H.G. Wells

2012-2013: Summer Reading List: Part Three – Wells, Gaiman, Stroud

1. The Time Machine – H.G. Wells

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Why not kick off Part 3 with a classic?

Years ago, I read an abridged version of the Time Machine without realising it was an abridged version until I finished it and thought, that was really short. (Hey, I’m clever.)

To be honest, the complete text didn’t add a whole lot more. It’s a short book; my copy was just over a hundred pages. Wells’s story is an elegantly penned tale about a mysterious scientist, referred to only as ‘the Time Traveller’, who regales his disbelieving peers with a story of his voyage into the far distant future.

The Time Machine has a decidedly steampunk feel, particularly with all the levers and clockwork machinery (the machine itself is ‘squat, ugly, and askew, a thing of brass, ebony, ivory and translucent glimmering quartz’), and that I enjoyed. The scope of Wells’s narrative is also impressive–his protagonist travels 500,000 years into the future to discover that mankind has devolved into two very different species, the Eloi and the Morlocks. He then goes further still, to witness the fate of the dying Earth. Wells’ ideas are so far-fetched that I struggled to find them even remotely believable, though I supposed believability isn’t at all the point of the story.

Wells’s writing puts me somewhat in mind of C.S. Lewis in this instant: eloquent, not overly fanciful, as easy to follow as a bobbing tide. I liked the choice of using a nameless point of view character, listening to the Time Traveller’s story. The ending is also a treat.

2. The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

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A very enjoyable Gaiman read. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get around to TGB. I can’t say much more about this book that hasn’t already been said. It’s written for children and that definitely shows, but that’s not to say there isn’t plenty for us full-grown kids to sink our teeth into.

Nobody Owens is an immensely likeable protagonist, and Silas, the witch-girl Liz, Bod’s adoptive parents and Miss Lupescu are all equally fun to encounter. Divided into eight parts that function as short stories to create a chronological novel, The Graveyard Book is well-paced and is a balanced mixture of adventure and poignancy. Favourite parts include Bod’s escape from the greedy pawn-shop owner with Liz’s help, and Scarlett and Bod’s exploration of the Sleer’s cave.

Gaiman’s play on names is quite delightful and his prose is as lively as ever. A surprisingly fun read, despite the fact that the opening scenes involve the attempted murder of a baby o_O

3. The Ring of Solomon – Jonathan Stroud

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As I am a huge fan of the Bartimaeus trilogy, I knew it would only be a matter of time before I got around to reading the sequel–or rather, the prequel.

In Ring of Solomon, we are transported into a pseudo-Biblical period Jerusalem overrun by magicians and spirits. A slightly younger Bartimaeus is a slave of one of King Solomon’s many magicians. Solomon himself rules Israel and surrounding submissive kingdoms with the help of an Uberly Powerful Ring that can raise armies of demons at a single touch.

Bartimaeus’s wit is by no means diminished, and his POV chapters are a romp. Asmira, the female protagonist and a super loyal member of the Queen of Sheba’s guard, on a suicidal mission to kill Solomon, provides the more boring half of the book. For most of the story she isn’t much more than a one-dimensional, annoying character with zero sense of humour. I was somewhat disappointed.

The reappearance of Farquarl and the rapport between Farquarl and Bartimaeus are a hoot, and the character of Solomon is unexpectedly intriguing. I thought this book would be uniformly predictable but I was proven wrong. Though Ring of Solomon doesn’t have the scope of the original trilogy, Stroud has not lost his ability to tell an awesome tale (moreover, he actually does action scenes well, which is a rare talent in my opinion). If we’re in luck there’ll be lots more Barty adventures to come.

PS. Can someone please make this into a movie, stat?!?

As summer’s coming to an end in my corner of the world, that brings my reading list to a close. Hope you enjoyed the science fiction flavour this year and maybe discovered something that you’d like to read or re-read. Do stay tuned for many more reads throughout 2013 :)

Books that shaped science fiction

Factoid of the Day: The invented word “scientifiction” was coined by Hugo Gernsback, editor of Amazing Stories magazine, in the 1920s, to describe the science-influenced adventure stories he was publishing. It was quickly superseded by the more practical sounding “science fiction.” The term “sci-fi” emerged in 1955.

