The Food of the Gods, and How It Came To Earth by H.G. Wells (1904)

Bensington drank that delight of human fellowship that comes to happy armies, to sturdy expeditions – never to those who live the life of the sober citizen in cities.

Science fantasies

In numerous interviews, prefaces and articles H.G. Wells explained the strategy behind his ‘scientific fantasies’. The idea was to take one big, reasonably scientific idea and develop it to extremes in a world which, in all other respects, remains perfectly ordinary and mundane.

Thus in The War of The Worlds the Martians travel across the solar system and arrive in… Dorking. In The Time Machine the traveller visits the ruins of a future civilisation in… what was once Richmond-upon-Thames.

In the same way, almost all of this garish fantasy happens in rural Kent, described with loving humour and social satire which often threatens to eclipse the main science fiction narrative.

Wells’s development

There’s a fairly obvious development in Wells’s output: right at the very beginning (1895) he was exploding with cracking science fiction ideas which he set down in a tearing hurry in short stories and novellas which use the minimum literary devices necessary.

But after only a few years, by the turn of the century, he’d become interested in doing more than just tell a ripping yarn. He began writing novels about love and social comedy (KippsLove and Mr Lewisham) and was also acutely aware that a number of his contemporaries were experimenting with literary ideas. In particular, Wells followed Henry James and Joseph Conrad’s experiments with different types of narrator, seeing what kind of light it sheds on a story to be told by a limited, obtuse or unreliable narrator, to use frame narratives, and so on.

By 1904, when he published The Food of the Gods and How It Came To Earth, Wells was well into this later phase and the book suffers terribly because of it.

The plot

The executive summary is: a pair of doddery ‘scientists’, Mr Bensington and Professor Redwood, discover a form of alkaloid which stimulates growth in all organic life forms. They tentatively experiment with baby chicks on a farm they hire in Kent but the chemical – Herakleophorbia IV – quickly gets into the environment, producing giant ants, wasps and rats which attack local rural types and interrupt the vicar’s croquet party, in scenes of broad social satire.

But the scientists also give it to humans. Redwood gives it to his baby son while a doctor friend slips it to the new baby of a foreign Royal Family which he’s treating. And a doughty, macho engineer, Cossar, who helps them put down the infestation of giant rats and wasps in Kent, also feeds it to his three baby boys.

The result is that a) around Britain, and then further afield around the world, leaking packs of Herakleophorbia IV transform the environment, creating giant flora and fauna, grass like trees, flowers like rainforests, insects the size of horses, and b) a cohort of giant young people come to maturity some 20 years after the initial discovery and become impatient with a world run by ‘little people’.

The climax of the novel comes when a political leader, Caterham, comes to power on the back of concerns about the wrecking of the environment and by stirring up anger against the handful of ‘giants’.

These ‘giants’ – the three Cossar brothers, Redwood’s son, the grandson of the old couple who the scientists set to manage their farm in Kent, and who they secretly fed Herakleophorbia IV (named Caddles), and the princess from the foreign royal family who comes to join them – have grown increasingly resentful as they are hemmed in to a smaller and smaller ‘reservation’ in Kent or – in the case of Redwood’s son and the princess – when the powers that be tell them they are not ‘allowed’ to fall in love (as they are doing) — these giants rebel.

In a colourful and weird scene the giant Caddles storms up to London where he finds himself straddling Piccadilly, beset by thousands of gawping onlookers and angrily chastised by Lilliputian policemen. After a prolonged chase Caddles settles in a garden in Highgate where he refuses to move and is eventually attacked by the army, killing quite a few riflemen before himself dying.

This death prompts all-out war between giants and humans. Wells gets round the details of the actual fighting by having the whole thing be described at one remove through the worries and speculations of the (by now) old inventor Redwood, who is placed under house arrest by Caterham’s new government, but can hear the bangs of artillery and see the night sky lit by flares and explosions.

After a few days of captivity Redwood is released and taken to see Prime Minister Caterham who explains that the normal-sized people’s initial attacks on the giants have resulted in stalemate. Some giants have been killed (though not the five or so key ones I’ve listed above) and lots of normal sized troops.

