Science Fiction Book Review

Five Great Novels

(2004) H. G. Wells, Gollancz, 10.99, pbk, 593pp, ISBN 0-575-07572-4

The Great Science Fiction

(2016) H. G. Wells, Penguin Classics, 12.99, pbk, 704pp, ISBN 978-0-241-27749-2


The five great novels are: The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The War of the Worlds (1898), The First Men in the Moon (1901), and The Invisible Man (1897). And great novels they are indeed. Many people will be familiar with them from various film adaptations such as George Pal's The Time Machine (1960) and the recent re-make (not to mention spin-offs); Don Taylor's The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977) and others; Byron Haskin's 1953 adaptation of War of the Worlds; the 1964 Nigel (Quatermass) Kneale co-scripted First Men in the Moon; and The Invisible Man (1933) directed by James Whale. Fewer people will have actually read the books. It is extremely pleasing, therefore, to have them all available once again for new generations of readers (and older ones "catching up").

In The Time Machine a traveller goes forward in time several hundreds of thousands of years to discover a society split into the effete Eloi and the trogloditic Morlocks, an evolutionary end envisioned by Wells as a logical outcome of the class distinctions of his society. Doctor Moreau anticipates gene-splicing as the doctor creates 'beast-men' on an isolated island. War of the Worlds charts the Martian invasion of Earth, written in response to Wells' brother's satisfaction at a particularly bloody colonial massacre. First Men in the Moon details the invention of Cavorite, a gravity-blocking substance that allows interplanetary travel, and a British expedition to the Moon. And the much-copied Invisible Man follows the story of a megalomaniac inventor of a substance that allows him to become invisible. All of these themes and ideas in these "scientific romances" laid the groundwork (with the novels of Jules Verne, among others) for what we know as science fiction today.

However, what strikes me most about the (2004) volume is that five such varied ideas can be fitted into a mere 593 pages. Today you'd be lucky if that was the page-count of just one book in a trilogy or series! Perhaps a timely lesson can be learned from this, especially for SF, which is that you don't have to write a quarter of a million words every time you put pen to paper (or, perhaps, fingers to keyboard) in order to write an exciting and enthralling story. Authors and publishers please note...

This was re-published in 2016 by Penguin Classics as The Great Science Fiction which coincides with the 150th anniversary of the great man's birth and the 70th anniversary of his death.

Tony Chester

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