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Selected Stories of H. G. Wells

BOOK: Selected Stories of H. G. Wells
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Table of Contents

Title Page

PUBLICATION - HISTORY

INTRODUCTION - WELLS’S WORLDS

PART ONE - VISIONARY SCIENCE FICTION

INTRODUCTION

A SLIP UNDER - THE MICROSCOPE

CLASS I H. J. Somers Wedderburn William Hill

THE REMARKABLE CASE OF DAVIDSON’S EYES

THE PLATTNER STORY

UNDER THE KNIFE

THE CRYSTAL EGG

THE NEW ACCELERATOR

THE STOLEN BODY

PART TWO - TECHNOLOGICAL AND PREDICTIVE SCIENCE FICTION

INTRODUCTION

THE ARGONAUTS OF THE AIR

IN THE ABYSS

THE STAR

THE LAND IRONCLADS

1

2

3

4

5

A DREAM OF ARMAGEDDON

PART THREE - HORROR STORIES

INTRODUCTION

THE LORD OF THE DYNAMOS

THE VALLEY OF SPIDERS

PART FOUR - FANTASIES

INTRODUCTION

THE STORY OF THE LATE MR. ELVESHAM

THE MAN WHO COULD WORK MIRACLES

APANTOUM IN PROSE

THE MAGIC SHOP

MR. SKELMERSDALE IN FAIRYLAND

THE DOOR IN THE WALL

1

2

3

4

THE PRESENCE BY THE FIRE

PART FIVE - FABLES

INTRODUCTION

A VISION OF JUDGMENT

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

THE STORY OF THE LAST TRUMP

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

THE WILD ASSES OF THE DEVIL

1

2

3

4

5

ANSWER TO PRAYER

PART SIX - PSYCHO-SOCIAL SCIENCE FICTION

INTRODUCTION

THE QUEER STORY OF BROWNLOW’S NEWSPAPER

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

THE COUNTRY OF THE BLIND

ABOUT THE EDITOR

THE MODERN LIBRARY EDITORIAL BOARD

OTHER MODERN LIBRARY PAPERBACK CLASSICS

About the Author

Copyright Page

PUBLICATION

HISTORY

Throughout his more than fifty-year career, H. G. Wells wrote over eighty short stories. Some stories were first published in periodicals, others in five short-story collections. Many of these stories appeared numerous times in Wells’s collections, sometimes slightly revised, other times reworded or with new endings, as was the case with “The Country of the Blind.” Numerous bibliographies detailing the publication history of Wells’s fiction and nonfiction can be found online or in reference libraries.

The following list details where the stories included in this edition were first published and their subsequent republications in short-story collections.

“A Slip Under the Microscope”:
Yellow Book,
January 1896; later in
The
Plattner Story and Others
(1897) and
The Country of the Blind and
Other Stories
(1913).

“The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes”:
Pall Mall Budget,
March 28, 1895; later in
The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents
(1895) and
The Country of the Blind and Other Stories
(1913).

“The Plattner Story”:
New Review,
April 1896; later in
The Plattner Story
and Others
(1897) and
The Country of the Blind and Other Stories
(1913).

“Under the Knife”:
New Review,
January 1896; later in
The Plattner Story
and Others
(1897) and
The Country of the Blind and Other Stories
(1913).

“The Crystal Egg”:
New Review,
May 1897; later in
Tales of Space and
Time
(1899) and
The Country of the Blind and Other Stories
(1913).

“The New Accelerator”:
Strand Magazine,
December 1901; later in
Twelve Stories and a Dream
(1903) and
The Country of the Blind and
Other Stories
(1913).

“The Stolen Body”:
Strand Magazine,
November 1898; later in
Twelve
Stories and a Dream
(1903).

“The Argonauts of the Air”:
Phil May’s Annual,
December 1895; later in
The Plattner Story and Others
(1897) and
Thirty Strange Stories
(1897).

“In the Abyss”:
Pearson’s Magazine,
August 1, 1896; later in
The Plattner
Story and Others
(1897).

“The Star”:
Graphic,
December 1897; later in
Tales of Space and Time
(1899) and
The Country of the Blind and Other Stories
(1913).

“The Land Ironclads”:
Strand Magazine,
December 1903.

“A Dream of Armageddon”:
Black and White Budget,
May–June 1901; later in
Twelve Stories and a Dream
(1903) and
The Country of the
Blind and Other Stories
(1913).

“The Lord of the Dynamos”:
Pall Mall Budget,
September 6, 1894; later in
The Stolen Bacillus, and Other Incidents
(1895),
Thirty Strange
Stories
(1897), and
The Country of the Blind and Other Stories
(1913).