More devastatingly, the giants have been using artillery which they have constructed to fire canisters of Herakleophorbia IV far and wide, trying to biologically engineer a new, giant, ecosystem to suit them.

The Prime Minister asks Redwood to undertake a mission to the giants’ fortress in Kent, to offer a truce and a deal. The giants will be sent to a ‘reservation’anywhere in the world they want, to live out their lives as they see fit – but must not reproduce and must stop showering Herakleophorbia IV everywhere.

Redwood agrees and goes to see them, walking perilously across no-man’s-land to the giants’ base. But the giants reject the deal.

In the final scene, the leader, Cossar’s eldest son, says that growth is the law of nature – the death of the old, the birth of the new – and that giants will inherit the earth come what may, as part of the never-ending process which will carry the human race towards complete knowledge of the universe.

‘It is not that we would oust the little people from the world,’ he said, ‘in order that we, who are no more than one step upwards from their littleness, may hold their world for ever. It is the step we fight for and not ourselves…. We are here, Brothers, to what end? To serve the spirit and the purpose that has been breathed into our lives. We fight not for ourselves – for we are but the momentary hands and eyes of the Life of the World. So you, Father Redwood, taught us. Through us and through the little folk the Spirit looks and learns. From us by word and birth and act it must pass – to still greater lives. This earth is no resting place; this earth is no playing place, else indeed we might put our throats to the little people’s knife, having no greater right to live than they. And they in their turn might yield to the ants and vermin. We fight not for ourselves but for growth – growth that goes on for ever. To-morrow, whether we live or die, growth will conquer through us. That is the law of the spirit for ever more. To grow according to the will of God! To grow out of these cracks and crannies, out of these shadows and darknesses, into greatness and the light! Greater,’ he said, speaking with slow deliberation, ‘greater, my Brothers! And then – still greater. To grow, and again – to grow. To grow at last into the fellowship and understanding of God. Growing…. Till the earth is no more than a footstool…. Till the spirit shall have driven fear into nothingness, and spread….’ He swung his arm heavenward: – ‘There!’

His voice ceased. The white glare of one of the searchlights wheeled about, and for a moment fell upon him, standing out gigantic with hand upraised against the sky.

On which note, the novel ends.

Thoughts

Well, it’s quite an enjoyable book if you don’t mind it being a complete mess of style and story. Wells has set himself the task of describing the next stage in human evolution around the planet, but chooses to do so through the antics of a couple of silly scientists, a gung-ho adventurer (Cossar) and a great deal of social comedy taking the mickey out of provincial vicars and rural workers.

The science

Doesn’t bear much thinking about. For some time we’ve known that the larger an animal’s size the heavier its bones or exoskeleton need to be, and that there is a natural limit to this. Having 50-foot Caddles clump around Piccadilly is good cinema but not very persuasive science.

Another obvious problem is that, nowadays, we know that all ecosystems include vast amounts of organisms which human beings don’t notice or even know about, vast numbers of bacteria, fungi and viruses. In Wells’s simplistic view just a handful of the obvious, visible plants grow to giant size. In reality, it would be not only well-known flowers and bushes, but all manner of micro-organisms, fungi and bacteria which would grow enormous – with peculiar visual and physical complications.

Wells hedges and glosses over how there came to be the 50 or so giants around the world by the time their rebellion breaks out. But still, 50 isn’t nearly a large enough number to create even a self-sustaining colony, let alone replace the swarming billions of madly-reproducing normal-sized humans. The plot is willed rather than shown.

Anybody who wrote about the leak of a life-changing chemicals into the environment, now, today, in 2019, would have to describe a) ecological catastrophe and b) the swift response of international health and scientific agencies.

None of this existed in Wells’s day. In fact a striking aspect of the story is the complete absence of the police or army in any of the outbreaks of giant rats, ants, wasps and so on, which have to be dealt with by comic local villagers equipped with antique blunderbusses, or outraged vicars wielding croquet mallets.

Giants

There are two great literary predecessors, the French novel Gargantua and Pantagruel published in the 1530s, and Gulliver’s adventures in Lilliput, published by Jonathan Swift in 1725.

On an obvious level, Wells namechecks both of these antecedents, having Redwood nickname his fast-growing baby Panty, after the giant Pantagruel.

