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!

 EXPLORATION FAWCETT (1953, Hutchinson) by Percy Harrison Fawcett

A century ago South America was at the tail end of the rubber boom, a jungle frontier wilder than the American West. Life was cheap, anacondas were 60 feet long and Percy Fawcett was in the thick of it, swashbuckling his way through exploits that make Indiana Jones look about as intrepid as a suburban paperboy.

An English army officer, Fawcett began his South American adventuring in 1906, surveying boundaries in remote wilderness along the Brazil-Bolivia border. This was a hideously arduous undertaking but Fawcett was the man for the job. His attraction for death-defying jungle jaunts seems to have baffled even himself. As he put it: “Inexplicably – amazingly – I knew I loved that hell. Its fiendish grasp had captured me”.

Fawcett spent most of the first quarter of the 20th-century exploring Amazonia. He became fascinated by rumoured lost cities, particularly one he called Z, a mysterious civilisation of ‘white indians’ said to exist in the Matto Grosso. Z was his obsession and downfall; in 1925 Fawcett and two others (including his eldest son Jack) failed to reappear from an expedition in search of it.

The dream that unknown white civilisations might be found in the unexplored depths of new countries crops up again and again in the annals of European colonialism. The legendary ‘Welsh Indians’ were a staple of US frontier lore, while Australia had (or rather, didn’t have) its elusive ‘white colony’ which convicts believed lay in the bush just beyond Sydney, as described in my book Tour To Hell.

In the early 1950s Fawcett’s surviving son Brian assembled Exploration Fawcett from the Colonel’s journals, adding a chapter about the search for his father. It was a bestseller and no wonder, bursting with piranha-infested rivers, drunken gunmen, lethal wildlife, revolting diseases, haunted houses and poison-tipped arrows raining down from jungle tribesmen not home to visitors.

Percy ‘Exploration’ Fawcett

A major strength is that Fawcett himself is much more than your typical rock-jawed derring-doer. He frequently surprises. For instance, his method of avoiding starvation in the jungle was to ‘pray audibly’ for food, an early exercise in positive thinking that he claims invariably resulted in the sudden appearance of game willing to be shot for his pot. Ready to sign up for an expedition with this man?

Fawcett’s enthusiasm for extreme and horrific conditions is impressive, if more than a little barking mad. And it is debateable how many tall tales crept into the narrative, especially given that he often recounts stories from people he met along the way. Some critics have suggested his son Brian may have found vested interest in adding colour – and a few feet to the gigantic 62-foot anaconda his father described shooting (this is two to three times longer than various recorded maximums for the largest anaconda species).

Still Fawcett is a lively writer, a most entertaining vicarious travel companion and an excellent antidote to the gentle horror of a regular city commute. You can bet he’d much prefer a river churning with ravenous piranha to a train carriage stuffed to the gills with office workers checking Facebook.

PS: Paramount has a movie lost in pre-production, The Lost City Of Z, based on a book of that title (2005) by David Grann which offers a theory about Fawcett’s disappearance. Charlie Hunnam will play Fawcett; Robert Pattinson and Sienna Miller also star. Director James Gray promises it will be ‘epic and hallucinogenic’ – two words which well describe Fawcett’s own book. And yet I wonder: could any Hollywood adaptation keep pace with the wild ride of the real story? Brad Pitt, whose production company kicked off the project, was originally slated for the lead role but dropped out four years ago. From Jungle Hell to Development Hell, the Colonel’s adventures continue…

PPS: A conspiracy theory (not espoused by Grann’s Lost City Of Z ) contends that Exploration Fawcett was a smokescreen concocted by Brian Fawcett to disguise his father’s true fate. Colonel Fawcett, so this story goes, never intended returning and abandoned the outside world to found a secret jungle commune. It’s an attractive idea – the indefatigeable seeker of lost worlds ends up building his own to lose himself in – but convincing evidence remains thoroughly lost, too.

