Thoughts on H.G. Wells

You know when you’re reading a book and it references another book you’ve read and you want to go back and re-read the referenced book? That happened to me while reading Felix J. Palma’s The Map of Time and The Map of the Sky; based on H. G. Wells’ books, The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds respectively. Having enjoyed both of Palma’s books, I wanted to catch up with the classics. The last time I remember reading Wells’s books was high school, so naturally I was curious to see what I would think of the stories now. As it turns out, as an adult, I’m not a fan of Wells. I have fond memories of these stories, of being fascinated by the books, but no longer. What didn’t I like? Nothing specific about the stories themselves — the premises are wonderful — but it was the inconsiderate, uncaring, and obnoxious actions of the male characters. And, whenever (infrequently too) a woman shows up in the story, she’s relegated to being a slight character with no real value to the plot or the male characters. I know, that’s not a new revelation, but I was surprised by my immediate and intense reaction to it.

Before I turn what is supposed to be two short reviews into a rant, let’s get to the reviews themselves. I give you, The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds.

The Time MachineThe Time Machine

After settling in with The Time Machine, I soon realized I didn’t really remember much about this book. Or, at least my memories were fuzzy. I decided about half way through that I had a very big dislike of the Time Traveller. He was arrogant, uncaring, and prejudice. I get the arrogance, he wouldn’t have invented time travel without it, but the rest I could have done without.

We begin with a lecture of sorts where the Time Traveller shows his guests a small device that he claims can travel in time. He also claims to have built a larger functioning device that he plans to use to travel in time. Which he apparently does, meeting with two vastly different groups of humans — the Eloi and the Morlocks. The Eloi are a group of people so simple that he can’t believe this is what has become of the human race. In this same time, he also comes in contact with the Morlocks; a species that lives underground in dark tunnels. He does his best to categorize the humans he’s met but is disgusted when he figures out the relationship between the Eloi and Morlocks. When he’s able to escape and travels to his own place in time, he regales his contemporaries with stories of his travels.

There are so many fascinating aspects to this story. Time travel! But, Wells drove me crazy with his ideas of the human race. The pervasive idea that the Time Traveller was so much smarter, better shall we say, than the people he encountered was repulsive. It ruined this book for me. I can dislike a character and still enjoy a book but not in this case. I tried to become fascinated by the time travel but I was too far gone to get any enjoyment out of it.

The War of the WorldsThe War of the Worlds

When an unidentified object lands just south of London, residents are left dumbfounded. Could it really be aliens from Mars? When actual aliens emerge from the pods, all of London is left  running for its collective life as the aliens begin a methodical destruction of the planet. We follow the narrator as he makes his way back to his wife, suffering under the trampling of the Martians and witnessing horrors he never imagined possible.

The War of the Worlds is written as if it were a factual account of the narrator’s experiences. I liked that. It takes what could be a basic story and makes it feel very visceral. It did annoy me that I knew absolutely nothing about the narrator beside the fact that he was a scientist and was married. He does recount one part of the story as a second hand account from his brother but that’s all you get to know about him. I found that frustrating.

I did find this story much more interesting than The Time Machine and I think that had to do with the fact that there was a lot more action. In parts of The Time Machine, it felt as if little was happening but in The War of the Worlds, it was all action all the time. I do wish, and this goes for both books, that Wells had taken a few minutes to name his narrators; a pet peeve of mine. The intense dislike I had for The Time Machine didn’t appear when reading The War of the Worlds, in fact, I liked it better but if I had put this book down at any point, the possibly that I wouldn’t have picked it back up was there.

So, this brings me back to the start again. I’m not a Wells fan. Should I be? Anything I should consider?

The Time Machine
H.G. Wells
Atria Books
eISBN: 978145165886

The War of the Worlds
By H.G. Wells
Atria Books
eISBN: 9781451687989

Review – The Left Hand of Darkness

Genly Ai is an envoy, a traveler and explorer if you will. He is from the planet Hain and is now a guest, of sorts, on the planet of Winter or Gethen as it’s known by its inhabitants. He is on Winter solely on a mission of discovery, there is no malice in his mission but he finds resistance. The Gethenians are reluctant to believe that he is from another planet even with the physical differences readily visible between him and the Gethenians.

