Archive for March, 2010

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The Time Machine and Other Stories by H.G. Wells – wrap up

March 28, 2010

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

The Stories:

“The Time Machine”

“The Empire of the Ants”

“The Country of the Blind”

“The Man Who Could Work Miracles”

The Evaluation: Worth having!  Wells does well with short stories.  Cute ideas, fun stories, don’t go on too  long.  Altogether enjoyable.

The Cover: Relevant only to “The Time Machine.”  From its post:

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.

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In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells

March 28, 2010

The Book: In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells.  Originally published in 1906.  The edition read was published in 1966 by Airmont Publishing Company, Classics Series, CL111.

The Setting: England, early 20th century

The Story: A working class youth, Willie Leadford, resents the world he lives in.  Hates that he lost his job, hates that his girl doesn’t love him anymore, hates the upper class, hates pretty much everything.  Surprisingly unconcerned with the comet rushing toward Earth.  Consumed with his hopelessness, fear, and anger, he resolves to murder the girl and her new lover.  And also to buy a new pair of boots.  He hunts them down in a seaside resort town, while German and British warships fight just miles off the coast.  He pursues them, shooting wildly.  The comet hits earth!  Green mist appears.  Willie passes out.

Willie wakes up.  The world is bright and beautiful.  Willie see just how small and wrongheaded his previous ambitions were.  He wanders off and finds a Very Important Politician in the ditch with a broken ankle.  They talk.  Goodness, there is so much talking in this book.  The politician decides to end all wars, since everyone now understands an apparent universal definition of right and wrong.  Where wrong is war and selfishness and right is a kind of complete and utter socialism (real socialism, not screaming news pundit socialism).  Willie helps get society back on the right path, then attends to his personal relationships.  Apologizes for trying to murder his ex-girlfriend and her lover, but still loves her.  He turns from her, deciding that he must sever ties completely to be happy.

Willie still loves her, she still loves him.  They discover free love.  The end.

The Science: Crap.  I mean, there are two kinda sorta scientific things going on here, but mostly this is social fiction, not science fiction.

  1. The Comet:  The comet is headed toward earth!  It’s kind of odd – has a weird green band on the spectrum, and weighs very little, so no one is over concerned about its hitting the earth.  But when it hits, everyone on earth passes out.  Including those driving cars, swimming, etc.  People die, but no one much cares when they wake up.  According to Willie, the green gases in the comet somehow changed the nitrogen in the atmosphere to a gas that the body processes and makes people very very calm and laid back and big believers in equality.  So… yeah.
  2. The Reader of the Story:  This book is in keeping with Wells’ favorite structure – one character relates the story of another.  In this one, a mysterious and confused young person arrives in a tower where elderly Willie has just completed authoring his memoirs.   “What is this place, and where am I?” he asks.  He has no clue.  And at the end of the book, the Reader is confused and appalled by the whole “four consenting adults living together in a sexy way” thing.  So it suggests that the Reader is either a time traveler from the past or a manifestation of Willie’s dementia (for which we have no other clue).  Not really science, but..  hey, it could be time travel!  Or something.

The Reaction: One of the reviews on Librarything.com reads: “This was one of those books that I got so far into that I felt compelled to finish. I really should have just stopped reading it when I was going to.”  Yeah.  I feel the same way.  The first book was like a prolonged conversation between a couple of ill informed first year political science majors, one of whom was love lorn.  The second and third books were like prolonged conversations between a couple of unimaginative first year philosophy majors.  It was boring.  It was long.  It was, above all, uninteresting (with the exception of a few episodes).  Wells was being preachy.  Like, really really preachy.  Not preachy couched in metaphor or monsters.  Just preachy.  And I wish he wouldn’t.  Finishing the book was an exercise in sticktuitiveness.  Not recommended reading.

The Cover: The cover is kind of a hot mess.  I asked Mr. Husband what he thought the cover meant:  “That a comet would strike the earth, destroying it, forcing people to live underground, and that there was some kind of sinister force behind it.”  Yeah, that might have been an interesting story.  I can kind of see where the illustrator was coming from with each separate element, but taken together?  Very misleading.

