Star-Begotten, by H. G. Wells

Chapter Five

Professor Ernest Keppel Takes up the Idea in his Own Peculiar Fashion

1

Now Dr. Holdman Stedding had a great friend and crony, a bachelor like himself and a queer imaginative talker, Professor Ernest Keppel. He was nominally professor of philosophy, but latterly he had engaged more and more in psycho-therapy. He was accused of psychologizing his philosophy away into a descriptive science and he was a frequent and formidable controversialist, more often in hot water than not.

He was a dark, scarred, halting man. He had been scarred by the explosion of a hidden mine in the German trenches during the September advance in 1918. The scar ran as a dark red suture from the middle of his forehead across the left brow, where an overhanging exostosis thrust his eye into a deep and sinister cavern. Moreover, the explosion had stiffened the joint of his forearm, injured his pelvis, and left him lame. Before that he must have been very animated and attractive indeed. But his mutilation had left a curious bitterness in his nature. He understood why he was bitter; he did his best not to be bitter, but taking thought about it could not make him sweet. He was over-sensitive to the effect of his scar when he met new people; his incurable delusion that he was repulsive made him abrupt and rude, more particularly with women, and perhaps he exaggerated the delights of the normal experiences from which he felt he was shut off. He was prosperous and he lived well, and his energy and persistence in research and speculation were making a great reputation for him.

The doctor found his company extremely stimulating. He was accustomed to bring new ideas to him and toast them, so to speak, in front of his glowing mind. Indeed he hardly ever took an idea to himself and assimilated it until he had warmed it up first before Professor Keppel. And now accordingly he took advantage of a lunch engagement to bring up the matter of the Martians. They often arranged by telephone to lunch together, because Keppel’s place was so much nearer than clubland.

‘I was talking to a lunatic yesterday,’ said the doctor, ‘and he broached a most remarkable idea.’

He sketched Mr. Davis’s alleged discovery in a tone of appreciative scepticism as lunch went on.

‘It’s nonsense,’ he concluded.

‘It’s nonsense,’ Professor Keppel agreed. ‘But —’

‘Exactly! But —’

‘But —’ repeated Keppel and waved the hand of his inferior arm stiffly, while his trim parlourmaid stood at his elbow with the savoury.

A certain brightness appeared in his overhung eye. His expression became profound.

Dr. Holdman Stedding waited.

‘The interesting point,’ said Professor Keppel, helping himself to his Gruyere a la Roi Alphonse, ‘the interesting point is, as you say, that we do in fact know nothing about what human modification may be going on at the present time. Nothing. Demographic science has hardly begun to be a precise science — much less an exact science. Our social statistics are extravagently clumsy. (A) We don’t know what to count or measure and (B) we haven’t an idea how to measure it. It is quite possible that new human types may be appearing in the world, or that once rare types may be increasing in number relatively. More geniuses — more aberrant gifts. And the queer thing is that, when this lunatic comes to you and starts this idea in your head, you don’t say Pish or Tush and just turn it down; you begin to have a vague sense that somehow you have felt something — you hardly know what.’

‘That’s it.’

‘And when you bring it to me (Do try this savoury. Don’t pass it. I got the recipe from Martinez at that Spanish restaurant in Swallow Street) I begin to have the same feeling.’

2

‘One’s imagination wants to play with it. It’s as attractive as a hare’s foot to a kitten. Suppose, Keppel, suppose — for the sake of a talk — there are Martians.’

‘Let’s suppose it. I’m more than willing.’

‘What sort of minds would they have and what would they think of our minds and what might they not try to make of them?’

‘Regarded as an exercise in speculative general psychology? That’s attractive.’

‘As a speculative exercise then.’

‘Exactly. You know that man Olaf Stapledon has already tried something of the sort in a book called Last and First Men. Some day we shall certainly have to come to a general psychology independent of the human type, just as now these young men in the Society of Experimental Biology are getting away from the highly specialized peculiarities of human physiology towards a general physiological science. Now away there in Mars, as any astronomer will tell you, there are all the conditions necessary for a sort of life similar, if not identically similar, to life upon earth, the same elements — air, water, a temperature range not widely different. The probabilities are in favour of there having been a parallel — a roughly parallel evolution. Parallel but in some ways different. The gravitational energy, atmospheric pressure, and suchlike things are different and that would mean differences in lightness, vigour, and size. Martian plants and animals would probably run much bigger. Much bigger.’

‘I forget the relative masses of the two planets,’ said the doctor.

‘I forget too. Roughly it’s something like eight to one — perhaps a bit more. So the Martian, if he had a human form, would be twice as tall and eight times our weight. A bigger, longer-lived creature. Assuming —

‘No. It’s not wild assumption. The odds are in favour that there are or have been growths, detachments, moving feeling things, in existence on that planet. This is bold speculation, Holdman Stedding, I admit, but it isn’t extravaganza.’

‘Go on. But you wouldn’t dare to talk to your students like this.’

‘Possibly not. How far would the evolution of life, if it had an independent start elsewhere under slightly but not essentially different conditions, run parallel to the evolution of life on earth?’

‘The same tune, I suppose, with variations.’.

