The Time Ships

The start of a series on works related to H. G. Wells.

Tomorrow, assuming I complete the second draft by then, you’ll get a review of something and completely unrelated to Wells.

I have not yet read Baxter’s new sequel to Wells’ The Massacre of Mankind.

Raw Feed (1996): The Time Ships, Stephen Baxter, 1995.Time Ships

I liked this book but not so much for its nifty ideas as its explicit and implicit comments on H.G. Wells’ sf.

To be sure there is a very broad vista of adventure here as the Time Traveler returns from the world of the Eloi and Morlocks of Wells’ The Time Machine and then goes into an alternate version of that future back then to an alternate version of his past into an alternate version of Europe circa 1938 then back to the Paleocene then in to the far future back to the beginning of time and back to the Time Traveler’s world then a final return to The Time Machine world. Along the way a lot of philosophical and speculative science ideas are introduced but, for my mind (perhaps unfairly since most sf authors steal their ideas from science), their impact is blunted by being introduced to them before: the multiple world interpretation of quantum mechanics which allows time travel into the past and creation of seeming paradoxes, the idea of machine intelligence and its evolution, the Morlock Dyson sphere. The multiple world quantum interpretation and circular nature of the Time Traveler’s epic journey reminded me of George Zebrowski’s Stranger Suns and Poul Anderson’s “Flight to Forever” respectively.

I did find some startling new notions: the creation of life from scratch via a logical progression in nanotechnology, the purpose of sentient life is to acquire knowledge (perhaps beyond the universe), the idea of Kurt Godel that – as no system of logic can be free of unprovable statements – no ultimate meaning of a timeline must be sought outside in the Multiplicity. Perhaps Baxter’s Watcher is the mind that observes the Multiplicity. Continue reading

Star-Begotten

This will be the end of my H. G. Wells series.

Back in 1996, I knew there were a few Wells fantasy and science fiction works I missed. I didn’t bother to read The Shape of Things to Come: The Ultimate Revolution. However, since I’ve seen the film based on it several times, Things to Come with a screenplay by Wells, I didn’t see the need to read it. (I’m quite fond of Raymond Massey thundering to the citizens of Well’s future city “Time enough to rest in the grave” after they bitch about their version of future shock.)

However, the “H. G. Wells” entry at the Science Fiction Encyclopedia shows  I missed several other titles — though I’m sure they are minor works. Either I wasn’t paying attention 20 years ago or just not that ambitious.

Yet another reading project to get back to.

In future posts, I’ll be looking at some Wells’ related novels, and yes, I am working on reviews of books actually published in 2017.

Raw Feed (1996): Star-Begotten: A Biological Fantasia, H. G. Wells, 1937.Star Begotten

This 1937 novel by Wells evoked some of the same responses in me that his In the Days of the Comet did.

First, I liked Wells’ satire against everything from women’s fashions to politics and the psychology of his characters – particularly protagonist Joseph Davis, who vehemently writes propagandistic works of history to defend a sociopolitical order he has doubts about; Harold Rigamey, an “ultra-heretic” (I wonder if Wells had Charles Fort in mind) who writes wildly speculative essays throwing pseudo-science and science together; [I don’t wonder anymore.] Lord Thunderclap, a paranoid, conspiracy-mongering newspaper tycoon.

I liked several bits.

The public’s inability, due to the rapid rate of change even at the time of this novel’s writing, to give any but the most trivial and mundane reaction to even remarkable news (here the idea of extraterrestrial intelligence manipulating humans genetically) is mentioned. Wells sees Americans as too ready, in fits of anti-rational, anti-intellectual, misplaced egalitarianism, to denounce any new ideas and recognize no intellectual authorities over the common man and belittle ideas. Continue reading

28 Science Fiction Stories of H. G. Wells

The H. G. Wells series continues with a look at his short works.

Yes, there are only 25 stories reviewed. I omitted “The Star” which I looked at recently and I’ve also covered Men Like Gods already, and the novel Star-Begotten I’ll be doing a future posting on.

Raw Feed (1996): 28 Science Fiction Stories of H. G. Wells, ed. Groff Conklin, 1952.28 Stories

The Empire of the Ants” — A creepy, frightening story about a race of large, intelligent, tool using ants that began to carve their own empire out of the Amazon jungle. As Wells points out, evolutionary forces threw up an intelligent, tool-using species in us so why not another species even better suited for survival, one that will supplant us? This is another example of Wells’ attacking human (particularly Victorian and Edwardian) smugness and also another example of the perils and wonders inherent in nature. This is another story that fits Orwell’s remark about Wells’ seeing a world subject to change instantly.

