A note about the spoilers: They are legion, but I haven’t included every aspect of every story because these books are about 600 pages each and if I wanted to regurgitate their entire plots I would’ve just typed up the books and posted them as pdfs. However, that’s illegal and also time-consuming, so you’re stuck with limited synopses and a lot of spoilers.
P.S. Read the books.
Félix J. Palma
Translated by Nick Caistor
And now for something completely different: Three books bundled into one review! One of the more unfortunate side effects of reading more books in a year than I could count on sixteen hands is that very few of them stick with me in any lasting detail, so I figured it would be best if I did the Trilogía Victoriana as one post before I forgot anything else. I suppose it would’ve been smart to take notes as I went through each book, but, as has been previously stated, I’m fucking lazy.
The problem of forgetfulness is magnified tenfold by this particular trilogy, because it is intricate in its details but so tightly plotted that everything has its time and place and (as far as I can tell) nothing got missed. The Trilogía Victoriana is a Victorian sci-fi adventure featuring an ensemble cast spearheaded by H.G. Wells, who in this imagining was born with latent time-traveling abilities. The series comprises The Map of Time, The Map of the Sky, and The Map of Chaos, which were loosely inspired by The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, and The Invisible Man, respectively. Wells is sometimes a major character and sometimes not, but he makes an appearance in every story arc, and is the driving force behind most of the events that take place over the course of the trilogy. His world is replicated more or less exactly in countless parallel universes, none of which is aware of the others, but each universe takes a different path depending on the decisions he makes or doesn’t make. In some universes he is aware of the genetic mutation that allows him to time travel; in others he never finds out. He usually becomes a writer, though his stories change subtly from universe to universe, but he has also been a pharmacist, a Martian-hunter, a teacher, and a biologist. Along the way he is both helped and hindered by his abilities, until he finally finds himself in a world on the brink of chaos. His story, and the stories of the people whose lives ultimately hinge on his decisions, are related by a sardonic omniscient narrator of uncertain identity, who presents different storylines from different universes more or less according to her whim.
In the beginning, H.G. Wells is introduced as a means to an end: he is approached by Charles Winslow and Andrew Harrington, a pair of aristocratic cousins who appear to be the protagonists, and who have come to him for help. He has recently published The Time Machine, with the result that everyone and their mom thinks he has a secret time machine. Andrew is on the brink of suicide, having lost his secret girlfriend Marie Kelly in the worst possible way to Jack the Ripper, and he and Charles convince Wells to let Andrew borrow the time machine in his attic in order to go back eight years to shoot Jack the Ripper before he murders Marie. The plan goes off mostly as intended, but it is then revealed (to the reader, not to Andrew, who believes he saved Marie Kelly till the day he dies) that Charles staged the whole thing with Wells’s help, and that he was the one who commissioned the time machine currently sitting in Wells’s attic. This sets the tone for the rest of the series, which somehow keeps successfully pulling off more or less the same prank.
But The Map of Time isn’t just Andrew’s story; it is also the story of Claire Haggerty and Tom Blunt, who fall in love and actually do end up together despite the machinations of Gilliam Murray, the owner of Murray’s Time Travel, a very new business of dubious ethics. Having had his novel manuscript brutally trampled and his dreams of publication torn to pieces by an irate Wells, Murray spends a large part of his considerable fortune bringing his vision to life in the form of a giant indoor set, on which he stages his novel as a play. This would be fine in itself, but it’s actually a swindle: rather than telling the world that it is in fact a play, he tells the world he has discovered a wormhole to the year 2000, where mankind is under threat from self-aware automatons, and charges exorbitant prices to ferry his customers into the future to watch the final battle between the automatons and Derek Shackleton, the brave human captain (played by Tom) who leads the surviving humans to victory. The battle is incredibly cheesy, but the business is overwhelmingly successful and Murray makes a fortune off of it despite the unknown saboteur who keeps painting cow shit on the walls of his theater. Against the backdrop of Murray’s prank and his habit of killing off his actors to keep them from revealing his secret, Tom finds himself in deep trouble when Claire tries to join him in the year 2000, and resorts to increasingly desperate means of keeping her from finding out that the whole thing is an act, up to and including inventing a barely cohesive time-traveling story. Finally he goes to Wells and begs him for help writing the love letters he’s promised Claire despite having the writing ability of a chimpanzee, and they essentially reenact Cyrano de Bergerac, albeit without the fatal consequences.
After Claire and Tom have been packed off on their way to marital bliss, Wells takes over the story in time to meet Marcus Rhys, a time-hopping psychopath who has been murdering random people on the street in order to lure out Wells, Henry James, and Bram Stoker, whose unpublished novels – The Invisible Man, The Turn of the Screw, and Dracula, respectively – he intends to steal for his private enjoyment. Being a bit of a snot, Wells is not in the least enamored of either James or Stoker, and upon meeting James has this to say:
If Wells recognized any merit in James, it was his undeniable talent for using very long sentences in order to say nothing at all. And James must have felt the same disdain for Wells’s work as he felt for James’s world of lace handkerchiefs and indolent ladies tormented by unmentionable secrets, because his colleague could not help pulling a face when he introduced himself as H.G. Wells.
They don’t have a lot of time to settle their differences, however, because Wells receives a letter from his future self, who has already met Marcus and discovered his time-traveling abilities while running away from him. Armed with the contents of the letter and his knowledge of Marcus’s plan, Wells changes the path he’s been set on and manages to evade Marcus, in the process deleting a large portion of his own story and resetting his timeline to the moment he sat down in the time machine in his attic. In the end he goes to London, where he paints cow shit on the walls of Murray’s Time Travel with a total lack of remorse and speaks briefly with Andrew Harrington, who – having “saved” Marie Kelly – now intends to live life to the fullest.