A few weeks ago I finished the course Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World over at the innovative Cousera.org. The course was run by Professor Rabkin from the University of Michigan. Professor Rabkin is a charismatic, engaging lecturer and the course taught me new skills in reading, appreciating and analysing science fiction literature.

I won’t reveal too much of the content, because that would spoil the experience for future students, but I’d like to share a little of what I’ve learnt. I thought I’d recommend a selection of books from the syllabus–ones that I felt are especially fascinating to tackle, as they are books that shaped science fiction throughout history.

1. Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus (1818) – Mary Shelley

Frankenstein is arguably the first ever science fiction book. According to Prof. Rabkin, Shelley creates a new genre when she reverses the structure of the traditional Gothic mystery novel – she places the denouement in the preface and, from this key idea of a “created Man”, extrapolates the story. The story is a tragedy: Victor Frankenstein (actually the scientist, not the monster) possesses all the elements of his downfall from the beginning. To be honest, I found this book difficult because of the infuriating protagonist, but it’s a worthy read for its interesting epistolary structure, its consideration of the Creator/Nurturer link between Frankenstein and his monster, and for its treatment of scientific progress – a theme that is still relevant two centuries on! Such foresight, Ms Shelley! Also…Mary Shelley had a fascinating personal life, if you care to look into it.

2. The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) , The Invisible Man (1897) & The Country of the Blind (1904) – H.G. Wells


These books are an example of pure science fiction. Wells takes a fantastic idea and shapes a reality of sorts around it. In the Island of Dr. Moreau, he asks: what if there were a scientist who could turn beasts into men? What are the physical, intellectual, social and moral boundaries between animal and human? In The Invisible Man – what would happen if a man turned himself invisible? In the hauntingly intelligent short story The Country of the Blind – what if there were an isolated valley where a tribe of people had been blind for fourteen generations and lost all understanding of vision? Of these, I found The Invisible Man largely comical (and Griffin enjoyably despicable), Dr. Moreau and Country of the Blind horrifying in different ways, and Wells a master of experimental thinking.

3. A Princess of Mars (1917) – Edgar Rice Burroughs

The Barsoom series (eleven books in total, when finally collected) is an example of SF pulp fiction popular in the early 20th century. Burroughs and other pulp writers churned out entertaining stories in serial format on a regular basis. They wrote to live. A Princess of Mars is chock full of green- and red-skinned aliens, bloody battles, wild unbelievable spectral travel, and old-school American cowboy style heroism. And a busty princess thrown in for good fun. After you read this you can watch the recent Disney movie release, John Carter of Mars. It’s got Willem Dafoe voicing an alien.

4. The Martian Chronicles (1950) – Ray Bradbury

It took me a few chapters to get used to Bradbury’s style, but I’m so glad I did. Bradbury’s writing is brilliant, and the stories in TMC are the stuff of magic. Literally. It’s actually a collection of short stories that fit together in a thematic and also a chronological way, mostly set on Mars. Bradbury’s writing is magnificently human, clever, twisty, eerie and humorous. Why is this book important? Bradbury took science fiction out of the pulp and into the world of literature. Although, apparently, he regarded TMC as a fantasy book!

5. 1984 (1949) – George Orwell

This actually wasn’t on the course syllabus, but after reading Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, I knew it was finally time I met his older sibling. 1984 is an important and depressing book. The most frightening elements, to me, were the 1) the mutability of the past, and 2) the fact that you can’t leave a single mark of your own existence in Orwell’s dystopian world. You can’t write a book, a note, even a sentence on a piece of paper to pass on to the next generation. What then are you?

I also loved the essay parts of the book (Goldstein’s manifesto), though I struggled and had to read those bits twice. I love how he explained the seemingly contradictory slogans of the Party: FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, WAR IS PEACE, etc. 1984 is important not so much as a prediction of the future, but perhaps as a warning against certain things and certain patterns of thought.