Thursday, 23 March 2017

Tales of Space and Time (1899)

That this represents his third collection of short fiction in under four years (here are my thoughts on the first, and on the second) says something about just how productive Wells was as a short-story writer in his early career. In the coming decades he would write fewer shorts, and indeed towards the end of his writing life he tended to expand ideas that might have worked better as short pieces into whole novels; but here, in 1899, he was still in the full florescence of his extraordinary imaginative fertility:
‘The Crystal Egg’ (The New Review, May 1897)
‘The Star’ (The Graphic, December 1897)
‘A Story of the Stone Age’ (The Idler, May–September 1897)
‘A Story of the Days To Come’ (The Pall Mall Magazine, June–October 1897)
‘The Man Who Could Work Miracles’ (Illustrated London News, July 1898)
It looks like a truncated contents page, but ‘A Story of the Stone Age’ and ‘A Story of the Days To Come’ are both 25,000-word novellas, so the reader isn't being stinted. Of those two, the former is far and away the better, a small masterpiece of prehistoric speculation set in Wells's favoured Surrey stamping grounds:
This story is of a time beyond the memory of man, before the beginning of history, a time when one might have walked dryshod from France (as we call it now) to England, and when a broad and sluggish Thames flowed through its marshes to meet its father Rhine, flowing through a wide and level country that is under water in these latter days, and which we know by the name of the North Sea. In that remote age the valley which runs along the foot of the Downs did not exist, and the south of Surrey was a range of hills, fir-clad on the middle slopes, and snow-capped for the better part of the year. The cores of its summits still remain as Leith Hill, and Pitch Hill, and Hindhead. On the lower slopes of the range, below the grassy spaces where the wild horses grazed, were forests of yew and sweet-chestnut and elm, and the thickets and dark places hid the grizzly bear and the hyæna, and the grey apes clambered through the branches. And still lower amidst the woodland and marsh and open grass along the Wey did this little drama play itself out to the end that I have to tell. Fifty thousand years ago it was, fifty thousand years—if the reckoning of geologists is correct.
The story concerns a tribe of cave-people lead by ‘Uya the Cunning’, strong, old and ugly. Uya takes a fancy to attractive young cavegirl Eudena, who avoids his advances by running off into the forest. Handsome young Ugh-lomi goes after her, thereby provoking Uya's ire. Rather than be killed Ugh-lomi and Eudena hide from the tribe, and Ugh-lomi accidentally invents the axe when playing about with a holey flint and a stick:
The stick went in and stuck there. He had rammed it in too tightly to withdraw it. That was still stranger—scarcely funny, terrible almost, and for a time Ugh-lomi did not greatly care to touch the thing. It was as if the flint had bit and held with its teeth. But then he got familiar with the odd combination. He swung it about, and perceived that the stick with the heavy stone on the end struck a better blow than anything he knew. He went to and fro swinging it, and striking with it.
He uses this new weapon to kill Uya, bringing back the chief's wife's necklace as a prize for Eudena. Later Ugh-lomi invents horseriding, going one further even than Kubrick's 2001-hominid and showing how clever a caveman he is, by caveman standards. Anyway: the tribe of Uya declare that their leader has returned from the dead in the form of a giant lion, and when they snatch Eudena to sacrifice to this beast Ugh-lomi goes after her. He fights the monstrous lion and, though badly mauled, kills it. Eudenia nurses him back to health, and when the tribe attack again they fight them off together. Eventually survivors come to Ugh-lomi with gifts, to placate him, and he becomes the new leader. The whole is written very nicely, with enough humour and liveliness to keep the conceit afloat. As David Langford notes, although Wells did not invent the ‘caveman story’ (Edward Bulwer Lytton had published his cave-man story ‘The Fallen Star, or the History of a False Religion’ all the way back in 1834; and more proximate to Wells's novella are Andrew Lang's 1880 ‘The Romance of the First Radical’ and Henry Curwen's 1887 ‘Zit and Xoe’)—nonetheless, the success of Wells's story means he ‘effectively annexed the territory’. Which means that Wells's fingerprints are all over the whole subsequent Clan of the Cave Bear-school of writing.

When Wells sent a copy of Tales of Space and Time to his friend W E Henley he drew a little doodle under the dedication, of Eudena and Ugh-lomi.

That copy is for sale, actually; assuming you have a spare $9,600 lying around. And the German translation put a stark naked Ugh-lomi, full-frontal, bang on the cover. Which is quite ... bold.

