Classics Club Monthly Meme: Question #42 – Science Fiction and Mysteries

The Classics Club

On the 26th of each month the Classics Club post a question for members to answer during the following month. It’s been a while since I last participated so I’ve decided to join in with this one. The question below was contributed by club member Fariba:

“What is your favourite mystery or science fiction classic? Why do you think it is a classic? Why do you like it?”

I haven’t read a huge number of classics from either of these genres, so rather than pick favourites I’m simply going to write about a few books I’ve enjoyed which fall into each category. First, let’s look at classic mysteries…


And Then There Were None The first author to come to mind when I think about classic mysteries is Agatha Christie. Although I haven’t read all of her books yet (not even half of them), I’ve loved most of those that I have read, particularly And Then There Were None. It’s such a simple idea – ten strangers are cut off from the world on an isolated island and start to be killed off one by one – but the solution is fiendishly clever!

My next choice is from the Victorian period: a book which TS Eliot famously described as “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels”. It’s The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, a novel which centres around the disappearance of a valuable Indian diamond. As anyone who has read it will know, the mystery itself is almost secondary to the wonderful array of memorable narrators, especially Gabriel Betteredge, the elderly servant.

With my interest in history, I also enjoyed The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, in which a detective recuperating in hospital decides to amuse himself by trying to solve the mystery of Richard III and the Princes in the Tower. In 1990 this book came top of the British Crime Writers’ Association’s Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list. I haven’t read any of Tey’s other mysteries yet, but I have A Shilling for Candles on my shelf to read soon.

Science Fiction

The Midwich Cuckoos A few years ago I read and loved The Midwich Cuckoos, a classic science fiction novel about a mysterious phenomenon which occurs in a quiet English village. I was (and still am) intending to read more of John Wyndham’s books, but haven’t got round to it yet. I know some of his other novels are regarded as being better than this one, so I’m looking forward to trying them for myself.

HG Wells is one of the most famous authors of classic science fiction and so far I have read two of his books – The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Time Machine. I enjoyed both of these novels but I didn’t find either of them entirely satisfying. In the case of The Time Machine in particular, I felt that there were a lot of ideas which could have been explored in more depth. I’m sure I’ll read more of Wells’ novels eventually.

If I can also class dystopian novels as science fiction, there are quite a few that I’ve read including, years ago, 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and, more recently, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Otherwise, I really haven’t read much science fiction at all and would love some recommendations!

Have you read any classic mystery or science fiction novels? Which are your favourites?

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

The Time Machine I don’t often read science fiction, but when I do I usually find that I enjoy it. H.G. Wells’ 1895 novel, The Time Machine, is an early classic of the genre and I’m sorry it has taken me so long to decide to read it – especially as I’ve previously read and liked two of his other books, The Island of Dr Moreau and Ann Veronica (although the latter is not science fiction).

The Time Machine follows the adventures of a Victorian scientist known only as the Time Traveller who believes he has created a machine which can travel into the past and the future. After describing his invention to a group of friends and explaining how it works, he announces that he intends to use the machine to explore time. Assembling at a dinner party the following week, the gentlemen await the appearance of the Time Traveller – who arrives late, looking dirty and exhausted, and proceeds to narrate an incredible story.

The Time Traveller tells of his journey to the year 802,701, a world populated by the Eloi, a race of beautiful, innocent, childlike people who, far from being the advanced society he had expected, are leading surprisingly lazy, directionless lives and appear to be weaker and less intelligent than ourselves. Due to a change in language, he is unable to communicate with them to find out more about their way of life, although he does form a friendship of sorts with an Eloi woman whose name is Weena.

Later, the Time Traveller discovers that the Eloi are not the only inhabitants of this futuristic world; another race of human-like creatures live below ground, only coming to the surface at night. Known as the Morlocks, these creatures are brutish and savage but appear to be carrying out all the work and industry which enables the Eloi to live their simple lives of leisure on the land above. They also appear to have stolen the time machine, which means that unless the Time Traveller can find a way to retrieve it, he could be trapped in the future forever!

The Time Traveller comes up with several theories to explain what is happening in this futuristic world, but has to revise his opinion as more information comes to light. He speculates that the human race must have evolved at some point into two species, the rich and privileged becoming the Eloi and the working classes becoming the Morlocks. The Eloi, he thinks, have led such comfortable lives and faced so few challenges, that they have had no further need to grow and adapt:

“It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. An animal perfectly in harmony with its environment is a perfect mechanism. Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers.”

I’ve always been intrigued by the possibilities of time travel and although I personally would be more interested in visiting the past than the future, I find it fascinating to see what people think the future will hold. Remembering when this novel was published, Wells’ vision of a future world has been developed from some of the issues which would have seemed relevant at the end of the 19th century, such as widening class divisions, theories of evolution and Darwinism. It’s a bleak and depressing view of the future – and if that really is what we have to look forward to, then imperfect as our current society may be, I’m very glad to be living in 2016!

