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He turned to the back of the paper, and studied the advertisements. For sale, one Lilliputian, good needleworker. For sale, two Lilliputians, a breeding couple; one hundred and fifty guineas the pair. For sale, stuffed Lilliputian bodies, arranged in poses from the classics: Shakespeare, Milton, Scott. For sale, prime specimen of the famed Intelligent Equines, late of His Majesty’s Second Cognisant Cavalry; this Beast (the lengthy advertisement went on) speaks a tolerable English, but knows mathematics and music to a high level of achievement. Of advanced years, but suitable for stud.

My first exposure to Jonathan Swift was not Gulliver’s Travels, but his satirical essay A Modest Proposal, an attack on the view held by the English that the Irish were a barbarous people. Let’s just say it spoke to me. When I saw the title of Adam Roberts’ book I was intrigued. How would he go about writing a sequel of sorts to Swift’s most famous work? As it turned out his objective was a broader one than that, touching on several authors during the course of the novel.

Abraham Bates credits himself as a moral man, moved by Christian mercy to plead the case of the Lilliputian people enslaved by the British Empire. It is over a century since Lemuel Gulliver returned from the lands of the so-called ‘Pacificans’, his tales leading to an occupation of those wondrous countries by European nations. The ‘little people’, are now reckoned to number only in the thousands across the whole world as a result of this invasion by ‘big folk’. The British Empire owes their great successes since the invasion to the technological skill of the Lilliputians, gifted with powers of invention due to their miniature size that have led to clockwork wonders. Even still Bates is dismayed by their enslavement and is contacted by an agent of France. In exchange for his assistance, he is promised the swift liberation of the Lilliputian slaves and the overthrow of the British Empire at the hands of an alliance between the French and the Church of Rome.

This is also the story of Eleanor, sold into marriage with an industrialist who business thrives on Lilliputian handiwork. Her mother made the match in order to secure her own lifestyle and Eleanor becomes resigned to her fate. She buries herself in the study of the natural sciences, with reading her sole pleasure, a retreat from the cruelties of the world outside her door. One night following her marriage to Mr. Burton, she witnesses an event that she feels might be turned to her advantage, but shortly thereafter the French invade London, with an advance force of Brobdingnagian Giants laying waste to everything in their path.

The French have yet another weapon to hand. A calculating machine, perfected by one Charles Babbage. When Eleanor and Bates meet, they learn that whoever should control this computational device, could decide the course of the war. Together they race across England, unaware that their world is being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s.

If that’s not a broad enough hint, it soon becomes apparent that Swiftly uses its relationship to Gulliver’s Travels as a skin. In reality the book is a parody of H.G. WellesWar of the Worlds. Through this comparison Roberts draws out the similarities between both writers, equal in their criticism of the British Empire and the brutal hidden histories of civilization. The Brobdingnagians marching across the Channel resemble the Martian Tripods of Welles’ book; there is also a sudden outbreak of pestilence across England.

My one complaint is while the period detail is excellent – religion and the fear of committing some social impropriety are straitjackets to each of the characters; the evolutionary theories of Lamarck are rejected as the ‘Pacificans’ are seen to be proof of God’s plan –  I am frustrated with hints of condescension towards the views of sex held by these characters. One of the pleasures of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle of books is that he made the thoughts and actions of historical figures from the 17c seem modern. Here there’s a mocking tone to Eleanor’s discovery of sexuality (she takes out a book from the library of the mating habits of pigs) and Bates’ tortured excitement at his own desires.

While that made me think less of the overall project, the book is gifted with an excellent premise. In keeping with its Anglo-Frankish conflict it swings from Swiftian to Rabelaisian satire. Fascinating.

‘You know,’ Carter said, as the cheering faded, hoping this would solve everything, ‘I do love magic. By itself, for its own sake.’

Ledocq nodded. ‘So. If you do a trick and no one notices, does that satisfy? Or is it like a tree falling in the forest without anyone to hear it?’

Carter sighed. His curse in life was to be attracted to people who understood him. With a sip of beer, he said, ‘I feel sorry for that tree.’

I cannot count the number of times I have taken this novel down from a shelf in a book store and then not bought it. For one reason or another, I never made that last trek to the cashier. Since Glen David Gold’s debut novel was first published it has attracted a rake of plaudits and praise. I sometimes suspected this was another one of those popular novels that actually is not all that good, but somehow managed to attract the newspaper literarti. I’m very contrary like that, always plumbing for the obscure over the well known. Turns out I was very wrong.

Gold’s novel is a fictionalized account of events involving real historical persons. President Warren Harding did die suddenly, during an administration notable for corruption scandals and falling public approval. He is still referred to as one of the worst presidents in the history of the United States. The book’s main character Charles Carter was a popular magician and contemporary of Houdini’s. Gold takes the lives of these two men and intertwines them, effectively ‘framing’, his hero for the President’s death.

