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The Time Machine and War of the Worlds
H.G. Wells
Orion Millennium, 275 pages

The Time Machine and War of the Worlds
H.G. Wells
Herbert George Wells was born in 1866 in Bromley (an outer London borough) and was educated at the Normal School of Science in London. He worked as a draper's apprentice, bookkeeper, tutor, and journalist until 1895, when he became a full-time writer. In the next 50 years he produced more than 80 books including The Invisible Man (1897), When the Sleeper Awakes (1899), The First Men in the Moon (1901) and The Shape of Things to Come (1933). After World War I, he wrote an immensely popular historical work, The Outline of History (2 volumes, 1920). He died August 13, 1946, in London.

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A review by Neil Walsh

I suppose a series calling itself SF Masterworks really wouldn't be complete without representing the grandfather of English language SF. There can be no argument that these two stories are classics of the genre. But are they timeless classics? Absolutely not. They are, like most of Wells' works from that era, quite obviously products of late Victorian England. But Wells was certainly no Dickens or Thackeray; he was not the best of the Victorians. And as a science fiction writer, he was no Frank Herbert or even John Wyndham. Any of these boys could write Wells into a corner and leave him begging for a little character development.

Like any good speculative fiction, The Time Machine and War of the Worlds are extrapolations of existing conditions, taken to extremes and beyond into the realm of imagination. And, like much if not most good speculative fiction, there is a heavy satirical bent to them. However, the protagonists in both these stories exhibit violently aggressive behaviour and are considerably less than sympathetic, if you pause to give them any thought at all. (Although neither is quite as despicable as the murderously psychotic anti-hero of Wells' next best-known work, The Invisible Man -- a thoroughly wretched story with no redeeming value.)

Structurally, The Time Machine is one of Wells' better stories. It is, however, only moderately interesting. Darwin's theory of evolution was still fairly new and shocking when The Time Machine first saw publication in 1895. Wells' comment on human evolution is rather bleak. In his version, humans will evolve (or devolve) into two distinct branches: the child-like, graceful, but sheep-like and ultimately doomed Eloi; and their nemesis, the ugly, predatory Morlocks. Wells perceived this as the natural evolution of the English class-based system: the elegant upper crust breeding themselves into the mush-brained idleness of the Eloi; the dirty and slavish working class evolving into the amoral Morlocks who continue to work at keeping the elite in comfort, but in order to use them as a food source. Not a very hopeful future for humanity (or for the English, at any rate), but if you're willing to see the satire, you may appreciate that's probably the way the present looked to Wells. In fact, pessimists and misanthropes today may still argue along the same lines.

War of the Worlds is of historical note largely due to the widespread panic caused by the 1938 Orson Welles radio broadcast of an adaptation of this 1898 H.G. Wells classic. Many people mistook it for a news broadcast, rather than the radio drama that it was. (Hey, radio was still a relatively new thing; give them a break.) The story itself is an interesting comment on the arrogance of humankind, but it is rather pale by today's standards and the ending is a complete cop-out.

H.G. Wells is something of a disappointment today. However, his work is important to the history of the genre and it is worth reading a sampling to understand the roots of contemporary science fiction. Imperfect as these two stories are, they are probably the two best choices for a sampling of Wells -- both for their historical importance and for exemplifying his style and scope.

Copyright © 2000 by Neil Walsh

Neil Walsh is the Reviews Editor for the SF Site. He lives in contentment, surrounded by books, in Ottawa, Canada.

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