While I enjoyed reading The Time Machine, I thought there could have been more to the story. I hadn’t realised it was such a short book (there are just over 100 pages in my edition, so it can easily be read in a few hours), and I would have liked it to have been a bit longer which would have allowed some of the ideas in the novel to be developed in more depth. Still, I’m pleased to have read such an important and influential science fiction novel and will think about reading more of Wells’ work at some point.

My commonplace book: January 2016

commonplace book
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary


A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.


I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966)


Roger had learned from Mr. Gray that this particular kind of rhododendron was called Ponticum, so the secret hiding-place was called Ponticum House. It was used for all sorts of activities and gradually it was furnished with odds and ends of furniture.

Amberwell by D.E. Stevenson (1955)


There was the rub: that Julia, who could get intimate with a trapeze artist after five minutes’ conversation – who was intimate with a salesman after buying a pair of shoes – had talked for an hour to her own daughter, about the girl’s own father and lover, without the least intimacy at all.

“I’m a fool,” thought Julia, again. “It’s just because she’s such a perfect lady. And what I need is a good sleep.”

The Nutmeg Tree by Margery Sharp (1937)


So fine was the morning except for a streak of wind here and there that the sea and sky looked all one fabric, as if sails were stuck high up in the sky, or the clouds had dropped down into the sea. A steamer far out at sea had drawn in the air a great scroll of smoke which stayed there curving and circling decoratively, as if the air were a fine gauze which held things and kept them softly in its mesh, only gently swaying them this way and that.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927)


Come, Joanna. I can wait no longer.

There it was, Henry’s declaration, as clear as my reflection in my mirror. Neither, I decided, could I wait.

I sent for my uncle of Burgundy. I had an urgent negotiation to undertake.

The Queen’s Choice by Anne O’Brien (2016)


Meantime, all around me is violence and robbery, coarse delight and savage pain, reckless joke and hopeless death. Is it any wonder that I cannot sink with these, that I cannot so forget my soul, as to live the life of brutes, and die the death more horrible because it dreams of waking? There is none to lead me forward, there is none to teach me right; young as I am, I live beneath a curse that lasts for ever.

Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore (1869)


“It is the women who lay clothes to dry on the rooftops of Troy,” I continued. “It is the fishermen who catch the silver fish in the bay,” I gestured out over the plain towards the sea, sparkling blue in the sunlight, “and sell them on the stalls of the marketplace. It is the princes who live in the palaces on the windy heights of the city, and the slaves who draw water from the wells. This, my king – this is Troy. And if we act now, we may still be able to save our city before it is too late.”

For the Most Beautiful by Emily Hauser (2016)


The desolation struck me like a blow, fresh and painful, as if all this destruction had been newly made yesterday, and as if this were my first sight of it. It was grief, I think, nothing more or less. I knew it was absurd. But I had noticed this reaction in others as well as in myself: that we mourned for our ravaged city as if for a mother.

The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor (2016) – Review to follow


“And you cannot move at all in Time, you cannot get away from the present moment.”

“My dear sir, that is just where you are wrong. That is just where the whole world has gone wrong. We are always getting away from the present moment. Our mental existences, which are immaterial and have no dimensions, are passing along the Time-Dimension with a uniform velocity from the cradle to the grave. Just as we should travel down if we began our existence fifty miles above the earth’s surface.”

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895)


Favourite books this month: Lorna Doone and Amberwell

The Map of Time by Felix Palma

The Map of Time, translated from the original Spanish, is an interesting mixture of historical fiction, science fiction and romance. The book appealed to me as soon as I read the synopsis and saw that it was set in Victorian London, involved time travel and featured several real historical figures including Jack the Ripper, Joseph Merrick (The Elephant Man) and the authors H.G. Wells, Henry James and Bram Stoker. It sounded fascinating and it was, though there were a few aspects of the book that didn’t work for me at all. I thought it was too long and ambitious and tried to do too much.

The starting point for the story is 1896, shortly after the publication of H.G. Wells’ novel, The Time Machine, which captured the imaginations of his readers and convinced them that time travel could become a reality. One of the people hoping to travel through time is Andrew Harrington whose lover, Marie Kelly, was killed by Jack the Ripper eight years ago. Andrew believes that if he could go back to the night of the murder it might be possible to save Marie’s life – so he decides to approach Wells and ask his advice.

Wells also becomes involved in the life of Claire Haggerty, a young woman who has trouble conforming to Victorian society and longs to escape to the year 2000 where the ‘brave Captain Derek Shackleton’ is thought to have saved the world from destruction by evil automatons. But is it really possible for Andrew and Claire to travel through time or is time travel something that only exists in fiction?

I’ve read a lot of novels that involve time travel as a part of the plot, and while all of them obviously require the reader to suspend disbelief, some of them manage to make it seem more plausible than others. There are a number of theories put forward in The Map of Time and it all started to become very confusing, but for anyone with an interest in the intricacies of time travel, parallel worlds, paradoxes (is it possible to meet a future version of yourself, for example?) and the effects our actions have on history, you should find it interesting.

