Like so many other, reasonably busy individuals I used to think of Christmas as a great opportunity to read a big classic novel. I wrecked the holiday for years with the same repeated, idiotic misunderstanding, struggling to finish The Golden Bowl or The Way We Live Now or Daniel Deronda, until I began to hate the very idea of Christmas reading. But a decade ago I took a decision which has made me happy ever since. At Christmas I would read only short books.
This switch was first achieved when I decided to limit my holiday reading to the four extraordinary little fantasies that H. G. Wells wrote in quick succession, starting in 1894 at a desk in a Sevenoaks boarding-house: The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds. When he had finished he had gone from total obscurity to being one of the most famous authors in the world.
The four books are all strikingly brief, but they launched in a seemingly effortless way all the major strands of science fiction and their endless progeny which still choke every bookshop and television screen in ways that Wells would have found both gratifying and alarming.
Three of them are set in various parts of the ancient but sometimes gimcrack country south-west of London with which Wells was very familiar. His attitude to its inhabitants in these novels is somewhat cold: scaring them with the antics of Griffin, the invisible man; killing them with poison gas and death rays produced by invading Martians; turning their descendants in the Richmond of 8,000 centuries ahead into lurking, troglodyte Morlocks.
The fourth novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), is the odd one out and is often overlooked. It is very different in tone and is set a long way from Surrey. While the others are more like brief sketches which have been filled in and elaborated on by countless films, sequels and spin-offs over the ye
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