Favourite SF Authors: H.G. Wells

This is the first of my Favourite SF Authors postings, and who better than the author who started it all for me, the man dubbed the “father of science fiction”, H.G. Wells.

The first time I saw George Pal’s film adaption of The Time Machine (1960) on television was probably the first event in my life which I can definitely point to and say without a doubt that “this was when I became a science fiction fan”. I was only about five, maybe six years old at most, and that one film turned me into a crazy time-travel fanatic. A couple of years later, as a direct result of being a fan of the film, I read the original novel, which was the first time I had ever read a proper SF book. These two events (plus a growing obsession with Doctor Who) changed my life forever, and I’ve been an obsessive SF fan ever since.

Wells wasn’t the first SF author by any means. Jules Verne and others had walked that road before him. Nor was he even the most highly-regarded among his contemporaries while he was writing. But he has outlived them all, and has been by far the most enduring and influential upon successive generations of SF writers and readers. Most of the contemporary authors who were once regarded as highly as or more highly than Wells are now no longer so well known, and many of them have faded into obscurity altogether. But Wells has stayed right at the top for all these years.

What was it that made him so important? I’d argue strongly that Wells was the first to seriously cover so many of the SF themes that we take for granted these days, writing about them as SF, as opposed to fantasy. Sure, maybe Verne had done it to a lesser extent, but his scientific explorations were almost always more concerned with the technological gadgetry (submarines, flying machines, “rockets” fired to the moon out of enormous cannons, etc) rather than true exploration of SF themes, and most of his stories were pure fantasies. In contrast, Wells examined a far, far wider range of real SF themes and how they relate to human society, and on a much deeper level.

Time travel? Wells did the first “proper” story (using a time machine, not dreams or other fantasy devices), in The Time Machine, which was also a sly but strong criticism of class differences within British society. Interplanetary invasion? War of the Worlds, which doubled as a strong swipe at the British Empire and imperialism in general. Genetic engineering and the morality of biological tinkering on humans? The Island of Doctor Moreau. Invisibility and the corruption of the corruptible who attain and abuse “absolute power”? The Invisible Man. Lunar exploration and anti-gravity, with more examination of society and class structure? First Men in the Moon. Accelerated time? “The New Accelerator”. The list goes on and on.

The really remarkable thing was that Wells was writing about many of these themes well over a century ago, which is something that I find almost unbelievable. Others had written about travelling to the moon or through time before Wells did. But these previous efforts fell squarely into the “fantasy” camp (travelling through time in dreams, going to the moon in balloons, or pulled by birds, etc). Wells was the first to write about them in a way that could be termed even remotely as “real” science fiction, both philosophically and in the way he explained them in a “scientific” way. And he also wrote about many other SF themes that no writers before him had ever explored. Many of these fundamental SF themes have now been done to death over more recent decades by countless other SF authors. But Wells was the first to imagine most of these themes and write great SF stories around them.

So many of the modern core themes in SF stemmed from the work of this one man, that I don’t think we can really conceive how differently the genre would’ve developed if he’d never existed. I think that it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that he was the single most important figure in science fiction literature’s history, although there have been any number of other great writers who’ve challenged him for that position. But, in so many areas, Wells was the first to write about so many things, that I’d have to grant him “pole position”.

The rest, good as they were, followed in his giant shadow.

Berlin, Book 1: City of Stones, by Jason Lutes

Berlin is written and drawn by the extremely talented comics creator Jason Lutes, who also previously brought us Jar of Fools. It is one of the true classics of modern comics, on a par with the “greats” of the medium, such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Berlin: City of StonesSo far, there have been eighteen issues out of a projected twenty-four, and two trade paperback collections, taking us up to Issue 12, the half-way point of the story.

Berlin: City of Stones is the first of the two trade paperbacks, published by Drawn & Quarterly, and collects the first six issues of the series. The level of attention to realistic detail in this story is remarkable. For history buffs (and the historical accuracy in this series is also spot on), Berlin is set in Germany during the final years of the Weimar Republic (end of the 1920s – start of the 1930s), as things start to go down the tubes, and the various factions (Jews, communists, nationalists, socialists, republicans, First World War veterans, and others) are battling it out in a vicious near-civil war to see who comes out as top dog in this cut-throat grab for power.

The narrative details the tragic inability of the German government and society in the chaotic inter-war period to adjust to and sustain their fragile fledgling democracy in the face of determined extremists. Starting in September 1928, the story follows the hopes and struggles of a small group of people, normal everyday folk of various ethnic groups, all trying to live their lives in a turbulent Germany, as the future becomes ever darker and grimmer against a background over which looms the ever-growing menace of Nazism.

