Saturday, August 12, 2006

The Discontents of the Book

I've been reading some H G Wells lately, too. Right now I'm almost finished When The Sleeper Wakes, which is about a guy who falls asleep and wakes up in the twenty-second century, or thereabouts (as you do). In some ways, it's less of a novel than a vehicle for some of his socialist thoughts, so the reading is a little disappointing. It also makes a number of predictions about the future that are just plain weird; Wells seems to see the future as a kind of brightly-coloured version of Ancient Greece, with people wandering about in togas, through gleaming futuristic cities. But then, it's far better than the shitty, colourless science-fiction visions we've been offered of late; why on earth the Wachowsky brothers thought their Matrix future world would look pretty in a drab, mock film-noir green-and-black is beyond me.

Recently read, also, has been War of the Worlds. I read this as a child, but I could hardly remember anything about it; it was only on viewing the Stephen Spielberg film mid-last year that I thought about getting the book. I'm surprised I didn't get traumatised by the book as a kid; because it bloody scared the shit me as an adult. It's basically about an attempt by psychopathic aliens to genocide the entire human race out of existence, and goes into lucid, graphic detail about this war against the human race:

The flying people on foot and in vehicles grew more numerous every moment. 'Black Smoke!' he heard people crying, and again 'Black Smoke!' The contagion of such a unanimous fear as inevitable. As my brother hesitated on the doorstep, he saw another newsvendor approaching him, and got a copy forthwith. The man was running away with the rest, and selling his papers, as he ran, for a shilling each - a grotesque mingling of profit and panic.
And from this paper my brother read that catastrophic dispatch of the Commander-in-Chief:
'The Martians are able to discharge enormous clouds of a black and poisonous vapour by means of rockets. They have smothered our batteries, destroyed Richmond, Kingston and Wimbledon, and are advancing slowly towards London, destroying everything on the way. It is impossible to stop them. There is no safety from the Black Smoke but in instant flight' ...

I'll be moving on to Wells' The First Men In The Moon next, which I loved when I was a kid.
Of all the Wells novels I've read, I have to say the one that sticks with me is not really a novel at all; it's a novelette. The Time Machine, which is just one hundred pages long, but spans millions of years, from the present day to the end of the human race. It's a little like When The Sleeper Wakes, in that it gives a glimpse into the future for humans, but Wells makes his 'Time Traveller' a bit of a nutter, the original mad scientist. After discovering a world war some fifty years into the future (he's from the late 19th century), he pushes like crazy for millions of years into the future. He discovers a world where the human race has actually split into two human races (I wonder what the PC mob would make of this?), the effete but useless Eloi and the savage Morlocks, who enslave the Eloi for their own personal gain. It's a curious combination of socialism and evolutionary theory: sociology meets biology. Because it's so far into the future, Wells doesn't really have to worry about his predictions coming true or not; he just to sit back with his 'Time Traveller' and observe the novel as it unfolds.
What really stuck me with this book, I guess, are the grand details; the portrait of a world in decline (the chapter where the time traveller walks through an abandoned museum amongst decaying artifacts is amazingly spooky); the kind of 'fin de siecle' life lived by the Eloi; the bizarre glimpses into the post-man world, populated by gigantic insects, and presided over by a dying sun; and the outrageous sense of adventure for it all. A great start to the SF genre.

So, what's everyone else been reading lately?


Kathy said...

Hi Timmy I am reading an absorbing biography about Alan Turing pioneer of electronic computer design.
I loved War of the Worlds btw. Love sf novels . One of my favourites was The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury.

TimT said...

Turing - fascinating bloke! Absolute whiz at maths, apparently. I hear that when the British govt. When they got him and other codebreakers into Bletchley Park, they made them do a kind of super-cryptic-crossword - or so I hear. Pity the way he died.

Don Quixote said...

Do androids dream of electric sheep? and Trainspotting.

Ella said...

I think the thing people never get about Wells is how damn creepy his stories are. I'm only 2 chapters in to "The Island of Dr. Moreau" and it had already given me bad dreams.

I'm also reading Wodehouse's "A Damsel in Distress".

TimT said...

Wells didn't just pick up on the fantasy and adventure stories of his time, he drew a lot from gothic horror narratives - Frankenstein, The Mysteries of Udolpho, etc. People think of him as an SF writer, but SF wasn't really a term people used then. 'The House on the Borderland' by William Hope Hodgson is another weird crossover book written in Wells' time.

