Saturday, 26 July 2014

The Food of the Gods

H.G. Wells The Food of the Gods (1904)

Considering the graceful perfection of Wells at his very best - as found in novels of such repute as to require no formal identification - one cannot help but be astonished by the mediocrity of his lesser works, of which this is one. The Food of the Gods concerns the development of a food substance which causes dramatic and continuous growth leading to the birth of a race of giants, amongst the inevitable rats the size of cows and other creatures which eventually came to serve as b-movie staples. The science is somewhat wonky, but the point is essentially that from which Michael Crichton extrapolated most of his career, namely a catastrophic scientific genii which cannot be stuffed back into its bottle. Here an emergent race of enormous supermen serve as a metaphor for reckless scientific advance, inspiring society towards an increasingly reactionary, even Fascist state as it attempts to control its mammoth progeny.

The story would be fine in itself, but for the manner of its telling. Whilst H.G. was more than capable of crafting a respectable sentence, this one reads like he wasn't really paying attention and was thus prone to birthing monstrosities of this sort:

And the earliness of this second outbreak was the more unfortunate, from the point of view of Cossar at any rate, since the draft report still in existence shows that the Commission had, under the tutelage of that most able member, Doctor Stephen Winkles (F.R.S., M.D., F.R.C.P., D.Sc., J.P., D.L., etc.), already quite made up its mind that accidental leakages were impossible, and was prepared to recommend that to entrust the preparation of Boomfood to a qualified committee (Winkles chiefly), with an entire control over its sale, was quite enough to satisfy all reasonable objections to its free diffusion.

That's a single ninety-nine word sentence in case you're still awake and happened to wonder, and although its length is atypical, its tone is fairly representative of the rest, at least leaving aside those passages which seem to have served as precursor to the more laboured Ealing comedies. These dominate the first part of the book, very much epitomising the sort of cosy catastrophe Brian Aldiss wrongly attributes to John Wyndham - all boggle-eyed rural types with funny names marvelling at what will they think of next, and the lisping Mr. Skinner who deliverth lengthy paragraphth of bumbling content-free phonetically rendered text thuch ath we have here prethumably entirely in the thervice of communicating how theriouthly fucking thide-thplitting it can be when thomeone thpeakth with a lithp, but poththibly altho to contheal the fact of Herbert having forgotten to include a fucking thtory. This aggravating tone wanes somewhat as we plod slowly towards the conclusion of the book, by which point the giant babies are all grown and now inexplicably talking like portentous aliens from episodes of Shatner era Star Trek with the ye and the yonder and why do the small ones beleaguer us so?

The Food of the Gods could have been up there with H.G.'s greatest hits, but it reads like the author lost interest early on and was trying hard to keep himself sufficiently amused to finish it off, and to finish it off mainly just for the sake of finishing it off. There was once a tremendous novel under here somewhere, but this is dire.

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