Lutes always concentrates on the people first, the dreams, hopes, emotions and personal suffering of the average man and woman, the groups and individuals comprising the citizens of the city of Berlin, as their plight grows ever worse. The reader, aware of the dark chapter of history that is about to unfold, cannot help but feel sympathy for the various characters trapped in this ever-worsening situation, amidst all the conflicts, demonstrations, and the rapid, spiralling descent into lawlessness and chaos, as democracy is overthrown and ruthless dictatorship takes over.

I’ve often heard many “enlightened” types criticize the German population, and their inability to see where things were heading. How could they ever let animals like the Nazis come to power and get away with the atrocities that they committed? Were they stupid? Did they not see how things would turn out? It’s all too easy for anyone to look back from our cosy vantage point of eighty years after the events, and ask accusing questions like this. But we weren’t there. We didn’t live through those dark days. And everyone’s a genius in hindsight, right?

Berlin: City of Stones is a remarkable piece of work, a perfect example of comics at their best, as both a work of art and “literature”. If you want to impress someone who is not a fan of comics (or is positively derogatory about them), you don’t hand them Spider-Man, X-Men, Batman or Superman. These people will laugh in your face, as the guys and gals in tights are a particular focus of their ridicule. Instead, you give these people something like Maus or Berlin, or A Jew in Communist Prague, and watch the amazed expressions grow on their faces. This is serious stuff, the comics equivalent of real literature/art, the “real deal”.

What we don’t have here is your typical, silly, mindless superhero crap published by Marvel or DC. If you don’t like to tax your mind too much, and that kind of thing is your limit with comics, then Berlin is most likely not for you. This type of graphic storytelling is aimed at readers who prefer comics of a more realistic, intelligent, and serious nature, and who aren’t fans of the more juvenile examples of the medium. People who like their reading material to be something a bit more substantial than endless moronic superhero punchfests.

And if you’re like me, and read all kinds of comics, and like to read something different from mainstream superhero stuff every now and again, Berlin is a perfect change of tone. As a huge history fan, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s easily one of my favourite comic books, ever.

Classic British Telefantasy: My Top Ten Favourites (Part Two)

Here’s the second part of my rambling list of favourite Classic British Telefantasy series:

At Number Four is Sapphire and Steel, one of the strangest telefantasy series ever. Short on budget, hence relatively scarce (but effective) special effects, but oozing with quality writing, and oppressive, frightening mood and terror, this was a truly classic sci-fantasy series, featuring two of the most charismatic and mysterious central characters in telefantasy history, Sapphire (played by Joanna Lumley) and Steel (played by David McCallum). The sheer mystery, the fact that nobody ever found out who or what the main characters really were, where they came from, or what the hell was actually happening most of the time, added greatly to the attraction of the show. The fact that Sapphire and Steel was rarely repeated on television also added to the effect, as all we had to go on for many years were our fading memories. Luckily the series has been made available in recent years, firstly on VHS video, and then on DVD. And even more fortunately, it definitely lives up to our fond memories of the show.

At Number Three, it’s UFO, by far my favourite of the Gerry Anderson shows, not a stone’s throw from the top of my list of favourite British telefantasy series. First airing in 1970, and set in the not so far off future of 1980, the gorgeous hardware, the aliens, sexy women (those gorgeous moonbase babes – Gay Ellis, oh my poor heart!), and interesting characters were a huge attraction for a young boy like me. From an adult perspective, that totally kitsch, retro futuristic feel (unintended at the time, of course), gives UFO an undeniable charm that allows the series to still hold up really well today. The complex alternate-universe 1980-that-never-was, combining a mix-mash of styles from 1970 and the imagined future “1980” (which actually feels more mid- or late-21st Century) give it a retro but also an undefinable “sometime just a few years from now” feel which makes the show work even in 2013, although its version of a 1980 “future” is actually thirty-three years in our past.

At Number Two, it’s Quatermass. If there’s any British telefantasy that might give Doctor Who a run for it’s money, it has to be Quatermass. The original Quatermass serials were well before my time (I wasn’t born until 1960, and those serials appeared in 1953, 1955 and 1958), although I really enjoyed the three film versions and the 1979 Quatermass serial featuring John Mills as the Professor. Reading a number of excellent Quatermass articles in various telefantasy fanzines during the 1980s really fired up my interest in the original 1950s serials. I was also fortunate, at some point during the early 1980s, to come upon three books containing the scripts/teleplays of all three original 1950s serials (complete with nice b&w photos). I was hooked on the original serials even more by that time, and, just to complete the circle, soon afterwards I also bought the novelization of the 1979 serial. I was now a hardcore fan of Quatermass in all its forms, both serials and films.