Although Wells (fortunately) skips over most of the twenty years in which the giant babies grow up, he does have several scenes describing the giant playroom which is built for Redwood’s son, the enormous nursery which Cossar builds for his three infants, and the strain which baby Caddles imposes on the charity of the local lady of the manor, Lady Wondershoot, who finds herself trying to supply adequate food and clothing for the monster.

In each of these scenes I could hear reminiscences of Gargantua in particular, detailed lists of the vast amount of bread and milk and meat the giants require, told in a humorous mix of awe and broad comedy.

The narrator

The narrator is what I think is categorised as an ‘omniscient first-person narrator’.

That’s to say, a first-person narrating ‘I’ appears a few times during the story – once or twice mentioning that he was eye-witness to this or that event, once or twice mentioning that he ‘heard’ about this or that incident from people that were there, giving the sense that you are listening to a particular person.

But this presence is mixed up with a third-person narrator i.e. someone who gives a reliable and authoritative overview account of all the different scenes – whether the two scientists in their London apartments, the rural goings-on in Cheasing Eyebright, the streets of London during Caddles’ adventures, and so on.

The combination – or the sudden appearance of a first-person I into an otherwise straight third-person story – is inconsistent, stylistically odd and disconcerting.

But whoever exactly is telling it, the story is dominated by a tone of facetiousness, irony and sarcasm which gets pretty wearing.

Sometimes Wells delivers broad social comedy that would have been recognisable to 17th century Restoration wits or to Sheridan in the 1770s, describing the jocose activities of characters with names like Sir Arthur Poodle Bootlick, the Bishop of Frumps and Judge Hangbrow, as frivolous and jokey as can be.

This tone is particularly prominent in the long middle section which describes the growth of baby Caddles in the little Kent village of Cheasing Eyebright. This section is devoted to all manner of rural comedy and social satire. The village is dominated by the patronage of Lady Wondershoot, supported by the old buffer obtuseness of the local vicar, both of whom have to deal with comically inarticulate and stumbling peasants such as the giant’s mother and grandmother.

At moments there are straight descriptions of rural life which read like Thomas Hardy.

She [the old woman] was engaged in pulling onions in the little garden before her daughter’s cottage when she saw him coming through the garden gate. She stood for a moment ‘consternated’, as the country folks say, and then folded her arms, and with the little bunch of onions held defensively under her left elbow, awaited his approach.

At other points there is acute social satire.

Lady Wondershoot liked bullying Caddles. Caddles was her ideal lower-class person, dishonest, faithful, abject, industrious, and inconceivably incapable of responsibility.

Sometimes we have a self-dramatising narrator who uses the mock-solemn tone which characterises so much 18th century comic fiction:

It was an anonymous letter, and an author should respect his character’s secrets.

Sometimes he is the intrusive 18th century narrator, forcing his opinions on us.

There are vicars and vicars, and of all sorts I love an innovating vicar – a piebald progressive professional reactionary – the least.

Sometimes there are prolonged passages which read like late Dickens.

[Lady Wondershoot’s] coachman was a very fine specimen, full and fruity, and he drove with a sort of sacramental dignity. Others might doubt their calling and position in the world, he at any rate was sure – he drove her ladyship. The footman sat beside him with folded arms and a face of inflexible certainties. Then the great lady herself became visible, in a hat and mantle disdainfully inelegant, peering through her glasses. Two young ladies protruded necks and peered also.

But looming over all these different voices is the threat that Wells will at any moment resort to his grandest, most pompous, history-of-the-world manner.

To tell fully of its coming [the food of the gods] would be to write a great history, but everywhere there was a parallel chain of happenings. To tell therefore of the manner of its coming in one place is to tell something of the whole. It chanced one stray seed of Immensity fell into the pretty, petty village of Cheasing Eyebright in Kent, and from the story of its queer germination there and of the tragic futility that ensued, one may attempt – following one thread, as it were – to show the direction in which the whole great interwoven fabric of the thing rolled off the loom of Time.

The book is characterised throughout by the same tonal and attitudinal mish-mash.

