Book review time again: here’s a round-up of impressions re H.G. Wells’ sci-fi Big Five:

THE TIME MACHINE (1895) untitledtmA not-so-cosy fireside tale to blow Victorian-era minds, with fiction’s first time machine (a term coined by Wells). The nameless Time Traveller enthrals his audience just as Wells enthrals us. Lobbing into a distant, dream-like future, he encounters the troubling consequence of deep-set societal divisions, with humanity devolved into childlike Eloi and monstrous Morlocks. The Eloi seem to enjoy a life of Edenic ease, but for all their apparent comfort lack knowledge and power. The subterranean Morlocks, it turns out, are in the opposite position.
I couldn’t help but think how social media makes Eloi of us all (albeit considerably unhappier Eloi), lost in vacuity and distraction while unseen tech-giant Morlocks harvest our data.

THE ISLAND OF DR MOREAU (1896) md21752596540A bleak gust of despair blows through this darkest of all mad scientist yarns. Wells traps his protagonist Prendick on a nightmarish island where a vivisectionist turns animals into sinister semi-humans for no good reason. It shocked many original reviewers; one called it ‘repulsive and purposeless’ – but Wells intended it to be. He’s riffing on a sentiment most famously expressed by Shakespeare: ‘As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport’. Moreau is the creator, or fate; the island our incomprehensible, pitiless universe. The cruelly mistreated (but hardly admirable) beast-men are us. Wells’ admiration for Swift is obvious here – just as Gulliver came home increasingly unable to tell his own kind from the Yahoos, so Prendick finds the distinction between himself and Moreau’s monsters ever murkier.

THE INVISIBLE MAN (1897) TheInvisibleManMAPBACKFRONT565Everyday life receives the alarming jolt of a scientist who has rendered himself invisible. And he’s up to no good with it, even if his transparently evil plans have already gone awry. What sort of man would do this to himself? An angry, reckless, megalomaniacal misanthrope, Wells reckons. Even so, there’s a lot of comedy amidst the mounting terror. Wells’ affectionate parody of English shopkeepers and complacent village life (the ex-drapery apprentice knew both well) is sharply observed and largely avoids condescension. This humour is well-captured in the 1933 film starring Claude Rains, the best of many Wells adaptations. In Griffin (the Invisible Man, appropriately named after a beast no-one has seen), Wells sees more than a one-dimensional villain, making him, for all that callous contempt, simply too naïve and trusting for his own good.

THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1898)2843707C00000578-3066374-image-m-64_1430674650938 The first chapter may be the best single piece of science-fiction ever written – pure prose-poetry, conveying wonder, menace and a searing critique of imperialism. Britain may have painted the map red; well, now the red planet is ready to give this puny Empire more than a taste of its own medicine. And what can humanity do about it? Not much. The writing is cleverly economical, a deft sidestep of the dreaded info dump. We follow one man who survives a couple of close encounters with the invaders, which means not only a snapshot of the chaos on a personal level, but also more about the Martians than a more typical victim could credibly supply. (drawing by Henrique Alvim Corrêa, 1906 edition.)

THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (1901) IMG_7173aOf all Wells’ scientific romances – his name for what came to be called science fiction – The First Men In The Moon is the most perfectly realised as a novel. The lunar explorers Cavor and Bedford are given more personality than other protagonists, and their interactions drive the story in a more integral, vital way. Wells is clearly enjoying character and plot as much for their own sake as for his ever-present social critique, and he mines a rich vein of humour and dramatic tension from both. Later works, though he denied it, tended to surrender these elements to didacticism.
His now-impossible Moon is wonderfully described and its rulers, the quasi-insect/crustacean Selenites, are convincingly, satisfyingly alien – and without marring their satirical purpose.
PS: Wells called this book a ‘burlesque on specialisation’, but this really only emerges near the story’s end, when Selenite society is sketched. He had no idea, of course, that he was also furnishing the basic template for Dr Who – eccentric otherworldly genius leads wide-eyed, younger offsider into alien adventure via deceptively ramshackle machine. There follows separation, capture, escape… hear the BBC Radiophonic Workshop theme yet?

 

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