In The Science Fiction of H.G. Wells (Oxford University Press, $18.95; paperback, $4.95), Frank McConnell argues convincingly that Wells must be regarded as "one of the strong, essential writers of our era." Wells' importance lies not only in his transfuguration and perfection of the "scientific romance" (if, indeed, he did not singlehandedly invent the form and, with it, the entire guady cavalcade of contemporary science fiction) but also in his beleaguered faith in our species' ability to triump over modernist angst and a technology that has apparently outrun our moral development.
Not long before World War II, Wells told an acquaintance that he had composed his own epitath: "God damn you all: I told you so." However, the hidden implication of even this exasperated message is that someone, somewhere remains to receive and ponder it. Wells tried valiantly to believe that those who survived the holocaust would not forget its lessons.
In this throughly readable study of Wells as science fictioneer, McConnell points out that the novelist's underlying optimism was dogged, heroic and blatably unfashionable. The major literary lights of the 1920s and '30s were Joyce, Pound, Eliot and Hemingway, cartographers of the modern wasteland. Spotlighted against this bleak terrain (which, ironically, has a stunning visual counterpart in the landmark 1936 film Things To Come, for which Wells wrote the screenplay), Wells struck many of his contemporaries as a ridculous figure, a squat, mustachioed Pollyanna.
McDonnell believes that time has vindicated Wells, that today his "unflagging optimism . . . seems less and less an accident of early-modern misdirected thought, and more and more a remarkably courageous, prescient anticipation (to use one of his favorite words) of the fully modern state of mind. For we now know that, if we do not will ourselves into civilization, we are surely doomed."
In addition to trenchant, jargon-free readings of all the major scientific romances published between 1895 and 1906 (from The Time Machine to In The Days of Comet), this study presents a succinct analysis of the historical and cultural forces, including evolutionary theory and the "art for art's sake" movement, that shaped Wells' highly imaginative version of out place in the cosmos. Further, McConnell lucidly details his subjects metamorphosis from the "brilliant storyteller" of these early books to the proselytizing futurologist of such works as The World Set Free (1914) and The Shape of Things To Come (1936).
A wholly laudatory effort, McConnell's book, and one deserving of notice even beyond the ivy-fretted walls of academe. Admirer or detractor, you cannot read it without deepening your knowledge, your understanding, and ultimately your appreciation of Wells, whom many have called "the father, the one authentic genius, even the Shakespeare of science fiction."
But even Shakespeare did not invariably please his audience, and the least popular of Wells' early scientific romances was The Island of Doctor Moreau, undoubtedly because it smudges the conventional distinctions between the bestial and the human. Also, in the person of Moreau, it confronts the reader with an unsavory parodic God, an almost archetypal "mad scientist" whose obsession is (again according to McConnell) "to recapitulate and improve upon the process whereby men evolve from the beasts." Although Wells called this novel "an exercise in youthful blasphemy," its themes still disturb us, and much of Doctor Moreau's power still derives from our continuing, perhaps innate interest in these questions.
The British writer Brian W. Adliss, whose Billion Year Spree is a valuable critical history of science fiction, attempts to tap the surces of this power by casting his newest novel as a modern sequal to Wells' evolutionary nightmare. An Island Called Moreau (Simon and Schuster, $10.95) takes place in 1996, exactly a century after the publication of its famous predecessor, during a global war. Particularly Wellsian is Aldiss' adoption of a prophetic, cautionary voice. In a brief, italicized coda he writes, "The question was whether humanity's instinct for survival would impel it to find a way to permanent peace. Otherwise, all wuld be lost."
After the crash of the space shuttle Leda ("The broken wall, the burning roof and tower"), U.S. Undersecretary of State Calvert Madle Roberts ends up on a mysterious Pacific island. He soon learns that Wells' late Victorian allegory was triggered by his acquaintance with a "real" person, one Angus McMoreau (like Wells, a student of Thomas Huxley), and that the descendants of the Scottish doctor's grotesque beast-men are undergoing further experiments at the hands of a British thalidomide victim and genetic specialist by the name of Mortimer Dart
To synopsize too much more of the story would be to explode a few of its crucial "surprises" -- but it is significant that Dart's work, which depends not on the knife but on gene-manipulating drugs, has acquired a kind of legitimacy from the institutionalized conviction that the suicide of our species is inevitable as well as imminent. By dramatizing this concept, Adliss' fable effectively argues against such a chilling surrender. And in an age when talk "of limited nuclear war" provokes casual ho-hums rather than outright horror, we can scarcely fault Aldiss for going to the Wells too often.
