Blog Archives

Book Review – The War of the Worlds: Aftermath by Tony Wright

Title: The War of the Worlds: Aftermath
Author: Tony Wright
Publisher: Wild Wolf, Copyright: 2010
Genre: Science Fiction

This is written as a sequel to H.G. Wells’ classic story of Martian invasion and has the same first person protagonist. The narrative of this book states that Wells wrote the original War of the Worlds, but that the protagonist himself (who here is called John Smith) penned this sequel. It’s a clever way to explain the stylistic differences.

In this story, we are told that the Martians, which we thought all succumbed to earthly bacteria in the original novel, did not. Some survived, and they are still trying to conquer Earth.

The story includes characters, settings, and story elements from Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds and his short story The Crystal Egg, both originally published in 1897. It also presents minor characters from fact and fiction including Winston Churchill, Sherlock Holmes, and H.G. Wells. The prose, for the most part, is reminiscent of Wells’ original and of other books from that time.

Having recently reread some of Wells’ work, the differences between this and the original stood out to me. The Martians present the most obvious one. In Wells’ original story, they are technologically impressive, but physically unsuited for Earth’s stronger gravity. Their machines do all the fighting because they cannot. In this sequel, they are strong and quick, and they engage in hand-to-hand combat with humans. They are more like modern movie aliens than the inscrutable and very, well, alien creatures Wells portrayed.

The main character also varies. In the original, he is educated, thoughtful, well off, and largely a victim and beneficiary of circumstance. In this book, he seems less thoughtful, more aggressive, and his jingoism is more in evidence. In the original book, I found the character likeable, in this one, not so much.

‘Action’ is much more pronounced than in the original novel, and violence is more graphically depicted. Wells tended to relate such things more by implication, lending a certain air of refinement to his work. I tend to think of this as almost a characteristic of reserved British culture of the time, at least for gentlemen. This difference made the sequel feel more like a contemporary action adventure steampunk novel, unfortunately.

The cover art is very good, but the editing is not. I noticed several typos and places where the prose could use a bit of polish, especially regarding choice of words so as not to sound repetitive.

The story is engaging enough that I would recommend it to those who enjoyed the original War of the Worlds novel. It is interesting to see what one writer who is obviously a big Wells fan imagines could have happened next.

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)

 

Book Review – Mr. Britling Sees it Through by H.G. Wells

This is a surprisingly powerful novel, but not one with aliens or fantastic machines or representations of utopian futures, which are the things for which H.G. Wells is most noted. This is not that kind of book. There isn’t a driving plot that requires resolution. It falls firmly into the ‘literary’ genre, exploring how people react to events that threaten to change their view of the world. The event, of course, is World War I, and the story is a personal and very human account of the war’s first years, not from one of the combatants, but from a father who provides a broader yet still intimate perspective. When it was published in 1916, it would be considered contemporary fiction. Now, it might be seen as historical fiction.

The first quarter of the book sets a scene of tranquil Essex in 1914, relatively untainted by the hustle and bustle of nearby London or by the changes going on throughout the rest of the world. The main character, Mr. Britling, is a fairly well known writer of essays and articles. He is an optimist. He believes in reason and in humanity’s ability to exercise good judgment. His worldview is about to be challenged. (I got the distinct impression that much of Mr. Britling was an autobiographical representation of Mr. Wells.)

As fiction, this book humanizes the experience of WWI in a way that history cannot. It shows the initial disbelief, denial, outrage, grief, and attempts at rationalization that Mr. Britling experiences. It comments on politics, ideology, religion, and the stupidity and waste of war from the perspective of a person detached enough to observe it rationally while involved enough to experience it emotionally. It’s a powerful combination. It stimulates the readers’ minds as well as their feelings.

I won’t summarize the story. Others have done that. If you wish, you can view the Wikipedia entry. One overriding theme of the book is how the characters perform mental gymnastics to adjust the reality of the war with their understanding of the world. Mr. Britling observes that the war is incompatible with the idea of God promoted by the Church, so he imagines a different one, which still allows him to retain his optimism about humanity. In this way, he carries on. He sees it through.

I can’t honestly recommend this book for everyone, but I would suggest it to fans of H.G. Wells and those with an interest in WWI. I enjoyed it immensely. (I got a copy as a free Kindle download.)

Links:
Free e-book on Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14060/14060-h/14060-h.htm
Wikipedia Entry on this book: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mr._Britling_Sees_It_Through

Book Review – The Wonderful Visit by H.G. Wells

First Edition Cover courtesy of Wikipedia

First Edition Cover

In a parallel dimension, creatures of myth and fantasy live their magical lives without care, or pain, or need of food. One day, a rift opens, and one of its inhabitants falls through into late Victorian England. It’s an angel. It’s not really much of an angel. Its only miraculous ability seems to be an unnatural talent for playing the violin, but it does have wings and other angelic features.

