Archive | September 2014

Review of three HG Wells novels (For the price of one)

Maybe the best thing about owning a Kindle is the availability of free books. These can be by current writers trying to find readers or classics where the copyright has lapsed. In this latter category, I just reread The Time Machine, and read The Invisible Man and War of the Worlds for the first time. All are by H.G. Wells, all free on Kindle, and all well-worth reading or re-reading, as the case may be.

One of the most interesting things about older science fiction is to see what the writer thought would be different in the future. Unlike a lot of older science fiction, the setting for these three novels is basically in Wells’s time of the late nineteenth century, so you don’t get as much of this as for example with Isaac Asmiov, but you do get a flavor. This is more true for War of the Worlds and The Time Machine than for The Invisible Man.

If you’re not familiar with the story, War of the Worlds is about the invasion of earth by Martians. It forms the basis for the famous Orson Welles radio show. The Martians are faces and brains with hands like tentacles. They arrive in what are essentially large shells fired from Mars. The back of the shells unscrew and the Martials fall out. At first they are a novelty. People come to look at the shell, climb on it, etc. Once they get out though, they set about building machines of war that they use to devastate the country side, destroy towns, and kill everyone in their way. They also pick humans up and drop them into large baskets. It turns out that the Martians feed by siphoning human blood into themselves.

The Martian vehicles are very sophisticated, but because Wells wrote in the late nineteenth century, this takes the form of very intricate mechanical devices as opposed to electronics. Their weapons are a heat gun that burns anything it is pointed at and a poison gas that settles down on the ground and kills everything it envelops. Humans fight back with artillery and iron clad ships when the Martians go into the water. The battlefield descriptions are sort of strikingly similar to World War I, which is interesting since the novel was written 15 years before that war started.

The principal character is separated from his wife for a month and most of the novel is about his hiding from the Martians and what he sees. He hooks up with a couple of characters but eventually goes off on his own. One of the things I don’t really understand is that the main character, who is unnamed, is very concerned that his wife is safe, and they eventually find each other, but the book doesn’t say anything about what happened to her or how she was saved. It does go into some detail about the protagonist’s brother in the middle of the book. The brother disappears after watching an iron clad ship kill a Martian. We never find out what happened to him although he must have lived because the book is written as a diary and the writer says his brother recounted his adventures to him after the fact.

To a large degree I think the book is a knock at man’s view of his central place in the universe, a position that it is easy to be sympathetic with if you read newspapers. The protagonist often draws out the parallel of his feelings toward the Martians to the feelings of intelligent animals toward humans. Whatever it’s about though, it’s a great period piece where the language takes you back to a different era without becoming slow and stilted. Of the three it was my favorite.

I had read The TIme Machine years ago. A group of friends comes to dinner at the home of an inventor who has claimed that it is possible to move through time in much the same way as we move through space. The host isn’t there so they start without him. He shows up partway through the dinner missing his shoes and in a highly disheveled state. He cleans up and comes back to tell his story.

He says he had travelled far into the future, when the human race has evolved into the Eloi an the Morlocks. He first meets the Eloi, who are the highest form of evolution. The Eloi are beautiful, kind, and interestingly, stupid. It seems that they evolved to the point that they don’t need to do anything for themselves, and now can’t do anything. Buildings are falling into ruin and essentially the Eloi live by eating wild fruit. The time traveler meets them and finds on his return to the place where he had arrived that his time machine is missing.

In searching for his missing machine, the time traveler discovers the Morlocks. The Morlocks are the evolutionary children of the workers. They live underground and work at machines. It’s implied that they still do some things for the Eloi out of evolutionary habit, for example making their clothes. Somewhere along the line though, the time traveler assumes that the Morlock’s food supply began to run short. You can guess where they go for food. They come out at night, and the Eloi are therefore terrified of the night. As is the protagonist once he realizes what is going on.

Most of the story is about the time traveler’s quest to retrieve his time machine and get back home. You know through the book that he did, because he eventually showed up at the dinner. On the way back though, he went even farther into the future, when the sun was dying and the world was populated by huge slugs. This is essentially a book about evolution, but I’m not entirely sure what the message is. Maybe something along the lines of, be careful what you wish for. You might get it. Evolve to the point where other people do everything for you, and you better be sure they have enough food. Like War of the Worlds, a lot of what I liked about this novel was that the language was very evocative of turn of the century England. It is very short, and can be knocked off in a couple of hours.

Finally, The Invisible Man is not to be confused with Invisible Man, which is a classic novel about race in America in the 1950’s. The Invisible Man is literally about a man who has learned to make himself invisible. He had been obsessed with this work for years before succeeding. When he finally achieved invisibility though, it was not at all what he thought it would be.

He had imagined the power that invisibility would give him over his fellow man, but it quickly made him a prisoner. First, his clothes weren’t invisible, and he almost froze when he stripped them off to escape people sent to evict him from his rooming house. From there things went from bad to worse as he roamed the country with his face wrapped in bandages wearing colored glasses and tried to work out the secret for reversing the process. He is forced to cast off his clothes and go on the run when he angers the owner of the inn where he’s staying. While on the run, he meets someone he was in school with, and tries to convince him that they can work together to achieve great power. It seems that first the quest, and then the success, of becoming invisible completely unhinged him. It doesn’t work, and I’ll tell you that he doesn’t come to a good end.

I recommend all three, especially War of the Worlds. The prose is pleasant and easy to read. The time and place are entertaining. And the views of science, the future, evolution, and other topics touched on are interesting. You can read all three in a couple of days at the beach.