of H.G. Wells,
with an introduction by
Ursula K. Le Guin
Table of Contents
Introduction by UKL
(Each section also has a brief introduction by UKL)
Part One: Visionary Science Fiction:
A Slip Under the Microscope
The Remarkable Case of Davidson's Eye
The Plattner Story
Under the Knife
The Crystal Egg
The New Accelerator
The Stolen Body
Part Two: Technological and Predictive Science Fiction
The Argonauts of the Air
In the Abyss
The Land Ironclads
A Dream of Armageddon
Part Three: Horror Stories
The Lord of the Dynamos
The Valley of Spiders
Part Four: Fantasies
The Story of the Late Mr Elvesham
The Man Who Could Work Miracles
The Magic Shop
Mr Skelmersdale in Fairyland
The Door in the Wall
The Presence by the Fire
Part Five: Fables
A Vision of Judgment
The Story of the Last Trump
The Wild Asses of the Devil
Answer to Prayer
Part Six: Psycho-Social Science Fiction
The Queer Story of Brownlow's Newspaper
The Country of the Blind
About the Author (anonymous)
Excerpt from the Introduction
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 1890's 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 patronising 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 1890's 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.
Modern Library edition (paperback)
July 1, 2004
Copyright © 2004 by Ursula K. Le Guin