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The Food of the Gods, and How It Came to…

The Food of the Gods, and How It Came to Earth (1904)

by H. G. Wells

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Originally published in 1904, The Food of the Gods by H. G. Wells is less well known than the author’s The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds but it is a highly philosophical and entertaining science fiction novel and one not to be missed. And I’d suggest the SF Masterworks edition since there's an informative, insightful Introduction by Adam Roberts.

The storyline is simple: two amateurish scientists, Mr. Bensington and Professor Redwood, create a miracle substance accelerating growth in both plants and animals. They carry out their experiment on a farm run by a Mr. and Mrs. Skinner, feeding their “Herakleophorbia IV” to chicks. The chicks grow to six times their normal adult size. Unfortunately, the slovenly Skinners are careless, spilling the substance all over the ground and very quickly thereafter other plants and animals grow to monstrous proportions - vines, grass and gulp! - wasps. Then even more alarming news: rats!

Newspapers run headlines about the monstrosities. Bensington and Redwood know something must be done forthwith. The scientists swing into action - here are my comments coupled with a number of direct quotes from Chapter 3 - The Giant Rats:

"The doctor, one gathers, stood up, shouted to his horse, and slashed with all his strength. The rat winced and swerved most reassuringly at his blow—in the glare of his lamp he could see the fur furrow under the lash—and he slashed again and again, heedless and unaware of the second pursuer that gained upon his off side." ----------Completely uninformed about recent developments with various animal life, a country doctor returns home on his horse-drawn carriage after delivering a baby only to be attacked in the early dawn by three giant rats. One of the most vivid scenes in all of literature. The way in which the narrator reports the unspeakable horror of such an occurrence passes over into humor.

"Go up the street to the gunsmith's, of course. Why? For guns. Yes—there's only one shop. Get eight guns! Rifles. Not elephant guns—no! Too big. Not army rifles—too small. Say it's to kill—kill a bull. Say it's to shoot buffalo! See? Eh? Rats? No! How the deuce are they to understand that? Because we want eight. Get a lot of ammunition. Don't get guns without ammunition—No!" ---------- Bensington and Redwood lean on civil engineer Cossar, just the Action Jackson to organize a hunting party to kill the giant rats. Such an ugly turn of events. An to think, the two Brit scientists had no more evil intentions with their growth formula than Laurel and Hardy. Unfortunately, Bensington and Redwood had hardly more brains than those two famous film nitwits.

"By five o'clock that evening this amazing Cossar, with no appearance of hurry at all, had got all the stuff for his fight with insurgent Bigness." ---------- What is so striking is the enormity of the change in nature, a change that will expand into global crisis, and the reaction from this small band of bumbling Brits. Hey, why get the government involved when we can organize our own hunting party? Perhaps H. G. Wells is making a statement on the general state of human intelligence - hardly above the level of the Three Stooges.

"They left the waggonette behind, and the men who were not driving went afoot. Over each shoulder sloped a gun. It was the oddest little expedition for an English country road, more like a Yankee party, trekking west in the good old Indian days." ---------- I so much enjoy the British author's swipe at the American frontier mentality. I can clearly picture these eight men - Redwood, Bensington, Cossar and the five men Cossar rounded up - striding down the road on their rat hunt.

"Redwood had kept his gun in hand and let fly at something grey that leapt past him. He had a vision of the broad hind-quarters, the long scaly tail and long soles of the hind-feet of a rat, and fired his second barrel. He saw Bensington drop as the beast vanished round the corner." ---------- This encounter with the giant rats (seven feet long from head to tail) has all the making of a blockbuster B film. Many are the movie posters featuring the attacking giant rats.

