Sunday, 21 January 2018

Star Begotten (1937)



:1:

I'm going with the British title to this late piece of Wellsian SF, as you can see from the cover of the UK first edition, up there. The American title got itself hyphenated, somehow: Star-Begotten. Take your pick.


Our protagonist is Joseph Davis, writer of such bestselling historical novels as King Richard and Saladin, The Singing Seamen and Smite with Hammer, Smite with Sword (‘he ran up and down the human tree, telling of the jolly adventures of Alexander and Caesar and Jenghiz Khan’ [1:1]). Davis decides to capitalise upon his fame by writing, in effect, this fictional universe's version of the Outline of History: ‘a deliberately romanticized history of mankind. It was to be a great parade—a cavalcade of humanity ... The Pageant of Mankind, the Promise and the Struggle’ [1.2]. He doesn't complete it. Writing this work unsettles all his comfortable preconceptions about his world and himself. Researching history properly, rather than to excavate occasional episodes of sentimental heroism, reveals it to Davis as a parade of randomness, barbarism and horror. Davis loses his illusions.

His disaffection is bound up with the difficulties in his marriage to his elfin but elusive wife Mary, who is pregnant with their first child. She is fifteen years his junior, and comes originally from the Isle of Lewis. Although he loves her, and she him after a fashion, she is also opaque and rather unnerving to him. She is ‘fey’, distant (‘there was no malice in her detachment from him. He could have understood malice better’), strangely self-contained. ‘I feel like a stray from another world,’ she tells him, adding: ‘but then, you know, I felt very much the same when I was at home in the islands where I was born’ [1.3]

At his London club, Davis becomes involved in a discussion about cosmic rays, ‘infinitesimal particles flying at an inconceivable velocity. They come from all directions of outer space. And that's as much as we know about them’ [2.2]. These, he is told, have the capacity to alter human genetic material: ‘the chromosomes, the germinal elements, have very complicated and enormous molecules. They are rather elaborately protected from most types of disturbance ... but the X rays, the Gamma rays, and particularly these cosmic rays can get through, and so, I reason, they must get through—to start something fresh. Since something fresh is always being started’ [2.2]. From here it's a short step to speculating that the rays might be being specifically directed at Earth. From where? Why not Mars!
“Yes, Mars, that wizened elder brother of the planet Earth. Mars, where intelligent life has gone far beyond anything this planet has ever known. Mars, the planet which is being frozen out, exhausted, done for. 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 it told how the Martians invaded the world, wanted to colonize it, and exterminate mankind. Hopeless attempt! They couldn't stand the different atmospheric pressure, they couldn't stand the difference in gravitation; bacteria finished them up. Hopeless from the start. The only impossible thing in the story was to imagine that the Martians would be fools enough to try anything of the sort. But—”

He held up his hand and wagged his fingers with pleasure at his idea.

“Suppose they say up there: ‘Let's start varying and modifying life on the earth. Let's change it. Let's get at the human character and the human brain and make it Martian-minded. Let's stop having children on this rusty little old planet of ours, and let's change men until they become in effect our children. Let's get spiritual children there.’ D'you see? Martian minds in seasoned terrestrial bodies.”

“And so they start firing away at us with these cosmic rays!”

“And presently,” said the rufous man, almost gobbling with the excitement of his idea, “presently when they have got the world Martianized—” [Star Begotten, 2.2]
The idea takes root in Davis' imagination. He becomes convinced that ‘Martians have been firing away with increasing accuracy and effectiveness at our chromosomes—perhaps for long ages’; and that this fact explains why ‘every now and then in history, strange exceptional figures have appeared, Confucius, Buddha; men with strange memories, men with uncanny mathematical gifts, men with unaccountable intuitions’ [3.2]. From here it's a short step to believing that his own as yet unborn child has been Mars-ishly influenced.

He shares the idea with his wife's doctor, Dr. Holdman Stedding, who also becomes convinced of the influence of the cosmic rays, and who shares the notion with his friend, Professor Ernest Keppel, a Professor of Philosophy and disciple of Freud.

