This my second review of “The Star” by H. G. Wells, because I attempted to read The Big Book of Science Fiction earlier this year. I didn’t get far. I’m hoping the group read will get me to the end this time. But we will see. Since this is a second review I’ll need to find new things to say.
One thing I noticed this time while poking around on Google to see how “The Star” is used in a number study sites for classroom discussion. Being taught in school is one indicator that a work of fiction has become a classic. Three cheers for science fiction then. The story came out in 1897, between the publication of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. Hugo Gernsback liked it so much he reprinted it twice, in 1923 and 1926.
“The Star” had already been repackaged in several collections by Wells, including an edition put out by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1925, the prestigious publisher of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald in the 1920s. I’ve read that before pop culture used Albert Einstein’s name to imply the smartest man in the world, people used Mr. Wells. One of the more popular books in the early days of fandom was The Short Stories of H. G. Wells that ran over a thousand pages. Another giant collection of short stories by Wells was put out the The Literary Guild, for the high-brow crowd. This listing of reprints at ISFDB is one of the longest I know about, and I’m sure that database hasn’t indexed all the places “The Star” has been reprinted.
In other words, “The Star” was widely read outside of science fiction, especially in the 1920s and 1930s before the genre had established itself in the public’s consciousness. I can’t help but wonder what the average person thought of the story? Did Charlie Chaplin talk about it at Hollywood parties while he was working on The Gold Rush? What did the average British citizen think of the story when they read it in The Graphic, the Christmas Number for 1897? Here’s an ad from that issue to give you an idea of the times.
Why would they run an end-of-the-world story in their Christmas issue? I have to assume they really thought the story something special. So what did people say about it then? I wish I could find references to how average readers reacted to early science fiction. So far my best indication of what people read back then that we’d call science fiction is the anthology Science Fiction by The Rivals of H. G. Wells which presents thirty stories that came out around the same time as “The Star.” I wish I had a book of letters to the editors about those stories, or extracts from diaries and personal letters where people wrote about them.
In the introduction to The Big Book of Science Fiction the VanderMeers say this about science fiction:
This kind of eclectic stance also suggests a simple yet effective definition for science fiction: it depicts the future, whether in a stylized or realistic manner. There is no other definitional barrier to identifying science fiction unless you are intent on defending some particular territory. Science fiction lives in the future, whether that future exists ten seconds from the Now or whether in a story someone builds a time machine a century hence in order to travel back into the past. It is science fiction whether the future is phantasmagorical and surreal or nailed down using the rivets and technical jargon of “hard science fiction.” A story is also science fiction whether the story in question is, in fact, extrapolation about the future or using the future to comment on the past or present.
But “The Star” isn’t about the future, and neither are most of the stories in that rivals anthology. Back then, the fantastic happened in the present. When Wells was writing, science fiction hadn’t evolved into its future oriented self. The VanderMeers wants their anthology to show the evolution of science fiction and I think this is an important distinction about “The Star.” I believe as we read along in the volume, we’ll observe how science fiction moved into the future.
There is one weak area in “The Star.” I was never sure what kind of astronomical object the intruder was. At different times in the story it’s implied that the intruder is a comet, planet, or star. Wells was big on science, so why was he so sloppy here? If the visitor was another planet, wouldn’t it and Neptune have shattered when they collided? If it was a comet, Neptune would have absorbed it. I’m guessing it was some kind of dark or dwarf star that absorbed Neptune in the collision. We know Wells knew about stellar evolution because he has the Earth being destroyed when the sun expanded into a red giant in “The Time Machine.”
James Wallace Harris, 8/20/21