The Land Ironclads” — This story’s main claim to fame is its prediction of tanks being invented for military purposes. Wells also has a fairly accurate depiction of future trench warfare in WWI, perhaps based on his readings of the siege of Vicksburg during the Civil War (though I have no basis for that observation). However, Wells tanks are used as a moving platform for rifleman and not artillery, and they don’t use a caterpillar tread but sort of mechanical feet. However, what this story is mainly about is Wells’ point that a seemingly effete civilization of “devitalised townsmen” is capable of beating a force from a rustic culture due to superior science. The “smart degenerates” defeat the “open-country men”.

The Country of the Blind” — This is Wells’ classic allegory about people with superior, more complete knowledge being denounced as insane (and also being handicapped in certain situations). On this second reading, the ending seems ambiguous. Does Nunez live or die at story’s end?

The Stolen Bacillus” — This story reminds me of Wells’ “The New Accelerator” – a basically humorous tale about some invention that does not ignore the serious implications of it but just refers to them in passing. Here the science is bacteriology, and the plot involves a humorous chase to recover a stolen culture – which turns kittens blue. However, there is a decidedly serious undertone here since the theft is by an anarchist determined to gain fame and spread death, and the culture he thinks he’s stolen is Asiatic cholera. Biological-terrorism is certainly not a science fiction idea that has lost interest or plausibility since Wells’ wrote the story. If anything, it has gained both.

The Flowering of the Strange Orchid” — Another typical Wellsian tale – though humorous – of a wonder of nature threatening man. Here a rather dull orchid grower runs across a blood sucking orchid.

In the Avu Observatory” — Another Wellsian tale of people discovering new threats in nature. Here a man in an observatory in Borneo is attacked by a mysterious creature.

A Story of the Stone Age” — I’m not a fan of prehistoric tales, and this seemed, at least for a Wells story, rather pointless unless it was intended to simply show the brutality – and incipient tenderness – that existed in stone age man. It also ends on ironical, fairy-tale like note of hero Ugh-lomi eventually being killed and cannibalized “in the fullness of time”.

Aepyornis Island” — The adventures of a man and the extinct bird he finds (unhatched), befriends, and lives with after being shipwrecked on an uninhabited atoll. Eventually, he has to kill the bird after it attacks him. (It’s about 14 feet in height.) The story is told in a humorous tone and seems to have little point (not that that’s bad, but Wells usually has a point) beyond saying that wild animals have violent instincts which can not be suppressed.

The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes” — This story operates in one of fantasy/science fiction’s older traditions (I don’t know how old): an adventure in alien dimensions usually rationalized by some mathematical talk of bent space and the Fourth Dimension. [The “Parallel Worlds” entry in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia says it’s one of the earliest tales where a character experiences alternate perceptions of the real world.] Here protagonist Davidson’s eyes are speculated to have entered the “Fourth Dimension” via the influence of a jolt of lightning on an electromagnet. Davidson goes blind in the usual sense of being able to see his surroundings, but he does visually see the landscape of a South Seas island. As he moves about – up, down, side to side – his vision shifts a corresponding amount on the island. Thus his vision sometimes goes underwater or into the blackness of solid ground. Eventually, normal vision returns. This is a neat, entertaining version of the Fourth Dimension tale.

The Plattner Story” — This story is closely related thematically to Wells’ “The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes”. Both feature displacement into the Fourth Dimension. Here a school teacher enters the Fourth Dimension via a chemical explosion in the lab. When he emerges, the external and internal features of his body have reversed symmetry, e.g. his heart goes from the left to right and his hands switch places. His adventures in the Fourth dimension have a creepy, vaguely proto-Lovecraftian feel to them. The “Other World” has dim, buildings that resemble sepulchers. It is inhabited by “Watchers of the Living”, creatures of human-like heads and “tadpole-like” bodies. They keenly watch the bright reflections of our world and protagonist Plattner speculates they are the dead who watch the consequences of their influence in the living. (A neat idea.)

The Argonauts of the Air” — A somewhat humorous story of the first powered, heavier-than-air flight, and its tragic consequences. I assume it was written before the Wright brothers made their historic flight. [The story was published in 1895.]