These men do some research, scoping out schools and prisons ‘looking for mental abnormalities—on the upward side’, and concluding that the effect is real: the rate of such mutations was increasing and ‘a new quality of human being was being inserted into the fabric of human life, one here, one there’ [6.1]. They debate whether the Martians are monstrous horrors seeking to extirpate and replace humanity or benignly superior beings looking to improve it: Davis believes the former until his wife gives birth, when his view switches about: ‘he felt with the completest assurance and with no lingering trace of horror that both his wife and his child belonged to this new order of human beings that was appearing upon the planet’ [6.3].

What happens next is that news of the Martian pseudo-invasion goes public. Rigamey, the rufous man from Davis' club, writes about it in the newspapers. At first it is disregarded (‘in America the disclosure of the Martian intervention was received with bright incredulity. Rigamey's articles were syndicated everywhere and credited nowhere’ [7.2]), but one convert is Lord Thunderclap, ‘that great synthetic press peer’ [7.3]—yet another Wellsian fictional portrait of his friend Lord Beaverbrook—who uses his newspapers to spread the word. Mass media turns it into a series of distorted absurdities: ‘advertisement boards with a new inscription ... a sky sign took up the words in letters of raw red fire, “Musical Martian Midgets”’ [7.4]. People are diverted briefly, and then interests falls away. Thunderclap's endorsement leads to a brief ‘boom’, then ‘general derision’ ‘general disregard’: ‘nothing stales so rapidly as a new popular idea’ [8.1].

The last three chapters of the novel alter the tone and direction of the whole. Davis, Stedding and Keppel debate among themselves the genuine implications of what they call ‘the star-men ... homosideralis. Star-Begotten’ [8.1]. The increase in the numbers of these beings within the human population is, they argue, the explanation behind ‘the immense advance in scientific knowledge in the past century and a half’ [8.2]. Our problem as a species, they decide, is that we don't properly grow up:
Hardly any of us grow up fully. Particularly do we dread and shirk complete personal responsibility—which is what being adult means. Man is the boy who won't grow up, but he grows monstrous clumsy and heavy at times all the same, a Goering monster, a Mussolini—the bouncing boys of Europe. Most of us to the very end of our lives are obsessed by infantile cravings for protection and direction, and out of these cravings come all these impulses towards slavish subjection to gods, kings, leaders, heroes, bosses, mystical personifications like the People, My Country Right or Wrong, the Church, the Party, the Masses, the Proletariat, Our imaginations hang on to some such Big Brother idea almost to the end. [Star Begotten, 8.5]
I'll wager you a penny to a pound Orwell read this novel. But the new homo superbus who will supersede homo sapiens will have a different kind of mind: a ‘hard’ mind; ‘like a lens, revealing and scrutinizing one aspect after another, one possibility after another, and this and that necessary correlation’ [8.6]. It sounds pretty uncomfortable to me, but these gentlemen greet its coming with equanimity. ‘[Stedding] paused and pushed the cigar-boxes towards his guests. “A world gone sane,” said Davis. “Planetary psycho-therapeutics,” said the doctor. “A sane world, my masters—and then?”’ [8.6]. They speculate for a while about the coming Pax Mundi.

In the book's final chapter, Davis's literary agent, the improbably-named G. B. Query, checks-up with his client on how the writing's going on The Pageant of Mankind. Davis tells him that the Martians are coming, and that therefore there's no point in completing his History. Mr Query boggles, but Davis rips up his unfinished MS. His wife asks him what he is doing: ‘he pointed to his son. “He will do better,” he said, “He will do better. I'm tearing up the past to make way for him. Him and his kind—in their turn.”’ [10.3] In the despair of his own sense of redundancy Mary comes over and embraces him, and he has one final revelation:
A great light seemed to irradiate and in a moment to tranquillize the troubled ocean of his disordered mind. The final phase of his mental pacification was very swift indeed. At a stroke everything became coherent and plain to him. Everything fell into place. He had, he realized, completed his great disclosure with this culminating discovery. His mind swung round full compass and clicked into place. He too was star-born! He too was one of these invaders and strangers and innovators to our fantastic planet, who were crowding into life and making it over anew! Throwing the torn scraps into a basket and beginning again in the nursery. Fantastic how long it had taken him to realize this!

