Wednesday, November 9, 2022

The Plattner Story and Others by H. G. Wells

Good science fiction mixed with mediocre romance
Nowadays we know H. G. Wells as an early master of science fiction, but during his lifetime he was known for fiction and nonfiction in many different genres and subject areas. Looking through Wells’s bibliography, one gets the idea that he never wanted to be confined to the sci-fi ghetto and likely craved recognition as a “mainstream” writer. To today’s reader, however, his science fiction seems remarkably creative and advanced for its age, while his non-sci-fi works often come across as unremarkable run-of-the-mill British fiction of its era, stuffy and rather predictable. This presents a problem when reading a collection of short fiction by Wells, as his anthologies tend to be a grab bag of various genres. The Plattner Story and Others, published in 1897, is a collection of 17 short stories, most of which originally ran in British periodicals from 1894 to 1896. This volume starts out with six or seven science fiction stories, followed by one ghost story and a trio of Edgar Allan Poe-style murder tales. The book then closes with half a dozen mundane tales of Victorian life focusing on romance and inheritances. As one reads through the volume, the sci-fi works are initially quite promising, but it’s all downhill from there.

Although Wells doesn’t hit it out of the park with every sci-fi and fantasy yarn, the first half of this book is impressive for its wide range of subjects and styles, worthy of a season of The Twilight Zone: alternate dimensions (“The Plattner Story”), futuristic air travel (“The Argonauts of the Air”), minds switching bodies (“The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham”), undersea exploration (“In the Abyss”), a glimpse into the afterlife (“Under the Knife”), a haunted house horror story (“The Red Room”), and a good old-fashioned cryptozoologic monster attack (“The Sea-Raiders”). As the stories get less science-based and move more into the realm of Poe, however, one can feel Wells’s talent begin to wane as he ventures out of his element.

All of that seems like genius, however, compared to the book’s latter half, which consists of dull stories with insipid endings. In most of these, Wells also attempts a more lighthearted style, and humor isn’t exactly his strong suit. Or at least, his humor hasn’t held up well over the intervening century and a quarter. “The Sad Story of a Dramatic Critic,” for example, is a bad joke only a pretentious Victorian gentleman could love. “A Catastrophe” starts out as a realistic look at middle class life, but ends with a lazy deus ex machina. The one standout among the last half dozen entries is “In the Modern Vein,” a story about a married man who falls in love with another woman. The only remarkable thing about this is that the other woman is Indian. Given that it was written in the Victorian Era, when divorce, infidelity, and interracial romance were not considered proper in literature, the story can only end one way, and it does, as expected.

As a short story writer, Wells’s efforts are hit and miss. His success rate in that department is nowhere near as good as Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, or Jack London. In The Plattner Story and Others, the cons outweigh the pros. The farther Wells’s stories are removed from reality, into science fiction and fantasy territory, the more successful they are. Like Conan Doyle, however, his sci-fi sometimes suffers from venturing too far into spiritualism. For an atheist, Wells seems overly preoccupied with spirits and the afterlife (though not nearly as much as Conan Doyle). Those who are only interested in Wells as a science fiction writer would be better off reading his 1899 collection Tales of Space and Time, which is more specifically devoted to that genre.

Stories in this collection

The Plattner Story
The Argonauts of the Air
The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham
In the Abyss
The Apple
Under the Knife
The Sea-Raiders
Pollock and the Porroh Man
The Red Room
The Cone
The Purple Pileus
The Jilting of Jane
In the Modern Vein
A Catastrophe
The Lost Inheritance
The Sad Story of a Dramatic Critic
A Slip Under the Microscope

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