Ugh-lomi's cleverness and skill mean that he goes from being tribal nobody to chief, which is a novel reformulation of the core narrative of social mobility that informs so much of Wells's writing, as it had done his life. And there's a nicely hidden-in-plain-sight coding of Wells into his protagonist's name: trimming down the double-u with which ‘Wells’ starts to a single u, reversing the HGU(U) because we're going back in time, and capping it off with a reference to this portrait's simpler and less clever persona, a ‘low me’ instead of the evolutionarily elevated ‘high me’ who's doing the actual writing. And the way the story ends is wittily deflating, too:
Cat's-skin had a trout. It was rare men caught fish in those days, but Cat's-skin would stand silently in the water for hours and catch them with his hand. And the fourth day Ugh-lomi suffered these three to come to the squatting-place in peace, with the food they had with them. Ugh-lomi ate the trout. Thereafter for many moons Ugh-lomi was master and had his will in peace. And on the fulness of time he was killed and eaten even as Uya had been slain.
At any rate, it's a much better story than ‘A Story of the Days To Come’. This paired novella starts in Wells's now:
The excellent Mr. Morris was an Englishman, and he lived in the days of Queen Victoria the Good. He was a prosperous and very sensible man; he read the Times and went to church, and as he grew towards middle age an expression of quiet contented contempt for all who were not as himself settled on his face. He was one of those people who do everything that is right and proper and sensible with inevitable regularity. He always wore just the right and proper clothes, steering the narrow way between the smart and the shabby, always subscribed to the right charities, just the judicious compromise between ostentation and meanness, and never failed to have his hair cut to exactly the proper length ... Mr. Morris had a wife and children. They were the right sort of wife, and the right sort and number of children, of course; nothing imaginative or highty-flighty about any of them, so far as Mr. Morris could see; they wore perfectly correct clothing, neither smart nor hygienic nor faddy in any way, but just sensible; and they lived in a nice sensible house.
Then skips directly forward to one of his descendants:
He had just the same stout, short frame as that ancient man of the nineteenth century, from whom his name of Morris—he spelt it Mwres—came; he had the same half-contemptuous expression of face. He was a prosperous person, too, as times went, and he disliked the “new-fangled”, and bothers about the future and the lower classes, just as much as the ancestral Morris had done. He did not read the Times: indeed, he did not know there ever had been a Times—that institution had foundered somewhere in the intervening gulf of years; but the phonograph machine, that talked to him as he made his toilet of a morning, might have been the voice of a reincarnated Blowitz when it dealt with the world's affairs. This phonographic machine was the size and shape of a Dutch clock, and down the front of it were electric barometric indicators, and an electric clock and calendar, and automatic engagement reminders, and where the clock would have been was the mouth of a trumpet. When it had news the trumpet gobbled like a turkey, “Galloop, galloop”, and then brayed out its message as, let us say, a trumpet might bray. It would tell Mwres in full, rich, throaty tones about the overnight accidents to the omnibus flying-machines that plied around the world, the latest arrivals at the fashionable resorts in Tibet, and of all the great monopolist company meetings of the day before, while he was dressing. If Mwres did not like hearing what it said, he had only to touch a stud, and it would choke a little and talk about something else.

Of course his toilet differed very much from that of his ancestor. It is doubtful which would have been the more shocked and pained to find himself in the clothing of the other. Mwres would certainly have sooner gone forth to the world stark naked than in the silk hat, frock coat, grey trousers and watch-chain that had filled Mr. Morris with sombre self-respect in the past. For Mwres there was no shaving to do: a skilful operator had long ago removed every hair-root from his face. His legs he encased in pleasant pink and amber garments of an air-tight material, which with the help of an ingenious little pump he distended so as to suggest enormous muscles. Above this he also wore pneumatic garments beneath an amber silk tunic, so that he was clothed in air and admirably protected against sudden extremes of heat or cold. Over this he flung a scarlet cloak with its edge fantastically curved. On his head, which had been skilfully deprived of every scrap of hair, he adjusted a pleasant little cap of bright scarlet, held on by suction and inflated with hydrogen, and curiously like the comb of a cock. So his toilet was complete; and, conscious of being soberly and becomingly attired, he was ready to face his fellow-beings with a tranquil eye.
This is jolly enough, and the story that develops sketches the future-world along lines not all that different to the future-world of When the Sleeper Wakes (to which ‘A Story of the Days To Come’ is actually prior). But there's something small-c conservative, almost smugly so, about the humourous conceit that this future differs in merely superifical ways from our present. That language has not changed is given a plausible-enough in-story explanation: ‘the invention of the phonograph and suchlike means of recording sound, and the gradual replacement of books by such contrivances, had not only saved the human eyesight from decay, but had also by the establishment of a sure standard arrested the process of change in accent that had hitherto been so inevitable.’ But in a larger sense the tale implies that the present exerts so profound a gravitational pull that the future becomes drawn back into it. The future, this story says, is just the present in fancy dress.

