Book Review – The Collector’s Book of Science Fiction by H.G. Wells
The stories in this collection are presented complete with illustrations as they originally appeared in the magazines of the time. Reading them is like stepping backward a century to the origins of the genre we now call science fiction. It’s an enlightening trip. This was a different world in some ways, culturally, politically, and technologically. When these were written, people still speculated about the existence of complex life on Mars, Venus, and the Moon, and in some of these stories, we see this possibility explored. Much of it may seem almost laughable now, but we have the benefit of an additional century of scientific exploration, orbiting space probes, robotic rovers, and manned moon missions. I don’t doubt that a century from now many of our current conjectures will seem quaint to our children’s grandchildren. I did find myself surprised at how dreadfully bad some of the basic science was, though. This included misunderstanding the effects of gravity, microgravity, and inertia. The worst offenders were The First Men in the Moon and The Man Who Could Work Miracles.
Wells did foresee things like video and sound recording, but he imagines enormous hardware being required. He also foresees flying machines, but these are light, flimsy things rather like ultra-lights, or lighter than air ships like blimps or zeppelins. What never seems to have been foreseen by any of the early speculative fiction writers are computers, miniature electronics, or something like the internet. This certainly is not a failing. They extrapolated from what they knew to imagine amazing devices of clockwork and electricity, and while these are certainly very cool, they are not what peopled eventually created.
Some of the ‘soft’ science fiction elements hit far from the mark as well. In When the Sleeper Wakes, for example, a revolution is going on in Twenty-second Century London with the goal of emancipating people from near serfdom, restore freedom and human dignity, and all that, but yet everyone is appalled when the antagonist of the story calls in enforcers from Africa to quell the uprisings — because they’re black! Is this irony, or did Wells honestly not see the inherent conflict here? I’m pretty sure he was making a satirical point when he spoke of a future in which they had changed the numbering system to base twelve rather than changing the currency and measures to a decimal system, so it’s quite possible this was also a case of subtle irony. (In Victorian England, 12 inches made a foot and 12 pence made a shilling. There are still 12 inches to a foot, of course, but they eventually adopted the metric system and also abandoned the 12 pence shilling.)
It is easy to pick at all the things that Wells gets wrong, but I doubt very much he was trying to predict the future accurately any more than something like Star Trek (TOS) was. Wells was writing for the people of the time about the people of the time. The stories here are about the people of England and their view of the world as it raced into the Twentieth Century, and it gives us in the Twenty-first Century a better idea of what they were like. In this light, these are great stories and well worth reading. I recommend them.
These stories are included in this anthology:
- The War of the Worlds (Novel, serialized in Pearson’s Magazine, April-December 1897)
- The Country of the Blind (Short Story, The Strand Magazine, April 1904)
- The Flowering of the Strange Orchid (Short Story, Pearson’s Magazine, April 1905)
- Aepyornis Island (Short Story, Pearson’s Magazine, February 1905)
- The First Men in the Moon (Novel, Serialized in The Strand Magazine, December 1900-August 1901)
- The Diamond Maker (Short Story, Pearson’s Magazine, March 1905)
- The Story of the Inexperienced Ghost (Short Story, The Strand Magazine, March 1902)
- The Empire of the Ants (Short Story, The Strand Magazine, December 1905)
- Stories of the Stone Age (Short Story/Novella, Serialized in The Idler, May-November 1897)
- The Stolen Bacillus (Short Story, Pearson’s Magazine, June 1905)
- In the Abyss (Short Story, Pearson’s Magazine, August 1896)
- The Valley of Spiders (Short Story, Pearson’s Magazine, March 1903)
- When the Sleeper Wakes (Novel, Serialized in The Graphic 1898-1899)
- The Man Who Could Work Miracles (Short Story, The Illustrated London News, July 1898)
- The Land Ironclads (Short Story, The Strand Magazine, December 1903)
Posted on August 28, 2012, in Book Reviews, Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction and tagged Book review, Early Science Fiction, H.G. Wells, The First Men in the Moon, The War of the Worlds, Victorian Fiction, When the Sleeper Wakes. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.