“Of course!” he whispered.

His mind had gone all round the world indeed, but only to discover himself and his home again in a new orientation. He stood up abruptly, stared at Mary as though he had that moment realized her existence, and then slowly and silently took her in his arms and put his cheek to hers.

“You were star-begotten,” he said, “and so was I.”

She nodded agreement. [Star Begotten, 10.3]


:2:

It's interesting to reflect back upon the 1890s, when Wells was so immensely prolific of brilliant SF short stories. Star Begotten is, in essence, a cool SF short expanded to novel length. And it is a cool idea, although it's not really a whole novel's-worth of ideational coolness.

Certainly it proved (yet again, for Wells) immensely influential. Here is the germ for many later tales, most notably Wyndham's Midwich Cuckoos (1957), Fred Hoyle's BBC series A For Andromeda (1961), Kubrick and Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1967) and the (Martian) Mysterons in Gerry and Sylvia Andersen's Captain Scarlet (1967-68). It's a kind of inversion of the three stages of alien contact posited by Paul Schrader and Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977): not actual aliens among us, like Wells's The War of the Worlds, nor alien artifacts (as in Wells's short story, ‘The Crystal Egg’, 1897), but merely the remote influence of aliens. This influence can, obviously, be spun as a positive or a negative thing; and the problem is that that the positive line lacks conflict, and therefore drama. A story like Tiptree's ‘The Screwfly Solution’ (1977)—another masterpiece whose core idea can be traced back to Star Begotten—is considerably less comforting than Wells's version of the idea, and all the better for it.

But, wait: is Star Begotten comforting? Is it, indeed, what it appears to be on its surface? Its opening sentences are: ‘This is the story of an idea and how it played about in the minds of a number of intelligent people. Whether there was any reality behind this idea it is not the business of the storyteller to say. The reader must judge for himself.’ [1.1] Some readers judge harshly. David Ketterer, for instance, is firm: ‘the answer is an unequivocal “no”: there is no evidence that Martians are messing with human chromosomes. Consequently, Star Begotten cannot be classified as sf; it is simply the story of a delusion. Its “idea” is confined to the mind or imagination’ [Ketterer ‘The “Martianized” H. G. Wells?’ Science Fiction Studies, 36:2 (2009), 329]

I'm not sure most people would want to be quite so categorical. This is a story, and as such it floats a hypothesis about, broadly speaking, evolution, and more specifically about the place positive outliers have in that process. It also engages, as all stories must, in intertextuality: not just specific references to The War of the Worlds, as in the passage quoted above (later Keppel approvingly quotes ‘that man Olaf Stapledon’ and ‘a book called Last and First Men’ [5.2.]. In case we miss the Biblical resonance of a man called Joseph feeling uncertain about his paternity in relation to his wife Mary and the Star Child she is carrying, Wells flags it up:
Since his school days he had had a secret detestation of his own Christian name. Facetious upper-school boys had made it plain that there was a shadow on it Neither in the Old Testament nor in the New, is the name of Joseph adorned with that halo of triumphant virility which is the desire of every young male. He had struggled to insist that he should always be called ‘Jo.’ But the mortifying realization that he was a ‘Joseph’ damped his private meditations. [Star Begotten, 1.4]
Then again, the titular use of a derivative of that egregiously Biblical variant beget should top us off before we even crack open chapter one (Wells tinkered with no fewer than twelve variant titles before settling on that one, including Sons of the Cosmic Rays, Arrows of Change, Here From Outside and the nicely sinister They Are Here). The point of these allusions is not in the ticking off of a list of priors, but rather in identifying that logic which is constitutive of science fiction itself. Contra Ketterer, I take Star Begotten to be not only obvious science fiction but to be about science fiction.

