September 14, 2006


Star Begotten: A Biological Fantasia. By H.G. Wells. Wesleyan University Press. $22.95.

     A fascinating short novel in which nothing actually happens – but lots of people sit around discussing what might have happened, or might be happening, or might soon happen – Star Begotten is a late work in which H.G. Wells rethinks the Martian invasion of The War of the Worlds in light of later developments in the biological sciences.  Written in 1937 – 39 years after the earlier, far more famous book – Star Begotten is the second in a series of four short Wells novels dating to the period just before Word War II: 1936-1938.  Star Begotten was preceded by The Croquet Player and followed by The Camford Visitation and The Brothers.  The four novels are entirely independent of each other, but the psychological instability of the central character in The Croquet Player may, just may, be reflected in Star Begotten as well.

     There is a lot of “may, just may” in this book, which posits the use by putative Martians (or maybe aliens from somewhere else) of cosmic rays (or something similar) to create a sort of directed evolution that will eventually accomplish a successful “invasion” of Earth not through physical means but by turning humans into beings that are, in effect, Martians.

     There is a very “modern” feel to this premise – despite the underlying scientific absurdity, of which Wells himself seems to have been aware (characters in the book discuss the fact that the vast majority of mutations are unfavorable).  Wells’ communication of the concept seems quite modern, too: the central character of the story is a man named Joseph Davis, who has a successful career as an author of popular histories, a charming young wife, and the suspicion that he, his wife and their unborn child are being mutated by Martians for the aliens’ own heinous purposes.

     This could be a story of Davis coming unhinged, and Wells hints that this is one possible interpretation.  It could also be a story played for humor, and Wells hints at that, too, even bringing his own earlier work in for a bit of ridicule: One character says, “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.”

     But all Wells ever does in Star Begotten is hint – which makes the book fascinating in some ways and irritating in others.  What exactly is going on?  Wells does not say.  Are Martians or other aliens actually invading?  No answer.  Are Davis’ suspicions about himself and his family correct?  Maybe.  Is Davis simply losing his grip on reality?  Could be.  Readers seeking pretty much anything definitive – including any sort of standardized plot – will find Star Begotten frustrating.

     Yet the book has manifest charms as an intellectual puzzle; an exploration of an outlandish but not quite impossible idea about a way in which alien beings might conquer humans without having to mount a frontal assault; and a prototype of the sort of darkly comic SF writing later to be found in the works of Robert Sheckley and Philip K. Dick.  “The jokes of today may become the facts of tomorrow,” opines one character in Star Begotten.  The book, if indeed it is a joke, certainly seems to have inspired a variety of dark biological fantasies by later authors.  Its tendency to keep the reader off-balance about what, if anything, is really happening, is perhaps its most modern characteristic of all.

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