The War of the Worlds (1898) – H.G Wells
Wells’ seminal fin de siècle SF work is one whose legacy has been so profound, so longevous and is one so ubiquitously adapted and parodied, it is difficult to separate the original text from the afterimages of its progeny. The ‘Alien Invasion’ trope is as familiar an idea as more conventional melodramatic themes, so much so that perhaps this idea even fails to move the modern audience as it did even fifty years ago.
That said, TWoTW is a great novel that is still incisive, arresting and entertaining more than a century after it was written. Wells isn’t a great composer of literature per se, but he is a wonderful storyteller, and it is his stories and ideas that have spanned the century rather than his fame for constructing prose. Like many of Wells’ works, TWoTW has some clunky exposition and prosaic characterisation (many critics identifying the work as a loose allegory about race, nationality and post-colonialism), but the underpinning story is so intense, energetic and fast-paced, it gets away with any technical flaws it harbours.
Told ostensibly from a 1st person narrative point-of-view of an unnamed narrator, TWoTW charts the landing of extra-terrestrial cylinders in South East England. Strange creatures emerge from these cylinders, followed later by huge mechanical vehicles which begin to lay waste to the surrounding area. The narrator’s story follows his and the human race’s fleeing from these superior, terrifying forces.
What makes TWoTW so unerring is its suggestion that alien life is neither inquisitive, kindly nor is it benevolent. Wells’ visitors from the vastness of space are of a singular purpose – and their absent characterisation and unambiguous objectives render them one of the most threating antagonists in the history of fiction: they are dispassionate, menacing and are, as Wells’ almost legendary opening lines explain, “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic” who “regarded this earth with envious eyes”.
Well’s TWoTW is a fantastically enthralling narrative that absolutely impacts to this day. For those who are keen to trace back to SF’s very beginnings, or for those who are interested in a pacey, gripping novel, this is one to grab hold of. If, on the other hand, you’ve read this one a long time ago, maybe it’s time to give it a second read.
Frankenstein (1818) – Mary Shelley
Frankenstein’s monster has become one of the most enduring and arresting pieces of iconography in cinema’s history. The creature made by, before being subsequently rejected by his creator is a terrifying concept whose primal power has transcended time, language and cultural schisms. Much of Frankenstein’s legacy in modernity is based upon James Whale’s 1931 filmic adaptation, with Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the beleaguered creature visually establishing the character for generations to come. It is however, Mary Shelley’s early 19th Century novel, forged during a holiday in Switzerland, to which our present day visions, and a multi-million pound industry, owes its debt.
Shelley’s Frankenstein is an intriguing yet flawed work. Driven by a captivating central idea – young scientist Victor Frankenstein’s creation of a human-like creature from re-animated corpses – Shelley’s novel is anything other than the linear, horror thriller that it might be misjudged as being today. Often ponderous, complex and heavily embedded with intertextual links to literary canon and classicism, Frankenstein is as much a story about telling a story as it is about a monstrous creature.
Told retrospectively via a series of epistolary entries, the novel charts the life and history of Victor Frankenstein, culminating in his scientific work to create his creature, which he immediately disowns. Side-tracking from Victor’s narrative, much of the central section of the novel traces the creature’s story as he learns language, explores the world and the nature of humanity. Later, Victor and the creature’s own stories collide as Victor’s actions reap their consequences.
Keen to explore philosophy, religion and morality, Shelley spends much time enabling her characters to opine on the nature of the world, and for this reason Frankenstein can become laborious in places, the plot often suspended for long periods so that the author’s allegory of human evolution can expand and widen. Because of this, many of the characters in Frankenstein are mere rough sketches – conduits for ideas and broad emotions; again, this can hinder the reader’s emotional investment and render it a challenge to fully commit to events taking place. These obstacles aside, the text is utterly compelling on more subtle levels – it is rich with subtext on nature, law, reproductive inversion, sexual attraction, hierarchy and the power of knowledge. There is a great deal to study, harvest and extrapolate from Frankenstein, but all of this depth renders it a testing read.