Aldiss's foundational document of the genre, Shelley's Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus (1818), exists as a potent superposition of both materialist pseudo-scientific SF and pseudo-magical fantasy. The monster can be read either as an early robot or android, or as the latest iteration in a long tradition of bogeymen, golems, undead horrors and Grendl-style beasts. Really, the book is quite finely balanced between the two textual strategies. Shelley deploys all the Gothic conventions of the latter without going so far as to include unmistakable supernatural machinery; and she styles her Frankenstein as a scientist whilst also being careful not to go into specifics concerning how he builds his monster, or how infuses into it the spark of life. In my reading, this is because Shelley's novel doesn't so much invent SF as efficiently and influentially mediate the conceptual fault-line out of which this, actually rather older, mode came into life.

It's certainly true that Star Begotten offers no ‘proof’ that the cosmic rays are emanating from Mars. On the contrary, characters repeatedly say, in effect, ‘we don't know where the rays are coming from, let us say from Mars as a placeholder’. Mars (as with the ‘rufous’, or ruddy, man who first chats to Davis about cosmic rays) is a colour, a martial possibility and a glimpse of the coming war, as well as an actual material planet upon which actual, material life might have evolved. ‘There in Mars,’ says Keppel, ‘as any astronomer will tell you, there are all the conditions necessary for a sort of life similar, if not identically similar, to life upon earth’ [5.2].

The novel is clear that it, and its characters, don't really understand what cosmic rays are (we still don't have all the answers where this phenomenon is concerned), which leaves it up to us, as the novel's opening sentence puts it, whether we want to read the novel in quasi-materialist terms, as science fiction, or whether we want to read it as a story of mysterious, magical or spiritual, species uplift. Or whether, perhaps, we want to read it as a story about mere delusion.

Wells started the 1930s by so-authoring The Science of Life: he was perfectly up-to-date with evolutionary science, and understood perfectly well that natural selection is a non-teleological and random process of sifting mutations through the sieve of environmental chance. I don't suppose you'd find one academic evolutionary biologist in ten thousand who would argue anything other, today.

And yet notions of evolution as a teleological process has proved remarkably difficult to shake off. plenty of people have seen and continue to see evolution as a process shaped by God, or Bergsonian élan vital, or Hegelian Geist, or whatever. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a reading of the evolution of mind in those terms, with space aliens instead of God, and in its debased, Erich von Däniken form this becomes an comprehensive disbelief in the capacity of homo sapiens to achieve anything by his/her own lights that I, as a homo sapiens myself, find frankly insulting (‘you really think piddling little human beings could invent the wheel or pile slabs on top of one another without the assistance of godlike external beings? What a noob you must be!’).

In a very small, or perhaps a rather distant, way that's a problem with Star Begotten too: whoever Wells's ‘Martians’ are, they are invoked here at least in part to do the work that Wells's own human-centred Open Conspiracy had failed to do: widwife the World State utopia out of the seized-up birth canal of the post-World War 1 settlement. Wells looks sternly at us over his trim-moustache. We have failed him. Perhaps the task was always beyond us. Perhaps only intervention by ineffably wise space-aliens will bring it to fruition.

For me, it's the comparison with Wyndham's Midwich Cuckoos, a novel conceptually epigone but artistically superior, that really tells against what Wells is doing here. Stories of alien invasion are necessarily stories about encountering otherness, or alienness, as disruption. Speaking for myself, I prize those iterations of that disruption that don't sacrifice nuance wholly to bang-bang explosions and whizzing laser beams exploding Big Ben. What makes The Midwich Cuckoos so extraordinary (it's also captured by the 1960 movie adaptation, Village of The Damned) is the way it styles the alien not only as a child, but our child. There's a profound truth in this imaginative gesture, I think. Don't get me wrong: I love my kids—having kids was the best thing that ever happened to me—and I'm as susceptible to sentimentality where children and childhood is concerned as anyone. But at the same time, I'm sure any parent would recognise what I'm talking about when I say that there is a radically uncanny quality about children. It's in the whole logic of having them. Our children will succeed us. And that's as it should be; no parent would want it any other way. There's no worse horror imaginable than our children predeceasing us. But nonetheless, in odd moments, when you catch a glimpse of them slant, it truly dawns on your: our children will succeed us. They are the correlatives of our mortality. Kids are life, are the future, and once we have them they supplant us in both those things. Because howevermuch and however genuinely we love our kids (and most of us love our kids very much and very genuinely) the fact can't be evaded that they will be living and loving and drinking wine in the sunshine when we are cold and dead in the ground. That this is precisely the consummation we hope for, precisely the existential point of having children in the first place, doesn't stop it being a truly unnerving thought.

