How Free is Freewill?
“…a far more humane proceeding than our earthly method of leaving children to grow into human beings, and then making machines of them.” (Wells 201)
A Call for Reflection
Originally published in 1901, H. G. Wells’ The First Men In the Moon presents a space travel voyage not quite up to par with the modern technicality of today’s science fiction. But despite the unlikely science, the social and political commentary springing from the final crossing of earthly and lunar worlds makes for a very different and spectacular kind of science fiction story. It is a story in which the idea of biologically engineering organisms from birth challenges the proclivity of humanity’s striving for independence. The concepts of inner differentiation between people and war between brothers drive a need to question our ways. The shock of the beings encountered on the moon upon hearing of the nature of Earth seeks to question our tendency towards the haven of choice and freewill, but ultimately to reassure us that it is the right direction.
A Journey Into Worlds
The novel begins with the mischance convergence of two very different people, Cavor, the classic professor and scientist, and Bedford, the capitalistic businessman and writer. They meet in the village of Lympne, in England, where each is working on what they individually deem the projects of their lives. Bedford is writing a play, which helps to develop the idea that he is on the far end of the social spectrum from the scientist. Cavor is working on a new compound, although unsuccessfully until coming together with Bedford, which is opaque to gravity. In essence, it is a compound that can defy gravity. Soon after the first synthesis of this compound, which they call Cavorite, Cavor becomes fixed on the idea of going to the moon using this new substance. All of the creation of Cavorite and the sphere in which they travel is then followed by a questionably smooth journey from Earth to the Moon. Soon after their arrival on an apparently barren and frozen Moon, the lunar sunrise gives life to all manner of exotic flora that grow at an incredible rate. “Darting shrubs, swelling cacti, creeping lichens,” and “interminable thickets of scrub” (71, 77) quickly overtake the two men, and their sphere. Lost, panicked, and hungry, the explorers stumble upon what appears to be an entrance into the interior of the Moon where they discover, and inevitably are captured by, a race of creatures, deemed Selenites after the moon goddess Selene. While Cavor tries to make some sort of communication of intelligence to the uncomprehending Selenites, Bedford’s efforts result in the discovery that the moon creatures are quite fragile due to the lower gravity of the moon. The men also discover that the crowbar-like tools that the Selenites are using are made of pure gold, which is apparently abundant inside of the moon. Using these tools as weapons the two men escape with their lives, and of course, two solid gold crowbars that Bedford plans to return to Earth with. Despite their aggressive evasion of captivity, Cavor and Bedford are still left with the problem of finding the sphere, their ride home. They decide to leave a flag as a waypoint at the center of the crater they are in and split up to try to find the sphere. This invariably leads to Bedford’s discovery of the sphere and Cavor’s disappearance when Bedford goes looking for him. Rationalizing that Cavor is lost, and with the fatal lunar night approaching, Bedford returns to the sphere and then to Earth, again quite easily. After landing conveniently back in England, Bedford stays in a small village where he learns of a man named Mr. Wendigee who has been receiving messages in fragmented English from somewhere on the Moon.
In the finale of the novel, we hear Bedford’s narrative of Cavor’s messages. After Cavor’s capture, he is brought to the interior of the Moon, to the great sea. He discovers that the Selenites are conditioned from birth to fulfill a certain role in society. They become extremely suited to that role both mentally and physically, and the aspects of their beings that are not necessary to that role shrivel and fade. Eventually, Cavor is brought before the Grand Lunar, the ruler of the Selenites, who is essentially a giant brain and consciousness. This is where we see the stark contrast between worlds, the intrigue, and sometimes horror, of the Selenites as Cavor shares his world with them. He tells them of the nature of Earth, of life on the surface, the atmosphere, architecture, democracy, independence, nations, and war, all things curious and disturbing to the Grand Lunar. The topic of war brings an abrupt end to the discourse. The Grand Lunar begins to ask, “but why should there be a need…” (217) But he stops. And no answer is given. Just as with the rest of the symbolic differences between humans and Selenites, the reader is left to ponder.
Our Place in the Universe
In a society that constantly moves further and further into an age of independence and individuality, Wells implores us, through Cavor’s intra-lunar experiences, to consider the implications of a world in which mindless efficiency rules. In the Moon, beings are given neither choice, nor freewill. They are biologically engineered from birth to fulfill a position in society.
