Monday, 26 April 2010

H G Wells, The New Machiavelli (1911)

I read an old paperback copy of this Wells title (lovely cover, what?) as a palate cleanser after too much of this. I'd be prepared to claim I've read all Wells's science fiction, more or less; but there are plenty of his 'ordinary' novels still for me to tackle. This one is a first-person narrative about the rise of a left-ish politiciam in the final decades of the C19th-century; his background and education; his marriage and party-political rise towards prime-ministerial eminence, and then his tumble, on account of falling in love with a woman other than his wife. And it's terribly good; a little creaky and old-fashioned in places but absorbing and credible and full of superbly judged detail. Its political narrative is perhaps a little hamstrung by the fact that it doesn't, as a novel, realise that WWI is just around the corner; and all the sex stuff is a little self-congratulatorily 'daring' in a way which, since it all now of course seems dustily dated and oblique, is perhaps unfortunate. But it has all the rich pleasures of a well-made novel, compellingly developed characterisation, strong narrative balance, a cool thematic about 'mess' versus 'order', and some acute descriptive prose -- here's our narrator Dick Remington, on a walking tour over the Alps with a friend:
The lake and the frontier villages, a white puff of steam on the distant railway to Luino, the busy boats and steamers trailing triangular wakes of foam, the long vista eastward towards battlemented Bellinzona, the vast mountain distances, now tinged with sunset light, behind this nearer landscape, and the southward waters with remote coast towns shining dimly, waters that merged at last in a luminous golden haze, made a broad panoramic spectacle. [114]
The novel's very good on this sort of panopticism, both in itself and in a self-aware and indeed self-critical manner that articulates the dangers in thinking utopianly Big and ignoring the day-to-day human Small.

There are incidental plaeasures, too: Wells' horrid eugenicism rearing its head from time to time for instance; or the way his animadversion of Victorianism ('No, the Victorian epoch was not the dawn of a new era; it was a hasty, trial experiment, a gigantic experiment of the most slovenly and wasteful kind') blinds him to his future, our present:
Will any one, a hundred years from now, consent to live in the houses the Victorians built, travel by their roads or railways, value the furnishings they made to live among or esteem, except for curious or historical reasons, their prevalent art and the clipped and limited literature that satisfied their souls?[40]
Our survey says ...

If I were to put together a critical reading of this novel, though, I would argue that it's not really about politics, howevermuch Wells wants to pretend it is. There's a great deal about the imaginative stimulation of modelling the world, planning utopian societies etc., which is presented as the conceptual preparation for a life in politics. But its actually all, fairly patently, about the conceptual preparation for a life in writing, like Wells's own. This is veiled autobiography, not a fictionalisation of the career of Lloyd George. 'For an imaginative boy,' the narrator notes at one point, 'the first experience of writing is like a tiger's first taste of blood.' I honestly couldn't put it better myself.

That's how I read the splendid account of boyish play in the second chapter; about the worldbuilding imagination of Fantasy, not about nascent prime-ministeriship.
When I think of how such things began in my mind, there comes back to me the memory of an enormous bleak room with its ceiling going up to heaven and its floor covered irregularly with patched and defective oilcloth and a dingy mat or so and a "surround" as they call it, of dark stained wood. Here and there against the wall are trunks and boxes. There are cupboards on either side of the fireplace and bookshelves with books above them, and on the wall and rather tattered is a large yellow-varnished geological map of the South of England. Over the mantel is a huge lump of white coral rock and several big fossil bones, and above that hangs the portrait of a brainy gentleman, sliced in half and displaying an interior of intricate detail and much vigour of coloring. It is the floor I think of chiefly; over the oilcloth of which, assumed to be land, spread towns and villages and forts of wooden bricks; there are steep square hills (geologically, volumes of Orr's CYCLOPAEDIA OF THE SCIENCES) and the cracks and spaces of the floor and the bare brown surround were the water channels and open sea of that continent of mine.

I still remember with infinite gratitude the great-uncle to whom I owe my bricks. He must have been one of those rare adults who have not forgotten the chagrins and dreams of childhood. He was a prosperous west of England builder; including my father he had three nephews, and for each of them he caused a box of bricks to be made by an out-of-work carpenter, not the insufficient supply of the toyshop, you understand, but a really adequate quantity of bricks made out of oak and shaped and smoothed, bricks about five inches by two and a half by one, and half-bricks and quarter-bricks to correspond. There were hundreds of them, many hundreds. I could build six towers as high as myself with them, and there seemed quite enough for every engineering project I could undertake. I could build whole towns with streets and houses and churches and citadels; I could bridge every gap in the oilcloth and make causeways over crumpled spaces (which I feigned to be morasses), and on a keel of whole bricks it was possible to construct ships to push over the high seas to the remotest port in the room. And a disciplined population, that rose at last by sedulous begging on birthdays and all convenient occasions to well over two hundred, of lead sailors and soldiers, horse, foot and artillery, inhabited this world.