The Gethenians are a genderless race. When, and as needed, they can become either male or female. Genly has trouble with the concept and the individuals on Winter think of him as a freak constantly stuck in the state of kemmer — the time when Gethenians transform to mate. This difference is almost impossible to overcome as Genly, a male of his race, can’t comprehend the idea of kemmer and the switching of genders for mating purposes but yet he is fascinated by a people he can’t understand. When he makes a journey with one Gethenian who becomes a close friend, Estraven, he comes to an understanding of the people even if he finds some of their customs strange.

I had some trouble with this read. Maybe trouble is the wrong word. I felt like I was a bystander. It was like reading a report and in many ways it is. There are reports by Genly and stories of the Gethenians history as well. It’s very unemotional, even the emotional parts of the story felt that way to me.

While I was reading I came across a column by author Joe Walton — Some Thoughts on Anthropological Science Fiction as a Sub-Genre.  She talks about a single traveler meeting up with a new culture and the results. It’s a fascinating article. You should read it. It changed the way I was thinking of this book and maybe gave me a better idea of what I was reading. It didn’t change my mind about it but just made me look at it with a new eye toward what the author was trying to accomplish. It’s very effective looking at it in a new light and that helped me appreciate the story more.

In many ways, it’s a look at how we as humans view gender and what it means to be a man or a woman and the expectations — societal and personal — that go with those thoughts. This is a topic I’ve read absolutely nothing about and am speaking only from my own personal point of view. I could understand Genly’s inability to comprehend the idea of becoming another gender during sex. Gender is who we are and how we define ourselves in society. It’s more than a difficult idea to grasp but unlike Genly, I think I would be interested in being able to switch genders to see what other life experiences would be like. I was sort of letdown by an explorer who didn’t seem interested in seeking new experiences. He does try but never gets there and, yes, part of the story is about his shortcomings but he’s certainly more a traveler than an explorer to me.

Science fiction is a means of exploring topics uncomfortable or incomprehensible to us. Looking at this novel from that perspective makes it fascinating, but it doesn’t make me like the book more because of it. It’s almost as if I have a neutral feeling about it. It’s weird because part of this story was wonderfully fascinating in the ideas it was exploring and at other times it felt flat. Considering this is a book about a space traveler I found this funny in a weird sort of way. Shouldn’t everything be fascinating to an explorer? Shouldn’t he want to see and experience everything possible?

Even though I’m feeling neutral in terms of whether or not I like this book, I do think it was worth the read. It’s not my first Le Guin; I read the Earth Sea books many years ago. The Left Hand of Darkness was completely different than I remember those books. It won’t change my opinion of the Earth Sea books but it has made me think differently about Le Guin and that’s refreshing.

The Left Hand of Darkness

By Ursula Le Guin

Ace Books

ISBN:9780441478125

3 stars

Review – The Invisible Man

I was looking for something short to read and came across an old beat-up copy of The Invisible Man on our shelves. It seemed like the perfect book — a little science fiction, a compact story, something to read while sitting on the roof enjoying a sunny afternoon.

Griffin, a scientist, invents a machine that uses optics to make things invisible to the naked eye. He tests his machine, and the procedure, on himself. He completes the process but he doesn’t have time to reverse it before he is kicked out of the inn where he’s conducting his experiments by the people of the town who don’t trust him. With no options, and no desire to explain himself or his work, he leaves the inn in his new invisible state. He steals to get what he needs then enlists a man to assist him in getting his notes back from the inn where he abandoned them. When he, and his invisible state, are reported to the authorities, Griffin flips and goes on a bit of a terror spree wanting to get back at the man who betrayed him.

The science fiction aspect of the book is interesting and the explanation believable. Griffin wasn’t a likable character though — he’s arrogant, mean, and capable of murder. I kept wondering what it was that made him that way because I didn’t believe it could have been the invisibility alone. He does tell his story but it doesn’t do anything to help his cause considering he openly talks of murder, setting fire to a place to hide his work, and robbing people. I’m fine with not liking the main character and here Griffin is really just being used as social commentary anyway so I understood the reasoning for it even if he didn’t appeal to me.