The narrative is a kind of Romeo-and-Juliet narrative; Mwres's daughter has fallen in love with a lower class lad (‘“He is”—and his voice sank with shame—“a mere attendant upon the stage on which the flying-machines from Paris alight. He has—as they say in the romances—good looks. He is quite young and very eccentric. Affects the antique—he can read and write! So can she. And instead of communicating by telephone, like sensible people, they write and deliver—what is it?” “Notes?” “No—not notes.... Ah—poems”’) and the obstacles of parental disapproval include such things as brainwashing-by-hypnosis. But there is a sense of love as timeless, or at least as transhistorical, that vitiates the effective future-estrangement of the story, and for all its intriguing details it comes across as rather flat.

‘The Star’, on the other hand, is one of Wells's very best stories. Simple as that. It is a short and to the point, and the point it is to is sense-of-wonderful. Astronomers notice a new star approaching the solar system. It collides with Neptune and the two bodies become locked together as a flaming mass that hurtles towards the Sun. Wells deftly sketches reactions to this news: some in denial, some despairing, others indifferent: ‘the star grew—it grew with a terrible steadiness hour after hour, a little larger each hour, a little nearer the midnight zenith, and brighter and brighter, until it had turned night into a second day.’ Soon enough the star passes so close to Earth that the two bodies swing about one another, causing earthquakes and floods and disaster. Here's a June 1926 illustration of this climax, from when Gernsback fleshed out the nascent Amazing Stories with a run of Wellsian shorts.

After this catastrophe the world ends-up in a closer orbit about the sun, the moon is much further away, and the shattered land is so much hotter that the few survivors are compelled to migrate to the poles. But the real touch of genius in this story is its final two paragraphs, a masterful focus-pull (as the cineasts say):
But of the new brotherhood that grew presently among men, of the saving of laws and books and machines, of the strange change that had come over Iceland and Greenland and the shores of Baffin's Bay, so that the sailors coming there presently found them green and gracious, and could scarce believe their eyes, this story does not tell. Nor of the movement of mankind now that the earth was hotter, northward and southward towards the poles of the earth. It concerns itself only with the coming and the passing of the Star.

The Martian astronomers—for there are astronomers on Mars, although they are very different beings from men—were naturally profoundly interested by these things. They saw them from their own standpoint of course. ‘Considering the mass and temperature of the missile that was flung through our solar system into the sun,’ one wrote, ‘it is astonishing what a little damage the earth, which it missed so narrowly, has sustained. All the familiar continental markings and the masses of the seas remain intact, and indeed the only difference seems to be a shrinkage of the white discolouration (supposed to be frozen water) round either pole.’ Which only shows how small the vastest of human catastrophes may seem, at a distance of a few million miles.
This is a strong slug of the espresso of ‘sense-of-wonder’, expertly framing human suffering in cosmic immensity. It does something that, really, only SF can do, describing an event that is ‘sublime’ in Burkean or Kantian terms—the terrifying tempest, the earthquake and catastrophic inundation—only in order to step back from it and reveal it, in all its terror and excitement, to be trivial compared with the ultra-sublimity of the cosmic frame. This, to be clear, is one of the things Kant meant by his distinction between the mathematical and the dynamic sublime. Slavoj Žižek's summary is spot on, despite his habit of random Germanic capitalisations of words: ‘in the Kantian Sublime, the boundless chaos of sensible experience (raging storm, breathtaking abysses) renders forth the presentiment of the pure Idea of Reason whose Measure is so large that no object of experience, not even Nature in its wildest and mightiest displays of it forces, can come close to it’ [Žižek, Tarrying with the Negative (1993), 245].

