Star-Begotten by H. G. Wells (1937)
Wells (1866-1946) is perhaps best remembered today as one of the earliest science fiction authors, with such seminal works as The Time Machine, War of the Words, The Invisible Man, The First Men in the Moon, Food of the Gods, and The Island of Doctor Moreau establishing or solidifying themes for many later works in the genre. A social critic and futurist, Wells infused much of his writing with Utopian and socialist ideals wile maintaining a sense of reality in even his most imaginative works. Wells' popularity declined as he spent more of his time promoting his social ideas, some of which had lost favor among the general population; as G. K. Chesterton put it, Wells "is a born storyteller who has sold his birthright for a pot of message."
Star-Begotten is one of Wells' lesser-known works and a difficult one to categorize. It is not a science fiction book, but was one of two novels included in his collection 28 Science Fiction Stories. For the most part the novel has been shoehorned into a science fiction label whenever it was printed.
From its very first sentence, we learn the theme and plot of the book: "This is a story of an idea and how it played about in the minds of a number of intelligent people."
Joseph Davis is a solid middle-class citizen, much in the mode of "A Well Respected Man" from the song by the Kinks. His philosophies are well-crafted to fit his world view of predictability and class:
"It was being conveyed to him that it really did not matter what foundations of myth and fantasy the existing system of Western civilization was built upon; the fact that mattered was that it was built upon that foundation and that a great ritual of ceremonial and and observance, which might be logically unmeaning, and an elaborate code of morality, which might ultimately prove to be arbitrary, nevertheless constituted the co-ordinating fabric of current social life and that current social life could not now go on without them. So that all this freethinker and rationalist stuff became irrelevant and indeed contemptibly crude. Reasonable men didn't assert. They didn't deny. They were thinking and living at a different level. You could no more reconstruct religion, social usage, political tradition, than you could replan the human skeleton -- which was also open to considerable criticism."
"When he took his side he should, like a sensible man, have stopped thinking."
And therein lies the rub. Some two-and a- half years ago, Joseph Davis began to realize that his wife was becoming "enigmatical, extremely enigmatical." His life and his marriage were pleasantly predicable. Then thing began to subtly change. An author, he began to be dissatisfied with his books and his approach to writing. His wife began to change, expressing not only ideas of her own but her dissatisfaction with previous interests.
Finally there was that fateful day at his club. The Planetarium Club had always been a good place for lively (and less than mundane) discussion. The topic that day veered to cosmic rays and their ability to modify genetic make-up. One wag remarked that it would be a good way for a civilization from anther planet (say, Mars*) to attack mankind. Could not that civilization, far advanced than ours, control cosmic rays in such a way as to target men, changing their brains slowly to resemble their own brains? -- in a way, perhaps, to keep the human body, but to replace the brains with their own, alien brains? Surely such a move would be a way for a dying populace to survive and continue on. And the scientists present at this discussion felt that, given the original theses, this could be possible.
A fancy argument, indeed, but as Joseph Davis considered this theory it seemed to fit nicely into the changes in his own and his wife's slow and unrelenting changes in attitude. Davis pesuades himself that this could be happening. And, as he posits the question to his doctor the medico begins to accept the thesis...
The book presents an unproven theory and uses it as a springboard for a wonderfully comic social novel. There is no alien race using cosmic rays to modify mankind, and this is not a science fiction novel, but it does use science fiction tropes to good effect. The snark was a boojum you see.
I found this late-in-his-career novel to be both witty and wise and wonderfully entertaining.
* "Mars, the planet which is being frozen out, exhausted, done for.. Some of you may have read a book called The War of the Worlds -- I forget who wrote it -- Jules Verne, Conan Doyle, one of those fellows..."