Justice has never been done to bricks and soldiers by those who write about toys. The praises of the toy theatre have been a common theme for essayists, the planning of the scenes, the painting and cutting out of the caste, penny plain twopence coloured, the stink and glory of the performance and the final conflagration. I had such a theatre once, but I never loved it nor hoped for much from it; my bricks and soldiers were my perpetual drama. I recall an incessant variety of interests. There was the mystery and charm of the complicated buildings one could make, with long passages and steps and windows through which one peeped into their intricacies, and by means of slips of card one could make slanting ways in them, and send marbles rolling from top to base and thence out into the hold of a waiting ship. Then there were the fortresses and gun emplacements and covered ways in which one's soldiers went. And there was commerce; the shops and markets and store-rooms full of nasturtium seed, thrift seed, lupin beans and suchlike provender from the garden; such stuff one stored in match-boxes and pill- boxes, or packed in sacks of old glove fingers tied up with thread and sent off by waggons along the great military road to the beleaguered fortress on the Indian frontier beyond the worn places that were dismal swamps. And there were battles on the way.

That great road is still clear in my memory. I was given, I forget by what benefactor, certain particularly fierce red Indians of lead-- I have never seen such soldiers since--and for these my father helped me to make tepees of brown paper, and I settled them in a hitherto desolate country under the frowning nail-studded cliffs of an ancient trunk. Then I conquered them and garrisoned their land. (Alas! they died, no doubt through contact with civilisation--one my mother trod on--and their land became a wilderness again and was ravaged for a time by a clockwork crocodile of vast proportions.) And out towards the coal-scuttle was a region near the impassable thickets of the ragged hearthrug where lived certain china Zulus brandishing spears, and a mountain country of rudely piled bricks concealing the most devious and enchanting caves and several mines of gold and silver paper. Among these rocks a number of survivors from a Noah's Ark made a various, dangerous, albeit frequently invalid and crippled fauna, and I was wont to increase the uncultivated wildness of this region further by trees of privet- twigs from the garden hedge and box from the garden borders. By these territories went my Imperial Road carrying produce to and fro, bridging gaps in the oilcloth, tunnelling through Encyclopaedic hills--one tunnel was three volumes long--defended as occasion required by camps of paper tents or brick blockhouses, and ending at last in a magnificently engineered ascent to a fortress on the cliffs commanding the Indian reservation. [17-18]
Not that the unselfconscious imperialism isn't interesting too ... I just think it's trumped by the gigantic clockwork crocodile.


David Moles said...

That clockwork crocodile is pretty excellent.

Sometimes I think, canonizing Wells on the basis of War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, SF ends up underrating him as a writer. Especially since what most people end up remembering is movies, comic books, pastiches and tie-ins from Edison's Conquest of Mars to Morlock Night.

Al R said...

Wells was born a century before me (and you too, I think Adam?) but a set of simple wooden bricks also featured among my favorite and most versatile "toys" as a child. I didn't have as many as the narrator, though - just enough to fill a small wooden box with a sliding lid, sort of half way between a pencil case and a shoebox. The bit about using card to make ramps certainly chimes very strongly - although in my case I was usually trying to emulate something I'd seen on Pogle's Wood.

YoungW21087 said...

Nice Post~!!!. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Adam Roberts said...

Al: I had a trunk load of wooden bricks, and innumerable little 'people' figures. I used to play an endless game called, with lamentable lack of ingenuity, 'People', in which the bricks were assembled into a great many houses and the people got up to this and that.

David: I agree. The thing is that it's (I think) received wisdom that versions of the future date terribly ... that It Happened One Night or Bringing Up Baby seems somehow less dated to us now than the original Flash Gordon serials. But with Wells the opposite seems to be the case: his SF seems fresher than a lot of his 'regular' books. Not sure why that should be.

Adam Roberts said...

I remain unconvinced that YoungW21087 has actually read the post.

Al R said...

But it was a nice post, nonetheless.

We have many great deal on medicine!

jsabotta said...

I believe Mr. YoungW21087 actually reprazents the Morlocks, who, having run out of Eloi, are now phishing in the past (the Time Machine has a USB and Ethernet bay) by advertising dubious penis-enlargement schemes or work-at-home "opportunities" on blog comment sections. Click on the link provided if you wish to become the main course at a cannibalistic feast. (They get excellent results from German web surfers)

However, even the vast abyss of Time itself cannot shield Mr. YoungW21087 and his sinister masters from the inevitable clockwork crocodile.

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