Archive for February, 2010

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The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

February 17, 2010

The Book: The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.  Originally published in 1898.  The edition read was published in 1966, copyright in 1964 , by Berkley Highland Books.

The Setting: England, greater London area, early twentieth century

The Story: A man, a science writer, witnesses the invasion of the earth by the Martians.An enormous cylinder falls to earth near Woking.  People, including the narrator, investigate.   Martians emerge from the tube and kill lots of people.  They build super suits of death and destruction. The narrator narrowly escapes with his life at several points.  The narrator tells how his brother escaped London.  Chaos is everywhere.  The Martians seem to be unbeatable.   The narrator teams up with a stressed-out curate.  They get trapped in a house together near a Martian base.  They spend a lot of time watching Martians.  The Martians drink human blood.  The curate snaps; the narrator knocks him out.  The Martians find them in the house and take the curate.  The narrator hides in some coal.  Days later he emerges and the Martians are gone.  They were all killed by viruses and bacteria.  The narrator and his wife are happily reunited in the end.

The Science: Wells likes to make stuff up.  We know that.  And he made up some darn good stuff, in my opinion.

  • Space travel and Martians:  Wells wrote this book before heavier than air flight was invented.  He imagines the Martians coming to Earth in enormous cylinders shot out of some sort of enormous Martian cannon.  It’s a pretty neat idea, but the physics involved in making something like that work must be mind boggling.  Not to mention the sort of force needed in the cannon.  So I’m not sure that’s a go.  The Martians came across, to me, as a sort of jellyfish shaped creature – all head and tentacles.  The narrator imagines that the Martians are a reasonable evolutionary outcome of man, and the brain grows and the hands are all that continues to be needed.  I can buy that.  I’m not so sure about Martians sustaining themselves directly on blood.  Wells’ premise is that the Martians had no digestive system to process food into blood, which is not precisely how it works.  I’d be curious to see a learned treatise on Wells’ Martian biology.  Seems to me that the exterior form of the Martians is possible, but not the internal structure as described.
  • Heat rays and black smoke:  Killing devices.  The Heat Ray which kills men on contact and heats whole rivers to boiling.  It sounds a lot like a super powered laser – a pretty awesome idea for 1898.  The black smoke is more insidious – a heavy gas which rolls over towns and kills all who breathe it.  It dissipates in water or jets of steam.  The black smoke is almost eerie in its description, given that World War I breaks out less than two decades later and makes real the threat of a weaponized,  deadly gas.
  • Viruses and bacteria:  Ultimately, man doesn’t defeat the Martians – they are wiped out by everyday viruses and bacteria.  I totally buy this.  How many humans succumb to these tiny creatures everyday?  How much more deadly would completely unfamiliar viruses be to an unexposed population?  Very.

The Reaction: This is a great story.  A fantastic adventure with interesting aliens, enough detail to make the threat believable, and a credible ending.  It is, however, another story where Wells doesn’t name his protagonist and spends a sizeable portion of the book having the narrator tell the story of a second person (the brother in this story).  Not necessarily a bad thing, but very much seeming to be a hallmark of Wells.

The Cover: Wait.  What?  What the heck is going on with this cover?  It’s like they grabbed the cover for some other story and stuck it on this book.  Only two things relate to the story:  the color red, and a sense of chaos.  No where in the story did Wells describe the citizens of early twentieth century Britain as wearing tube-heavy space suits and pointy pointy helmets.  It’s a great cover…  but not for this book.  I mean, honestly.  Who gave the go ahead on that?

Etc: My only prior experience with The War of the Worlds prior to reading this book was watching the Tom Cruise movie version.  And I was constantly comparing the two while reading.  I was pleasantly surprised by how well the movie interprets the book.  Except for the child drama, it’s surprisingly faithful.  Certain changes are made to account for our more advanced science, but they’re changes I think Wells would have approved of.

Next Up: The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells (who else?)

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Short story: “The Man Who Could Work Miracles” by H.G. Wells

February 9, 2010

The Book: “The Man Who Could Work Miracles” from The Time Machine and Other Stories by Herbert George (H.G.) Wells.  First published in 1898.  The edition read was published in 1969 (copyright 1963) by Scholastic Book Services.

The Setting: Earth, unspecified present.

The Story: A skeptic with a silly name, George McWhirter Fotheringay, suddenly discovers that reality obeys his every command.  Hijinks ensue.  Fotheringay turns a cane into a rosebush, sends a policeman to hell and, later, to San Francisco.  Concerned about the policeman’s well being, Fotheringay seeks the advice of the local clergyman.  The clergyman and Fotheringay strike upon the idea of using the miraculous powers for good, ignoring the policeman.  They creep about in the dead of night, reforming drunkards, turning beer to water, and curing the vicar’s wart.  But they need more time to do good!  So the clergyman suggests that Fotheringay stop the earth turning, so that time stops.  But it all goes terribly wrong…

The Science: The science is good!  I know, because I asked the internet.  Not the miracles, mind you.  The “force of will” behind the miracles is not scientifically sound, but the consequences of stopping the earths rotating suddenly is accurate.  Everything on the face of the earth would go flying off, there would be a horrific wind, and, essentially, the earth would get torn apart and everything would die.  A+ on this one, Mr. Wells.

The Reaction: A fun little story.  Like literary popcorn shrimp.  Tasty, but not filling. I really like Fotheringay; he never thought to go mad with his power, and he was very concerned about rectifying his single major abuse of power.  Just the sort of fellow who ought to have the power of miracles, if anyone should.  Although maybe he ought to have a better grasp of physics…

The Cover: See The Time Machine.

