This collection of three of H.G. Wells’ short stories was published by Penguin as part of their excellent Pocket Penguin collection, to mark their 70th anniversary. It includes ‘The Country of the Blind’, ‘The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes’, and ‘The Stolen Bacillus’, and was originally published as a collection in 1927.
The first of these is by far the longest, and tells the story of a valley in Peru, sealed off from the outside wall by a giant landslip. The people of the valley become blind, (perhaps due to an infection), and after fifteen generations they are all not just blind, but have no eyes at all. Eyelashes are regarded as a deformity. One day, a mountain guide, Nunez, survives a tremendous fall from the surrounding peaks into the valley.
Nunez is haunted by the proverb ‘In the Land of the Blind, the One-Eyed Man is King,’ and I wonder if this was the spark which prompted H.G. Wells to write this story. Contrary to his expectations, not only is he not King, but the villagers regard his sight as a fancy of his imagination. They have developed their other senses to the extent that they no longer require sight, and a deep and detailed philosophy to explain the world around them, including the idea that the sky is a completely smooth rock dome above them.
When Nunez falls in love with one of the women of the village, and wishes to marry her, there is great opposition. The only way that he can become an acceptable citizen is to have his eyes surgically removed. In the words of the village doctor, “Those queer things which are called eyes…are diseased…in such a way as to affect his brain. They are greatly distended, he has eyelashes, and his eyelids move, and consequently his brain is in a state of constant irritation and destruction.” His love is so great that he initially consents to this, but as a reader, the horror that I felt at the idea of someone having healthy eyes removed was quite considerable.
This story is an interesting exploration of both the senses (and we suddenly realise how precious our sight is to us), and of society. Different abilities are greeted with disbelief and concern for the health of the person gifted with them, which really rang bells for me in terms of other works like John Wyndham’s ‘The Chrysalids’.
The second story, ‘The Remarkable case of Davidson’s Eyes’ also deals with sight. In this case, by some accident in a laboratory during a thunderstorm, Davidson can only see an island in the southern hemisphere, although his body is in London.
As he moves around London, he feels that he is being driven into the darkness under huge sand dunes, or seeing the deep sea creatures under the sea, but at home mostly he watches the waves and the penguins waddling around him. At the same time, he is aware that everything he can hear and feel is in England.
This short tale is another interesting investigation of the senses, and of long distance viewing, which must have seemed quite fantastic in 1927. What, I wonder, would H.G. Wells make of Skype?
The final story in this set is ‘The Stolen Bacillus’, which paints a scene of a visitor being shown the wonders of what a cholera bacteria looks like under the microscope. Emboldened by his interest, the scientist shows his visitor a vial of what is supposedly live cholera.
“He held the tube in his hand thoughtfully. “Yes, here is the pestilence imprisoned. Only break such a little tube as this into a supply of drinking water, say to these minute particles of life…”Go forth, increase and multiply, and replenish the cisterns”, and death – mysterious, untraceable death, death swift and terrible, death full of pain and indignity – would be released upon this city, to go hither and thither seeking it’s victims.”
The visitor, who it turns out is an Anarchist, steals the vial, and a lively chase (in horse-drawn carriages!) ensues across the city.
It is impossible not to see the prediction of biological warfare in this story, although it is dealt with lightly at the end, but the threat is seen and acknowledged.
All three stories are a good read, and terrific escapism. I really enjoyed the sense of wonder in science and interest in people that they conveyed, without needing to explain themselves too fully. Considering how short they are, the worlds and people they create are solid and believable.
They also lead me to compare them to another piece of science fiction I am reading at the moment, which is much more modern, but which uses that style I find immensely irritating of frenetic creation. By this is mean sentences like “He voiced on some music from the Orlan nineteens’s files and lost himself in the soaring qawwali of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.” Other people who have read his book tell me that the author stops this sort of stuff after the first few chapters and settles into telling the story in a comprehensible way, which will be a real relief.
H.G. Wells and other great Sci-Fi authors (I do have a particular soft spot for John Wyndham and Philip.K. Dick), do not need to resort to this sort of thing to tell a great story. They use description and plain English to sweep us of and absorb us in wonderful and strange worlds.
But enough ranting from me. I’d give this collection from H.G. Wells four stars.