"When things were a little ship-shape again Redwood went and stared at the huge misshapen corpse. The brute lay on its side, with its body slightly bent. Its rodent teeth overhanging its receding lower jaw gave its face a look of colossal feebleness, of weak avidity. It seemed not in the least ferocious or terrible. Its fore-paws reminded him of lank emaciated hands. Except for one neat round hole with a scorched rim on either side of its neck, the creature was absolutely intact." ---------- And what is Professor Redwood's reaction to such a event? He chimes: "This is like being a boy again." The immaturity of the current human population is one of the novel's abiding themes.

"Cossar was on all fours with two guns, one trailing on each side from a string under his chin, and his most trusted assistant, a little dark man with a grave face, was to go in stooping behind him, holding a lantern over his head. Everything had been made as sane and obvious and proper as a lunatic's dream. --------- Cossar crawling through the giant rat holes, shooting the giant rats, makes for a spectacularly harrowing scene in a B film. Oh, incidentally, the boy's adventure also includes dealing with giant wasps.

Alas, Redwood feeds the “Boomfood” to his own son. Likewise, there are other children raised on the miracle formula. Soon the world has to deal with baby giants and toddler giants and then, fully grown giants (forty feet tall, as tall as a four story building). With such sad giants inhabiting the planet, sad because the little people become increasingly intolerant of their presence, The Food of the Gods turns into a tale of pathos and high drama, a tale of political corruption and general ineptitude in humans dealing with anything outside their conventional framework and worldview.

Also added into the philosophic mix is a topic of particular relevance in today’s world – genetic modification and the so called Frankenstein foods. All in all, there is good reason why The Food of the Gods is published as part of the SF Masterworks. Highly recommended.

British author H. G. Wells (1866 - 1946)
  Glenn_Russell | Nov 13, 2018 |
"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 forever. It is the step we fight for an 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... This earth is no resting place... We fight not for ourselves but for growth - growth that goes on forever. Tomorrow, 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."

( )
  over.the.edge | Sep 16, 2018 |
Not good. The first section is all high-flown language about science and scientists - but the scientists he focuses on are really bad at the mechanics of science. New, strange, complex discovery - and they leave the details to a clumsy, slovenly pair of incompetents. And then, before anything, including the functionality of the stuff, is determined, one gives some to his son. Excuse me? So of course the stuff (the Food of the Gods) escapes - and feeds everything from mushrooms to insects to rats up to dangerous size. The middle section, focusing on Caddles, was...interesting, but also depressing. The poor kid. How old was he when he was set to work? Same section, the man out of prison (which is basically a way of getting around "As you know, Sam"), was also good - seeing how things are. More high-flown language and verbosity amounting to, you can't see what's going on while you're in the middle of it. And then the last part, the revolt of the Giants - the trigger is rather stupid (only one female (human) has ever been fed the stuff; she didn't know there was anyone else, and falls in love with the first Giant she sees. Bleah), the events are nasty (they're all too closely intertwined to really fight), they resolve to fight, and find their place - and it ends. Worshiping growth for growth's sake is at least as bad as worshiping conformity. Weak - partly because he keeps swerving between humor and social commentary. The best parts are when he's just reporting "facts" - telling it straight, instead of trying to burden the story with either jokes or attempts at depth. I like some of Wells' stuff, but not this one. ( )
  jjmcgaffey | Dec 3, 2017 |
Interesting story. Wells had a knack of leaving you hanging and wondering what was going to happen. And pretty much left the fate of the characters to the readers imagination. It was well written and the ending was not too bad. I know Wells probably did this on purpose; but the indifferent attitude of the scientists and creators of the substance really pounded on me. How could they do this to their own children? And it seemed no one cared about what the children were feeling about the position these irresponsible men put them in. But on the other hand I can see that Wells is speaking about unconditional love and the fact that blood is thicker than water. I think the indifference is nothing more than a metaphor. ( )
1 vote Joe73 | Oct 15, 2017 |
In the middle years of the nineteenth century there first became abundant in this strange world of ours a class of men, men tending for the most part to become elderly, who are called, and who, though they dislike it extremely, are very properly called ‘Scientists’. They dislike that word so much that from the columns of Nature, which was from the first their distinctive and characteristic paper, it is as carefully excluded as if it were – that other word which is the basis of all really bad language in the country. But the Great Public and its Press know better, and ‘Scientists’ they are, and when they emerge to any sort of publicity, ‘distinguished scientists’ and ‘eminent scientists’ and ‘well-known scientists’ is the very least we call them. (1)

