The Young H. G. Wells: Changing the World

The Young H. G. Wells: Changing the World
By Claire Tomalin

Herbert George Wells may not have been the father of science fiction, but he was probably its single most influential practitioner, inventing types of stories that have gone on to become standards of the genre, from time travel to alien invasion. It’s also noteworthy that he did this in just a decade’s flurry of activity, from 1895 to 1905, before gradually moving on to other interests like politics and writing a history of the world.

A creative run that lasts for about ten years is typical of most authors, and veteran biographer Claire Tomalin has wisely written a short book focusing on this hyper-productive period in Wells’s life, which was fueled by his passion for sex, socialism and science (in that order). It’s better to give us Wells at his most vital and just skim over the long decline that followed.

Battle of the Linguist Mages

Battle of the Linguist Mages
By Scotto Moore

One of the hottest subgenres in SF today is what might be called videogame fiction. These books can be thought of as the children of Ready Player One (though there were earlier standard-bearers) and are addressed to a gamer culture that now drives a big chunk of the entertainment industry.

Battle of the Linguist Mages is videogame fiction taken to a weird extreme. Isobel Bailie is at the top of the leader boards of a popular virtual-reality game called Sparkle Dungeon. There’s more to Sparkle Dungeon than rainbows and glitter though, and as the novel kicks off the company that makes the game gets Isobel involved in a real-world plan to exploit morphemes: words that have magical power based on how they are articulated. Also worth noting: punctuation marks are aliens that have escaped into our brains from another dimension.

All of this has the effect, common to most videogame fiction, of erasing the line between the real and virtual worlds. Unfortunately it also requires a lot of exposition, and for all its flights of whimsy Battle of the Linguist Mages comes in feeling heavier than it should. Videogame fiction is a light genre and you don’t want to spend this much time reading the rule books.

A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange
By Anthony Burgess

Few things date as quickly as teen speech and fashion, but the outrageousness of Anthony Burgess’s dystopian satire of the state of England in 1962 (by most accounts a rather glum place), especially when combined with Stanley Kubrick’s rendering of the same, make A Clockwork Orange nearly as fresh today as it must have been sixty years ago. Where Burgess’s made-up Nadsat still has a fierce intelligence and energy to it, Valspeak, for anyone who still remembers that, just seems stupid.

What has always impressed me the most about the book though is the humble narrator Alex’s presentation as someone who is both glib and charming but also thick as a brick. He fancies himself the leader of his gang of droogs, but even the hulking Dim manages to stay a step ahead of him all the time. Then there’s his surprise at figuring out that those aren’t vitamins he’s being injected with, and that the political do-gooders don’t have his own best interests at heart. Oh, to be so wicked and so naïve. Not a good combination, especially given what I think is the book’s most important political statement: that everyone is authoritarian in an authoritarian state.

The specter of a clockwork humanity was something Burgess thought “too didactic to be artistic,” an assessment that might also be leveled at the novel’s Sixties bunkmate One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, published the same year. Randle Patrick McMurphy and Alex are birds of a feather, free spirits broken by the system. In America, however, being anti-authority had less of a dark side. The Merry Pranksters weren’t raping and killing people (though Murphy does have statutory rape on his rap sheet). In England young people might have been seen as a more direct threat to the public. Or at least to the sad old codgers who use the biblio as a kind of senior center. Because Alex has a passion for classical music, but reading isn’t his thing. And that’s probably for the best.

How High We Go in the Dark

How High We Go in the Dark
By Sequoia Nagamatsu

A collection of linked short stories dealing with the effects of an “Arctic plague” of alien origin released by melting Siberian permafrost might seem very timely in 2022. This makes it all the more remarkable that How High We Go in the Dark was mostly completed before 2020 and the outbreak of COVID.

The actual working of the plague — which causes organs to start copying the function of other organs, with predictably disastrous results — aren’t as important as its human impact. These are stories (calling it a novel seems more about marketing) that deal with the subject of grief and loss, especially as felt by parents and their children. Broader considerations also come in to play, however, as the pandemic impacts on both a personal and political level. The funerary industry, for example, becomes a major growth sector almost overnight. It turns out that mass die-offs are good for some parts of the economy.

In the face of so much death, science throws up various surrogates for lost loved ones and family members: talking pigs, robot dogs, and even plasticized corpses. Given the subject matter, Sequoia Nagamatsu has to occasionally walk a fine line to avoid falling into sentiment. That he does so is a tribute to his imaginative range and how finely he explores the psychological ramifications of the end of our world.

Mickey7

Mickey7
By Edward Ashton

In Mickey7, I’ll get to the title in just a bit, Mickey Barnes, a young man with little in the way of employment opportunities who is also on the run from debt collectors, signs up in a state of desperation for a mission to colonize a new planet. Alas, the only job he can get is that of “Immortal,” which is a euphemism for “Expendable.”