Next Up: The War of the Worlds by, you guessed it, H.G. Wells.

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The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells

February 7, 2010

The Book: The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells.  Originally published in 1897.  The edition read was published in 1967, copyright in 1963. , by Scholastic Book Services.

The Setting: England in Wells’ present day.

The Story: A mysterious man, swathed in bandages, moody, and demanding, arrives at a rural inn.   He’s a strange fellow, and is eventually discovered to be invisible.  Upon discovering this, the townspeople attempt to apprehend him (because he stole money while invisible, not just because they can’t see him).  He escapes and runs rampant all over town, freaking out the townspeople.  He leaves, terrorizing various people along his journey until, wounded after an altercation, he seeks refuge by breaking into a random house outside town.  As chance would have it, it’s the home of Kemp, a former classmate of the Invisible Man.  The Invisible Man monologues for about 50 pages, recounting how he, Griffin by name, became invisible.  Apparently, it’s important to be an albino for it to work.  Also, being invisible is not all it’s cracked up to be – especially in January.  When you’re naked and didn’t think to make yourself an invisible jacket.  Anyway, Kemp tries to get Griffin arrested, Griffin escapes, and returns the next day, trying to kill Kemp and promising a reign of terror.  Kemp lives, Griffin dies, and in so doing, becomes visible once again.

The Science: The idea here is that any body, human or otherwise, can be changed to match the refractive index of light, which will make it effectively invisible.  To be successful, you must be albino and drink a potion which bleaches the blood of all its color, then stand between a couple of things that vibrate in the right way, and away you go!  Being an albino is important, otherwise, you end up as a pair of floating eyeballs.  And no one wants that.  DO NOT TRY AT HOME.

The Reaction: What an odd little book.  Told partly from a sort of police report accounting, with the author breaking in and referring to himself at least once, the book is partly comedy, partly memoir, partly terror.  And all quite effective.  There’s no real hero of the book, not until maybe the end, and the Invisible Man is a real psychopath, increasingly unsympathetic.  I do wonder how many more extended monologues I’ll encounter from Wells, though.  I liked it!

The Cover: Cover design by Constance Ftera.  You know, I think this is a lovely cover.  It’s sort of poignant.  It’s a cover which makes me want to sympathize with the Invisible Man, something which becomes impossible once he leaves the inn.

Next Up: Short story!  “The Man Who Could Work Miracles” by H.G. Wells.

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The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

February 1, 2010

The Book: The Time Machine from The Time Machine and Other Stories by Herbert George (H.G) Wells.  Novella first published in 1895.  The edition read was published in 1969 (copyright 1963) by Scholastic Book Services.

The Time Machine

The Setting: Earth during an unspecified present (one assumes the Victorian era) directly.  Earth in the year 802,701 by proxy.

The Story: The narrator, a weekly dinner guest of the Time Traveler, relates his experiences at two dinners.  More specifically, he relays the tale told by the Time Traveler of his harrowing adventures in the distant future 802,701.  The Time Traveler, in the future, discovers two races upon the earth – the gracile, childlike Eloi and the apelike, subterranean Morlocks.  He makes various theories about their origins and concludes that they represent the human race, with the Eloi evolved from the elite upper classes and the Morlocks evolved from a worker class.  He attempts to confront the Morlocks, who have hidden his time machine, but is foiled by the darkness.  When, eventually, he finds his vehicle, he escapes by the skin of his teeth from the Morlocks into an even more distant future, in the year about 30 million.  There he finds himself on a desolate beach under a red sky and is attacked by scary crab creatures.  Eventually, he gains control of himself and returns home to his dinner party where he eats some mutton and tells his adventures to his guests.

The Science: Science?  Well, I guess there’s evolution.  The story rather relies on belief in the theory of evolution to make it work, so I’m not sure how Pastafarians would receive the story.  As far as time travel goes, all we know is that the machine is rather frail, and there’s some quartz and nickel involved in it.  There’s some discussion of a theory of time travel, which is fine, but the actual mechanics of it are rather left by the wayside.  And the scene at the end, in the very distant indeed future, brought to my mind the evolution sequences in Don Hertzfeldt’s The Meaning of Life.  I think most of the project will be more Wellsian than Vernian – more “and this science-y thing happened” than “and this is the science that made the thing happen.”

The Reaction: I was underwhelmed, but I had a lot of preconceived ideas going into it.  I’m sure I’ve seen at least three different versions of the story on film before ever actually reading the book.  It was a good story – a story of discovery and speculation.  The only facts are what is seen; everything else is speculation.  I believed the tendency of the Time Traveler to constantly make up and revise theories about what he was confronted with, because that’s what I do every day.  For me, the most exciting part of it is at the very end, wherein the narrator witnesses the disappearance of the time machine.  I liked the potential of that moment.  Up until then, everything in the story was certain.  We know the Time Traveler escapes the Morlocks, because he’s telling the story.  But when he leaves again…  we don’t know the future anymore.

The Cover: Oh the cover!  Clearly, it is the Time Traveler in his time machine.  But what is going on?  Why is there a giant spoon behind him?  Why does it appear to have been colored in by a nine year old with access to only five crayons?  The world may never know.  Full points for relevance.  Points off for limited crayon selection.

Next Up: The Invisible Man, also by H.G. Wells