Etc: What a way to end my run of H.G. Wells.  His earlier work is clearly his best.  Maybe if I had read his later novels in Wells’ voice

Next Up: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Ahh…  good solid action fun.

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Short Story: The Empire of the Ants by H.G. Wells

March 19, 2010

The Book: “The Empire of the Ants” from The Time Machine and Other Stories by Herbert George (H.G.) Wells.  First published in 1905.  The edition read was published in 1969 (copyright 1963) by Scholastic Book Services.

The Setting: The Amazon River, South America, Earth

The Story: A Creole boat captain and his British engineer are sent upriver to investigate claims of giant ants (2 inches or so) destroying a village.  On they way, they find a boat, with its dead crew, floating in the river, infested with ants.  A crewman goes over, and the ants attack him.  He dies.  They find the village, can see that it’s overrun with ants, and freak out a little. They fire their cannon at it a couple of times and go home.  The engineer swears that some of the ants were using their front legs like arms and wearing some sort of clothes…

The Science: The premise here is that there is a kind of ant that is not only an intelligent social insect, but an insect with greater intelligence and an eye toward empire.  Now, while there are lots of kinds of ants, and there are probably undiscovered species in the Amazonian interior, so far there are no clothes wearing, tactics using giant ants.

There are ants with venom.  There are, according to the internet, really big freaking ants.  And ants have complex social mechanisms.  But so far, no brain ants have evolved.  Le sigh.  But it’s a really neat idea, especially in the world of 1905 when the world of species had been less fully explored and such a thing was closer to the realm of possibility.

The Reaction: I like this one.  The first half of it is a fantastic exercise in the building of suspense.  The ants are an unknown menace that can’t be communicated with.  Sure, the whole “these ants have big heads, wear clothes, and use their forearms like we do” bit is a little hokey, but in the 1905 context it would have been super awesome and as it is, it’s still fairly awesome.

The Cover: See The Time Machine.

Etc: The second Wells book I’ve read where there’s an insect like species with different types of the species doing different jobs – the other being The First Men in the Moon.

Next Up: In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells

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The Food of the Gods and How it Came to Earth by H.G. Wells

March 18, 2010

The Book: The Food of the Gods and How it Came to Earth by H.G. Wells.  Originally published in1904.  The edition read was published in 1967  by Berkley Highland Books.

The Setting: Britain, mid 19th to early 20th century

The Story: Two scientists invent a substance that makes things grow.  Things start to grow to six or more times their normal size.  Enormous baby chicks prove that it works!  But it gets out of hand and it goes horribly wrong!  18″ wasps!  Rats the size of horses that eat people and horses!  But the scientists and an ass kicking civil engineer wipe out the outbreak, and it’s all good.   But then they feed it to some babies, babies who will grow into adults.  ENORMOUS ADULTS!  And that’s pretty much what happens.  The story continues to trace the effects of the substance over the next 20 odd years.  Conflict ensues as the large and the small just can’t get along.  The story ends on the eve of a war between the Giants and the little people.  THE WORLD WILL NEVER BE THE SAME…

The Science: This book tells the story of Herakelophorbia IV, aka the Food of the Gods, aka Boomfood, from inception to the age of 21.  Boomfood somehow uninhibits the growth process, causing things to grow more and more rapidly than the previous natural order of things.  Everything grows in normal proportions, just really really big.  Moreover, Big things that reproduce have Big babies, so the genetics of the individuals seem to be impacted.  And anything that ingests it becomes dependent on it and will die without continued consumption of the Food throughout the growth period.  Essentially, babies fed it become junkies for the next 18 years.

As far as I know, this couldn’t work.  The human body simply couldn’t sustain that sort of physical strain.  I don’t think.  Individuals over 8 feet tall have massive physical problems, so I can’t imagine that a 40′ human wouldn’t have some kind of, um, growing pains.  But people have always messed with their food supplies on the genetic level.  That’s what domestication is.  And it’s become more explicit now, with growth hormones, genetically modified foods, and targeted breeding.  That’s why grocery store chicken breasts are so unbelievably gigantic.  It’s not a stretch of the imagination to suppose that someone really is working on a way to enlarge food animals, grains, and vegetables to help with the food crisis.  And it’s not out of the realm of possibility that something would go horribly wrong….