The local English vicar, Mr. Hilyer, hears rumors of sightings of a large, strange bird in the area, and, being an amateur ornithologist, he does what all good naturalists of the time would do. He grabs his gun and heads out to bag the beast to be catalogued, stuffed, and added to his collection. The scene in which Wells describes this particular series of events had me cracking up. (This is one area in which I think modern society has made some progress.) Of course, Hilyer ends up shooting the angel and injuring its wing. After that, what’s a Victorian vicar to do other than apologize politely and invite the mythological winged gentleman to be his houseguest while he recovers?

First published in 1895, Wells does here what he is well known for — satirical comment on Victorian society. The angel, coming from an alternate reality that knows nothing of human culture, provides an outside perspective from which to examine it. Wells allows him to do so, and Mr. Angel’s innocent and nonjudgmental observations can be quite charming. At one point he asks, insofar as people do not like pain, why is it that they keep inflicting it on one another. Good question, I thought.

Biases about race, gender, and social class are dragged out for dry ridicule, as are such things as clothing styles, beliefs, values and other attitudes. In one scene, Wells, as narrator, pops in briefly to apologize to the reader for making a servant appear too much like a real person and promises that he’ll make sure they’re portrayed more accurately as mindless stereotypes in some future story. This cracked me up, too, but I suppose I’m easily amused.

From an outside perspective, these Victorian conventions all seem somewhat arbitrary, if not silly, but perhaps no more so than our current ones. (I’m sure you can imagine a few examples.) The point Wells is trying to make, I think, is one that cannot be made too often. Question your assumptions. Question your values. Do they make sense? What do they say about you? This advice is as good today as it was in 1895.

I suppose I could pick on a few things to criticize about the book. It could have been funnier; the satire could have been sharper, but somehow I think Wells was intentionally trying to be, if not subtle, and least not blatantly offensive. His audience, after all, included people who held the attitudes he was holding up for ridicule, and you don’t want to upset your readers too much. They might stop buying your books.

Both the beginning and the ending leave questions unanswered. How did the rift between dimensions open? Suddenly the angel simply appears here with no understanding of how. It leaves, presumably returning, in the same way, possibly taking with it a human housemaid, which it was previously explained does not happen. No one new ever shows up in the angel universe. No one is born, no one dies, and no one visits. Except for this, we don’t know much about the parallel dimension that is home for angels and hippogriffs and magical beings of other types.

That’s about as critical as I’m prepared to be. I found this book humorous and charming. Insofar as it is readily available free as an e-book, it is well worth the cost. (I snagged a freebie Kindle version from Amazon.) It is also worth the time it takes to read. I highly recommend it.

 Applicable Links:
The Wonderful Visit (Wikipedia entry)
The Wonderful Visit (Free on Project Gutenberg)

Book Review – 28 Science Fiction Stories by H.G. Wells

This collection of strange and wonderful stories written between 75 and 116 years ago (as I write this in 2012) represents some of H.G. Wells’ lesser-known works. I found a copy in my local public library, which is one of my favorite places for finding new books, or, as in this case, old books.

There are a couple of things you may notice when you read these stories. One, of course, is how prophetic H.G. Wells was in terms of changes that occur in technology. When he talks of futures in which airplanes, superhighways, instant communication, and electronic appliances of various kinds are common, you must remember that when he wrote these stories, they weren’t.

Another is how little human society has changed in the last century. Wells was uncomfortable with the level of social and economic disparity of the late Victorian era, and his utopian novels such as ‘Star Begotten’ and ‘Men Like Gods,’ which are contained in this collection, show a bright future in which this is no longer the case.

Such idyllic societies remain a utopian dream, however. The system we have today is more like the one depicted in the dystopian view of the future provided in the novella ‘A Story of the Days to Come,’ which is also included in this anthology. This is a story of two idealistic young lovers who find themselves in virtual serfdom after borrowing against an inheritance at high interest rates. The passage below is how Wells describes the 22nd Century London they are born into:

The new society was divided into three main classes. At the summit slumbered the property owner, enormously rich by accident rather than design, potent save for the will and aim, the last avatar of Hamlet in the world. Below was the enormous multitude of workers employed by the gigantic companies that monopolised control; and between these two the dwindling middle class, officials of innumerable sorts, foremen, managers, the medical, legal, artistic, and scholastic classes, and the minor rich, a middle class whose members led a life of insecure luxury and precarious speculation amidst the movements of the great managers.