Never read Wodehouse. Is he good? I must try and get a few of his books.

Fatman said...

1/ Seems HG loved the Rip Van Winkle story which, in one sense, is a good way to discuss socio-political stuff of the present in a futuristic setting, but in another sense, it's about laziness. And 'War of the Worlds'? Pfeh. I'd really like to see alien overlords trying to breathe the fumes in our air as well. No wonder they got sick.

2/ There were already a lot of scientific and mathmatical thinkers at Bletchley Park. At the end of '42 the Government Code and Cypher School placed a letter in the Daily Telegraph. If you could crack the crossword in under 12 minutes you had a shot at joining the codebreakers. Of the 25 readers that replied to the ad six were recruited by military intelligence. And yes, pity about Turing. Not a great time or place to be a homosexual.

3/ Currently reading 'You Shall Know Our Velocity!'by Dave Eggers and 'Lenin's Embalmers'by Ilya Zbarsky & Samuel Hutchinson-a fascinating look at the scientific as well as the political life of Russia circa '20's onwards.

TimT said...

Yeah, he's being a bit lazy in 'The Sleeper Wakes'. Frankly, it's the worst of his that I've read - more sociopolitical theory than novel - a description comes to mind, 'Intellectual pulp' that might describe it. I mean, he ends up writing tosh like this:

'Yes,' he said, 'yes. And we have done what it lay in us to do We have given our message, our rmessage! We have started Armageddon! But now -. Now that we have, it may be our last hour, together, now that all these greater things are done ...'

Dave Eggers - must get around to reading him, see what all the fuss is about.

DQ - How are you finding 'Do Androids'? I was disappointed on reading it - nowhere near PK Dick's best.

Steve said...

Hey Tim, I read some HG Wells as a child, but found him too pessimistic for my tastes. For anachronistic adventure, I read quite a few Jules Verne stories, including at least one fairly obscure title that I can't recall now. (I said it was obscure). I expect that he no longer has an (older) children's following, which I find a pity. Did you ever read him?

My complaint about science fiction since about the 1980's is how pessimistic it generally became. I also get the feeling that (I hate to say it) all of the big sci-fi themes have perhaps been done as well as they ever will. But then again, the science in (say) Heinlein's or Bradbury's books was not that important, it was just their engaging style in a futuristic and optimistic world that kept me interested, and as such I guess another writer who was as fun to read would attract my interest again.

TimT said...

Douglas Adams had a fair crack at a humorous SF, I was and am a big fan of his. Oddly, though, he can sometimes be incredibly depressing.

Robert Sheckley's fun. I've only read one book and one short story by him; the book ends up with a fight between a man and his subconscious self! Hilarious!

I've read some Verne. I was given 'Voyage to the Centre of the Earth' as a present once, and it was fun! I also like the recent 'Around the World in 80 Days' movie - but that was pretty much a Jacky Chan vehicle!

Arthur C Clarke came out with some corkers - his Rendezvous with Rama is still a masterpiece, of its kind.

C S Lewis, aside from writing the Narnia chronicles, wrote a great sf trilogy - Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. He really has a knack for making other planets seem magic and full of beauty and wonder.

I don't know much about modern writers, there's not enough time in the world to keep up with modern trends, so I usually favour the classics anyway! Frankstein, Gullivers Travels, Wells, George MacDonald - there are plenty of 'sort of' SF writers and stories that make fascinating reading! If you want something that's optimistic, but not exactly SF, then I'd recommend maybe George MacDonald's 'Phantastes' - gorgeous, gorgeous writing, kind of like an early psychedelic narrative, but more serious than that.

MrLefty said...

But then again, the science in (say) Heinlein's or Bradbury's books was not that important, it was just their engaging style in a futuristic and optimistic world that kept me interested,

Heinlein's future world was an "optimistic" one?!

ps I enjoyed Wells' description, at the start of WotW, of Tasmanians' "human likeness". Yes, I know what he was talking about, but it's rather amusing today.

TimT said...

Wells was generally anti-colonial, but still had a sense of adventure that shows through in The First Men In The Moon and The Time Machine (amongst others), which I think is part of the charm of his books. I think he strikes a better balance than most of the writers who come after, like the golden age SF writers, who tended to be more pro-colonialist. Or the 1970s writers, who didn't have any sense of adventure at all, they just liked writing about people going on mind trips. (Ballard once wrote a story about a man trying to climb a stairway and failing.)

And you could write a thesis (and several people probably have) about Wells on race.

Email: timhtrain - at -

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