“The Valley of Spiders”:
Strand Magazine,
March 1903; later in
Twelve
Stories and a Dream
(1903) and
The Country of the Blind and Other
Stories
(1913).

“The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham”:
Idler,
May 1896; later in
The
Plattner Story and Others
(1897),
Thirty Strange Stories
(1897)
,
and
The Country of the Blind and Other Stories
(1913).

“The Man Who Could Work Miracles”:
Illustrated London News,
July 1898; later in
The Country of the Blind and Other Stories
(1913).

“The Magic Shop”:
Strange Magazine,
June 1903; later in
Twelve Stories
and a Dream
(1903) and
The Country of the Blind and Other Stories
(1913).

“Mr. Skelmersdale in Fairyland”:
London Magazine,
July 1898; later in
Twelve Stories and a Dream
(1903).

“The Door in the Wall”:
Daily Chronicle,
July 14, 1906; later in
The
Country of the Blind and Other Stories
(1913).

“The Presence by the Fire”:
Penny Illustrated Paper,
August 14, 1897.

“A Vision of Judgment”:
Butterfly,
September 1899; later in
The Country
of the Blind and Other Stories
(1913).

“The Story of the Last Trump”: first published as chapter 10 of
Boon,
the Mind of the Race, the Wild Asses of the Devil, and the Last Trump,
Being a First Selection from the Literary Remains of George Boon,
Appropriate to the Times
(1915).

“The Wild Asses of the Devil”: first published as chapter 8 of
Boon.

“Answer to Prayer”:
New Statesman,
April 10, 1937.

“The Queer Story of Brownlow’s Newspaper”:
Strand Magazine,
February 1932.

“The Country of the Blind”: the first version of this story appeared in
Strand Magazine,
April 1904, and later in
The Country of the Blind
and Other Stories
(1913). The revised, expanded version appeared in
The Country of the Blind
(1939).

INTRODUCTION

WELLS’S WORLDS

Ursula K. Le Guin

Herbert George Wells was born in 1866, in the heyday of Queen Victoria’s reign, and died at nearly eighty, just after the end of the Second World War. Like most of us, he experienced what is often dismissed as a science fictional invention: existence in incompatibly different worlds, time-travel to an unknown planet.

For the last couple of centuries, people who live more than thirty years or so have been likely to realize, suddenly or gradually, that they are strangers in a changed, incomprehensible world: lands of exile for refugees, cities of ruin for those whose nation suffers war, a labyrinth of high technology in which the untrained mind strays bewildered, a world of huge wealth which the poor stare at through the impenetrable glass of a shop window or a TV set. . . . From the early nineteenth century on, the stable, single worlds of pre-industrial societies were broken down and drawn into a multiverse of constantly increasing variety and change.

Caught in those transformations, H. G. Wells wrote about them all his life.

He was no passive observer. He worked long and hard to change his world—in the first place, to get himself into a better situation in it. He was born into the servant class in a rigidly hierarchical society, his father a gardener, his mother a personal maid at Uppark, a country house of the gentry. The bright, ambitious boy got himself out of that (but always looked back with love at the lovely rural England of his childhood). He got himself out of apprenticeship to a cloth seller (where he learned a great deal about the lower middle class), and back into school—education, the road up. He won a scholarship to the Normal School of Science, where he studied biology under Thomas Huxley and others, and the new universe of science opened out to him along with the social and intellectual realms of professional status. Injury and illness led him from teaching to writing. By his mid-thirties he was an increasingly successful and respected author, building himself a fine new house—a world away from the servants’ quarters at Uppark.

He was ambitious also to improve the world for other people. He became a socialist and briefly a member of the theoretical Socialist group, the Fabian Society, which wasn’t activist enough for him; a utopian futurist; a feminist—up to a point; a critic of society, of injustice, of capitalist commercialism; an unsuccessful Labour candidate; a tireless prophet both of cataclysm and of social betterment. In his late seventies, writing
Mind at the End of Its Tether,
after all the struggles and both the wars, after sticking it out in London through the bombing, he was still looking for hope for mankind, though he could find it only in the idea of a new humanity, a changed, improved species: “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is Nature’s inexorable imperative.”

Trained as a biologist under a very great teacher, he never wavered in his acceptance of Darwin’s dynamic view of existence: life understood not as a Social Darwinist struggle for mere domination, not as a Christian Darwinist ascent to humanity as a final goal, but life as evolution: necessary and unceasing change. What stays fixed, dies. What adapts, goes on. The more flexibly it adapts, the farther it goes. Openness is all. Change can be brainless and brutal or intelligent and constructive. Morality enters the system only with the thinking, choosing mind. Wells imagined both dark and bright futures because his creed allowed both while promising neither, and because the eighty years of his life were years of immense intellectual and technological accomplishment and appalling violence and destruction.

