The Time Machine: Then and Now

It’s been about fifteen years since I first read The Time Machine.  It was so unlike anything I’d read before.  Afterwards, I even wrote my own time-travelling story, which was more like fan-fiction than anything else.

I don’t often reread books, but as I build my H. G. Wells collection, I figured I’d reread each book and see how it held up over time.  (No pun intended!)  The Time Machine was the first book by Wells I’d read and seemed like a natural starting point.

The story begins in Victorian England.  A group of friends – a doctor, a journalist, a psychologist, and others – gather at the Time Traveller’s house for their customary meal and conversation.  The Time Traveller at this stage has just created a model of his machine which he says he can build at full-scale and use to travel through time.  The demonstration leaves his guests skeptical, but not long after that, the Time Traveller shows up to one of his own dinners, bedraggled and telling a wild story of adventure and romance.  The rest of the book is a flashback (or is it a flashforward?) which follows his exploits into the future, where the human race has become split into binary factions, the childlike, helpless Elois and the industrious, sinister Morlocks.

I’d like to think I was an astute child, but the sheer selfishness and stupidity of the Time Traveller was apparently lost on me.  For the most important trip of his life, he leaves very unprepared, which comes back to bite him later.  More disturbing is his romance with the woman-child named Weena.  The age difference is ambiguous, and if that wasn’t bad enough, he seems more interested in his own well-being than hers.  Overall he’s a terribly unlikable narrator, and the worst of it is, Wells doesn’t seem to realize that.

The story itself is still exciting, even this many years later.  Unlike the recent adaptations of Doctor Who, which follow a breathless plotline, Wells makes use of “negative space,” if you will, to highlight the more perilous moments.  There’s almost a pastoral bent to his descriptions of the futuristic countryside, forests, and rivers.  It makes for a poignant contrast between the appearances of peace and the realities of warfare (or rather, terrorism), which the Morlocks inflict on the peace-loving Elois.

Is the plot realistic or plausible?  Not really – but I’m not sure it was intended to be. It does, however, give you an insight on the late Victorian psyche, at least from Wells’s perspective.

If you like classic steampunk, then you have to read The Time Machine.  If you can rewind to childhood and read it then, all the better.

Nine Creepy Victorian Short Stories – From Stoker to Doyle – Episode 33

It’s October again: that time of year when you reach for a chunky sweater, a spicy latte, and, of course, a spooky book to read. In this episode, I share nine of my favorite Victorian short stories by authors such as Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, and H. G. Wells.  You probably don’t want to read these at night…

H. G. Wells on Victorian Short Stories

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Lately I’ve been wandering down memory lane with H. G. Wells’ The Country of the Blind and Other Stories (1911).  This collection holds, in the words of Wells: “all of the short stories by me that I care for any one to read again.”  Some are new and some familiar – two of them are personal favorites, which I’ll be mentioning in Monday’s podcast episode (“Nine Creepy Victorian Short Stories”).

In the Introduction, Wells gives us a little recap of the short story form and its writers, as far as it had evolved in the late Victorian era.  He praises Kipling, whose writing “opened like window-shutters to reveal the dusty sun-glare and blazing colours of the East.”  J. M. Barrie also gets a mention, along with Henry James, Stephen Crane, Jerome K. Jerome, and Edith Nesbit.  Other contemporaries are listed, whose names are less known to modern readers.  Joseph Conrad alone is noted as having, in Wells’s eyes, continued in the 20th century to write pieces comparable to his pre-1900 work.

The golden age of short stories was not critic-free, Wells recollects.  For example, there was a question of what constitutes a short story.

There was a tendency to treat the short story as though it was as definable a form as the sonnet, instead of being just exactly what any one of courage and imagination can get told in twenty minutes’ reading or so.

Personally, Wells did not care to put a solid definition on what makes a “short story.”  In his view, a short story meant just two general properties, and those were a) “achiev[ing] the impossible,” and b) taking around 15–50 minutes to read aloud.

