Thursday, 14 October 2010

‘The Food of the Gods’ – H.G. Wells (Gollancz)

Every so often, I’m gently reminded of how many genre books there are out there that I haven’t even heard of (let alone read). Take H.G. Wells for example. If you were to ask me what he’d written over the course of his life I’d cough nervously and say ‘The War of the Worlds’ and ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’. You would then say, “What about The Invisible Man’?” I’d get all embarrassed and make some vague excuse about it being a long day... If you were to then say, “What about ‘The Food of the Gods’?” my reaction would be one of complete incomprehension...
Until a couple of weeks ago, I had no idea that H.G. Wells had written ‘The Food of the Gods’, let alone that it was one of the latest entries in Gollancz’s ‘SF Masterworks’ series. The arrival of the book, on my doorstep, changed all of that though and I think I can probably be excused for not knowing the name of every single book that Wells wrote. Seriously, have you seen the number of books that he churned out?
I often find that my reaction to a book being proclaimed an ‘SF Masterwork’ runs along the lines of, “Really? Says who?” With this in mind, I was interested to see how ‘The Food of the Gods’ (published in 1904) matched up to it’s newly given status...

Professor Redwood and Mr Bensington are two scientists whose work has kept them out of the public eye and in the realms of academia where they feel most comfortable. However, their latest discovery is about to propel them right into the midst of public opinion and could have serious implications for the future of the Earth itself...
Herakleophorbia is a substance proved to cut out all the lulls in physical growth and give whatever it is administered to a period of sustained growth, both physically and mentally. What does this mean for regular sized people though when what is fast becoming the next stage in human evolution might well render the rest of humanity obsolete...?

With a reputation of being one of the founding fathers of science-fiction (and a few books already in the ‘SF Masterworks’ series), H.G. Wells’ ‘The Food of the Gods’ must have felt like a safe bet for the publishers to include in this series. When held up against his more well known titles though, I did find myself wondering whether this was a book that really deserved to sit on this list.
While H.G. Wells does pre-empt the discussion over genetically modified food (by almost a hundred years), and takes it to a logical conclusion, ‘The Food of the Gods’ doesn’t feel like a book that I’ll remember in the same breath as his more famous work. It doesn’t come across as being as ‘epic’ as ‘The War of the Worlds’, the social commentary isn’t as hard edged as it was in ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’ and the psyche of various characters isn’t probed as deeply as I felt it was in ‘The Invisible Man’. While you do get a little of each, none of these approaches are expanded upon enough (there’s only so much room in a 206 page book!) for them to stand out as a defining feature.

That’s not to say ‘The Food of the Gods’ isn’t worth the read though, far from it. Wells’ prose frequently errs towards the ‘flowery’ which can become more than a little off-putting when you all you want to do is get straight to the point (although his narrator recounts the story with a witty turn of phrase that is worth sticking around for). Once you get past this though, Wells clearly has a lot to say and I for one enjoyed the experience.

Wells champions the course of science with its goal of making life better for the common man. What he appears to have a big problem with though are the people involved in the advance of science itself. Concepts may be pure but the people who adopt them are inherently flawed as humans, whether it’s Redwood feeding the ‘Food of the Gods’ to his own baby son (without a thought to what the consequences might be) or the hypocrisy of people protesting against the newly arrived ‘giants’ while happy to reap the benefits of their endeavours. Maybe the message is laid on a bit thick (and pushed in certain directions) but it’s still a valid one in this story, man is just not meant to play God.

Where does this leave the characters in our story? In scenes that could have been written especially for me, our ‘heroes’ are left fighting wildlife that has inadvertently ingested the Food of the Gods and grown as a result. Giant rats, earwigs and pond life are all out to make their mark on an evolving food chain and these scenes provide the reader with moments of action that wouldn’t look out of place on the big screen.

It’s the humans, reared on the food, that are the main focus of the story with their attempts to fit into a world where their growth has become a political issue and their segregation demanded. Along with their size (and proportionate intelligence) proving an obstacle to acceptance, Wells also delivers a more subtle commentary suggesting that social class will prove a barrier to all (no matter how large they may be). This is displayed all too clearly in the tragic story of Caddles whose attempts to educate himself, by seeing more of the world, ultimately end in his death.
While there is only one possible outcome to this tale, H.G. Wells does well to render it as vague as possible and not a foregone conclusion for either side. Both sides are far too entrenched for there ever to be a happy ending to this sad tale but the book ends with the impression that things really could go either way in the future. I think this was a great way for the book to end personally as that feeling of uncertainty really sat with me, it still is actually. You don’t know what’s going to happen next but you know it won’t be good.

While I wouldn’t say that ‘The Food of the Gods’ is an ‘SF Masterwork’ it is still a thoroughly absorbing read that I’m glad I took the time to pick up. I really should check out more of the books in this series.

Eight and Three Quarters out of Ten

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

interesting, thanks