Thus the rise of the nationwide anti-giant party led by Caterham is described in a tone half-satirical – as if the author and reader are both men of the world who know that all political parties are rackets – but which sometimes stumbles into a completely different register: suddenly Wells is making perfectly serious points about the way the mob can be whipped up against ‘outsiders’, a mood that unnervingly reminds you of Hitler and all the other 20th century demagogues.

At moments like this there is a kind of momentary flash of something you could take seriously, Wells giving a true insight into his life and times and then… he crushes it with another slather of heavy-handed facetiousness.

The same thing happens at the end of the novel. When Redwood is taken from his house arrest to go and meet the newly elected Prime Minister Caterham, who has just triggered the ‘war on the giants’, he is struck by how much smaller, older and tireder the man seems than his photos and caricatures in the press. For a moment there is a gleam of what you could call adult insight into the wearing effects of power.

But then it is gone and the narrative focuses in on Caterham’s ‘offer’ to the giants and Redwood’s defence of the giants and you realise that – you are in the middle of a preposterous load of tosh.

The influence of Henry James

I wondered whether, in this book, Wells was deliberately copying and/or satirising Henry James’s style, with its proliferation of elaborate and would-be meaningful periphrases. This crossed my mind when a baby fed with Boomfood becomes too heavy for ‘maternal portage’. Hmm. Is that meant to be late-Jamesian periphrasis?

The public mind, following its own mysterious laws of selection, had chosen him as the one and only responsible Inventor and Promoter of this new wonder; it would hear nothing of Redwood, and without a protest it allowed Cossar to follow his natural impulse into a terribly prolific obscurity.

What does that last phrase even mean?

Before he was aware of the drift of these things, Mr. Bensington was, so to speak, stark and dissected upon the hoardings. His baldness, his curious general pinkness, and his golden spectacles had become a national possession. Resolute young men with large expensive-looking cameras and a general air of complete authorisation took possession of the flat for brief but fruitful period

‘Complete authorisation’ is good but unlike Wells’s usual style.

He was the sort of doctor that is in manners, in morals, in methods and appearance, most succinctly and finally expressed by the word ‘rising’.

This ornate positioning of the narrative voice to prepare us for exquisite phraseology is surely Jamesian.

Bensington, glancing from the window, would see the faultless equipage come spanking up Sloane Street and after an incredibly brief interval Winkles would enter the room with a light, strong motion, and pervade it, and protrude some newspaper and supply information and make remarks.

Fairy tale

There is yet another tonal intrusion or flavour in this mad mix, one Wells uses to describe the whole sub-plot about the baby of an (unnamed) foreign royal family, who a scheming doctor of Redwood and Bensington’s acquaintance (the absurdly named Dr Winkles) speculatively (and, to the modern mind, wildly irresponsibly) feeds the wonder food.

This baby grows up to be a beautiful, fifty-foot-tall, young woman who comes on a state visit to England and falls in love with Redwood’s own giant son.

Her entire existence, growth and the passages describing the couple’s love affair are told in an extraordinarily mimsical, sentimental, almost fairy-tale style.

Now it chanced in the days when Caterham was campaigning against the Boom-children before the General Election that was – amidst the most tragic and terrible circumstances – to bring him into power, that the giant Princess, that Serene Highness whose early nutrition had played so great a part in the brilliant career of Doctor Winkles, had come from the kingdom of her father to England, on an occasion that was deemed important. She was affianced for reasons of state to a certain Prince – and the wedding was to be made an event of international significance.

All the rest of her story is told in the same over-ornate style. ‘Now it chanced in the days…’ That’s Biblical phraseology, isn’t it, deployed to create the semi-mythical tone of a rather ponderous fairy tale.

Conclusion

It is yet another peculiar tone of voice, one more contribution to the extraordinary mess of voices and registers which characterise this enormous hodge-podge of a text!

If you could colour-code styles and tones of voice, this book would look like a Jackson Pollock painting. There are loads of local enjoyments (the social satire is, in fact, often very funny) but the net effect is a mess, and you can see why The Food of the Gods is never included among Wells’s key science fiction masterworks.


Related links

Other H.G. Wells reviews

1895 The Time Machine – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come – set in the same London of the future described in The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love but descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1906 In the Days of the Comet – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end

1914 The World Set Free – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change

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