In December I addressed two gaps in my SFF reading by looking at two of H.G. Wells’ better-regarded ‘scientific romances’ of the late nineteenth century – encouraged by Jorge Luis Borges’ glowing admiration of him, as well as by finding the SFF Masterworks editions at a good price. I began with The Time Machine, a wonderful little novella. For its 1895 vintage it is very approachable, closer to the lucid and eloquent style of Arthur Conan Doyle than the stilted and archaic style of later writers like W.H. Hodgson and H.P. Lovecraft; and this accessibility would help explain Wells’ enduring appeal.
Plot: a Victorian time traveler returns from his journey to AD 800,000 to a dinner party at his home, where he recalls his encounter with two contrasting descendants of the human race: the childlike Eloi and the subterranean Morlocks. Wells’ protagonist observes both races, and tries to understand their existence by speculating upon their evolutionary course from the Victorian upper and lower classes. By these speculations the Eloi and Morlocks are emblematic of Victorian society; and, because we are the progenitors of the author’s time, also contemporary society. The story can then be read as a fable, but it is largely an exploration narrative. There is also a minor adventurous aspect, and this is introduced with a woman Eloi who befriends the protagonist.
Overall, it’s a brisk and concisely told story, which adds to its charm. As well as the SF and adventure elements I found many aspects of the weird tale in here by its presentation of a future landscape filled with the ruinous vestiges of lost civilisations, mysterious artifacts and subterranean depths. The ending is well done, with a satisfying action sequence, a memorable beach-side vision of the death of the planet, and a symbolic observation of the essential humanity of the Eloi. This is a very enjoyable novella of 120 pages that can be read in one weekend or a couple of sittings. 5/5
Secondly I H.G. Wells’ invasion novel The War Of The Worlds. The Martians’ inhumane supremacy is emphasized throughout – they are sleepless, sexless, unfathomable and methodical exterminators who appear as colossi next to the ant and cattle-like humans, who are hopeless. There is plenty of action and destructive sequences here, along with speculative passages about alien warfare, human survival, and the course of alien/human civilisation. I was also struck by the prescient aspects of this (1897) book: its heat rays, poison gas, civilian aerial bombardment, and refugee columns, all seem to anticipate the subsequent warfare of the twentieth century with its mustard gas, city blitzes, and total warfare. One criticism: it feels a little too bogged down with exacting passages of London locations and street names, but this would be a plus for a London reader. Overall I was more impressed by the concise and anthropological The Time Machine, but The War Of The Worlds remains worthwhile for several of its memorable moments: the anticipation of the aliens’ first contact with humans, the keenly observed plight of the refugees, and Well’s ever-enjoyable evolutionary and technological speculation. 4/5