Wyndham's novel groks that uncanniness, and dramatises it in a manner as artistically satisfying as it is existentially profound. Wells's prior version of, basically, the same story—well, doesn't, really. Davis's child is sweet rather than uncanny. It represents not Davis' supersession but his magic passport to a shared future.
The child lay on its side in its cot in a dreamless sleep. It scarcely seemed to breathe. The expression of that flushed little face with its closed eyes was one of veiled determination. One small clenched fist peeped over the coverlet ... Never, [Davis] thought, had anything in the world looked so calmly and steadfastly resolved to assert its right to think and act in its own way in its own time. [Star Begotten, 10.3]
That's not an alien baby, not really: that wholly misses the profundity of the children in Wyndham's novel, or (say) Clarke's Childhood's End. The giveaway is that the novel allows Davis to join the quasi-Biblical star-begotten elite. ‘He too was star-born!’ That's the point where wish-fulfillment tangles mendaciously with the possibilities of the novel's key conceit, I think.

8 comments:

  1. One footnote: "Star-begotten" is the name of the leader of the Jewish revolt against Roman rule in the AD 130s: Simon bar Kokhba (The Jewish sage Rabbi Akiva indulged the possibility that Simon could be the Jewish messiah, and gave him the surname "Bar Kokhba" meaning "Son of the Star" in Aramaic, from the Star Prophecy verse from Numbers 24:17: "There shall come a star out of Jacob"). After three years of revolt, Bar Kokhba was eventually killed by the Romans. I can't work out if this has any relevance to Wells's novel.

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  2. Much as it pains me to say so, I agree with Ketterer on this: Star Begotten is not science fiction. There is not one scrap of evidence in the book that makes the "cosmic rays" anything more than the musings of a bunch of people in a gentleman's club. But it is undoubtedly a novel about science fiction, and in that respect possibly the most interesting meditation on the genre that Wells wrote.

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    1. What if we think of it as a science fiction story (Martian invasion by remote action) set within a frame story (gentlemen in a club telling the story of etc etc)? Would that make it 'science fiction'?

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    2. It seems to me that the novel starts with people musing about a rather wild idea. During the course of their musings, they expand the idea to extraordinary lengths, and one of their number starts to believe it is all true. But in fact at no point is there anything to suggest that it is true. It is not a story about invasion, but a story about the delusion of invasion. And the gentlemen's club isn't the frame; it is the story. So it is a story that intersects with science fiction, but it feels to me to be an awful stretch to say that it IS science fiction.

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    3. Well, we can agree to disagree (although it's more than one of the gentlemen in the club who believes it; it's all of them, and they convince the novel's Lord Beaverbrook who also believes it, and runs a series in his newspapers warning the world it is being invaded ...)

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  3. Adam, you may recall my mentioning a whole back William Sloane’s To Walk the Nightrecently reissued with his other novel — and it’s interesting to note that it (a) was also published in 1937 and (b) treats the whole they-walk-unrecognized-among-us theme in the minor key or horror rather than the major one of possibility. I think it’s a really good book.

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  4. I can't help but feel that people who have a firm opinion on whether or not the invasion is "actually plausible" are missing the point in the way that people who take a firm position on whether the children are in contact with ghosts, or the governess is mad, in James' THE TURN OF THE SCREW (a book that, I guess for obvious reasons, feels vaguely linked to STAR BEGOTTEN in my mind).

    It seems to me the ambiguity in both books is intentional, and in both cases is a feature rather than a flaw. But then, I like that kind of ambiguity in a book, so maybe I'm seeing what I want.

    As for predecessors, I can think of examples of children exposed to powerful forces from beyond our world who end up being "changed" by them, and then walking among us undetected (sort of, at least until Stuff Happens). Machen's "The Great God Pan," for example, even has some (pseudo-)science as the mechanism. I'd be curious if you turn up any earlier, unambiguously SFnal examples.

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