But I do quarrell with certain aspects of the presentation of this message. First, the American narrator occassionally stumbles into phrasing that betray's the author's nationality, and outdated Americanisms like "Why no cool it, Mr. Dart?" do not offset the elegant fishiness of these lapses. Further, when Roberts repeats his mother's tale of how Americans escaped the thalidomide disaster of the early 1960s (good old Doc Harris prescribed dear old Mom a safe tranquilizer), Aldiss' dramaturigical string-pulling becomes embarrassingly clanky and conspicuous.
The novel's most damaging flaw, however, is the introduction of a female character, Heather, whom Adliss want to behave as a silly exhibitionist and an ideologically government agent -- without this latter role's in any credible way dictating her assumption of the former. The striptease that Heather performs comes across as a brummagem auctorial fantasy. Beyond injecting S-E-X into the narrative, it depicts Heather as a stupidly tractable wench and Roberts, in his response, as a pragon of priggish nobility. Although later events rescue Roberts from this assessment, Heather remains ill-defined and therefore unbelievable creation.
If Aldiss redeems these failings by creating a timely variation on the timeless concers of Doctor Moreau, Damon Knight's first novel in several years revelas its debt to Wells more in the choice of its setting than in its thematic emphasis -- although the assumption of a univeral holocaust, here as a fait accompli, undergrids this book, too. The World and Thorinn (Berkley/Putnam, $12.95) juggles elements of fairy tale and scientific romance, owing as much to Grimm's "The Three Feather's" and other folk stories of self-realization as to a subsurface adventure like Wells' The first Men in the Moon. The proof of Kinght's contemporary sensibility is that nearly every "magic" in his narrative has a scientific or technological rationale.
I most enjoyed Thorinn for its pertinacious hero, his many quizzical conversations with a small, Delphian "box" (a talking computer), and Knight's deft handling of the experience of falling down a machine-made rabbit hole to the center of the Earth. (Artist Cal Lakey, incidentally, provides a series of handsome black-and-white illustrations that nicely compliment the text.) However, I did not enjoy Thorinn's interminable groping about in the dark or the tediousness of many tasks that he ingeniously tackles -- a tediousness that Knight too often conveys by demonstration rather than indirection. Still, this is a most welcome novel, for Kinght's work has been an extremely rare commodity for the last 10 or 15 years.
Walter Trevis brings together seven recent stories, five written over 20 years ago, and one from 1969 in a new collection entitled Far From Home (Doubleday, $9.95). The inventor Farnsworth, who appears in a couple of these tales, undoubtedly derives from some of Wells' tragically clever tinkerers, but only "The Ifth of Oofth" from 1957 contains a truly memorable specualtion. The best of Tevis' stories are the newer ones like "Rent Control" and "Out of Luck," pieces that, to achieve their ends, rely on psychological verismilitude and the handy suspension of at least one natural law. My feeling is that Doubleday permitted Tevis to assemble this extremely uneven sampler of the basis of last year's excellent dystopian romance Mockingbird (now available as a Bantam paperback for $2.95).
Although Wells also wrote many short stories during his long career (indeed, The Time Machine is a thoroughgoing revision of an early tale entitled "The Chronic Argonauts"), I cannot imagine what he would have thought of the madcap fictions in The Best of John Sladek (Pocket Books, $2.50). On of these -- "Pemberley's Start-Afresh Callipoe" is an outrageous pastiche of Wells, but the parodies skewering Philip K. Dick (as Chipdip K. Kill) and Ray Bradbury (as Barry DuBray) are even better. The titles of some of Sladek's other offerings -- "The Transcendental Sandwich," "Elephant with Wooden Leg," "Space Shoe of the Gods," etc. -- hint at, but in no way communicate, the irreverent alogicality of his mind. You have to experience these surprising literary cherry bombs for yourself.