This is a version of the future in which the economic conditions are very much like those of Victorian England. I won’t argue that things have not improved since, but the similarities between this dystopia and our current system are disturbingly obvious.

Of course, not all of the stories here are comments on society or economics. Some, like ‘The Magic Shop,’ are simply charming, if sometimes a bit odd. I particularly liked this story, though.

As for the collection as a whole, I highly recommend it. If you like speculative fiction, if you want to see some of the earliest and best examples of it, pick up this anthology or read any of the stories you can find from wherever you can find them.

Contents:

  • Men Like Gods (Novel – 1923)
  • The Empire of the Ants (Short Story – 1905)
  • The Land Ironclads (Short Story – 1903)
  • The Country of the Blind (Short Story – 1904)
  • The Stolen Bacillus (Short Story – 1894)
  • The Flowering of the Strange Orchid (Short Story – 1894)
  • In the Avu Observatory (Short Story – 1894)
  • A Story of the Stone Age (Short Story – 1897)
  • Aepyornis Island (Short Story – 1894)
  • The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes (Short Story – 1895)
  • The Plattner Story (Short Story – 1896)
  • The Argonauts of the Air (Short Story – 1895)
  • The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham (Short Story – 1896)
  • In the Abyss (Short Story – 1896)
  • Star Begotten (Novel – 1937)
  • Under the Knife (Short Story – 1896)
  • The Sea Raiders (Short Story – 1896)
  • The Crystal Egg (Short Story – 1897)
  • The Star (Short Story – 1897)
  • The Man Who Could Work Miracles (Short Story – 1898)
  • Filmer (Short Story – 1901)
  • A Story of the Days to Come (Novella – 1897)
  • The Magic Shop (Short Story – 1903)
  • The Valley of Spiders (Short Story – 1903)
  • The Truth About Pyecraft (Short Story – 1903)
  • The New Accelerator (Short Story – 1901)
  • The Stolen Body (Short Story – 1898)
  • A Dream of Armageddon (Short Story – 1901)

Related Posts:
·  Book Review – Star Begotten by H.G. Wells
·  Book Review – Men Like Gods by H.G. Wells

Book Review – Star Begotten by H.G. Wells

This short novel was first published in 1937, and seventy-five years later, I finally got around to reading it. It took me a while because I had to wait around for things like my parents to reach puberty, me being born, learning to read, and then realizing this book existed. I find this last thing surprising because, after reading it, I am amazed it does not have a cult following. There should be T-shirts and buttons for people who wish to identify themselves as Star-Begotten or Star-Born. Once you read it, you’ll know what I mean.

The story centers on Joseph Davis, a popular writer of romanticized histories, who comes to believe that some people differ fundamentally from most of us. They are more rational, possibly more talented and intelligent. Who are these people? Why are they different?

After what amount to BS sessions with his friends and associates, Davis entertains the hypothesis that genetic mutations caused by cosmic rays are responsible for this new step in human evolution. One of his compatriots suggests that since the mutations appear neither random nor harmful, they must be intentional. Martians (as a euphemism for aliens) are tagged as likely agents. There is an interesting contrast presented here in which people of today (well, people of 75 years ago) jump to unscientific, irrational speculation to explain how people are becoming more rational. Wells is indulging in a bit of dry, tongue-in-cheek humor with this, I suspect.

But the cause of the mutations is not the central point, it’s simply a dryly humorous plot device. The thought provoking question behind it is, ‘Is humanity really becoming more intelligent and more rational?’ And the other question is, ‘Should it?’

This is not your average kind of novel. In some ways, it’s a philosophical treatise on politics and humanity like Plato’s Republic or Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, except, unlike the latter, Star Begotten is enjoyable, optimistic, and well-written. It’s one of those books that can make you think, if you let it. It can give you ideas. And this may be why it never rose to cult classic status. Ideas can be uncomfortable things. This is what Wells himself says about them:

A notion is something you can handle. But an idea, a general idea, has a way of getting all over you and subjugating you, and no free spirit submits to that. Confronted with an idea the American says: ‘Oh, yeah!’ or ‘Sez you,’ and the Englishman says: ‘I don’t fink,’ or at a higher social level: ‘Piffle—piffle before the wind.’ These simple expressions are as good against ideas as the sign of the cross used to be against the medieval devil. The pressure is at once relieved.’ (Another case of Wells’ dry humor.)