The Reaction: Meh.  The structure is sort of weird.  It starts out with a totally normal story arc and then continues with vignettes and episodes 20 years in the future.  At one point the narrator (the unspecified narrator) tells you that one of the two original main characters is leaving the story for good.  And he does!  So the story is fine, the idea is kind of cool, but it’s like Wells kind of hit a wall.  I think there’s a pretty good reason this isn’t one of his better known books.

The Cover: Looking at the cover, I was super excited to read this book.  Giant baby chicks!  A Statue of Liberty impersonator!  Crowds of aimless bystanders!  But alas, there were never even enormous eggs in the book, although there were enormous chicks (though not so enormous as the cover had had me hoping.  And whatever’s going on on the cover never happened in the book.  So, two points for awesome giant baby chicks, no points for accuracy.

Next Up: Short story!  “The Empire of the Ants” by H.G. Wells

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Short story: “The Country of the Blind” by H.G. Wells

March 8, 2010

The Book: “The Country of the Blind” from The Time Machine and Other Stories by Herbert George (H.G.) Wells.  First published in 1904 in Strand Magazine.  The edition read was published in 1969 (copyright 1963) by Scholastic Book Services.

The Setting: An isolated mountain valley in the Andes of Ecuador.

The Story: A mountaineer, Nunez, falls off a mountain side into a valley.  And lives!  The valley is inhabited!  Inhabited by people who have met no one from outside the community in 15 generations.  And they’re blind!  For 14 generations, the entire populous has been blind.   Nunez remembers that “in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”  He sets about trying to take over.  He fails, and gets smacked down.  The people of the valley can hear and smell him; they have the advantage.  Plus, they have no idea they’re missing anything.  They figure Nunez is crazy for using the weird words “sight” and “blind.”   He gives up, becomes a villager, falls in love with a local girl.  He wants to marry her, but her father figures Nunez is too stupid.  The doctor thinks maybe those lumpy things in his eye sockets are the problem and proposes to remove them.  He eventually agrees.  At the last minute, he changes his mind and begins to climb out of the valley.  And then he died.  But he saw how pretty it was as he was dying.

The Science: The people of the valley have lived for fifteen generations after a disease afflicted them so that their children were born blind.  Reasonable enough.  All the genes were somehow affected by this disease, to the point of physically making the eyeballs shrivel in their sockets.  It seems unlikely, but it’s a useful enough premise.  The people become completely isolated by a terrible earthquake, or something.  They develop a way of living, with lined pathways and tactile stimulus.  They work at night and rest during the day.  The develop a system of belief wherein the valley is all that exists and is covered by a smooth stone ceiling.  Weird, but totally plausible.  More a social science, but I give this story a thumbs up for plausibility.

The Reaction: I liked this story.  An anthropologist by training, I was intrigued by the cultural adaptations made by the people of the valley.  I was really put off by the hubris of the main character.  I mean really.  What kind of person shows up somewhere, sees a town, and says “I’ll be having that, thank you very much”?  It seems ridiculous.  And maybe it’s supposed to be a ridiculous lesson in imperialism.   But I liked it.  Short, and fun to read.

The Cover: See The Time Machine

Etc: According to Wikipedia, the story has rewritten in 1939 to have a totally different ending.  One which sounds less good.

Next Up: The Food of the Gods by H.G. Wells

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The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells

March 7, 2010

The Book: The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells.  Originally published in 1901.  The edition read was published in by Ballantine Books (F687) in the early 1960s (no publishing date).

The Setting: Britain, the Earth.  The Moon.

The Story: A failed businessman, Mr. Bedford, plans to write a play to pay off his debts.  An eccentric scientist, Mr. Cavor, distracts him.  The two team up for fun scientific discovery and profit.  Cavor invents a material which neutralizes gravity.  They build a glass sphere/spaceship with cavorite (the anti-grav material) shutters all around it.  They get in and travel to the Moon.  They arrive just as day breaks.  They find a desolate plain, just as expected, but then are astounded to see vegetation sprout before their eyes.  They start jumping around, have a jolly old time, and lose the spaceship.  A terrible rumbling is heard, followed by the appearance of moonmen (Selenites) and mooncows (enormous maggot looking things) in the area.  Terrified by the insect looking Selenites, Bedford and Cavor hide in the undergrowth and try to find their sphere.  No luck.  Starving, they eat some moon mushrooms, proceed to trip balls and get themselves captured.