CONVICT AUSTRALIA’S GREAT ESCAPE MYTHSTour-To-Hell

  Tour To Hell (UQ Press) tells the true story of a fascinating but little-known aspect of Australia’s early convict days – the myths of escape that fired many dreams of liberty throughout the penal colony, particularly amongst convicts transported from Ireland.

Founded in 1788 as the world’s most remote penal colony, Sydney presented formidable natural barriers – thousands of miles of ocean to the east, thousands of miles of uncharted wilderness to the west. These were very effective de facto prison walls.

But within a few years, convicts had other ideas about the daunting unknown around them. Tales arose of white colonies across the nearby Blue Mountains with churches and masted ships, a nation of ‘copper-coloured people’ beyond a river just north of Sydney – places where Irish and other escapees hoped to find sanctuary, or even a way home.

The first convict 'Chinese travellers' went eastwards along the Parramatta River in 1791 (seen here from Sydney, 1797) but were soon bewildered in the extensive scrub.

The first convict ‘Chinese travellers’ went east along the Parramatta River in 1791 but were soon lost in the extensive scrub. Courtesy National Library of Australia (nla.pic-an2716983-v)

These ideas were often corroborated – perhaps even originated – by Aborigines, and they inspired many escapes. Governors Hunter and King, exasperated by these unexpected and destabilising myths of liberation, both mounted inland expeditions aimed at disproving the existence of the mythical ‘white colony’.

Convict escape myths appear in the historical record from 1791 until about 1830 and peaked between 1798 and 1803. Their role in colonial development has to date remained largely unexamined. But they prompted some of the most wide-ranging early explorations and had a surprisingly close relationship to the parallel ‘official’ myth of the inland sea.

Escape mythology could be said to constitute the first genuine folklore of colonial Australia.

It offers unique insight into the convict imagination, and shows how imagination helped shape the development and exploration of a continent.

Tour To Hell combines tales of escape, exploration and bushranging with a new look at Australia’s most reluctant first settlers coming to grips with the harsh and foreign landscape of their new home. It is the first book devoted solely to this chapter of Australia’s story.

For reviews, escape to HERE, or to order online run away to THIS PAGE

Tour To Hell has placed in the following literary awards:
Alex Buzo Prize 2009, awarded to shortlisted finalists of the CAL Waverley Library Award For Literature (The Nib).
Honourable Mention, Manning Clark House National Cultural Award 2008
Commended, Melbourne University Publishing Award 2008
(Fellowship of Australian Writers National Literary Awards) 

 If you’re in Sydney….

Better Read’s Talking Heads:

Josephine Pennicott

Don’t miss award-winning local author Josephine Pennicott in conversation with Newtown Library’s own Gayle Donaldson. Josephine is a natural born story teller. She will discuss the inspiration and research for her new historical mystery novel Poet’s Cottage, give her own take on tips for being a writer and touch on the art of being published. 

 Josephine’s new book Poet’s Cottage is an absorbing historical mystery set in the bohemian 1930s and the present day. It’s a Tasmanian tale about a mother and daughter, Sadie and Betty, uncovering the truth about wild life and violent death of Sadie’s controversial grandmother, the free-spirited children’s writer Pearl Tatlow.

WHEN: Tuesday July 31, 6pm to 7pm 

WHERE: Newtown Library, 8-10 Brown Street, Newtown (Sydney).

Admission free, but book your place here 

Presented with Better Read Than Dead Bookshop

Very proud to say that Josephine’s new novel Poet’s Cottage (Pan Macmillan) is officially out and ready to leap from the bookshop shelves NOW. 

A mystery set in a Tasmanian coastal village in the 1930s and the present day, Poet’s Cottage concerns the wild life and strange, unsolved death of a bohemian children’s writer, Pearl Tatlow, and the divergent memories her daughters had of their unconventional upbringing. In the present day, Pearl’s granddaughter Sadie tries to solve the mystery of her death and also come to terms with the legacy of her life.

The German hardcover version is due in September. There has been quite a lot of publicity and reviews already. Here’s a feature by Steve Meacham – and photography by me! (brag, brag, brag) – which appeared in the Sun Herald (Sydney) on March 18. Click on the link here to read the full article

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.