There are about ten other sections, mostly assessments about the current state of mankind, that I marked because I thought they deserved to be shared. But this would make for a very long book review, or whatever this is, so I’ll refrain from doing that. I will, however, share this summation of how Wells says you can recognize these star-begotten people:

one characteristic of this new type of mind is its resistance to crowd suggestions, crowd loyalties, instinctive mass prejudices, and mere phrases, … these strongminded individualists … doing sensible things and refusing to do cruel, monstrous, and foolish things…

Is humanity progressing? Is it overcoming its infancy? Is it becoming rational? I don’t know but I would like to believe so. I’ve met sane, intelligent people and I suspect there are a lot of them. If you think you may be one, Wells provides this cautionary statement in the voice of one of the book’s more cynical characters:

There are bad times ahead for uncompliant sane men. They will be hated by the right and by the left with an equal intensity.

I found this short novel refreshingly different from popular contemporary ‘action-packed’ and largely idea-barren novels. It is a thought provoking social commentary about ideas, the evolution of ideas, and human potential. The charming characters, bits of dry humor, and the hopeful, optimistic outlook also appealed to me. I highly recommend it for those seeking something other than mindless entertainment.

 

Links:

Star-Begotten e-book (free html format) on Project Guttenberg – http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks07/0701231h.html

Book Review – Men Like Gods by H.G. Wells

This novel, set in 1921 and published in 1923 is in a subgenre you don’t see much now — utopian science fiction. Yes, I did say ‘utopian.’ You may be more familiar with this subgenre’s ugly brother, dystopian science fiction. The latter has more shock value so it gets more attention, but I prefer the older, wiser sibling.

The essential difference between utopian and dystopian fiction that I see is their different perceptions of humanity. Although both begin with the premise that the human race has problems, utopian fiction posits that, in the course of time, mankind will solve them. Dystopian fiction, on the other hand, posits that humanity, if it is lucky, might survive.

I don’t read fiction to be shocked. I can get that from the news. I read fiction to be entertained. Occasionally I come across novels that also present a new thought or uncommon perspective, and I consider these welcome bonuses. ‘Men Like Gods’ provides all of these.

The protagonist, Mr. Barnstaple (no first name) is stressed and in desperate need of a holiday. The way he contrives to get away unaccompanied by wife of children, is humorous and charming, in an understated British way, as are his musings on the events of the time. He succeeds in escaping by himself in his little yellow car with no specific destination in mind but ends up much farther away than he could have imagined. A scientific experiment in an alternate dimension goes awry, and Barnstaple and a few others on the road that day find themselves in a strange land with clean air, tame animals, and beautiful people who enjoy unparalleled personal freedom. He’s obviously not in England anymore. The rest of the novel explores how he and his fellow Earthlings react to this strange utopia and how the Utopians react to them.

Considering this book was written almost a century ago, and making certain allowances for that, one thing that struck me was how relevant it remains. There are passages about droughts, famines, and fighting going on around the world that sound almost as if they could be referring to today. This description of economic concerns especially caught my attention:

… The great masses of population that had been blundered into existence, swayed by damaged and decaying traditions and amenable to the crudest suggestions, were the natural prey and support of every adventurer with a mind blatant enough and a conception of success coarse enough to appeal to them. The economic system, clumsily and convulsively reconstructed to meet the new conditions of mechanical production and distribution, became more and more a cruel and impudent exploitation of the multitudinous congestion of the common man by the predatory acquisitive few. That all too common common man was hustled through misery and subjection from his cradle to his grave; he was cajoled and lied to, he was bought, sold and dominated by an impudent minority, bolder and no doubt more energetic, but in all other respects no more intelligent than himself.

The economic system he speaks of is, essentially, the one we still have; one in which common people simply trying to survive can be economically used and abused by those with wealth, power, and low morals. Although, on the bright side, we do have laws and regulations in place now to mitigate the worst examples of such things.

Then there was this about the media of the time:

…newspapers had ceased to be impartial vehicles of news; they omitted, they mutilated, they misstated. They were no better than propaganda rags.

This claim especially seems appropriate to some of today’s media outlets.

What you won’t see in this novel is a detailed description of how the civilization in this alternate universe got from something like early Twentieth Century Earth to a free and peaceful utopia, although the process is said to have taken three thousand years. The point is that people not unlike us were able to overcome things like superstition, prejudice, selfish ambition, and violence. They were able to work together to build a better society in which each individual is free to think, act, and explore the mysteries of the world as they wish.

I won’t say the utopia presented here is exactly one that I would imagine or hope for, but it does seem attractive and maybe even possible. The ideas the novel presents are certainly worth thinking about, in any case, and the story is enjoyable in its own right. I highly recommend it.

%d bloggers like this: