How much science fiction movie music have you tried listening to — by itself, via soundtrack albums? As a lover of SF film, I’ve listened to a lot, but I finally had to start building a playlist dedicated exclusively to contemplative tracks from the scores. You can usually find about one, and only one, per soundtrack. The rest of the cuts, by and large, are pulsing, even bone-shattering, action cues.
By definition, science fiction should be one of the brainiest genres…and often, it is. So why all the unremitting violence and horror?
We may have, more than anyone else, H.G. Wells to thank. Audible has just released a new collection of his best-known science fiction novels: The War of the Worlds (1897), The First Men in the Moon (1901), The Time Machine (1895), The Invisible Man (1897), and The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896). Listening to these stories, you may find yourself astonished at just how much of the genre’s DNA is embedded here. (Above, the War of the Worlds Martians are seen in the less-than-faithful 1953 film adaptation.)
Filmmaker Eli Roth introduces the collection, and while the guy behind Hostel may not seem the most obvious person to speak on classic science fiction, the choice will make more sense as you continue to listen. Horror is integral to Wells’s visions; each of these novels has its Hostel moment.
There’s the whistling sound the Martians make in War of the Worlds: though it’s initially thought to be their means of communication, the narrator deduces it’s the way they clear their pipes before drinking human blood. There’s the bloody limb the Time Traveler finds in the Morlocks’ underground den. He doesn’t initially know where it comes from, but we have a pretty good guess and it turns out we’re right.
Most famously, there’s the gory vivisection in Dr. Moreau, about a rogue scientist who discovers it’s possible to make animals more human-like by reconstructing their bodies and brains. The shipwrecked voyager who lands on the eponymous island ends up having more sympathy for the profoundly wounded subjects than for their visionary yet cruel tormentor.
Like all of these books, that one builds to a hair-raising chase scene. The characters whose eyes we see Wells’s worlds through are perpetually torn between curiosity and concern — for their own lives, as well as others’. In all five novels, science opens a crack between the world we know and a world we can hardly imagine, with awe-inspiring but potentially ruinous results.
By reading, or listening to, Wells, we clearly understand how science fiction became a defining genre of the 20th century. From rocketry to atom bombs to genetic manipulation, the decades since Wells have seen a constant parade of headlines that echo his hopes and his fears.
What made Wells iconic was his timing — his novels still seem years ahead of their time, given how flimsy most SF storytelling was until mid-century — as well as his genius for balancing science and fiction. There’s no shortage of shop talk in these books, as experimenters chatter on about their mad methods, and yet Wells uses that thrill of intellectual discovery as fuel to achieve narrative liftoff (sometimes literally).
Once the books land on the Moon, in the past, on an island, or in an equally incredible situation, Wells doles out little dollops of exposition as his characters try to cope with the practical ramifications. What does one eat on (or, indeed, in) the Moon? How do you pay your rent when you’re invisible? How do you combat hostile creatures supplied with heat rays?
Long in the public domain, these books aren’t hard to come by, either in print or audio. That makes Audible’s new production largely a matter of convenience and quality control. Linked with interstitial mood music, the five novels are read by David Tennant, the Tenth Doctor himself (The War of the Worlds); Merlin’s Mordred Alexander Vlahos (The First Men in the Moon); Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville (The Time Machine); Oscar nominee Sophie Okonedo (The Invisible Man); and Jason Isaacs, a.k.a. Lucius Malfoy (The Island of Dr. Moreau).
In addition to their historical value, these are still ripping good stories that spark the imagination and inspire contemplation of our place in the universe. As the narrator of The First Men in the Moon reflects on his return journey, “I seemed to myself to have grown greater and greater, to have lost all sense of movement; to be floating amidst the stars, and always the sense of earth’s littleness and the infinite littleness of my life upon it, was implicit in my thoughts.”