Having not read much HG Wells since high school, I was slightly stunned to find I didn’t like this one as much as I thought I would. Don’t misinterpret that, I did like it, just not love it. I’m a person that likes to bond with the main character and here that wasn’t possible. The reader isn’t supposed to like Griffin but even knowing that didn’t help me. For me, he was the cruel scientist bent on revenge not caring about the people he was planning to hurt along the way to get what he wanted.

As I’m writing this review I’m beginning to wonder if I’m experiencing an aversion to Wells’s writing and now I’m thinking of going back to re-read The Time Machine to see what I think of that. Interesting how that happens to me sometimes.

The Invisible Man

By HG Wells

Watermill Press

3.5 stars

Review – Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus

There are books that make me feel very sad; Frankenstein is one of those books. It was a strangely profound sadness that for whatever reason, made me wish the book wouldn’t end because I wanted to find a morsel of light in this dark, lonely tale. It was not to happen.

Having been encouraged early on by loving, generous parents, Victor Frankenstein grows up in a happy household in Geneva surrounded by the comforts of home and family. While as a child he was mildly obsessed with old scientific theories, his father encourages him to broaden his thoughts. Right before he is to leave for school in Germany, the first of his life’s tragedies happen — his mother, a beloved figure to him, passes away after nursing his much loved adopted sister, Elizabeth, back to health. He leaves for Germany with a heavy heart. While there, he throws himself into the sciences, exceeds all his expectation with his interest in chemistry and like sciences. It’s this interest though that causes his second tragedy — the creation of a monster with parts culled from places unmentioned. When the monster escapes, his fears all become real and death follows wherever he goes. He falls into a deep depression knowing that whatever he has to do to stop the monster of his creation, he will never be happy and there will never be any solace.

This is not my first time reading this book but parts felt completely new to me. I love when this happens to me while re-reading. It’s like discovering something that you want to share with everyone. That said, Frankenstein is not an easy read. The words flow easily enough but it’s the emotional toll that got me this time. I really, truly, felt so sad while reading that at one point I burst out crying for no reason. To be affected like this by a book I’ve experienced before surprised me.

There is so much to this book but for the sake of those that don’t like spoilers, I won’t mention all that happens. There are moments when reading though that you wonder how much one person can take and if it’s fair for Frankenstein to heap all the blame on himself. While, yes, he created a monster that has crossed the line and taken life, and has held over him another life if he didn’t comply with his wishes, sometimes things in life are not meant to be. The monster is a physical manifestation for everything that has gone wrong for him. The loneliness that comes with the realization for Frankenstein made me want to put the book down. I couldn’t though because I was waiting for some kind of resolution. When it happens, it’s not satisfying at all. There is remorse, for Frankenstein, and in some way for the monster as well, but it didn’t make me feel any better. It only brings on more grief.

Now that I’ve sufficiently depressed you, let’s talk about something else. The monster has no name; he is simply the monster. Frankenstein is the scientist. Why did I need a reminder of that? Huh, the things we forget. I didn’t remember much from the first reading of this (it may well have been shortly after high school) and my memory faded. I was happy to renew it though. Of course, now each time I see a movie based on the book I’m going to be looking for mistakes.

I read this book for the Gender in SFF challenge. Glad I finally found an excuse to pick this one up again. If you like horror, fantasy, and science fiction, read this one. If you shy away from this one because you think I might be gruesome, it’s not. It’s worth a read.