A few years later, I was absolutely elated to get my hands on the VHS video release of the third (and the best of the three) 1950s serial, Quatermass and the Pit, and finally got to see what all the hype was about. I’d always loved the 1967 film version of Quatermass and the Pit, but the original serial absolutely blew my mind. It was way, way better than the film, and remains, to this day, my favourite ever single piece of British telefantasy. If the first two serials had been as good as the third (only two episodes of the first serial still exist), Quatermass might’ve made it to the Number One spot in my list. I was doubly delighted, about ten years ago, to get my hands on the excellent three-DVD release of The Quatermass Collection, featuring the beautifully restored Quatermass and the Pit, the entire (unrestored) Quatermass II, and the two surviving episodes of the Quatermass Experiment. This remarkable DVD set is an absolute treasure, and any British telefantasy fan worth their reputation should have a copy of this in their collections.

And finally, at Number One, it’s Doctor Who, just about my favourite telefantasy series of all time. I’ve been watching Doctor Who since I was five or six years old, way back in the mid-1960s. I like the modern version of Doctor Who, but not as much as the classic 1963-1989 series. I love the classic 1960s Hartnell and Troughton b&w stories, but my favourite Doctor Who eras were the Jon Pertwee years and the first half of Tom Baker’s run on the show. In my opinion, the Tom Baker/Philip Hinchcliffe years were, without a shadow of a doubt, the best ever in the show’s history. This show had (and still has) so much history, continuity and detail. The Doctor(s) and the Tardis, travelling anywhere in time and space, Daleks, Cybermen, Ice Warriors, Sutekh the Destroyer, Omega, the Master, the list goes on and on and on, spanning the alphabet, from Autons to Zarbi, Doctor Who is immense. It was a huge part of my growing up process from early childhood right up into adulthood and to the present day (I’m now 52), this is the British telefantasy series (indeed THE telefantasy series, British or not) that has had the biggest effect on my life.

And just outside the Top Ten, in no particular order:

The Avengers – I quite enjoyed the weekly exploits of John Steed and Emma Peel, and later Tara King (I was too young to remember the earlier stories with Cathy Gale). Emma and Tara were certainly extremely easy on the eyes, and those two ladies absolutely kicked ass each and every week. The series was extremely psychedelic (hey, it was the Sixties!) and was overly camp at times. I was never a fan of the camp thing (hated it, actually), a major reason why I didn’t enjoy the show quite as much as other UK telefantasy shows. I also quite liked The New Avengers, although it only occasionally crossed into telefantasy from its primary action adventure format. But it was worth watching for Joanna Lumley, playing Purdey, another gorgeous yet kick-ass Avengers female.

The Champions – enjoyable super-spy hokum in which three super-powered agents save the world each and every week from mad scientists and other menaces. I quite enjoyed this, although, with the exception of a handful of episodes, there was very little real sci-fi in the series, other than the agents showing their weekly portion of super strength, super speed or telepathy. I mostly liked it for the great theme tune and the epitome of eye candy provided by the absolutely gorgeous Alexandra Bastedo (who played Sharon McCready), who was, as far as I’m concerned, one of the most beautiful women ever in the history of telefantasy.

Thunderbirds – loved the hardware, but, unlike Captain Scarlet, most of the stories themselves were not sci-fi enough for my tastes, even at that early age. Also, and despite my liking for Captain Scarlet, I was never really a fan of those damned puppets. I hate those wooden actors! I always preferred the live-action Gerry Anderson series.

That’s about it for the more famous British telefantasy series. At some point in the future, I’ll be devoting one or more blog posts to other, more obscure British telefantasy, particularly series aimed at children. My own memories of most of these are very incomplete and vague, so I’ve been buying a few of the more recommended classic children’s sci-fi series on DVD from Amazon UK. So far, I’ve got my hands on the entire original series of The Tomorrow People, Timeslip, Sky, Children of the Stones, The Owl Service, The Demon Headmaster and the 1980s version of Tom’s Midnight Garden. I think I’ll nab a few more series so I can post a reasonably comprehensive blog review.