Tuesday, March 09, 2010

We Made it Hum


"We made Tono-Bungay hum! It brought us wealth, influence, respect, the confidence of endless people. All that my uncle promised me proved truth and understatement; Tono-Bungay carried me to freedoms and powers that no life of scientific research, no passionate service of humanity could ever have given me...." (Tono-Bungay, Chapter 3)  

This is Wells writing stylistically like Dickens in a mode of novel-writing that aims at the nineteenth century version of social justice (even though it was published at the end of the first decade of the twentieth century).
Today he is mainly remembered for his science fiction. "Tono Bungay" is an unusual work in that it straddles two of these genres: it is both science fiction and social commentary. The novel follows the rise and fall of an empire built on a quack medicine. The medicine, Tono Bungay, gives the book its title. Regardless of what it stands for, it is clear that Tono Bungay is not entirely good for you, and probably harmful in the long run. The short-term effects are however sufficiently pleasing so as to make a fortune for its inventor.
The novel is narrated by a young man, George Ponderevo, who, while not as appealing as the best of Dickens' heroes, has a certain charm. His rise along with that of his Uncle Teddy is chronicled with wit and an ear for the details of turn of the century commerce that make the book rewarding to the interested reader. Wells was able to write deeper and had a greater palette than those who may have only read his early science-romances might imagine. However Wells does add instances of science fiction even in this novel and often they are only remotely related to the main topic. Such is the case for the various experiments in air travel which make up a substantial part of the book. Yet another science fiction episode concerns a mysterious ore, which appears to be radioactive. Ostensibly, the purpose of this ore is to provide Tono Bungay a new infusion and lease on life. Radioactivity had only recently been discovered when Wells wrote this novel, and indeed was very mysterious . Wells treats the radioactive ore as something that fundamentally corrupts all that it touches. 
The result is an unusual book that as a whole is better than most of Wells' many works of science fiction.

Tono-Bungay by H. G. Wells.  Bison Books, 1978 (1908)

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