I have always enjoyed short stories, and to this day, I prefer them over novels.  They also appeal to me as a writer, because my inspiration tends to home in on a specific scene or piece of dialog, which doesn’t necessarily fit in a longer form.

What are some of your favorite short stories (or short story authors)?

“Humanzees” and The Island of Doctor Moreau – Episode 21

A magazine article provoked me to re-read H. G. Well’s sci-fi horror classic, The Island of Doctor Moreau. Join my trip back in time as I talk about a Soviet scientist, a British author, and human-chimpanzee people.

Sources / Further Reading:
“It’s Time to Make Human-Chimp Hybrids” by David Barash
Articles referencing Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov:

H. G. Wells’s The New World Order
H. G. Wells vs. George Orwell (The Conversation)
“The Comprachicos” by John Kaiser (JSTOR)
“Wanting Babies Like Themselves, Some Parents Choose Genetic Defects” (New York Times)

The Moon, a Violent Frontier

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Previously there occurred to me an idea for a post (since scrapped), called something like “H.G. Wells, Master of Humor and Pathos.”  The gist of it, which I saw again in The First Men in the Moon*, is his unique knack for combining both emotions to pull you into the scientific-adventure plots.  Though having enjoyed his other best-known novels, I had middling hopes for this one (perhaps guided by the bias that it was not included in my hardback anthology, but never mind that).  Turned out to be every bit as good.

If Cavor is the model mad scientist, then Bedford is the archetypical starving writer, whose moment of inspiration is abruptly disturbed by Cavor’s customary stroll by his house.  An unexpected collaboration on creating the scientist’s Cavorite (a sort of anti-gravity substance) sends them literally to the moon.  The moon, contrary to Cavor’s expectations, is not uninhabited.  This sets the two inventors at odds with each other, since Cavor is quite taken by the moon people, the tentacled Selenites, while Bedford’s priority is to recover their own transportation contraption and get back to earth in one piece.

Now, the reason I’m giving this 5 out of 5 stars is not necessarily due to the plot.  The plot is quite bland, especially by Trekkie standards.  The two things which made this book were Cavor and the social commentary via Bedford and the Selenites.

What kind of social commentary?  I was expecting something along the lines of anti-capitalism and pro-socialism, but Wells brings out both worldviews pretty effectively.  Bedford represents the caricatured capitalist mindset, interested first and foremost in the gold and other resources that can be found on the moon (and yes, there is gold somehow).  The Selenites, on the other hand, practice an extremely systematic and efficient type of socialism, where everyone is born, bred, and biologically altered into their life’s designated purpose.  Bedford’s inherent violent nature is upfront and unabashed – the Selenites keep a subtle kind of violence, even sadism, behind their peaceful aspirations.  Bedford is obnoxiously thoughtless of others, the Selenite world is insidiously so.  Both sides build up to a critical point – human life – and then the comparison just clicks into place.  In his sci-fi novels, Wells doesn’t sacrifice realism for ideals.

There is humor in the gloom, though, for which we can thank Cavor.  Cavor is a delightful character, like most people a guy with good ideas stuck in the role of wannabe.  He could never reach the elevated status of Vernian or Federation scientists.  This is partly due to his own bumbling, haphazard way of working and partly due to his general lack of glam.  Poor Cavor!  If you can relate to him on any level, you will certainly like this book.

Overall – The First Men in the Moon is not quite as gripping plot-wise as The Time Machine or The Island of Dr. Moreau, but if you stick with it, the book as a whole gives you a lot of food for thought.  Recommended if you’re looking for a new classic sci-fi read.

*For the purposes of multitasking I switched to Mark F. Smith’s Librivox recording at around chapter ten, and happily I can highly recommend it for anyone interested in an audiobook. He does a great job of differentiating between the voices (Cavor’s is a right on!), which is essential for this particular book.