Waking, they discover themselves chained in a room deep inside the moon.  Freaking out about their situation, they break free from the Selenites.  Bedford leaves carnage in his wake as he leads the escape.  They get to the surface and find it’s nearly nightfall.  They separate to search for the sphere.  Bedford finds it.  When he tries to find Cavor, he discovers a note suggesting that Bedford has been captured or, more probably, killed by the Selenites.  Bedford gets in the sphere and somehow manages to get back to earth despite a total psychotic break en route.

Back on earth, and in Britain even!, he changes his name (to Wells), and writes up his moon experiences and gets it published (thus the book).  But then he finds another scientist who has built some kind of radio receiver and is getting messages!  From the moon!  In English!  And thus we learn the fate of Cavor… more or less.

The Science: Lots of stuff to talk about in this book, but I’ll just address three topics.

  • Cavorite:  A substance which neutralizes the effect of gravity.  I’ll readily admit, I’m still not 100% clear on how this stuff works.  But, apparently, the production of a slab of cavorite neutralizes the effects of gravity for any material atop it.  Thus, when the first slab of the stuff was made, all the atmosphere above it went rushing off into space, causing a gap, followed by a rushing of air to fill the void.  Now, this sounds great if it can be produced for commercial use – and that’s Bedford’s thought exactly.  But when it comes right down to it, I don’t get it.  I went back and reread the bit where Wells explains how the sphere works, and I cannot wrap my brain around it.  It is another interesting example of how pre-heavier than air flight individuals conceived of the possibility of flight.  But the stuff just doesn’t make sense to me.
  • The Selenites: The Selenites are an insect looking, hive type race.  The individuals are bred and molded (quite literally!) so that each Selenite has a distinct purpose in life and wants nothing more than to achieve that purpose and, moreover, finds it amazing that anyone could want something out of life than what they want.  Cavor’s final missives include a lot of amazement (and not a little bit of revulsion) at the diversity of appearance in the species.  Also, they are less dense creatures than humans, as Bedford discovers when he punches clean through one of them.  More amazingly, there seems to be only one other form of animal life on the planet – the mooncow which they herd and butcher for food.
  • Life on the moon: In and on the moon.  Bedford and Cavor arrive on a desolate wasteland, just before daybreak.  As daybreaks, the frozen atmosphere once again becomes a gas and plants begin to sprout from the surface at an amazing speed – literally before their eyes.  That is a pretty neat little adaptation.  It’s sensible, too, although what would be involved in shielding a seed from lunar night would be very extreme indeed.  All other life exists primarily inside the planet.  The interior of the moon is pitted and hollowed, with an ocean at the center.  Since the interior is shielded from the extremes of the surface, most life has developed within.  The Selenites, the mooncows, and some unknown, but terrifying, fish are all the animal life the moon has to offer.  It’s a precarious eco-system.  The real question is, why didn’t anyone see this from earth beforehand?

The Reaction: I didn’t love it.  I felt like the narrative structure was weird.  You have the story arc which ends with Bedford in Italy trying to write that play again, but then you get a kind of second ending with Cavor’s messages from the moon.  Although Cavor’s messages have the interesting effect of calling the reliability of Bedford’s narration into question, which gives the book a whole new twist.  It probably doesn’t help that I wasn’t able to wrap my head around the whole cavorite thing, which was essential to the story.  I appreciate it, but I don’t anticipate turning back to read this book in the future.

The Cover: Two men, presumably Bedford and Cavor, appear to be captured and escorted by four or five Selenites.  I think this is the scene right at or before Chapter the Fourteenth.  One Selenite has a prod that looks rather like a fireplace poker.  Really, I think this is a pretty good literal style cover.  The humans aren’t in quite the right outfits; they were wearing Clint Eastwood style ponchos over their usual British clothes.  And the Selenites look perhaps too normal and not weird enough, but these are quibbles.  This is a perfectly acceptable, if not over exciting cover.

Next Up: Short story!  “The Country of the Blind” by H.G. Wells.