The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham” — A competently told tale of body switching (involuntary) by an old philosopher hoping to avoid death. (The story ends on a farcical note with the young victim committing suicide, and the philosopher dying in a traffic accident.) There is enough talk of mathematical symbols and psychology to probably provide a science fictional rationale.

In the Abyss” — An effective story about the discovery of an intelligent race on the deep sea floor. (In retrospect, Wells’ bathyscaphe seems needlessly complicated with its clockwork and weights suspended by cords.) Wells provides a wonderful image of cities built with the wreckage of ships and the bones and skulls of their crew. To them, humans are gods that occasionally fall from above bringing useful artifacts, and protagonist Elstead is particularly revered for his brilliantly lit, alive presence and bright ascent.

Under the Knife” — The hallucinations of a man being operated on. At first, it seems like a post-life experience (proving the notion is an old one) but then is revealed to be just a hallucination. This story seems to have little point other than to show the vast scales of time and space in the universe.

The Sea Raiders” — Story of a group of newly-discovered octopi preying on humans.

The Crystal Egg” — Story of a mysterious crystal egg that is sort of a television transceiver to a world of intelligent, bird-like aliens on Mars. The story gets some humor from storekeeper Mr. Care being berated by his wife. Did this view of a small business owning family come from Wells’ youth?

The Man Who Could Work Miracles” — A fantasy of man who suddenly finds he can work miracles but gives the talent up when his miracles have disastrous, unintended consequences. This is a humorous story in which Wells tells the reader that he was “killed in a violent and unprecedented manner” by one of Mr. Fotheringay’s miracles.

Filmer” — This is another of Wells’ tales dealing with heavier than air flight (not strictly true since Wells postulates a hybrid lighter and heavier than air vehicle in which the volume – and, therefore, the density – of the air bags can be changed for control purposes like a fish ascends and descends using an air bag) and was written, I assume, before the Wright flight of 1903. [The publication date was 1901.] This is actually a character study in a shy, nervous scientist successfully obsessed with developing powered flight. (Wells interestingly has the principle tested on a radio controlled model first.) It is assumed by the public he will pilot the first powered flight. He is terrified to but wants to please his girlfriend. Ultimately, he commits suicide as a way out of the dilemma. Perhaps Wells was making a comment on the fragile personalities often behind great scientific discoveries and inventions.

A Story of the Days to Come” — This is a sequel of sorts to Wells’ “A Story of the Stone Age” (Stone age man Uyu is mentioned in both) and is an impressive story that reminded me of several other sf works. Critics have rightly noted (I don’t know the publication date of this story) [it’s 1899 so after 1895’s The Time Machine] that this story of the travails of a couple’s courtship and marriage depicts a polarized society reminiscent of the origins of the Eloi-Morlock split in Wells’ The Time Machine. Poor workers live in serfdom to the Labour Company and inhabit the gloomy lower levels of a vast city while rich people inhabit the sunny heights. This depiction of polarized class societies has made a modern comeback in Nancy Kress’ Beggar series and George Turner’s Drowning Towers and The Destiny Makers. When Mwnes and Denton go to the city’s lower levels, I was reminded of the former Turner novel. When the couple tries to live in the country and discovers they are not suited for a primitive rural life, I was reminded of the couple fleeing their city in the novel Logan’s Run. The public ways lined with human and electric billboards and mirrors reminded me of some cyberpunk visions of media saturation. Each section opens with some sociological predictions of the future in (I assume) the vein of Well’s non-fiction Anticipations. Wells’ predictions at the beginning of the century for increased urbanization made possible by new transportation technology and necessary for the industry proved correct. I liked the brief bit showing that medical men hope to build a utopia (shades of Wells’ later preoccupation). I also liked the cynical prediction of commercial religions with their banal tenets and easy penance.

The Magic Shop” — Gentle fantasy about a magic shop that sells real magic.

The Valley of the Spiders” — Another of Wells’ tales about strange lifeforms – here large spiders that ride the wind via bundles of their webs. There is an element of class struggle and aristocratic exploitation in the conflict between the party of three pursuers beset by the spiders.

The Truth About Pyecraft” — A fantasy about an obese man’s attempt to lose weight. He’s all too successful at losing weight but not his ugly volume. Wells does a good job evoking the character of a club bore in the obese man.

