It is a shame that the short stories of H.G. Wells have been largely forgotten. For they showcase his keen interest in science and technology, along with a burning sense of moral passion quite unbecoming in an author of “scientific romances” (as he would say). I have so loved many of Wells’s writings. Long concerned with the creation of earthly utopias through socialistic experiments and universal educational advancement, he nevertheless died a disillusioned man, convinced that humanity would be unable to cope with the challenges of modern society. In Wells’s view:
Man + technology = 0
Meaning that when you mix humanity with advancement, you get a negation. You get nothing but self-destruction. Annihilation, basically. Wells died a pessimist because he persisted in scouring the earth for Fabian socialist utopias: in Russia, in England, anywhere. And he never found them, of course. He could never quite accept the fact that man is human, with all of his attendant foibles, warts, messes, and sulphur-fumes. Could not accept it. Why couldn’t he accept it? In some men, the ideal just dies hard.
His 1905 story Aepyornis Island highlights this inner, unresolved conflict. The plot: a biologist exploring remote regions in Madagascar hunts for evidence of an immense, long-extinct flightless bird called Aepyornis vastissimus. Never seen by European eyes, the bird stood nearly fifteen feet tall and supposedly died out in the 1400s. The biologist chances upon a preserved nest of melon-sized eggs in a jungle swamp, protected for centuries by some freak of climate and soil, and takes them away in his boat. The boat becomes wrecked soon after, and the biologist finds himself marooned on a deserted island with a monstrous Aepyornis egg. The egg hatches, and out comes this feathered anachronism after hundreds of years of hibernation. It is very cute, at first. The biologist showers it with love, attention, and care. All seems blissfully wonderful. Idyllic. And all is rivers of honey and gum-drop trees. On a deserted island. And our biologist is enraptured.
And then things turn sour.
As the Aepyornis reaches adulthood, the biologist becomes uncomfortably aware that the animal is not a precious snowflake. It has a nasty and foul temper. It is greedy. And cruel. Soon enough the colossal bird attacks him, delivering sledge-hammer kicks that leave him swollen and bloody. And then it is all-out warfare. The once loving couple now stalk each other over the island, with savage bloodlust, in a vicious fight to the death. In the last scene, the biologist grapples furiously with the bird by the shoreline, sawing at its neck with his rusty knife in a murderous rage, hot blood spilling over the pure white sand. One is reminded of the desperate struggle in Jack London’s Love of Life, where a starving man and wolf shadow each other across a frozen wasteland in a horrifying duel to the death.
What, then, are we to make of such a story? Is it just another variation on the “be careful what you wish for” cliché? Or is there something darker, something deeper?
Consider the bird. Is he a symbol? Of course. But of what, exactly?
He is a symbol of our innermost, deepest Wish-Fulfillment. Our deepest Blood-Desire. And man, like the biologist in the story, is required to chase down and possess this deepest Wish-Fulfillment. Required to: if we are to be men. Nothing optional about it. We nurture this wish, covet it, and care for it, as the biologist did with his precious ancient cargo of eggs.
And then: chase it down, and hunt it down. And kill it. Possess it utterly. And this is never a pretty sight. For the process of hunting down and possessing our deepest desire is never as clean and easy as your typical springtime Easter egg hunt. One never emerges unscathed. It can be a ghastly, brutal process. And yet a necessary one. It is a cathartic, violent process. For it is only in this way that man can advance, grow, and move forward: much like being reborn. And this is why Wells was wrong in his belief that man and his implements of technology cancel each other out. The true moral equation should be:
Man + technology = MAN
I wish I could write it larger than that. MAN. That is, man and his tools—even if he wields only a rusty knife—are enough for him to master his environment. We—our tools and ourselves—don’t negate each other: we complement each other.
I am a man, and I am master of my environment. Here I stand. With only a rusty knife in my hand. I am a man! And in the right hands, my dull, rusty knife here by my side is enough. It can slice through any Gordian knot I desire. We need only the will to use it. I am the captain of my ship, I am the master of my soul. I am the artisan of my fate. I. And only I.
And that is why I, unlike Wells, am an optimist. I know our Great Day is coming. You can just feel it. Because there is no other way, really. If we are to move forward to our own Great Day as men, we must go through this mortal hunt. This chasing down. Of our innermost Blood-Being and Blood-Desire. Even if it means we must grapple with our own inner, prehistoric monsters, and fight them to the death. With blood bubbling into our clean white sand. It must be done.
And there is no going back: for any reversion, any volte-face, would be the death of us, by gradual decomposition, as men. A real spiritual abandonment, and a corresponding degeneration of us, as men. We just can’t go back. For our souls would decompose. The biologist couldn’t go back, you can’t go back, and I know that I couldn’t go back, either. So it is only forward, forward, forward.
And once we accept this, we can approach the dawn of our own Great Day.
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