It might sound odd, but I bought this book because I hadn’t read it. I’ve read quite a few of Wells’ other stories and really enjoyed them, from the well-known titles like ‘The Time Machine’, The Invisible Man and ‘The War of the Worlds’, to the less well known titles like ‘The History of Mr Polly, ‘Kipps’ and ‘The Shape of Things to Come’, but ‘The Food of the Gods’ I’d never come across before, and oddly, having now read it . . . I can sort of see why.
Firstly – This is a deeply unfashionable book, not because of its subject matter – which though dated is credible and imaginatively described, nor because of the tone or style in which the tale is told, which is captivating and artful in its execution, and a fascinating example of Wells’ skill in storytelling for any lover of language.
No, it’s the setting which is the problem, because The Food of Gods is set in that late Victorian early Edwardian period roughly contemporary with its first publication in 1904, when the class divisions within British society were far more pronounced. This in itself is fine, but its the stereotypes of working class people where probably quite prevalent at the time that now seem almost comically two dimensional at best, and probably quite offensive to some people at worst.
Does this spoil the book for the modern reader? No, or at least not entirely, but unlike many other books by Wells’ which have aged well in terms of modern sensibilities, The Food of the Gods has aged in more obvious ways, and nowadays has to be read within its historic context if it’s still to be enjoyed.
Now, like many people I come across books every now and again which have aged badly and are now quite rightly considered to be offensive because of their blatant sexism, racism or homophobia, and while its always disappointing to encounter what would otherwise be a great piece of work were it not for such gratuitous failings, books like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Sax Rohmer’s Dr Fu Manchu stories or John Buchan’s Thirty Nine Steps, it is often possible to look at these works as simply epitomising the values of their time.
The difficulty I have with Wells’ Food of the Gods with its overly stereotyped personifications of the working classes in Victorian England, isn’t however just that the values are dated, it’s the fact that they’re Soooo dated the characterisation just don’t seem even remotely realistic, and that unfortunately resulted in me being kicked out of the story on numerous occasions.
Now, I appreciate this probably sounds like a fairly terminal sentence for The Food of the Gods, but that would be to do the book a disservice, because despite its one terrible failings, there are still some really good points, which make large sections of book enjoyable one to read.
The story begins with a narrator attempting to recall the details of the events leading up to some kind of cataclysmic occurrence which has changed the world forever. This is a subtle detail which is reinforced time and again throughout the tale in countless delicate ways and really sets the reader wondering from the very first page who is telling the story and why.
It’s a simple conceit to employ, but in this case its so artfully done the book is worth reading for that alone.
As for the plot, that revolves around the accidental discovery of a food supplement ‘Heraklephorbia’ which can allow anything that absorbs it to develop and grow continuously until it reaches adulthood. This has predictable and very obvious effects in that it causes giant crops of plants and supersized animals to start popping up in all manner of unexpected places as chance and ignorance conspire to allow this potent new discovery to escape beyond its original scientific bounds.
How society responds to the gigantic problems that start to crop up all over the place, including the children who are given the food before its effects are properly understood then forms the basis of the novel, and here again Wells is in his element and paints such a vivid and realistic picture the reader can only be swept along with it.
Who would enjoy this book?
This is one of Well’s gentler and simpler books, the pace is often quite slow, more akin to the modern documentary than the modern sci-fi blockbuster, so if you’re thinking of reading your first H.G. Wells book after watching the recent remake of ‘The War of the Worlds’, then this probably isn’t the book for you.
Alternatively, if you like stories like John Wyndham’s The Kraken Awakes, or even the earlier classics like Swift’s – Gullivers Travels or Verne’s – The Island of Dr Moreau, then this story might well appeal.
This book has an interesting and engaging plot, it’s well told, and employs some stylistic techniques you’re unlikely to have encountered in H.G. Wells novels before . . . But, there are aspects to the book which have simply not aged well, and this for some readers will make the going difficult
Version reviewed – SF Masterworks hardback edition published in 2010 by Gallancz.
Purchased from my local Waterstones bookshop. £8.99 (£7.99 ebook version),