The H. G. Wells series continues with a look at his short works.
Raw Feed (1996): 28 Science Fiction Stories of H. G. Wells, ed. Groff Conklin, 1952.
“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.