The biggest problem I had with this book was that the pacing and structure of the story didn’t feel quite right to me. The book is divided into three very distinct sections: the first deals with the Andrew Harrington story, the second follows Claire Haggerty and the third concentrates on H.G. Wells himself. This had the effect of making the book feel almost like three separate books in one and it took me a while at the start of each section to get used to the new characters and completely different direction of the plot. Then there’s the omniscient narrator who intrudes into the story at times in a mock-Victorian style. This can work well in original Victorian classics, but here I thought it felt forced and unnatural and it ended up annoying me.

I realise I’m making it sound as if I didn’t enjoy this book at all, but that’s not true. There were parts that I found fascinating and times when I couldn’t put the book down. I thought the quality of the writing was good overall and I probably wouldn’t have guessed it was a translation. But for a book which sounded so exciting and original, it didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells

After reading my first H.G. Wells book, Ann Veronica, in March I mentioned that I now felt ready to try one of his science fiction books. The Island of Doctor Moreau is the one I chose to read, and it certainly couldn’t be more different from Ann Veronica!

The story is narrated by Edward Prendick who, having been shipwrecked, is rescued by the crew of the Ipecacuanha. Whilst on board, he becomes acquainted with one of the other passengers, the mysterious Montgomery, who is transporting a cargo of wild animals home to the island where he lives. When the drunken captain of the Ipecacuanha attempts to have Prendick thrown overboard, Montgomery takes pity on him and invites him to accompany him to the island. Here Prendick meets the famous vivisectionist Doctor Moreau, who is carrying out some secret experiments on animals – and as the true horrors of Moreau’s island are revealed, Prendick begins to realise that his own life could be in danger.

I’ve never been a fan of science fiction and wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, but I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. The opening chapters were a bit slow, but things became much more interesting when Prendick arrived on the island and after that the pages flew by.

I didn’t think the story was frightening, although I did feel a growing sense of disgust and repulsion. Some of Moreau’s nightmarish creations were truly horrible to read about. Whatever your personal views on animal testing may be, the way Wells describes the unnecessary pain and suffering Moreau inflicts on his animals is very sad and disturbing. Like Frankenstein and more recently, Jurassic Park, The Island of Doctor Moreau can be seen as a warning of the negative effects of science and the dangers of ‘playing God’. When this book was published in 1896, the kind of technology Wells described only really existed in fiction. But during the 20th and 21st centuries the advances scientists have made in areas such as genetic engineering and cloning mean that Wells’ ideas are no longer so far-fetched. And that’s what really is frightening!

Ann Veronica by H.G. Wells

I’ve never read anything by H.G. Wells before and never thought he would be an author I would enjoy. In fact, I hadn’t even realised he had written anything other than the science fiction books he’s famous for (The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Time Machine etc) and as I’m not a lover of science fiction, none of those have ever really appealed. So when I noticed this one in the library, sounding entirely different to the books I’ve just mentioned, I was intrigued and decided to give it a try.

The story is set in the early years of the 20th century and the title character is twenty-one-year-old biology student Ann Veronica Stanley. Tired of being locked in a constant battle of wills with her father, a strict and conservative solicitor who has very strong opinions about women and their place in society, she decides to run away to London to start an independent life of her own. In London, she is exposed to a range of influences and experiences (including the suffragette movement), becomes involved with several different men, and discovers that life can be difficult for a young single woman living on her own.

I wouldn’t recommend this novel to people who are looking for something with lots of action but if you’re in the mood for a slower, more character-driven story this is a very interesting read. And as a book about feminism written by a male author, I’m sure it must have caused controversy when it was first published in 1909. The book wasn’t perfect though – the main character started to irritate me after a while and at times it felt less like a novel and more of a vehicle for Wells to express his views on feminism, politics and science.

The first half of the book is concerned mainly with Ann Veronica’s struggle to gain independence from her father. She considers it unreasonable that he won’t let her go to a party in London with her friends and that he refuses to let her attend Imperial College to study for her science degree. And yet Ann Veronica’s father clearly loves his daughter and is not trying to be unkind to her – he truly believes women should behave in a certain way and it puzzles him that Ann Veronica doesn’t want to conform.

After a promising beginning, the second half of the book was dominated by a romantic storyline which became very sentimental and started to bore me. And although I can’t say too much because I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone, I was quite disappointed with the way the book ended and felt confused as to exactly what point Wells was trying to make. So, although I was left with mixed feelings about this book, at least it’s taught me not to have pre-conceived ideas about certain authors. I do feel happier about maybe trying one of his science fiction books now.

The version I read was the Penguin Classics one, but for those of you who like to collect Virago Modern Classics it has also been published as a VMC (and is one of the few written by a man).