Monday, 12 October 2009

SF Masterworks #24 - The War of the Worlds / The Time Machine

One of the most recognizable titles on this list and not only because of the modern film adaptation. The giant tripods have influences a subsequent generation of alien invasion and time travel dramas all bear the hallmarks of Wells' original work.

One of the striking things about his work is the time period in which it was written, in pre-WWI Britain when modern technology and thoughts of aliens were distant dreams. With our modern gear we'd probably wipe the floor with the Martian invaders, but in a time where aeroplanes were on the verge of invention, cannonballs were still common ammunition and targeting was done by eye and skill the invaders run riot across London.

The book also covers the feverish dreams of rebellion and uprising against an unstoppable foe, and the social demolition that would occur under such circumstances is explored in depth. The way the Martians are despatched shows the quirky genius of Wells' mind and makes for a satisfying conclusion.

I'll post up the review from SFSite where I get the cover images etc. It's not as favourable to the author, though it does spend more time covering the Time Machine, with which I'm less familiar.

I suppose a series calling itself SF Masterworks really wouldn't be complete without representing the grandfather of English language SF. There can be no argument that these two stories are classics of the genre. But are they timeless classics? Absolutely not. They are, like most of Wells' works from that era, quite obviously products of late Victorian England. But Wells was certainly no Dickens or Thackeray; he was not the best of the Victorians. And as a science fiction writer, he was no Frank Herbert or even John Wyndham. Any of these boys could write Wells into a corner and leave him begging for a little character development.

Like any good speculative fiction, The Time Machine and War of the Worlds are extrapolations of existing conditions, taken to extremes and beyond into the realm of imagination. And, like much if not most good speculative fiction, there is a heavy satirical bent to them. However, the protagonists in both these stories exhibit violently aggressive behaviour and are considerably less than sympathetic, if you pause to give them any thought at all. (Although neither is quite as despicable as the murderously psychotic anti-hero of Wells' next best-known work, The Invisible Man -- a thoroughly wretched story with no redeeming value.)

Structurally, The Time Machine is one of Wells' better stories. It is, however, only moderately interesting. Darwin's theory of evolution was still fairly new and shocking when The Time Machine first saw publication in 1895. Wells' comment on human evolution is rather bleak. In his version, humans will evolve (or devolve) into two distinct branches: the child-like, graceful, but sheep-like and ultimately doomed Eloi; and their nemesis, the ugly, predatory Morlocks. Wells perceived this as the natural evolution of the English class-based system: the elegant upper crust breeding themselves into the mush-brained idleness of the Eloi; the dirty and slavish working class evolving into the amoral Morlocks who continue to work at keeping the elite in comfort, but in order to use them as a food source. Not a very hopeful future for humanity (or for the English, at any rate), but if you're willing to see the satire, you may appreciate that's probably the way the present looked to Wells. In fact, pessimists and misanthropes today may still argue along the same lines.

War of the Worlds is of historical note largely due to the widespread panic caused by the 1938 Orson Welles radio broadcast of an adaptation of this 1898 H.G. Wells classic. Many people mistook it for a news broadcast, rather than the radio drama that it was. (Hey, radio was still a relatively new thing; give them a break.) The story itself is an interesting comment on the arrogance of humankind, but it is rather pale by today's standards and the ending is a complete cop-out.

H.G. Wells is something of a disappointment today. However, his work is important to the history of the genre and it is worth reading a sampling to understand the roots of contemporary science fiction. Imperfect as these two stories are, they are probably the two best choices for a sampling of Wells -- both for their historical importance and for exemplifying his style and scope.

Copyright © 2000 by Neil Walsh

Whatever you think of the book itself, it's place in the foundation of Science Fiction makes it a 'must-read' for any geek.

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