The Space Machine

The Space Machine is, in many ways, out of keeping both with the three novels Christopher Priest wrote before it, and with those which came after. This is, of course, partly because the novel is an affectionate pastiche of H G Wells, but also, I suspect, because of the delight Priest seems to have taken in writing it:

“I thoroughly enjoyed writing this one, probably more than I should have done. For me it represents a kind of personal peak, because I wrote it in an extrovert mood during a happy period of my life, at a time when I wasn’t too broke, and I was not yet feeling held back by other people putting labels on me.”

(He does, however, go on to note that, “Everything went smoothly until publication day, when the Observer memorably observed, ‘Three hundred pages of homicidal tedium.’”)

The Space Machine takes two of Well’s most famous novels, The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, and grafts them together into a single narrative. It begins in 1903 and, like Wells, Priest uses a narrator to tell his story, in this instance a commercial traveller, Edward Turnbull. As the novel opens the greatest mystery is far from scientific as Turnbull and fellow salesman, Dykes, discuss the arrival of a young woman, Miss Fitzgibbon, at the hotel where they are staying. Dykes wishes to take a bet on who can speak to her first (this may be Edwardian rather Victorian England, but Miss Fitzgibbon (Amelia) is strictly out of bounds), but Turnbull is more intrigued when he hears that she works for the inventor, Sir William Reynolds – he has recently designed a Visibility Protection Mask for motoring and hopes to interest Sir William. Turnbull arranges an ‘accidental’ meeting as Amelia passes his room that night but, when they face the danger of being caught by the landlady, they are forced to enter Miss Fitzgibbon’s room. Priest has fun with necessity versus propriety from the start:

“‘Your room?’ I said in astonishment. ‘Do you not want a chaperone?’”

Edward and Amelia’s attempts to behave with the appropriate decorum even in the most unlikely circumstances becomes one of the novel’s running jokes: at one point, for example, Amelia refuses to remove her stays even when they are faced with an apparently endless walk over a desolate landscape (and even when she does take them off, she insists on carrying them with her). Edward can be just as strait-laced – when, at the end of this journey, they encounter a group of slave-workers who are “almost completely unclothed” he suggests he go to them alone, but, as Amelia points out:

“We are about to starve to death and you smother me with modesty!”

Edward is not discovered in Amelia’s room even after the landlady insists on entering, but her suspicions are enough to necessitate his departure the next day, though not before arranging to visit Sir William. It is there, of course, he encounters the time machine, and not long before he and Amelia decide on a test run, secure in the knowledge that it will always automatically return to 1903. Ten years in the future, however, they are greeted with unexpected violence:

“Somewhere just outside the house there was a massive explosion, and some of the panes of glass cracked. Splinters fell down upon us.”

And for Edward, an even more disturbing sight follows when he sees a woman running towards the house only to be consumed by flame:

“I had recognised the woman and knew her to be Amelia, suffering her dying moments in the hellish war of 1913.”

And so Priest embeds a future into the narrative that we knowingly head towards no matter how unlikely it might seem, but also one his narrator will attempt to avoid at all costs. In shock, Edward attempts to interfere with the driving of the machine and accidentally dislodges the rod that ensures it travels in time only, sending it through space as well.

It is this accident which takes the travellers to Mars and here Priest does what Wells doesn’t: gives a picture of the world from where the invasion originates. Priest does not deviate from the Martians as portrayed in The War of the Worlds but describes a society which explains their behaviour on Earth. Perhaps the most surprising part of this is the existence of humans on Mars as slaves and food for the Martians; yet it is also the most logical, as the chances of Martians developing a taste for human blood within days of arrival are slim. Priest uses the depletion of humans on Mars – the reason for the invasion – to explain why Edward and Amelia are initially able to remain undiscovered, staying in an empty building and eating in communal areas, largely indistinguishable from the Martian humans. The description of their time on Mars is the longest section of the narrative and, if this does not interest you, you are likely to find this middle part a little slow.

They do eventually return to Earth (and, of course, nearer to Amelia’s possible death), using one of the projectiles designed for the invasion, and Priest introduces characters and events from The War of the Worlds, including a Mr Wells who is not so much the author as one of the author’s anonymous narrators. For those who love Wells, or classic science fiction at all, this novel is enormous fun, very much in Wells’ spirit of wonder and dread. Of the many novels inspired by his work, it is among the best.

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8 Responses to “The Space Machine”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    This really sounds absolutely brilliant, Grant! I’d never heard of it but I love Wells and I love Wellsian sci fi so I really may have to search it out!!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    To my shame, I’ve never read anything by H.G. Wells (one of my many gaps in classic literature), so I fear the connections between this novel and Wells’ famous texts would be somewhat lost on me! It does very entertaining though – a great choice for the Club, Grant.

  3. WordsAndPeace Says:

    So glad you reviewed this one, looks like there’s still hope for Christopher Priest for me. I was so much looking forward to reading The Islanders. I managed to read it to the end, but really I didn’t understand a thing, including after reading many reviews and analyses about it!!
    Here is what I reviewed for the #1976club: https://wordsandpeace.com/2021/10/12/my-top-10-books-for-the-1976-club/

    • 1streading Says:

      I’ve read most of Priest’s books and I would not put The Islanders among my favourites – you’d be better off reading The Prestige or The Separation.

  4. Simon T Says:

    You do make this sound fun – but I remain wary of the descriptions of time on Mars. And haven’t even read War of the Worlds… so I might miss a lot. Thanks for adding this unusual book to the club!

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