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Box Of Paperbacks Book Club: The Food Of The Gods by H.G. Wells (1904)

(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number eight.)

If the ability to entertain contradictory notions at the same time is a quality of genius, H.G. Wells possessed a particularly rare strand of genius. He trafficked in grand-scale notions that housed equally grand contradictions. A socialist who optimistically felt the world might someday be saved the implementation of a benevolent world state, in The Time Machine, Wells summoned up a grim future that saw the human race devolving into two directions at once: one useless, the other vicious, both hopelessly stupid. The self-made son of a shopkeeper/cricketer, Wells' liberalism nonetheless allowed him to enthuse about eugenics, particularly the notion that the human race would be improved if its nastier members were simply not allowed to reproduce. (Hey, it was the Late-Victorian era. Everybody was doing it.) He immersed himself in science and history and translated his studies into visions of the future that alternated promises of utopia with warnings of disaster. He was, in many respects, exactly the right man to map out the promises and threats of the young 20th century.

Published after more famous books like The Invisible Man and War Of The Worlds, The Food Of The Gods (a.k.a. The Food Of The Gods And How It Came To Earth) has its share of contradictions as well. It begins as a comic send-up of science with a pair of researchers unveiling Herakleophorbia IV, a chemical compound that allows living things to develop steadily rather than in fits and starts. The result: Giant plants and animals. Why develop such a thing? Because, it would seem, they can. (Or, to borrow a line from Patton Oswalt, "We're science: We're all about 'coulda' not 'shoulda.'") They test the formula on an experimental farm supervised by a character named Skinner whose unreadably rendered lisping dialect ("Thir! I 'aven't the 'eart to argue with you. Thwelp me, Thir!") makes it easy to hope he won't make it through too many chapters.

He doesn't, thanks to, you guessed it, giant animals. Who'd have thought that would ever backfire? Food is today one of Wells' lesser-read efforts, but it's the secret source of every giant-animals-on-the-rampage story to come, from King Kong on up. But all that's more or less taken care in the early chapters. The book's final two thirds deal with the effects of Herakleophorbia IV on the human children who grew up consuming it. And grew, and grew.

Topping out at 40 feet, this new race of giants creates no end of unrest, sparking protests against the "Boomfood" that made them and organizations like "National Society For The Preservation Of The Proper Proportion Of Things." Wells has fun here sending up the way new developments threaten established social order. One giant, forced to labor in a chalk pit, develops an awakening sense of class. Others simply stop seeing the need to do things the way they've always been done. Where Jonathan Swift's Gulliver found himself repulsed by seeing humanity blown up to giant scale when lost amidst the Brobdingnags, Wells' giants are humanity realized to its fullest. In the ensuing conflict with the "pygmies," the author doesn't even try to hide which side he's on.

The book might have been better if he had. After a point, Food becomes a fairly straightforward allegory about the forces of progress (good) and the reactionaries that oppose them (bad). The fear of science found in the early chapters gives way to an almost blind faith. It's thought-provoking enough, but I found myself distracted from the higher purpose by the logistics of gigantism. Would this new race really be better for the earth if they needed to consume so much more than small people? Where would they go to the bathroom? And how much would it stink? Though still a good, if needlessly padded, read, it's no wonder that the idea of giant, horrifying animals remains Food's most lasting legacy.

It's those giant animals that captured the imagination of director Bert I. Gordon who, after making a career of big screen giants in B-movies like The Amazing Colossal Man and Village Of The Giants finally acknowledged Wells with a 1977 adaptation of Food. I haven't seen it, but I've seen other gleefully bad Gordon films like The Magic Sword on MST3K. Factor in that it's an American International production co-starring an aging Ralph Meeker and an aged Ida Lupino, I can only conclude that it's awesome and needs to be seen. (An in-name-only sequel followed in 1989.)

But for quick giant animals thrills, look no further than this cover of a Classics Illustrated adaptation, which confirms what I've always believed: Chickens are terrifying.

Next: The Mighty Swordsmen by various authors Then: Shotgun by Ed McBain. And then: The Long Afternoon Of Earth (a.k.a. Hothouse) by Brian Aldiss