In his own eyes and those of his contemporaries, Wells’s realistic novels established his importance as a writer. Idea-centered, observant of social class and stress, topical, provocative, often satirical, sometimes passionately indignant, books such as
Ann Veronica
and
Tono-Bungay
are comparable to Bernard Shaw’s plays, though they haven’t worn quite as well. Wells was a quirky, sometimes heavy-handed novelist, and most of his novels, though entertaining and in flashes brilliant, have dated. What has lasted, beyond any expectation of his own and in defiance of all the snobberies of academia, are his “scientific romances”—novellas and short stories of fantasy and science fiction.

They were written before the realistic works, most of them before he was forty. His early reputation was founded on them. Later on he was rather dismissive of them, partly no doubt because it galls an artist to hear people forever talk about work done decades ago, partly because he was a demanding self-critic and knew a good many of his early stories were potboilers. Moreover, the modern critical canon excluded all nonrealistic fiction as inherently inferior, and Wells was a self-made man, competitive, edgy about aspersions of inferiority. Possibly he convinced himself that imaginative fiction is less powerful or useful than the fiction of social observation. His training after all was in science, not in art, and scientists are taught to put observation first. But his calling was art, not science, and his nature was that of a visionary, a seer of the unseen, the unobservable. He could never be satisfied by the world as we see it, as it is. He had to change it, reinvent it, or dream a new one.

The Time Machine, The First Men in the Moon, The War of the Worlds,
The Invisible Man, The Island of Dr. Moreau—
these are what the name H. G. Wells means to most of us now. And rightly so. These short novels established whole genres. They left a set of indelibly vivid images, imageries, archetypes in the minds of generations of readers—and filmmakers, graphic artists, comic book devotees, TV sci-fi fans, pop cultists, and Po-Mo pundits. Introducing the recent Modern Library edition of
The Time Machine,
I wrote, “Nobody can write science fiction, or discuss science fiction as literature, without having read them; they are fundamental in a way even Verne is not, though Mary Shelley is. They established certain mythical tendencies in our fiction, which we have explored ever since.”

Wells wrote science fiction long before it had a name. He called it “scientific romance,” and later “fantasy of possibility”—better names, perhaps, than the one it’s stuck with. His originality and inventiveness were astonishing. Whatever kind of science fiction you look at, you’re likely to find an example of it—a first example of it—among his tales. He didn’t distinguish between science fiction and fantasy because nobody did then or for years to come; but he invented a literature, because he was the first man to write fiction as a scientist. His imagination was formed and informed by the study of biology, a science in its bright dawn of discovery and expansion, and he brought that sense of limitless possibility, both playful and fearful, to his speculations and explorations of other worlds where the mind alone can go.

And then he turned to social commentary, political exhortation, and programmatic utopias, and stopped writing short stories. Almost all the stories in this volume were written and published in the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth, before the First World War—many of them before the death of Queen Victoria. Enough to make one reconsider the meaning of the word “Victorian.”

Some students of science fiction insist that its particular quality depends on its ideas alone, so that attention to literary considerations apart from clarity and narrative drive, or to character as opposed to stereotype, merely weakens or dilutes it. There are memorable stories to support this view, and Wells wrote several of them. His interest in society and psychology and his high literary standards, however, led him away from such a narrow focus on idea-driven plot.

Introducing his own selection of his short stories (
The Country of the
Blind and Other Stories,
1913), he discusses the form and his relation to it. Citing the work of Kipling, Henry James, Conrad, and many others, he calls the 1890s the high point of the short story and speaks of “lyrical brevity and a vivid finish” as its virtues. Chekhov had not yet been translated, to show the limitless possibilities of the form. Maupassant’s bleak, tight, neat tales were the accepted model. Wells could not be comfortable with that. “I am all for laxness and variety in this as in every field of art. Insistence upon rigid forms and austere unities seems to me the instinctive reaction of the sterile against the fecund,” he wrote. “I refuse altogether to recognise any hard and fast type for the Short Story. . . .” He was surely right to do so; but his own almost patronizing description of it as “this compact and amusing form” hardly includes Henry James’s, or Kipling’s, or his own best stories, though it describes the lesser ones very well.

