The Food of the Gods by H G Wells
First published 1904; new edition September 2010 from Gollancz UK (review copy received).
Review by Mark Yon
Of all the many books written by H G Wells, this is not one that usually springs to mind. However this is a good, if rather overlooked, scientific romance that is worthy of your attention.
The tale is fairly straightforward. Two scientists, Mr Bensington and Professor Redwood, create a miracle chemical that they call (rather unpronounceably) Herakleophorbia IV. This chemical element accelerates physical growth and creates animals that are much bigger than normal.
Thinking that they are Advancing Science and have created a solution to future world supplies, the two scientists test their compound by creating giant chicks and set up an experimental farm for their study. However, mismanagement by the Skinners, an inept couple given charge of the farm, leads to the giant poultry escaping.
The problem is exacerbated when it is found that other animals have fed on the food and soon giant worms, earwigs, wasps (as shown on the cover) and rats are found across the countryside. The media publicise this with gusto. Consequently the scientists, with a civil engineer named Cossar, track the giant vermin down and to halt further problems the farm is burnt to the ground.
However most of the book is concerned with the humans who have eaten the food, now called Boomfood. Redwood’s own child, Edward (Teddy), is fed the food, as too Albert Caddles, the grandson of the couple given the farm to look after.
Unable to stop eating the food (as that would prove fatal) the giants created are seen as a boon yet ultimately lead a sad life. Intelligent and physically advanced, the super-sized innocents are shunned and reviled by human society, seen as freaks and treated with mistrust. Bensington is driven into hiding by the media. A politician, John ‘The Giant Killer’ Caterham , uses the public fear of the giants through the media to whip up feeling against them, which has tragic consequences.
In the end it seems clear that there is to be a war between the repressed giants, the Children of the Food, and the human Pygmies. However, as this tale is not told here, the reader is left to wonder ‘what-if?’The last paragraph is an epic Stapledonian-type moment:
‘For one instant he shone, looking up fearlessly into the starry deeps, mail-clad, young and strong, resolute and still. Then the light had passed and he was no more than a great black outline against the starry sky, a great black outline that threatened with one mighty gesture the firmament of heaven and all its multitude of stars.’
For a book that is over a hundred years old, this book (as mentioned in the new introduction by Adam Roberts) is surprisingly relevant in these days of Frankenstein foods and genetic modification. The corrupt politician, the restrictions of a hierarchical class society, bureaucratic ineptitude, the gullibility of the masses and the influence of the media are surprisingly apt keystones, not just for the 20th but also for the 21st century. In this study of ‘Man versus Science’, though the technology in Wells’ tale may be different, the social consequences are both appropriate and thought-provoking. Wells manages to show the consequences of scientific progress, whilst warning of corruptible politicians and evoking the inequality of slavery.
Wells’ combination of both light humour (at the beginning) and darker pathos (towards the end) work surprisingly well here, though they are relatively simple in execution. The need for the giant Young Caddles who travels to London to determine the meaning of life is both amusing and affecting. Some of the scenes of the giant creatures attacking humans are quite horrific.
The characters are a little caricaturist, and show their age, though this is perhaps deliberate. It must be remembered that the book was written for the primary purpose of entertainment, though its sly commentary (if a little simplistic) is engaging and appropriate. It’s more readable than Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and in the best tradition of Wells’ scientific romances makes the reader consider alternative options to reality.
This is a good book for those who want to read more Wells, beyond the usual Time Machine and War of the Worlds. Recommended.
Mark Yon, October 2010