The New Accelerator” — As James Gunn notes in his critique [in his The Road to Science #2: From Wells to Heinlein] of this story, this is a light-hearted use of a new technology – a drug that speeds up the metabolism greatly. Yet Wells, in the conversation between the narrator and the inventor of the New Accelerator, considers in passing some of the drug’s many uses for good and ill. Wells expresses his typical attitude that change, however much feared or unpredictable, will happen when his narrator, at story’s end, says the drug will be sold in a few months “ … and, as for the consequences – we shall see.”

The Stolen Body” — A tale of astral projection and possession. As in his “The Plattner Story”, Wells’ presents an alternate dimension full of mysterious inhabitants, malignant entities waiting to snatch the bodies vacated by astral travelers. I liked the idea that these entities are “the rational souls of men … lost in madness … “

A Dream of Armageddon” — I suspect, given the description and nomenclature used for “flying machines”, that this story was written prior to 1903. [It was published in 1901.] It also features a common feature of Wells’ early fantasy and sf story – transport mentally to another dimension. Here we are clearly to believe that the dreamer actually lives vicariously in the future. Wells’ theme of a man who may very well doom civilization in order to live with his lover fits in well with his call for utopian reforms in later years. Wells seems to think his future diplomat should lead the selfless life of the samurai of Wells’ A Modern Utopia. This point is further driven home by having the diplomat and his lover die in the resulting war.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

The Croquet Player

The H. G. Wells series continues with a fairly obscure title.

Raw Feed (1996): The Croquet Player, H. G. Wells, 1936.Croquet Player

This story can be considered as a ghost story or as an allegory about one of Wells’ main themes: the conquering of the brutish “cave man … who is in us”.

The ghost story is not very effective. Wells, unlike some of his short stories, doesn’t do a very good job of creating an atmosphere here. The supposed haunting of Cainsmarsh doesn’t seem that threatening or oppressive. The alternate reading – and the one Wells very likely intended – is that the ancient skull unearthed in Cainsmarsh is not haunting the land but, as the psychologist Dr. Norbert says, is an allegory for man’s bestial nature breaking down civilization (indeed, civilization is pronounced a delusion.). The world is no longer “safe for anything.” This pessimism is quite understandable for a European after World War I. Wells possibly saw World War Two coming.

As is usual for Wells, the book ends on a note of pleading for a new order: “a harder, stronger civilization.” Norbert pleads with the narrator – an upper class croquet player (devoting large chunks of time playing sports is satirized in Wells’ A Modern Utopia and Men Like Gods) to forsake his animal nature and become “a stern devotee to that true civilization, that disciplined civilization” that needs to be created. There is something almost Lovecraftian in the notion of this impending doom driving “intellectual men” insane – including delusions of haunting. Continue reading

Men Like Gods

The H. G. Wells series continues with a work a lot more palatable than In the Days of the Comet.

Raw Feed (1996): Men Like Gods, H. G. Wells, 1923.Men Like Gods

Another utopian work by Wells though here the frame is more imaginative than Wells’ In the Days of the Comet or A Modern Utopia.

Here Wells uses (in an early example of such but not the first I believe) the device of a parallel universe. [The “Wells” entry in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia says the novel “transfers a group of Earthlings via something like Matter Transmission to the planet Utopia”.] His wittily described protagonist Mr. Barnstaple is a put upon socialist who blunders, while on vacation, into the utopia of a parallel dimension. Utopia is on another Earth that has evolved over 3,000 years from a society like ours.

Barnstaple is accompanied by several annoying characters including a politician named Catskill who argues that man is better off with nature’s and society’s ills since he appreciates it more during the brief, pain-free moments (the-banging-your-head-against-the-wall-because-it-feels-so-good-when-you-stop school of philosophy). Father Amerton seems to be a creation of Freudian psychology (specifically the notion of a reaction formation) in that the utopians interpret his objections to their sexual promiscuity and lack of marriage as signs of a perverted mind. Continue reading

In the Days of the Comet

The H. G. Wells series continues.

This one is a low point.

Raw Feed (1996): In the Days of the Comet, H. G. Wells, 1906.In the Days of the Comet

Essentially this is a long rant by Wells on the squalid, economically unjust, sexually irrational (to Wells that is) world of his contemporary England. I liked that part of the novel with its narrator ultimately setting out to murder his girlfriend and her upper class lover. The gripes and emotions of a poor, rather brash, young man who has a litany of socialist based complaints was quite realistic and convincing.