The other two stories in the collection are both good, though neither of them quite as good as this. ‘The Man Who Could Work Miracles’ is a neat little fantasy about fantasy. Fotheringay, an unimaginative small-town clerk, acquires the ability to perform miracles. He toys with this superpower until. having lost his temper and sent a policeman to Hell, he grows worried and consults a local preacher called Mr Maydig. The two go about at night doing good at Maydig's prompting, draining swamps, reforming drunkards and the like, until Fotheringay decides, again at Maydig's prompting, to extend the amount of time available for their night-time sallies by stopping the rotation of the Earth. This turns out to be not such a good idea: ‘when Mr. Fotheringay had arrested the rotation of the solid globe, he had made no stipulation concerning the trifling movables upon its surface ... so that the village, and Mr. Maydig, and Mr. Fotheringay, and everybody and everything had been jerked violently forward at about nine miles per second—that is to say, much more violently than if they had been fired out of a cannon. And every human being, every living creature, every house, and every tree—all the world as we know it—had been so jerked and smashed and utterly destroyed.’ He saves his own life with a wish, and, the last human alive, and fed-up with his powers, wills himself back in time to a point before the gift came. It's wittily and charmingly written, although fairly disposable; although it's yet another of those Wellsian ideas that has led a fertile afterlife, from mostly awful Bruce Almighty to the truly awful Absolutely Anything. That this latter is in effect the last ever ‘Python’ film causes me genuine pain.

Finally we have ‘The Crystal Egg’, which stands as a sort of pendant to The War of the Worlds. An antique dealer in Seven Dials called Mr Cave seems oddly reluctant to sell the titular egg, although it is one of the items in his shop. We discover that, when a ray of light strikes it from the correct angle, it gives him a real-time, moving view of a strange landscape. He takes it to a scientific acquaintance called Wace, and together they decide they are seeing what we would nowadays call a ‘live feed’ of Mars. Amongst other things they observe an array of other crystal eggs on top of masts, as well as alien Martians, some hopping along on their tentacles, others wearing wing-prostheses that enable them to fly.
For a time the Martians—if they were Martians—do not seem to have known of Mr. Cave's inspection. Once or twice one would come to peer, and go away very shortly to some other mast, as though the vision was unsatisfactory. During this time Mr. Cave was able to watch the proceedings of these winged people without being disturbed by their attentions, and, although his report is necessarily vague and fragmentary, it is nevertheless very suggestive. Imagine the impression of humanity a Martian observer would get who, after a difficult process of preparation and with considerable[27] fatigue to the eyes, was able to peer at London from the steeple of St. Martin's Church for stretches, at longest, of four minutes at a time. Mr. Cave was unable to ascertain if the winged Martians were the same as the Martians who hopped about the causeways and terraces, and if the latter could put on wings at will. He several times saw certain clumsy bipeds, dimly suggestive of apes, white and partially translucent, feeding among certain of the lichenous trees, and once some of these fled before one of the hopping, round-headed Martians. The latter caught one in its tentacles, and then the picture faded suddenly and left Mr. Cave most tantalisingly in the dark. On another occasion a vast thing, that Mr. Cave thought at first was some gigantic insect, appeared advancing along the causeway beside the canal with extraordinary rapidity. As this drew nearer Mr. Cave perceived that it was a mechanism of shining metals and of extraordinary complexity. And then, when he looked again, it had passed out of sight.
So the eggs are in effect palantíri; and presumably (though this is not specified in the story) the Martians have somehow seeded them onto the earth by way of reconnoitering their future invasion ground. The story ends when Cave stops coming to Wace's, who calls at his shop to see why not to discover Cave dead and the egg gone.

What both ‘The Crystal Egg’ and ‘The Man Who Could Work Miracles’ have in common is the utilization of a self-reflexive conceit. Wells's stories speak to their various imagined worlds, but also speak to the ground of their own imagining. Cave's egg is science fiction, that (n)ovum that gifts us glimpses of a compelling, exotic alienness (calling him ‘Cave’ is presumably Wells's little Plato joke). Fotheringay's sudden ability to fulfill any wish projects the inside of the imaginarium onto the exterior world. The comic tone of the latter is saved from smugness by the fact that such projection leads to the death of literally everyone in the world; and the potency of the former is in the way it grasps that the science fiction channel to alienness is also a channel by which alienness can surveil us. As Nietzsche might have said: ‘when you gaze into the egg-crys, the egg-crys also gazes into you.’


  1. Adam,

    "The Crystal Egg" was an inspiration for Borges' "The Aleph" - as he says so himself in the notes to the story. A big Wells fan, Borges. He reviewed several of his 1930s novels, such as Star Begotten and The Camoford Visitation, for an Argentine magazine.

    1. Very interesting! It is a shame, I think, that Wells more or less gave up writing short stories in the 20th-century; he was so good at it, and did some of his best work in the mode. Borges wasn't so foolish, and stayed true to the form that best displayed his genius.