I found the first third of this novel hugely entertaining, mostly because of quotations like the above. The ways we stereotype scientists have scarcely changed at all in the past 112 years, and most of the jokes Wells makes about them, from their tendency to over-focus on the mundane to their inclination to produce incomprehensible graphs to their desire to eat free food at conferences, still hold true. At first, The Food of the Gods is about a pair of scientists, a chemist named Bensington and a physiologist named Redwood, who invent herakleophorbia a.k.a. boomfood a.k.a. the Food of the Gods, which causes organisms undergoing growth to grow without end: so soon there are giant chickens and giant babies, and once boomfood gets loose in the ecosystem, giant vines and giant wasps.

The last two-thirds of the novel explore different facets of the emerging world of Giants, but I found this material considerably less entertaining than what had gone before. The Food of the Gods is a very different kind of science fiction than Wells was writing in the 1890s, far less about horrific effect and predicting a terrible end for humankind, and more about comedy and a vague hope of a better world. But on the other hand, this is the first Wells story I can think of where he begins with a technological invention and traces it forward, seeing how it would change society. His earlier sf works tend to just jump forward to a realized future (The Time Machine) or to have the invention be a one-off with no social impact (The Invisible Man). Depicting the emergence of a realized future society is a new move for him. Though in this case it's a world ruled by giants, which I suspect is more fanciful than most.

There's also a joke about how much Frederic Harrison loved Comte. I feel proud that I got it. I wonder how many modern readers do?
  Stevil2001 | Nov 18, 2016 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
H. G. Wellsprimary authorall editionscalculated
Bergen, DavidCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hay, GeorgeIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Roberts, AdamIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wollheim, Donald A.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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In the middle years of the nineteenth century there first became abundant in this strange world of ours a class of men, men tending for the most part to become elderly, who are called, and who are very properly called, but who dislike extremely to be called— “Scientists.”
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0755104021, Hardcover)

Mr Bensington and Professor Redwood were amongst that new breed of men - or 'scientists' as they had become known. They discover Herakleophorbia IV, a chemical foodstuff that accelerates growth, and, after a series of experiments, the countryside is overrun with giant chickens, rats, wasps and worms. Havoc ensues, but Benson and Redwood are undeterred and begin to use 'the food of the gods' on humans. Soon, children are growing up to 40 feet high. But where will the experiments end?

H. G. Wells was responsible for an entirely new genre of writing. It was his bold, daring and hugely innovative books that first introduced readers to the concept of time travel, invisibility, genetic experimentation and interstellar invasion - ideas that have gone on to inspire future generations and given rise to the entire science fiction industry.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:16 -0400)

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What happens when science tampers with nature? A riveting, cautionary tale with disastrous results reveals the chilling answer. Hoping to create a new growth agent for food with beneficial uses to mankind, two scientists find that the spread of the material is uncontrollable. Giant chickens, rats, and insects run amok, and children given the food stuffs experience incredible growth--and serious illnesses. Over the years, people who have eaten these specially treated foods find themselves unable to fit into a society where ignorance and hypocrisy rule. These "giants," with their extraordinary mental powers, find themselves shut away from an older, more traditional society. Intolerance and hatred increase as the line of distinction between ordinary people and giants is drawn across communities and families. One of H. G. Wells' lesser-known works, The Food of the Gods has been retold many times in many forms since it was first published in 1904. The gripping, newly relevant tale combines fast-paced entertainment with social commentary as it considers the ethics involved in genetic engineering.… (more)

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