One of the highlights of the novel is the creature’s departing speech. In a novel that often struggles to maintain consistency and poise in its prose style, the creature’s final elegy is a true moment of beauty which crystallises both the essence of the novel and the nature of the Gothic movement more generally:
“Polluted by crimes, and torn by the bitterest remorse, where can I find rest but in death?”
Moribund, hyperbolic stuff this may be, but it is delicately acute in its damnation, and harrowingly terminal in its intention.
Frankenstein is not a casual read, nor is it an unencumbered and perfect one. It has lulls in its pace, holes in its continuity and frequently lapses into self-indulgence – but what it does have is a powerful and evocative trope driving it, some wonderful use of imagery, and an ingenious narrative framing device – experimenting with analepsis, prolepsis and side-by-side chronology long before post-modernity championed it. More than worth a look for the avid reader and horror fan.
The Death of Grass (1956) – John Christopher
There’s perhaps nothing more frightening than having your way of life taken from you; your day-to-day routine; the things you have grown accustomed to without ever really acknowledging them. The UK floods during the winter of 2013 and the exodus from homes across the south of England demonstrated how utterly jarring any incursion in our cosseted way of life can be. Placed on a global scale, the 2013 floods were a mere hindrance, but in an economically developed, politically stable nation, they were an unapologetic reminder of our vulnerability and fallibility.
John Christopher’s mid-1950s novel The Death of Grass is an acute exploration of just such a threat to the sanitised, idyllic province of the English middle-class. In it, a virus which destroys crops has made its way from Asia into Europe, threatening to decimate food supplies, and eradicate the human population as a result. TDoG follows John Custance, an engineer, as he flees a panic-stricken London with his family for the potential sanctuary of his brother’s isolated farm in the North-West of England.
The brilliance of TDoG is its brutal simplicity. This is an apocalyptic text but not one anchored in some far distant future when mankind has been obliterated long-ago and re-emerged from the ashes; Christopher sets his narrative in the ugly present, as the population begins to realise that its status-quo has been destroyed and its reality has shifted irrevocably. Likewise, the threat of the text is believable and very real, not some speculative, hyperbolic alien invasion or wild act of advanced science.
Compounding this focus on the mundane, Christopher’s prose is stripped-back and earnest, transmitting the hapless ‘voice’ of the novel’s beleaguered middle-class protagonists as they wrestle with the gargantuan task of fundamentally reappraising and reshaping their social, cultural, physical and, most pertinently, their moral schematic.
Viewing TDoG retrospectively from a distance of almost sixty years casts it in a chilling spotlight as it unerringly pre-empts concerns around GM crops, extreme weather and global food shortage that the world faces in the 21st Century. Like other apocalyptic texts by English authors before it – H.G Wells’ War of the Worlds (1897) and John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids (1951) – TdoG is an allegory about the death of something much bigger than human beings as organisms: it reports the dying of a hubristic, proud culture and a jealously guarded way of life and sets out to viciously critique English class, status and society.
TDoG is a dark, uncomfortable and at times deeply disturbing novel, but it is one that is utterly gripping and holds a swift tempo at less than 200 pages; an essential read for SF fans and very highly recommended to everyone else.
The Third Policeman (1967) – Flann O’Brien
This is a novel which probably deserves a longer airing than this short recap – and will doubtless be name-checked across this site in a variety of contexts in the future – but it is such a bizarre work that it’s difficult to sit and discuss any one facet of it in any meaningful way. So here’s an attempt at a few thoughts:
The Third Policeman is a meandering, absurd and at times moving story about an unnamed narrator who loses his leg, studies philosophy, commits murder and falls in love with a bicycle – but it’s really much more than that: it is a masterful, sharp-witted parody of society and human existence – its magic lying in O’Brien’s artful, delicately constructed prose which both entraps the reader in a web of bamboozling curiosity with its labyrinthine depth, whilst being abruptly concrete in its simplicity.
TTP is a rich allegorical tale and a wonderfully elegant novel deserving of a much wider audience; multifaceted in its meaning and timeless in its impudent refusal to anchor itself in any definitive place or certifiable universe, it is a seminal 20th Century novel which inadvertently inspired a global television hit series set on an island… Highly recommended.