What was totally unconvincing was the changes wrought on human nature by the green gas of a passing comet, changes wrought just in time to prevent the narrator from carrying out his murders.

Wells returns to his theme of unconventional sexual and marital arrangements when the narrator enters into a menagé a trois with his two intended victims. Here Wells’ World State (to borrow the term from his A Modern Utopia – it’s called “The Change” here) is magically brought in by the comet.

Between 1906 and 1914, the year The World Set Free was published, Wells seems to have decided “The Change” would have to be brought about violently.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

The World Set Free

 

The H. G. Wells series continues while I’m off reading new stuff for review.

Raw Feed (1996): The World Set Free: A Story of Mankind, H. G. Wells, 1914.World Set Free

“Introduction”, Brian Aldiss — Introduction that emphasizes that Wells’ claim to being a prophet (a reputation he garnered in his day) rests on his prediction of atomic warfare in this novel and tanks in “The Land Ironclads”. The technological inspiration came from the work of Frederick Soddy who won a 1921 Nobel Prize for radioactive chemistry. Soddy wrote a popular account of his work in 1909. Aldiss points out the technical flaws of story construction and character in the novel.

This novel gets much credit for being the first sf story to depict atomic warfare. Wells certainly shows warfare of incredible destructiveness and long lingering effects, but those effects are not from radioactivity but from continuous explosions, in effect perpetual volcanoes where the bombs land. I’m not sure if this accurately reflects the scientific opinion of the day. Continue reading

A Modern Utopia

Well, the H. G. Wells series continues.

We’re down to the second tier stuff novel-wise, stuff you probably haven’t heard of and usually with good reason.

Raw Feed (1996): A Modern Utopia, H. G. Wells, 1905.Modern Utopia

“Introduction”, Mark R. Hillegas — Hillegas, author of a critical study on Wells and the “anti-utopians”, relates the influence of A Modern Utopia on social, political, and literary thought. (George Orwell is quoted talking about Wells’ influence on him.) Hillegas also briefly talks about some of the most notable features of Wells’ work. Written in 1967, this introduction is confident that the world is moving closer to Wells’ vision of a socialist utopia.

A Modern Utopia  — This is the most pleasant to read of any utopia I’ve seen and also the most convincing and tempting utopia to actually live in. Still, its ideas are doomed to failure. Continue reading

The Food of the Gods

The H. G. Wells series continues.

Raw Feed (1996): The Food of the Gods, H. G. Wells, 1904.H G Wells

The recent arrest of the Unabomber was on my mind as I read this novel. According to his published manifesto, the Unabomber hated technologists and scientists wringing changes on the world – including those supposedly undesired by others.

Wells, in this book, exhibits surprising (given his humble origins) contempt for the feelings of the common man, surprising but not unexpected (given his socialist leanings and his enthusiasm for central planning via a cult of professionals as exhibited in later novels).

He plays into the Unabomber criticism of uncaring, socially disruptive scientists. [As blogger due diligence, I just got around to reading “Industrial Society and Its Future”, the actual name of the manifesto. The relevant quote is in paragraph 89:

The same is true of scientists generally. With possible rare exceptions, their motive is neither curiosity nor a desire to benefit humanity but the need to go through the power process: to have a goal (a scientific problem to solve), to make an effort (research) and to attain the goal (solution of the problem.) Science is a surrogate activity because scientists work mainly for the fulfillment they get out of the work itself.

As an aside, the manifesto is not what I expected — another reminder on the value of going to primary sources instead of taking people’s word on what somebody said. I’m not on with the nature worship thing in the manifesto. Or bringing industrial civilization down. Or mailing bombs. But Kaczynski does make some cogent observations on technology’s primacy in shaping society and reducing freedom — assuming his definition of “freedom” is yours.] Continue reading

The First Men in the Moon

The H. G. Wells series continues.

Raw Feed (1996): The First Men in the Moon, H. G. Wells, 1901.H G Wells

I had read this novel once long ago and found it boring.

This time I liked it much better though I could not find much of the Jonathan Swift influence other critics have mentioned other than a certain parallel between Cavor and the Grand Lunar and Gulliver and the Houyhnhnms. The Grand Lunar criticizes man and finds him barbarous after talking to Cavor just at the Houyhnhnms do after talking to Gulliver.

I suspect, with Cavor, Wells produced another influential depiction of the scientist for sf and popular culture: here the portrayal is of the naïve, unworldly, eccentric scientist purely interested in knowledge. Continue reading