Pursuing Christopher Priest: The Space Machine


I’m not a fan of H. G. Wells, indeed I’ve read very little of his work, though I am aware of how influential he was in shaping the very early parameters of SF. The War of the Worlds has to be one of the most widely read and referenced books of all time, with The Time Machine close on its heels. I may have read the latter at School, I know I have read, and not particularly enjoyed, The Invisible Man.
Christopher Priest is, however, a great fan of Wells, and since 2006 has been the Vice-President of the International H. G. Wells Society. Wells makes an appearance in The Adjacent, in one of its early sections. And in 1976, Priest published an impeccably Wellsian SF novel, The Space Machine, in which he effectively and affectionately interwove the two classic novels into a single continuum, giving his characters an ongoing adventurous role in the background of the two books, and having them meet Wells again in the climax.
I can’t comment on the effectiveness of Priest’s pastiche, except to say that the flavour it conveyed was consistent and recognisably archaic. It certainly came over effectively to me, and most commentary on the book does applaud his ability to incarnate Wells’ voice and style. The only criticisms I have seen suggest that Priest did not go far enough, that he did not bring a more modern sensibility to subvert the effects he was counterfeiting, and that he was entirely too respectful of Wells. What did they expect of him?
The Space Machine is narrated to us by Edward Turnbull, who introduces himself as a commercial traveller in leather goods, with a special interest in a product of his own conception, devices that he describes as Visibility Protection Masks (Edward is not good on naming things, we fear). In short, they are motoring goggles, which Edward hopes to promote to those who are taking up these new-fangled motor cars. It is 1893, as fans of The Time Machine will understand.
Edward learns, to his considerable surprise that there is a lady commercial traveller staying (under strict chaperonage by the lady proprietor) at his commercial hotel in Skipton. Whereas other reps are much taken by the thought of Miss Amelia Fitzgibbon for reasons that I fear are not honourable, Edward is more fascinated by the fair Amelia (and indeed she is fair) being the special representative of Sir William Reynolds, the inventor of repute, and a motoring enthusiast.
Eager for an introduction that might lead, via Miss Fitzgibbon to Sir William’s patronage, Edward contrives a meeting that leads to the perilous situation of him being closeted with Miss Fitzgibbon in her bedroom. Nothing untoward arises – Edward is much too respectful of Miss Fitzgibbons for that, and indeed it is she who is freer of her conduct with him, without ever overstepping the bounds of physical contact – but he still gets slung out on his ear before breakfast. At least he has an invitation to contact Amelia at Richmond House, the home of Sir William.
Wellsians will, by now, be well aware of the direction Priest is travelling. Sir William is the un-named Time Traveller of The Time Machine and Edward is about to join Miss Fitzgibbon in the unexplored back-story of that novel, in the same way that Thursday Next keeps dropping into famous literature in Jasper Fforde’s series. For Amelia is aware of the Time Machine, and happy to take Edward on a trip in it, so that he will believe.
Their destination is 1903, which will have Wellsians nodding sagely again. The Time Machine travels in Time but not Space, set to return to its starting point on an automatic three-minute reset. Unfortunately, three minutes is enough for Edward to see Amelia, of whom he is already inordinately fond, burning to death in 1903. In attempting to avoid returning to her history, he upsets the controls of the Time Machine, delivering the pair to an unknown and foreign place, where they are tipped out and stranded beyond the point of auto-return.
They have, of course, been transported spacially to Mars, a Mars of tall, thin, spindly humans oppressed and used as cattle by tentacled monsters that use hundred foot high, three-legged war machines to travel around, and who are constructing great cannons to fire projectiles. In short, our heroes have been transferred into the back-story of The War of the Worlds.
Edward and Amelia survive no little time in this strange society, maintaining their Victorian appearances, and as much of their Victorian clothing as they can. Nor, despite their enforced reliance upon each other, as the only people either can speak to, does Amelia permit any liberties to be taken, not that Edward is especially pressing with them. He is in love. Amelia is not to be lead to any admissions on that score.
It’s only when they’re re-united after six months separation, when Edward has learned that the Martian masters are killable, and Amelia is building a rebel alliance among the Martian humans, that their feelings for one another – and the certainty that they will never see Earth and its standards again – lead to warm expression of a kind over which Edward draws a modest blanket.
But hope is re-kindled. Edward and Amelia realise that the Martian monsters plan to invade Earth and smuggle themselves aboard the first projectile, hoping to warn their home planet. Unfortunately, they don’t reckon with nine further projectiles being fired, at 24 hour intervals, in their wake.
Thus begins The War of the Worlds in earnest. I’m assuming that Priest is faithful to its events, whilst keeping Edward and Amelia – running around in their underwear – to the fore of his story and the rear of Wells’s. As I said above, whilst trying to reach Sir William’s home (where, alas, the Time Traveller has disappeared ten years earlier) they witness England’s helplessness before the vicious, brutal, enslaving invader and bump into a bare-chested man, a philosopher, a writer (Sir William’s biographer too), whose name is Wells. He is in exactly the situation of the un-named narrator of his own novel.
By now, this joyous romp wants only an ending in which the trio can strike back at the invaders until the end of Wells’ novel can be reached. This involves a massive departure from the approach of the story thus far, which has stealthily added plausible detail to behind-the-scenes scenes. Priest now has Wells construct a crude but working Time Machine, assisted by blueprints that Amelia can fortuitously lay her hands on, which the trip use as a Space Machine. The new machine is, literally, a flying bedstead that, when in attenuated form in the Time Dimension, is invisible and undetectable to the Martians, enabling our heroes to bomb the machines to buggery.
In the end, though, Earth vanquishes the invasion simply by being inimical. It’s soils, its atmosphere, even the blood of its own humans will not sustain the monsters. Victory is achieved, and Mr Wells goes off to find his wife in Leatherhead. Edward and Amelia wait for the humans to come back. Of course, now they are back on Earth, they have resumed proper clothing – outer as well as under – and have stopped shagging each other enthusiastically, but Amelia has allowed herself to admit to loving Edward,so we can assume wedding bells and screwing with propriety will feature in the foreseeable future.
Overall, I enjoyed the book, though it was a lot more fun of first reading. On a second, I was far more conscious of its (deliberate) stiffness and its length. Priest takes a very long time to build things up on Mars, especially after being relatively brisk in the Time Machine section, and the book does become a little wearying after a while. And you do rather have to like H. G. Wells to appreciate it.
Ultimately, it never rises above the level of a pastiche. Priest is in too much respect of Wells to seriously play around with him (and now says he couldn’t never repeat the exercise since he could no longer approach the idea unself-consciously). Nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable exercise and the ingenuity with which Priest marries the two tales is natural and unforced. It’s certainly worth reading once but, unless you are a committed Wellsian, perhaps not often thereafter.

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