Whoops, this one is long overdue.
Spuggy picked it up in Belfast, a dog-eared (I won’t say “beloved”) old copy from Oxfam and I picked it up right at the end of our holiday to tide me over till we got home. On the front cover someone’s added “+ very boring” after “Short” and done a bit of maths on the inside of the back cover. Still, it’s pretty old, so maybe it changed hands a few times since that judgement was passed? Or maybe it was already old when it unimpressed that reader?
There are a lot of short stories in here, covering a whole spectrum of speculation. Wells writes with the manic imagination of someone who writes short stories to put bread on the table, picking up fantastical ideas from everywhere and exploring them all.
A surprising amount of his stories are told in the format of a narrator telling the reader a story that the actual protagonist told the narrator himself. The first and possibly most famous example being, of course, The Time Machine. What’s most surprising is perhaps how easily I accepted this odd mode of storytelling (though I guess it’s not for everyone, judging by the cover graffiti) – Wells always does his best to make his stories seem real, and maybe this impartial or friend-of-a-friend narrator helps the illusion. He names places and talks about people like you know them and in general it’s easy to slip in and settle down with your suspension of disbelief left neatly hung up by the door.
There are way too many stories for me to go through them one by one, and I must admit that the quality was sort of uneven – some had aged much better than others, some were clearly prototypes of different kinds of stories, and they covered such a variety of sci fi and adventure that no reader will probably be equally pleased by all of them. So I’ll keep it general, and assume that Wells’s name speaks for itself. You don’t need me to tell you if you should pick him up or not.
Considering the second- or thirdhand nature of some of these stories, Wells doesn’t go in for unreliable narrators. His protagonists all have good memories and clear powers of description. This is of course necessary for the type of story he wants to tell, which is purely to imagine what ifs and possible futures, even alternate pasts, and for the reader to share in that wonder. There’s not a whole lot of interpersonal drama here (with exceptions: The Purple Pileus, maybe even The Country of the Blind); the worlds do most of the talking. His imagination is pretty light as well – with exceptions everyone lives/returns to tell the tale.
As with many visionary authors, some of his work has been eclipsed by what’s come later – or if not eclipsed, then faded. He is one of those giants whose shoulders other writers stand on, and that’s going to make some of his work look unjustly hackneyed. What’s even more unfair is that stories like The Land Ironclads have almost been eclipsed by history itself, because Wells predicted the future too accurately. I’m sort of joking – The Land Ironclads is absolutely astounding purely because of the things Wells predicted. It’s probably even more amazing now than it was when it was written just for that little meta “but how did he know?” frisson. Anyone can speculate, but very few are right.
Wells enjoys dredging up prehistoric creatures that have survived in tiny isolated pockets of the earth and sea, a classic genre, and colonial adventures (more on this later), but also drawing room humour and some odd little stories that stand alone – The Stolen Bacillus is a comic little fable about absent-minded scientists who shoot their mouths off and anarchists who don’t factcheck. The Truth About Pyecraft is a be-careful-what-you-wish-for story with some exquisitely drawn characters. The Door in the Wall is a thoughtful fairytale. The Grisly Folk speculates about the past, our past as a species. The Country of the Blind is a great, malicious little twist on colonialism and superiority complexes, and Under The Knife is a trippy waltz through theology and physics or neither or some hybrid of the two.
So on the whole I enjoyed the collection, even if some of the stories felt like redrafts of an earlier idea or a bit repetitive. I liked the variety, I admired the imagination, I enjoyed the other worlds and other perspectives of this one I live in right now.
So now for the hard stuff.
Some of these stories are just unapologetically racist. Product of its time, yes, yes, but while sometimes Wells seems to sympathise with “natives” (they certainly have the upper hand in The Country of the Blind, and the protagonist of Jimmy Goggles the God prefers them to missionaries, which is, I guess, something???) at other times he says the most outrageous (now) things. If you are not in the mood to read anything racist, then you want to stay away from The Lord of the Dynamos for sure. There are probably others I can’t remember off the top of my head, but that was definitely the worst one. I kept trying to read it from some slant that would make it not as bad (maybe it’s about not mistreating your workers! Surely it’s important that this is written from Azuma-zi’s point of view!) but honestly, it is pretty indefensible.
On a much less severe but still potentially eyeroll-inducing note, the gender relations in The Purple Pileus made me sigh a bit.
Final judgement: I disagree with the cover graffiti. And I should probably read more Wells.