He knew the difference, of course. In 1939, in his discussion of his revision of what is probably his finest story, “The Country of the Blind,” he says he had lost his tolerance for the idea story, the gimmick, the trick ending—the potboiler he had written so many of. “You laid hands on almost anything that came handy, a droning dynamo, a fluttering bat, a bacteriologist’s tube . . . ran a slight human reaction round it, put it in the oven, and there you were.” He could have gone on doing it forever, he says, but for the feeling that “not only might the short story be a lovely, satisfying, significant thing, but that it ought to be so, that a short story that wasn’t whole and complete like a living thing, but just something bought and cut off like half a yard of chintz on a footstool, was either an imposture or a lost opportunity.” But “the vogue for appreciating the exceptional in short stories was passing,” he says, and when he tried to write stories that didn’t suit the market, editors rejected his submissions, and so he “drifted out of the industry.”

He had quit selling cloth by the yard at seventeen when he broke his apprenticeship. Selling words by the yard got him going as a writer, but maybe it led him to underestimate the form itself. For it is certainly untrue that the short story flowered in the 1890s and then declined into triviality; it went on developing and flourishing right through the twentieth century. I wonder if what stopped him was not so much the editors’ lack of appreciation for the exceptional as the critics’ increasing restriction of literary fiction to social and psychological realism, all else being brushed aside as subliterary entertainment. No matter how good his stories, if they were fantastic in theme or drew on science or history or any intellectual discipline for their subject, they could be dismissed categorically as “genre fiction.”

It is a risk every imaginative writer runs, even now; writers who crave literary respectability still hasten to deny that their science fiction is science fiction. At least Wells stood by his imaginary guns. But he stopped firing them.

Meanwhile,
The Time Machine
has never been out of print for a hundred and some years now. And though only a few of the short stories have come near that genuine literary permanence, the best of them remain vividly alive, amazingly pertinent, sometimes unnervingly prescient, as haunting as nightmares or as bright unrecallable dreams.

I chose twenty-six stories from the eighty-four collected in John Hammond’s massive and invaluable
Complete Short Stories of H. G. Wells.
I selected for excellence, of course, not as defined by the standards of realism, which have little use or application here, but generic excellence. Was the story outstanding in itself for intellectual urgency or moral passion, for some particular virtue or strangeness or beauty? Was the story outstanding of its kind, and was the kind an interesting one? Was it fruitful, vital, did it lead forward to other works of other writers? It makes no sense to me to define “great” art as inimitable, unique, a dead end, and to prize only such greatness. Seeing art as a community enterprise both in place and time, I think an art that leads to more art is more valuable than sterile excellence.

Certain stories I left out with regret; one is “A Story of the Days to Come,” full of interesting stuff, but so long it would have taken up half the book. I would have liked to include some of the satirical, joking tales that Wells was good at, such as “Aepyornis Island” and “The Pearl of Love”—but being light, they got pushed out of the boat.

Because almost all Wells’s stories are genre stories and because I value them as such, I arranged them, not chronologically, but in sections by kind. Each section has a brief introduction, discussing what kind of stories they are, where this kind of story came from and what it may have led to.

As for trying to sum up the stories as a whole, as a set, it’s difficult. Wells is an elusive writer. Certainly one sees his distinctive style throughout the book. Many of the stories are told in a journalistic tone, easy and breezy, extremely self-confident but unpretentious, clear, moving forward at a good clip—it all seems quite simple, quite artless, which is exactly what the author wanted. He distrusted the high aesthetic manner (a charming note to his friendship with Henry James is that each man confessed he often longed to rewrite the other’s stories). But he was a careful writer and tireless rewriter, keenly aware of what he was doing, sensitive and skilled in his craft. A modulation of his tone can be as effective as a key-change in music.

We are often told that, in stories written less to reveal individual experience or character than to entertain or inform or stimulate the imagination, plot is needed to provide structure, and action is all-important. Wells plotted cleverly, and his action scenes are vivid and suspenseful; but his true mastery, I think, was in that very difficult, underestimated, even maligned element of storytelling, visual description. Wells can make you see what he wants you to see. When this is something that does not in fact exist, a fantastic scene, a dream or prophecy, his power seems uncanny. He was—literally—a visionary. Perhaps the finest things he wrote are the wonderful description of a lunar morning in
The First Men in the Moon
and the glimpses of the dying world at the end of
The Time Machine.
In the short stories one comes again and again on a similarly vivid scene, a glimpse into another world, fearful or radiant or simply very strange. These visions have the authority, in memory, of something seen with one’s own eyes. A squadron of airplanes over Naples (two years before Kitty Hawk)— two men laughing and making faces at people who stand frozen in time—a dreaming garden behind a door in a wall—the faces of the townsfolk in the Country of the Blind. . . .

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