What Immortal means is that Mickey is the colony’s disposable man. Since flesh is cheaper and easier to recycle than robotics, the job of an Expendable is whatever dangerous or downright suicidal stuff needs to be done. When (not if) he gets killed his consciousness is reloaded into a clone body pulled from a vat of protein paste. All so that he can be killed again.

It’s a silly but effective premise, and Edward Ashton has a lot of fun with it in this lively SF action-comedy. Things kick off with the seventh iteration of Mickey being prematurely declared dead, thus leading to Mickeys 7 and 8 having to hide the mistake of there now being two Mickeys, as duplicate Expendables are against the rules. Meanwhile, the colony is under threat from killer bugs called “creepers.” But then, just as with Mickey, all is not what it seems.

The Island of Doctor Moreau

The Island of Doctor Moreau
By H. G. Wells

The Island of Doctor Moreau is a novel that set up shop in my head as a kid when I purchased the cheap paperback tie-in to the 1977 film version, and it’s gone on to be the work by Wells that I most often return to. It’s so simple in outline and yet so ambiguous.

The narrator, Edward Prendick, is both an upper-class lightweight and the island’s sole survivor. He’s also a paradoxically spiritual materialist, seeking at the end of the book to transcend through science a humanity that now disgusts him. Dr. Moreau, at least in his own estimation, has more of an “artistic turn of mind,” being a sculptor of living flesh who is seeking “to find out the extreme limit of plasticity in a human shape.” He wants to transcend humanity as well, but not for any utilitarian purpose or “intelligible object” (an “unspeakable aimlessness” which is what upsets Prendick the most about his experiments). No, the cruel doctor carelessly and irresponsibly pursues art for art’s sake, and in ways that go far beyond vivisection. He knows a creature’s “mental structure,” including its psychology and morality, can be shaped as well. A humanist Prospero then? A tyrannical Kurtz, much like Kipling’s Dravot or Nuñez in Wells’ own later story “The Country of the Blind”? Or just a colonial loser, another popular character type of the time?

And finally what is the state of nature that everyone, not just the Beast People, is in danger of reverting to? Because the Ipecacuanha is hardly an ideal state, Montgomery dies a miserable, drunken sot, and Prendick’s going native is foreshadowed from his first night on the island, long before he becomes one with the creatures that both sicken and terrify him. It’s hard to read his signing off “in hope and solitude” as anything other than a failed attempt to cheer himself up. He’s looked into the hellish abyss of the Beast People’s shantytown and seen “the whole balance of human life in miniature.” Not our evolutionary past then, but our future.

Selected Stories of H. G. Wells

Selected Stories of H. G. Wells
Ed. by Ursula K. Le Guin

A lot of successful novelists see short stories as little more than finger exercises: warm-ups for more substantial work. I think this was how H. G. Wells saw them, considering stories as too restricted in both form and effect to bother with as much in his later career. That said, he wrote a lot of great stories and they’re nicely sampled here by Ursula K. Le Guin, who also does a great job introducing them.

Some preoccupations, for example flight, would be developed at greater length in Wells’ novels. Others, like out-of-body experiences and transferals of consciousness didn’t make it out of the stories. Le Guin correctly makes the point that SF doesn’t really deal with the matter of predictions, preferring “warning, speculations, and alternatives,” but Wells may be taken as an outlier here as many of his works were remarkably prescient. For example, the pale-faced clerks working “The Land Ironclads” (forerunners of tanks) are moving the same knobs and pressing the same buttons as they operate drones today.

The final stories veer into fantasy and fable, following an arc Wells’ career also described. But while they don’t have quite the same threatening edge, they do illustrate abiding themes in Wells’s work – ones that still resonate today.

The Every

The Every
By Dave Eggers

The Every is the sequel to Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel The Circle, with the hegemonic Big Data company known as the Circle rebranding as the Every after having just swallowed Amazon and become an even more bloated, and dangerous, corporate giant.

The plot is very similar to that of the earlier novel, only this time the new recruit on campus, Delaney Wells, is a reverse Mae Holland (the main character in The Circle, who is now CEO of the Every). Delaney has plans to bring the Every down from the inside by developing absurd and threatening apps that (she hopes) people will rebel against.

There seems little chance of that. As Delaney’s co-conspirator points out, no idea for an app can be crazy or evil enough not to become popular. And resistance isn’t just futile but fatal.

Much of the bleak satire is very similar to The Circle, but it’s all on point and the fact that it plays so well is testament to Eggers’ facility with sending up tech culture as well as how target-rich an environment such a culture is. This is a zany, dark, and necessary look at the ongoing construction of our digital prison-house.