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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Mightily chuffed and honoured to have my supernatural/historical short story SHARK’S ISLAND swim into this year’s THE YELLOW BOOKE, the annual collection of “original horror, ghost stories and weird fiction” from US-based Oldstyle Press. Shark’s Island (pages 123-132) transports you to the wildest outer limits of Australia’s convict past. Follow the link to read The Yellow Booke (vol iv) free online, or buy a print copy from Amazon at an Amazingly good price.

the-yellow-book-volume-4
As well as putting out the annual Yellow Booke, Oldstyle Press publishes handsomely illustrated and annotated editions representing many of the great masters of classic weird and supernatural fiction – Poe, Shelley, Blackwood, Stoker, Bierce, Dickens, James, RLS and more. Well worth sinking your teeth into!

OLD FOURLEGS: THE STORY OF THE COELACANTH – JLB Smith (1956)

One of my most constant and peculiar obsessions had always been a conviction that I was destined to discover some quite outrageous creature – JLB Smith.

And he did, too. The discovery of the coelacanth in 1938 is well known in thumbnail-version – supposedly long-extinct fish turns up in fishing net – but the full story of the one that got away for 65 million years is quite a fisherman’s tale.

It involves a sharp-eyed museum curator named Miss Latimer and JLB Smith, South Africa’s foremost ichthyologist. Much of the drama comes from Smith’s 14-year quest to find a second specimen, which finally turned up off the Comoros Islands in 1952.

Ironically after 65 million years time was short. Battles against red tape, suspicious officials, South African politicians, Christmas holiday ennui and the tyranny of distance make this book quite a cliffhanger, with the careworn Smith forever racing to reach specimens before they putrify beyond usefulness.

At the time of publication, Smith thought he had found two species, but later it became apparent they were the same. Of course they were nothing new to Comoro fishermen, who knew them as the very oily and far from tasty gombessa. A second species finally showed up in 1998 off Indonesia.

JLB Smith and long-lost friend

Googling for more info, I was shocked to find the curmudgeonly but likeable JLB Smith killed himself with cyanide barely a decade later, beset by terminal illness. And the intrepid Captain Hunt died in a shipwreck almost as soon as the book came out.

Meanwhile, we’re still pulling those weird blue fish out of the deeps and wondering what other surprises the sea has in store.

PS: FISH & CHIPS
A sadly true news story from 2012, underlining the disturbingly far reach of ocean pollution, reported a coelacanth found with plastic garbage in its stomach. A packet of chips, apparently. This is a poor reflection on the human race any way you look at it.

THE SEA AROUND US – Rachel Carson

I’d never heard of this famous classic of natural history when I found a copy washed up on the footpath several years ago. As literary flotsam of the street it proved a real find, a magnificently written ‘biography’ of three-quarters of the planet.

SeaaroundusSome outdated science is immediately obvious – it was published in 1951, before plate tectonics confirmed continental drift – but this diminishes the authority and poetry not a drop. The prehistoric ocean-forming rain that lasted millions of years is wonderfully described, as are tides and currents. In sediments, Carson sees “a sort of epic poem of the earth. When we are wise enough, perhaps we can read in them all of past history”. The book overflows with this sort of visionary power, strengthening and sweetening the purely informative aspects.

In recent years, Miss Carson’s words about the possibility of submarine tidal activity causing global warming has kept The Sea Around Us surfacing in climate-change debates.  She is also among the most maligned authors of the last 50 years due to her Silent Spring, a famously powerful and influential polemic against the overuse of DDT and other pesticides.

 Some people blame her for every malaria death in the world since she wrote it. But she didn’t call for an outright ban on DDT, much less enforce one herself, and DDT was never banned in countries where malaria is most prevalent. If she had such global power, we should have asked her to rid us of landmines and jet-skis.

Just received a copy of Rodney Fox’s action-packed memoir Sharks, The Sea & Me (Wakefield Press). Rodney, you may know, famously survived a major shark attack in 1963, fifty years ago this month.

sharksseameHe went on to pioneer abalone diving in South Australia and, in 1965, the filming of great white sharks from custom-built cages. Having obtained the first-ever underwater footage of great whites, Rodney began filming sharks for many productions, including Blue Water White Death and Jaws – the latter providing some of the book’s best anecdotes.

