Friday, 21 April 2017

The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth (1904)

The Food of the Gods has been regarded by some as a minor addition to the canon of Wellsian science fiction. I don't understand why, though: it seems to me to rank with the very best of his writing. Bensington and Redwood, Wells’s existentially myopic scientists, creates ‘Herakleophorbia’, or ‘Boomfood’, a dietary stimulant that provokes giganticism in the creatures that eat it. But the substance escapes into the environment, and the south-east of England is plagued by waves of giant vegetation, wasps, rats and other beasts, including eventually giant human beings. Wells’s account of these events perhaps lacks some of the narrative drive and plangent, tragically-tinged seriousness of War of the Worlds or The Time Machine. But it contains a superb central conceit, some gripping set-pieces, and most of all it has the memorable and eloquent imagination-haunting quality of the best SF. Perhaps this is more of a personal crotchet than I am admitting; for I have always found giants a fascinating, have written giants into my own fiction, and respond to this novel precisely because it does giants so very well.

Of course, Wells was not the first writer to cover that topic. Giants have been part of fairy tales for millennia; and giants play important roles in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865)—two great fantasy novels with which Food of the Gods is in obvious dialogue. But Wells is doing something new. Swift’s aim was, broadly, satirical; and his Brobdignagian giants and Lilliputian miniatures are in part about dramatizing a sense of proportion, man’s proper place in the cosmos. Alice eats a prototype ‘boomfood’ (her magical mushroom) and grows prodigiously, thereby giving Carroll, appropriately for a masterpiece of children’s literature, a metaphor for childhood—that time of life when we literally experience abrupt shootings-up in height. But Wells is doing something else with his central metaphor, besides (that is) using it as a platform for both exciting action and social comedy.

To put it more precisely, Wells’s short novel does something neither Swift nor Carroll manage: it follows through on its concept. Swifts’ giants simply are, a fixed part of his imagined global landscape. Carroll’s Alice experiences childhood’s shifts in scale, but she herself doesn’t grow up—and who would want to leave so wonderful a land as hers behind anyway? But growing up is precisely the theme of The Food of the Gods, what the book is about not just in the individual sense, but in the larger, social sense that Wells anticipated the coming of a proper maturity of humanity. The young giants at the novel’s end are one version of his ‘coming race’, a frequent feature of his speculative writing: the Samurai or Overmen who, he hoped, would move mankind as a species out of its bickering infant-stage into the broad sunlit uplands of his imagined utopian future. To put it another way: if the Alice books are about the childhood of one girl, then Wells’s novel is about the childhood of society as a whole.

This is why the book is structured the way it is, and why so much of it is given over to a slightly bantering comedy-of-class-manners that has, I suppose, not aged particularly well. To be clear: I’d still stand up for some of the comedy in the book (the sections about baby Redwood breaking his playroom, having to be wheeled around in a reinforced invalid chair rather than a pram, and booming ‘ “Dadda” and “Babba”’ at busdrivers and policemen ‘in a sociable democratic way’ still make me laugh, for instance). But for much of the book Wells’s deliberately Dickensian tone, if sometimes droll, is often rather clunkingly. Readers who associate Wells with the more lyrically evocative style of (say) War of the Worlds may find this an impediment to their enjoyment. But it is not gratuitous. On the contrary the style is integral to Wells’s larger project.

This is because the novel is about a world’s transition from small to big, from triviality to greatness. The first portion accordingly not only fills us in on Wells’s pseudo-scientific ‘food’, it also paints a portrait of society as bumbling, incompetently childish world. The littleness of this vision of England parlays naturally into comedy. Even the more able of Wells’s adults engage in childish knockabout—clambering down holes, falling into ponds; and his scientists are as messy with their ‘boomfood’ as any toddler. To begin with there don’t seem to be any properly constituted authorities at all, nobody to take charge of the increasingly alarming situation. Even when ‘government’ gets involved, later on, it takes the form of the pettiness of Caterham, a kind of pigmy demagogue. By contrast, Wells draws the young human giants with a great deal of dignity, and even (by the end) a tonal grandeur compatible with their physical dimensions. Their stature is greater than ours in more than simply physical terms.

The crucial thing about these giants is that they are the future. Here’s Redwood, at the end, watching his giant son and their giant comrades preparing for war: ‘the two giants who were working in the corner began a rhythmic hammering that made a mighty music to the scene … about him were the young giants, huge and beautiful, glittering in their mail.’ By this stage, this Wagnerian tone has entirely replaced the drollery of the earlier sections:
The voice of the giant children spoke to one another, an undertone to that clangorous melody of the smiths. His tide of doubt ebbed. He heard the giant voices, he heard their movements about him still. It was real, more surely it was real—as real as spiteful acts! More real, for these great things, it may be, are the coming things, and the littleness, bestiality, and infirmity of men are the things that go.
That fence-sitting ‘it may be’ aside, this encapsulates the moral of the book; and this is why Wells chooses to tell this story via giants. It is not just that their great size correlates to the ‘greatness’ he anticipates as replacing humanity’s littleness, bestiality, and infirmity—although, obviously, it does. But it is something more. Wells’s giants are unmissable. They are the very obviousness of the positions that seemed to Wells himself perfectly clear and inevitable, despite the fact that most of his contemporaries couldn’t see them: the passing away of the petty old world and the coming of new greatness. This is why his giants, unschooled outsiders though they be, light as-it-were naturally upon progressive ideological positions identical with Wells’s own—young giant Caddles asking with seeming ingenuity why the idle rich have all the money and the poor have to do all the work, for instance; or young Redwood and the giant princess together repudiating (as Wells himself did, in his private life) the restrictions of Edwardian conventional sexual morality. His giants are the enormous truth of things that little people contrive, somehow, to overlook; they are, to employ a cliché, the elephant in the room. They, like the novel in which they appear, are not to be missed.