In the moon, every citizen knows his place. He is born to that place, and the elaborate discipline of training and education and surgery he undergoes fits him at last so completely to it that he has neither ideas nor organs for any purpose beyond it. (197)
For some, this means overdeveloped hands, or olfactory senses. The glass blowers have incredible lungs, while the rest of their body starves. For the thinkers though, for the leaders and the Grand Lunar, this means incredible intelligence. During the meeting between Cavor and the Grand Lunar, there are “learned heads… Not a thing in lunar science, not a point of view or a method of thinking” is excluded from the beings’ minds. (205) The Selenites are the highest level of specialists. Their society is efficient and unified. Although at times it is grotesque, it is ultimately peaceful. This presentation of a societal alternative challenges the idea that humanity is as profoundly successful as we often make it out to be. Oftentimes, humans will wander through life, without goals, without purpose, and without a place in society. The independence of choice that is such a hallmark of modern human existence is not perfect and will often lead to failure, outcast, and conflict. But it is that same independence and freewill that makes humanity great, that makes it such an incredible avenue of existence. Although the Selenite society might be perfect, perfection is not what makes a society great. What makes a society great is its character, its imperfection. It is the knowledge that we can make mistakes and fail, and that those mistakes will make society stronger. Without failure, society is stagnant. It will never move and it will never progress. We can see society within the main characters, Cavor and Bedford. They are wildly different personalities with their own intentions, thoughts, and opinions, and yet they can make this journey together and feel some sort of companionship. Upon his return to Earth, we also see a change in the initially cold and greedy Bedford. He is concerned about the fate of Cavor and seems to be willing to toss aside his life to try to help find a way to bring him back from the Moon. Both characters make mistakes along the way, and both change as a result. And in the end, despite their respective fates, they are better for it. Wells’ vision of a perfectly engineered society is one that humans could never live in, because humans need failure. Humans need independence. As Cavor tells the Grand Lunar, “Some [are] thinkers and some officials; some [hunt]; some [are] mechanics, some artists, some toilers… but all rule.” (214) The independence of humanity means that complete efficiency is impossible, for humans are not mindless, and they thrive on the idea that the entire world is a work in progress.
It is the customs of Earth and humanity themselves, and the contrast they present against those of the Moon that are used to ask us to think about the way in which this world has developed. The Selenite society beneath the cratered surface of the Moon can be seen as highly utopic. There is no error in their world. Each and every person has a place that they are perfectly suited to, so there is no reason for anything to go wrong. There is no war, no strife between people who are essentially the same. But this society is a far cry from our convoluted, secretive, human society. Upon hearing of this strange humanity, the Selenites are shocked and in awe that our world can continue at such an advanced level while it is clearly primitive in so many ways. When Cavor describes to them the idea of democracy, they wonder if people all do the same thing. Since there is not the physical differentiation as there is on the Moon, and everyone has a voice in society, they assume that people are very similar. To this Cavor responds, “Perhaps if one could see the minds and souls of men they would be as varied and unequal as the Selenites.” (214) While in the eyes of the lunar beings our world is strange and imperfect, it is the ability for its inhabitants to have so much in common, yet be so varied and beautifully diverse that makes it the exact opposite. The kind of diversity presented in the Moon may be perfect in some ways, but it brings up many other problems, and certainly is not as utopic as it might seem. But then there is war. The climax of the exchange between Cavor and the Grand Lunar comes with the topic of war.
[The Grand Lunar] was at first perplexed and incredulous. ‘You mean to say,’ he asked, seeking confirmation,’ that you run about over the surface of your world—this world, whose riches you have scarcely begun to scrape—killing one another for beasts to eat?’
I told him that was perfectly correct. (216)
The violent obsession that circles our world, everything that the Grand Lunar inquires about, is a direct result of our freewill. But there is no doubt, despite this causation, that a world in which there is no freewill, in which the lives and fates of individuals are predetermined, is no better alternative to ours. And while war is terrible and is something that no society should have to experience, it is a necessary and integral part of the world that we have built. War means an exercise of our freewill, of our independence, and not only our decision to choose, but also our ability to. On the Moon, most individuals are not even aware of the option of freewill, let alone its practice. There is no conflict, because there is barely a society to disagree. There are barely individuals; the Moon is a world of drones. The diversity and individuality of humans, although mostly interior, is the reason for war. And though it can be seen as a downfall of society, it can also be seen as beautiful when you are comparing our world to that of the Moon. War gives hope to the continuing freewill of humans. It is a beacon for the humanity we know and love. A terrible, bloody beacon. But a beacon nonetheless. When the Grand Lunar asks why should there be a need, it is because it proves that our society is still alive. There is not necessarily a need, but it shows that our world still has a pulse.
Where Do We Go Now?
Although with ambiguous intention, the ideas presented in The First Men In the Moon questions, but ultimately commends, the efficiency and success of freewill and independence in society. The strange society of beings encountered within the moon is shocked by the ways of Earth and of humans. They find it hard to believe that a society in which people have choice and freewill, and in which war and violence exist, could ever be successful, let alone thrive. But the Selenites, in their sheltered, mechanized society do not understand that the same characteristics that give them doubts about humans are also those that make them great. It is the independence, freewill, choice, and individuality of the human race that makes it all that it is, with its successes, its failures, and its overall sense of humanity on both sides of the spectrum. That said, there are aspects of the Selenite society that, alone, are superior to ours. By presenting a society with positive aspects, but that is ultimately worse off, thoughts arise about what human society could truly benefit from, what changes might need to be made in order to truly make this society everything it can be. This novel leaves many questions and issues unanswered. But as to how free freewill is on a societal scale; it is as free as it gets.
Wells, H. G. The First Men In the Moon. New York: Random House, 2003. Print.
“The First Men in the Moon.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 20 Sept. 2013. Web. 22 Sept. 2013.
Maddox, David. “The SF Site Featured Review: The First Men in the Moon.” The SF Site Featured Review: The First Men in the Moon. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Sept. 2013.