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus

By Mary Shelley

Signet Classic

ISBN: 0451527712

4.5 stars

Review – Captain Nemo: The Fantastic Adventures of a Dark Genius

Captain Nemo: The Fantastic Adventures of a Dark Genius

By Kevin J. Anderson

Titan Books

ISBN: 9780857683427

4 stars

Jules Verne and André Nemo are almost inseparable as young boys. Exploring and testing André’s new inventions are what drives their days, although Andre’s the brave one with Jules usually watching on the sidelines. When André’s father dies in a shipbuilding accident, he takes off on an adventure of his own while Jules stays at home, goes to school, and prepares himself to enter into the family business with his father. Jules always dreamed of being a writer, and having his own adventures like Andre, but he has trouble finding his writing stride. And his writing income is almost as non-existent as his adventurous lifestyle. But when he starts writing about André’s adventures, he finds worlds previously unknown to him are now wide open.

Captain Nemo is a fun imagining of where all of Jules Verne’s tales come from — 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Around the World in 80 Days, to name a few. Yes, some of it is slightly unbelievable but so are Verne’s tales so I was willing to drift out of reality for this one. There is a love story here as well but it fits nicely in the background without feeling too intrusive. Honestly, I say that because I’m not one for mixing too much romance with my science fiction and fantasy. I agree it has a place but I prefer it fit with the story and not feel tacked on.

Titan Books pitched this one to me around the time I was reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and I jumped at the chance to read it. I’m glad I had at least a small knowledge of Verne’s writing before reading this one too as Anderson does dig deep on some of his adventures. While I’m familiar with Verne’s books, I’m still working on reading most of them and this book made me want to continue.

Anderson is an author I’ve heard of but haven’t read. I think I now want to take a look at a few of his books though — I found this one entertaining and fun and I hope that’s the kind of author he is overall. He obviously has a good knowledge and appreciation of Verne’s work. He captures the adventurous writing style and keeps the pace going throughout. And even at certain points where you know where the story is going, you want to keep reading to see Anderson’s take on it. A few scenes from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea come to mind here. It’s an homage that works well. If you’re looking for something fun, this one was good.

Review – The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl

By Paolo Bacigalupi

Nightshade Books

ISBN: 9781597801584

3.75/4.25 stars

I put off writing this review because, even after several weeks, I don’t know what I think of this book. On some level, it was brilliant but on others it was so sad and disturbing that I almost put the book down because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go on. I finished and while I can’t say I enjoyed this book, I was amazed by it.

Anderson Lake is a calorie man in Thailand posing as a factory manager. What he’s really there for is to look for fruits and vegetables thought to have gone extinct that are now reappearing in street markets. His company, AgriGen, wants the seeds. Through another business associate, he meets Emiko, a bioengineered human working as a sex slave at a whorehouse. Their two lives collide as a new bioengineered plague runs amuck in Bangkok, the government begins infighting for power, and a company with the money to buy off the world lands on the shores of Thailand.

There is much more to this story, but in the interest of spoilers, I’ll say no more. As I said above, parts of this book are brilliant — a world running on traded calories, bioengineering corporations releasing plagues, bioengineered humans. It’s dark, scary, and oddly believable. You can buy into the world and the science behind it: engineered foods, humans, and superbugs. But there’s something so dark about it that it was also so depressing and disturbing that I wanted to shower the reek of this book off me at times. These corporations are so money hungry they don’t even think of the people in their way (and in the way is really how these corporations think of people); releasing plagues without thought so they can take over promising a cure for what they themselves unleashed.

Each and every character is on their own. There’s no sense of community anywhere. Even when one character finds himself caring for someone, he pushes the thought away almost horrified by his own feelings. They’re all horrible but it’s the world that made them that way and you see that but still hate the way they interact and don’t. Everything is some exchange. And then there’s Emiko, the bioengineered new human. She’s a sex slave. She’s bound by her genetically engineered DNA to obey. Imagine for yourself how’s she’s treated.

But I have to go back to world building for a moment here. Science fiction and fantasy are all about the worlds. Bacigalupi commands the world in The Windup Girl. He stretches it beyond belief and you see how his would and could be possible. No checks. No balances. The manipulations of science, the shattered lives of people who can’t get out of the way fast enough.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression about this book. My husband liked it (that was the reason I read it) but I think you need to go in with an open mind and one that isn’t too easily offended. It’s an interesting take on what would happen in a world were energy trading takes place and science has the ability to change lives at the drop of a hat. If you’re looking for something different, this might work for you.