Poor H.G. Wells. In Spanish writer Felix J. Palma’s universe, the man can’t write a book without a) some hack stealing his ideas and b) his plots coming true. After all the time-traveling fuss kicked up in Palma’s best-selling “The Map of Time” (2011), it’s a wonder Wells didn’t burn all his drafts, especially the one about Martians taking over England. (More about that later.)
The hack in question this time is Garrett Serviss, a real-life astronomer who penned an unauthorized sequel to “The War of the Worlds,” called “Edison’s Conquest of Mars,” in which the famous inventor leads an invasion of the Red Planet.
“The Map of the Sky,” which sports 3-D endpapers in its first printing, opens with Wells and Serviss getting drunk together. Serviss wonders if Wells is worried that another one of his novels will come true: “Aren’t you afraid that if, after you wrote The Time Machine, someone discovered a way of traveling in time, then the next thing will be a Martian invasion?”
To prove that Wells’s imagination isn’t just running wild, Serviss sneaks the writer into a secret room in London’s Natural History Museum. There, in addition to a painting of a wrinkled man named Dorian Gray and a potion belonging to Dr. Henry Jekyll, lies the body of a Martian found in the Antarctic.
“The Map of the Sky” then jumps decades earlier to an ill-fated Antarctic expedition led by Jeremiah Reynolds, a real-life explorer who influenced Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.”
Meanwhile, in 1898, as Wells watches in horror, a strange cylinder lands in a field . . .
If there was ever a tough book to adapt, it’s “The War of the Worlds.” No matter what you do, you’re never to going to match the visceral reaction Orson Welles inspired with his famous radio play. But Palma throws everything he’s got, including Poe, at the invading Martians. There’s plenty of blood, guts and tentacles — although readers of Wells’s novel may notice a few key differences in the plot. This time, humanity’s defenders include a one-armed, narcoleptic paranormal investigator from Scotland Yard; “Map of Time” charlatan Gilliam Murray, who is now wooing an American heiress; and Victorian dandy Charles Winslow, whose effort to save his cousin from suicide kicked off this creative series of novels.
The arch narrator of “The Map of Time” is also back, full of asides such as “I hope you will forgive me for having left our hero in such a delicate situation; think of it as my homage to the serialized novels of the time.”
While inventive fun, “The Map of the Sky” is best not read too hard on the heels of “The Map of Time.” For one thing, a villain from that previous novel is now a romantic leading man, meaning it’s helpful to have only a hazy memory of the people he paid to have roughed up and killed. And the new book’s suspense hinges on readers’ forgetting a main character’s key ability for several hundred pages.
Palma has said he’s planning a third genre-bending Victorian adventure. Wherever he is, H.G. Wells might want to consider writing about laundry drying placidly on the line or a man named Herbert George finding a fortune in buried treasure.
Zipp reviews books for the Christian Science Monitor and The Washington Post.
the map of the sky
By Felix J. Palma, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor. Atria. 594 pp. $26