Chickens as big as horses
The British novelist H.G. Wells did not like to have his science fiction novels likened to those of the French writer Jules Verne, but there are some similarities. And even more than Verne’s pieces, the work of Wells more than a century ago often contains weird echoes of much more recent events.
One of his stories is about a machine of war that startlingly resembles the tank that was developed during World War I, though Wells wrote about it more than a decade before the start of that conflict.
A novel entitled “The Food of the Gods” has some things that sound even more recent. A chemist named Bensington teams up with a professor named Redwood whose specialty is growth of animals and plants. Redwood has determined that growth comes in spurts, with periods of inaction coming in between while the individual accumulates a new supply of whatever it is that causes growth. Bensington finds that he may have hit upon a substance that would obviate those periods of inaction.
Bensington, though rather fussy and absent-minded, has the task of locating a farm where chicks can be fed the special food, which they call Herakleophorbia, after Herakles, the Greek legendary strong man.
Several combinations of the food have no effect on the chicks, and the scientists aren’t aware that the couple hired to manage the farm have been very careless in the manner in which they handle the food, spilling it and leaving containers open to invasion by animals such as wasps.
Finally a substance is developed that seems to have the desired effect. Bensington finds chicks that are extra large and has one killed to take back to show to Redwood. There it is — still covered with the fuzzy yellow down common to baby chicks, but as large as a grown hen.
Redwood becomes thoughtful as he looks at the animal because he has fed some of the food to his baby son. The way the two scientists talk about what’s likely to happen carries the same tone as that used by the scientists who had just watched the first atomic bomb test explosion in the New Mexico desert.
The first unusual event comes with the wasps. They emerge from a nest near the farm where the food is located and are as big as hawks. One disrupts a picnic, and another causes a panic when it flies through a skylight into the British Museum. Their stingers are three or four inches long.
An even more startling turn of events is when giant rats, as big as tigers, make their appearance in the countryside. By this time the food has become known to the public and has been nicknamed Boomfood. Bensington is interviewed by journalists who quote him as saying anything they want him to say. The doctor who has been tending Redwood’s growing son tries to ascertain the chemistry of the food and in the process spills even more of it.
The chicks, meanwhile, grow into hens and escape from their farm pen. Each is as big as a horse, and they bring consternation to a nearby village when they come clucking down the main street. Then there’s a swamp where some of the food has been washed. Water bugs, which usually are less than a half-inch in length as adults, turn up as big as lobsters, to the detriment of a naturalist who has reached into the water after some giant algae.
One of the careless doctor’s patients is a princess who is related to the royal family. She is kept isolated as she grows, but as the years go by, young Redwood happens upon the field where she is concealed. He is 35 feet tall, and she is 20 feet tall. In his eyes she is a mere wisp of a girl, and in her eyes he cuts a manly figure. So it is love at first sight.
The thing about Boomfood is that it has an effect only upon things in their growth stage. If an adult who has stopped growing takes some of it, there is no effect and the growing things stop growing when they reach normal adulthood.
As is customary with human nature, a movement arises that opposes giantism. “Bigness” they call it, and they make a point of praising that which is small. But there are some who promote “bigness,” and the language Wells gives his characters in the debate on that subject has an eerie resemblance to the debate over the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant and the proposals for wind farms on mountaintops.
Yet Wells wrote the novel in 1905 and 1906, decades before those controversies arose. The mark on his genius as a science fiction writer was to display his characters with a sense of reality.
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.