The Works of H. G. Wells: The Sea Lady - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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The Works of H. G. Wells: The Sea Lady

Alexander Wallace hears a calling from the sea.
The War of the Worlds is widely hailed, and rightly so, as a grim denunciation of imperialism and its costs on those who have been imperialized (Wells directly mentions the genocide of the Tasmanian aboriginals). What is oftentimes not mentioned is that it is also a fuming letter of hate to the middle class ‘Little Englander’ society that Wells grew up in. In that book, he details with barely disguised glee how the tripods are destroying towns in Surrey; those towns were real.

The Sea Lady takes that impulse of Wells and turns it into an entire book. This is a comedy of manners of sorts about upper class Britons who act in foppish and silly, but also enraging, ways. It reminds me of how my father reads Town and Country so that he can feel satisfied that he will never be that decadent: a middle-class pride that they aren’t as debauched as the mega-rich (a pride that endures as they sneer at the poor).

The book begins with a mermaid washing ashore in Folkestone at a gathering of rich fops on the beach; from there, the mermaid ends up intruding into the love life of one of the couples present. Accompanying this is much philosophizing about this, that, and the other, to the point it feels like the actual plot was a sideshow to the other ideas that Wells had in mind. Wikipedia calls this an early example of a ‘contemporary fantasy,’ in which the fantastic element is introduced to the time that the author is writing in. It is, but it feels very much a ‘low’ fantasy, with only the mermaid and not much magic.
I can’t help but think of this short novel as a lesser version of Wells’ other book The Wonderful Visit. In both there is a supernatural entity that is thrust upon the Britain that Wells knew and then runs headfirst into the strange social contradictions thereof. In The Wonderful Visit, this is helped along by more obvious sources of commentary and well-written characters. To my disappointment, The Sea Lady does not have these benefits. To a man (or woman, as there are several), they are all insufferably upper class, and the actual plot is almost entirely composed of petty social drama in a plot that probably could have been done with a normal human mistress.

This book is Wells as social commentator in his less subtle mode, as he was in In the Days of the Comet. This comes, as it did in that book, at the cost of narrative or character development or, to be frank, more or less anything that made me want to keep reading it. Wells was a man who could be subtle when he wanted to be and as subtle as a sledgehammer when he didn’t care to be the former, and he is that here. I concede the possibility that some of his satire would be clearer to his contemporaries, but overall I find Wells to be a very prescient author, down to things I have experienced personally.

I know all of this is uncharitable, but frankly I can absolutely see why The War of the Worlds or The Time Machine or The Invisible Man are famous, and The Sea Lady is not (personally I find The Island of Doctor Moreau to be a tad overrated; if I were to choose which work to replace it with, I’d go with The War in the Air). This is when Wells lacks the skill of metaphor that propels his famous works to greatness; unfortunately, not all of what we produce is always good.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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