‘It is difficult to imagine anything else. There would be plants — I think green plants — and animals. The animals would run about as individuals and have senses, something like ours — perhaps very like ours. They might see more colours than we do, for example, have a longer or shorter range of sound, subtler feelers in the place of our hands. Probably Nature has tried out all the possible senses on earth here. But not all the possible shapes and patterns. Anyhow these Martians would respond to stimuli; they would have reflexes; they would condition their reflexes. I believe if we could call up the spirit of dear old Pavlov, we should find him agreeing with us, that the chances are heavily in favour of any possible minds there being minds fundamentally like ours.’

‘But with a longer past.’

‘Yes, Mars was cool long before earth was. A longer past, a hotter summer and a harder winter — the year of Mars is twice the length of ours — a larger body and a larger brain. With more room for memories — more and better memories — and more space for ideas, more and better ideas. And so the problem comes down to this. What sort of mind would a man have if he had a longer ancestry, an ampler memory, a less hurried Life?’

‘I accept all that as just possible,’ said the doctor.

‘It is certainly where the weight of probability lies. Now all these pseudo-scientific story-writers who write about Mars make their Martians monsters and horrors, inhuman in the bad sense, cruel. Why should they be anything of the sort? Why,’ repeated Professor Keppel, taking coffee, ‘why should they be anything of the sort?’

‘Quite nice monsters?’

‘Why not?’

‘Well, the German professor evolved his idea of a camel from his inner consciousness; why shouldn’t we do the same with our Martians?’

‘Having regard to the facts. Why not?’

Dr. Holdman Stedding looked at his watch.

‘Not till you’ve smoked one of those pennant-shaped Coronas you like,’ said Keppel, ‘and just a whiff of brandy. Because, confound it! you started this talk, you’ve interested me, and you’ve got to hear it out. If there is such a thing as a Martian, rest assured, Holdman Stedding, he’s humanity’s big brother.’

‘Big in every way you think. A super-super man.’

‘Good anyhow.’

‘Beyond good and evil.’

‘Everything alive must have its good and evil. Beyond our good and evil anyhow. None the worse for that perhaps. No; if you talk of your lunatic again, you can at least dispel any fear he has of his Martians. The odds are they are not so much invading us as acting as a sort of inter-planetary tutor. Bless my heart! At the mere thought I feel a sort of benevolent influence.’

‘No,’ said Dr. Holdman Stedding, emitting a smoke jet with the appreciative expression of a cigar advertisement in Punch and weighing the possibilities of the case with luxurious deliberation. ‘It’s your cook.’

3

‘She’s a very good cook,’ Professor Keppel admitted. ‘But about these Martians. We are letting our fancy play too wildly about them. Let’s leave them for a bit. There’s another point your patient has raised that’s quite available for separate treatment. Practically another question. There may or may not be these sane and mature watchers over human destiny, these Celestial Uncles, these friends in the mdnight sky, but what does seem to be possible and even within our reach is this idea, that the species Homo sapiens, because of some possible increase or change in the direction of the cosmic rays, or from some other unknown cause, is starting to mutate, and mutate along some such line as that larger wisdom indicates.’

‘Some sort of large wisdom,’ said Dr. Holdman Stedding, ‘a purely hypothetical wisdom.’

‘You are very precise,’ said Professor Keppel. ‘But anyhow that is what we want to know. Is there such a biological movement going on? Is there any means of tracing it if it is going on? The real feeling at the back of both our minds is that, if there is not something of the sort going on, then this breed of pretentious, self-protective imbeciles —’

‘Poor Homo sapiens!’ murmured the doctor. ‘How he catches it nowadays!’

‘Is very near the end of its tether. It’s no good pretending you disagree with that. Haven’t all reasonable civilized men nowadays this feeling of being dilettantes on a sinking ship? We all want a break towards something better in the way of living. Hopes and our wishes speak together. And it may be — as we half hope. But how are we to test this idea? How are we to set about the investigation?’

‘Without making everyone think we have gone crazy?’

‘Precisely.’

‘Nietzsche?’ hazarded the doctor. ‘Are these his supermen we are thinking about?’

‘He brings too much Oriental bric-à-brac for my taste,’ said Keppel. ‘And so far as I can make out, he has at least two different meanings for that Ubermensch of his. On the one hand is a biologically better sort of man and on the other a sort of aggregate synthetic being like Hobbes’s Leviathan. You never know how to take him. Let’s rule Nietzsche out. Let us just follow up this question whether there is an increase in-what shall I call them? — high-grade intellectual types.’

The doctor helped himself with infinite restraint and discretion to just the merest splash more brandy. ‘I think, Keppel, there may be a possible way to set this note of interrogation working.’

‘We have our reputations to consider.’

‘We have our reputations to consider, but quite possibly this fellow — well, to commit a very slight indiscretion — it is Mr. Joseph Davis, the man who writes those extremely popular, those florid — shall I say? — those almost too glorifying glosses, so to speak, on history — might do something for us in this respect. His writings, his association with what one might call the more romantic aspects of the human record, his almost strained belief in the faith, hope, and glory of our species, put him, I think, in a position to ask questions. . . . ’

‘Joseph Davis,’ considered Keppel. ‘The man who wrote From Agincourt to Trafalgar? Him! You got this idea about the Martians from him!’

‘I told him to think no more about it.’

‘But he will?’

‘He will. He wants to think about it. He wants to follow this up. He — something has shaken him up. I can’t make up my mind whether he is going mad or going sane. But if I give him half a hint, he’ll be off on the scent of these Martians now like a dog after a rabbit’

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30