. The Latin passive voice makes the subject the receiver of the action of the verb. English needs to use expanded locutions to convey this idea: ‘Spade House has been constructed’; ‘Bedford was flown to the moon’. So if we wanted to English cavor we could say either ‘I am being hollowed’, or perhaps just ‘I am hollowed’. Cavor, we might say, is the means by which Bedford is hollowed as he journeys through infinite space, just as Bedford is the means by which Cavour's absent-minded abstractness is grounded—we might almost say, bedded—in reality. In a sense the two men are versions of one another. Inside out, and outside in.