In February 1976 Rodney ran the world’s first shark-cage dive tourism trip, and today Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions is the major Australian player in what is now a global industry. He’s also a leading shark conservation advocate, with the Fox Shark Research Foundation a key enabler of cutting-edge shark science. Of course I’m biased because I was one of the book’s editors, but it’s a great story and unputdownable for anyone interested in sharks, diving, adventure or true-life Australian stories. For more info see the Wakefield Press website.

 

So where was I over the summer holidays? Drunk in the gutters of Boston, juggling double albums and narcotics in the basements of Villefranche… vicariously of course. In other worlds, reading Keith Richards’ Life and Poe: A Life Cut Short, Peter Ackroyd’s new biography of Edgar Allan Poe.

Both of these men were significant innovators on their particular seacoasts of Bohemia. Poe, of course, is famous for taking poetry and prose in important and exciting directions, inventing the detective story along the way. Richards was the major (though not the first, as he reveals) importer of Spanish tuning into the Top 40 (Honky Tonk Women, Brown Sugar, etc). And, as revealed here on this website for the very first time, both chaps favoured startlingly similar white neckware. 

Life might be the best-selling Stones-related release  for decades. Certainly it’s had more attention than any new album since… anyhow, while it’s necessarily something of a greatest hits itself, with many an old yarn revisited, there’s also plenty 
that’s new re life and music in this most quintessential corner of the bohemian jetset. His overriding passion for the music is palpable, and thanks for the tip on playing Jimmy Reed! Overall, it’s perhaps the most entertaining book of its kind since Dylan’s Chronicles.

Poe was  probably the first ‘weird tale’ writer I discovered (you too, perhaps). A dead woman stuffed up a chimney by an orang-utan, a king and courtiers chained to a chandelier and burned alive by a disgruntled dwarf, a prisoner about to be sliced up by a sharp swinging pendulum… these are not images easily forgotten.

Ackroyd’s biography is a very slim and pacy volume, focusing more on the wild ride of Poe’s life than indepth consideration of his writing. It’s a good place to go for a quick handle on Poe, being short, well-constructed, fair-minded, plausible and entertaining. My only quibble is its odd tendency to begin a lot of sentences with ‘So’, which gets a little distracting.

 The funny thing is Richards, for all the dissipation and rocker-most-likely-to-drop-dead status, emerges as  the more careful of the two. He was never going to be found dying in the street like Poe, wearing someone else’s pants.

 

 

Another excerpt from doctor/rugby international/author Herbert Moran’s surprisingly Tour-To-Hellish 1940s memoir Beyond The Hill Lies China (see previous post):

Here Moran, in London during the Blitz, tells how he found a metaphor for his life journey in the difficult flight into unknown territory undergone by convict runaways as they struggled towards an imagined freedom.

He is inspired and encouraged by how they staked everything on their belief, which he elevates to a vision of transcendence. Challis, his protagonist, is his barely fictionalised self.

Over to Moran:

‘He had come to identify himself with those convicts who, out of the enclosure of their settlement, had pushed forward, their pockets full of grain. Was he not kindred to them in a felony of the senses? The West Road was the symbol of their travail and their release. Did it not carry still the meager relics of their passing: crumbling stones with an arrow and a number, the dust over all? Yet those convicts had pushed on, exhilarated. They had seen summits and ranges with red dawns spilling over a distant peak. Beyond the Hill and across the Bay they had found a goal. God in His Mercy had given distance to their dream. What did it matter if, on the way, they shed the trivial remnant of their flesh?

Originally a gift in 1946

Challis thought on the years when he had blindly groped his way, years of precarious foothold, when the mountain peak was veiled in mists, when Faith had slumped through nights, when he had known the shame of self-pity and the yielding to it. He had been giddy on sudden heights and vain on little pinnacles. But now he, too, was pushing forward with those old shadows for company.’