For in this revision of history, President Harding attended a performance of Carter’s and after taking part in the show stopping illusion known as ‘Carter Beats the Devil’, returned to his hotel and died only two hours later. The magician flees the scene of the crime, with special agent Jack Griffin in pursuit. The government agent becomes obsessed with the history of his quary and the book skips backward and forwards in time, relating the events in Carter’s life that the search uncovers, as well as revealing his origins as a magician to the reader.

Early in the novel Carter’s first steps as a magician lead him to a fateful encounter in a snowbound house. Still a child, he comes face to face with a madman who captures both him and his little brother James and beats them horribly. Using what he has already managed to learn about escape artists, Carter frees himself and his sibling and rushes to find help – only to be dismayed when no one believes his story. It is a frightening and disillusioning experience for the young boy and his later obsession with illusions seem to indicate a fascination with truth and belief. Magic, he learns, is all about misdirection. The spectacle is designed to exploit human psychology, their willingness to believe what their eyes can see over all else.

Gold fills the books with period details, in keeping with choosing real-life personages such as Harding, Carter and Philo Farnsworth as characters. The early faddishness of psychoanalysis is touched upon, as well as the cult of personality enjoyed by Houdini. Conspiracies and new exciting breakthroughs in technology are revealed. By choosing this period, Gold introduces contemporary readers to an age of wonder, when invention and the need of the status quo to financially control such advances in technology, grappled. Thomas Pynchon brought to light the same conflict in Against the Day and H.G. Welles’ wrote The Open Conspiracy revealing how science could become a tool of control, with the greater public remaining in ignorance of its benefits.

This is a gripping and fascinating historical drama, with thrilling intrigue and murderous plots to keep the pace racing.

So tell me, comrade commissar, what does Marxism/Leninism say about headless mutants? It has bothered me for a long time. I want to be ideologically strong, and I’m drawing a blank on this one.

In one leap I jump from aristocratic London, to post-apocalyptic Moscow. I have very broad taste in books. This is certainly quite different. As the quote above attests though, Glukhovsky brings some welcome humour to this usually dour fare. The world has ended! Let’s joke about communists.

The last remnants of humanity huddle together in the Moscow subway system, the surface of the earth scorched by nuclear war. Many years have passed and the survivors have built communities around individual stations along the Metro line. At first they were confronted with radiation sickness, birth mutations in the next generation, plague. Then there were additional threats – starved rats attacking the communities at night, territorial conflicts over control of the line, diverging ideologies taking over each station until finally an uneasy peace was declared when people could no longer afford to fight and die. Then the dark ones came.

No one knows who or what they are, but they’re thought to have come from the surface, hunting the surviving humans underground. When the attacks on the northernmost station VDNKh suddenly increase, young Artyom is sent on a mission to warn the remaining communities of the danger should the dark ones break through. Along the way he meets different guides, experiences strange dreams and visions, and begins to wonder if some greater purpose is working through him. Could he be the chosen one who will save mankind?

Immediately I was reminded of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere while reading this book. But Glukhovsky offers a meatier treat. While it is exposition heavy, with the various characters Artyom meets offering their own take on the situation and giving clues as to what led to the destruction of the surface, the author loads these philosophical discussions with a degree of richness and verve. Of course he’s Russian!

For a horror novel, Metro 2033 is unusually metaphysical in its concerns. What would happen to man if the world ended? Is the human race capable of survival, of transformation into a new form of life? Each of Artyom’s guides mark a different stage in the argument. He meets the self-proclaimed last incarnation of Genghis Khan, who insists that the Metro is a prison for the souls of the dead, heaven and hell having been obliterated by nuclear war. An elderly academic whispers of a hidden University that preserves all the greatest annals of culture and history and that will restore to humanity what it has lost. He even encounters a revolutionary cell of dogged Che Guevarrists, who insist that the battle to achieve true socialism must still be fought.

Within the cramped confines of the Metro, humanity has turned in on itself and Artyom has to contend with Neo-Nazis, communists and cannibals, all staking their own claim to territory along the line. Mutants, Nazis and rats are all well and good, but there is something simple and terrifying in walking along a pitch-black tunnel, where every unexplained sound is a possible threat. Glukhovsky understands this and does not overdo the gore quotient, instead allowing the reader’s imagination to share in Artyom’s growing unease.

At times the pace of the novel slows to a crawl, which is a shame for all of Glukhovsky’s world-building is thrilling in itself and would have been sufficient had he thrown in a few more surprises. Instead towards the end familiar landmarks and destinations are rushed past, with the characters racing to catch up with the plot. Certain passages feel like padding and this is certainly quite a thick book. Nevertheless there is dry wit and even occasionally a surprising degree of poignancy here alongside the claustrophobic horror of mankind being herded into the darkness below the surface of the Earth. On two occasions characters mention how similar their dilemma is to that of the Morlocks in Welles’ The Time Machine.

This is a thoughtful and rewarding addition to the dystopian sub-genre of horror fiction. You can even buy a game based on the novel now for the X-Box/Windows. Just wait, there’ll be a film next.

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