Side Note: Out of everything that happens in these books, I find the initial meeting with Marcus the most unbelievable, because there is no situation in which I will believe that any writer would agree to hand an unpublished manuscript to a total stranger. We don’t work like that. The minute he asked them to bring him their manuscripts was the minute I knew he was no good. You can ask me to believe in time travel and aliens and parallel universes, but don’t ask me to believe that three writers would knuckle under that easily.
The Map of the Sky picks up a couple of years after The Map of Time; by now Wells has published The War of the Worlds, and is already upset that people see it as an exciting space adventure rather than the social allegory he intended. In the beginning of the book he meets with Garrett P. Serviss (who apparently really did exist), an American who has boldly presumed to write an Edison-centric sequel to The War of the Worlds, and who now wishes to receive Wells’s feedback despite not having obtained his permission to write a sequel in the first place. Wells goes to lunch with the intention of destroying Serviss, but his lofty plans fall to pieces when Serviss gets him drunk, and they end up visiting a secret Scotland Yard facility, where Wells inadvertently revives an alien who has been presumed dead for decades.
The story then cuts to the crew of the Annawan, an Antarctic expedition that set sail 70 years before the events of the story and never returned. Their intention is to find a secret civilization below the surface of the pole – and, by extension, vast wealth – but they become stranded by the ice and shortly find themselves under attack by an alien who gets his kicks by disemboweling people. The narrator starts telling a version of the story where the alien is destroyed by a crewmember named Griffin, but then announces that she’s gotten her timelines mixed up and switches instead to a storyline where the alien falls into the sea and is frozen in a block of ice, while the only two surviving members of the crew find their way onto a ship and back to civilization.
Meanwhile, Murray has escaped the time travel trap he made for himself by faking his own death, losing about 200 pounds, and reestablishing himself in the United States as Montgomery Gilmore, a previously unknown millionaire. (Fun fact: I keep forgetting he’s supposed to be about Wells’s age so I keep picturing him as Baron Harkonnen, because in The Map of Time it really sounded like he could’ve used a good set of weight suspensors. And with that, I would like to ask Dune to please kindly get the fuck out of my head.) While living incognito, he falls head over heels for Emma Harlow, a young socialite, and pursues her relentlessly. After telling him several times to fuck off with no effect, she finally agrees to marry him, but only if he goes back to England and stages the Martian invasion described in The War of the Worlds. Murray is almost forced to admit defeat but finds his efforts upstaged by a genuine alien invasion, led by the alien Wells revived. The aliens conquer the planet in short order and enslave the surviving humans, forcing them to build giant pyramids and using them as batteries in a scene straight out of The Matrix. Having managed to escape the aliens by time traveling, Wells goes into the past of another universe and gets himself onto the crew of the Annawan, where he gives his name as Griffin and destroys the alien before it can be frozen in a block of ice. He then hops around time for a bit and eventually settles down in London, watching over the Wells who was born into this universe.
The Map of the Sky is a pretty fair example of the issues I had with the narrative style, because I am not a patient person and I don’t care for the narrator’s habit of getting me about 3/4 of the way through one story before going “OH PSYCH I’m going to start telling another story now!” That drives me up the wall, because throughout the entire trilogy I kept expecting the narrator’s tangents to end quickly but they instead kept spinning out into whole different arcs and that’s annoying as fuck. Out of the three books, I’d have to say Map of the Sky was my least favorite (even though, funnily enough, it was my mom’s favorite), and if it had been the first book I’m not sure I would’ve continued with the trilogy. It’s not that the other two books didn’t have the same issue, it’s more that Map of the Sky dragged so much more for one reason or another, and it was kind of a struggle getting through to the end because it just kept going and going. It got particularly dreary when the aliens were ruling the planet; that section was largely narrated via diary by Charles Winslow, and there were times where I honestly thought it would never end.
The Map of Chaos suffers from the same issues mentioned above, but it was actually my favorite of the trilogy, because it was the most exciting and it had a very satisfying ending. The chaos begins in a different universe with different versions of Wells and his wife, Jane. Unlike in the previous books, this Wells and this Jane – who from hereonout will be referred to as Observer Wells and Observer Jane – are highly esteemed scientists. They are good friends with Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), who is also a scientist, and all of them are busy trying to figure out how to save the human race before the universe chills to the point of extinguishing all life. Dodgson proposes a wormhole to take them to another universe, one that isn’t dying, but is rejected in favor of Observer Wells, who has been developing a virus called cronotemia, with which he plans to infect the entire population to allow them all to jump to this other universe without any need for a wormhole. Upon finalizing the virus, Observer Wells injects it into his dog, Newton, but is grievously disappointed when the virus seems to have no effect. Eventually he agrees to visit Dodgson, whom he has been avoiding, but they are attacked by Murray, who has been funding Dodgson’s research and now intends to claim all the credit for himself. Observer Wells and Observer Jane manage to escape through the wormhole Dodgson created, and they wind up in another universe before Murray’s henchmen can kill them. Newton goes with them, but later disappears.
Back in the universe in which The Map of the Sky ended, the new Wells has grown up and the old Wells from the alien-infested world – who, for clarity’s sake, will be referred to as Martian Wells – has been keeping an eye on him from a distance and occasionally intervening without seeming to: not only has he persuaded Wells to change the ending of The War of the Worlds to let the humans win, he has also tricked Wells and Murray into becoming friends. However, chaos is inevitable, and they soon find themselves under siege from Marcus Rhys, who has now become invisible in addition to being batshit insane. After failing to obtain a book called The Map of Chaos from an old lady named Mrs. Lansbury, Marcus goes on a universe-hopping rampage, chasing Wells and his friends through their world in pursuit of the book, which he believes they have. Following a series of unfortunate events, Marcus corners them in time for the end of the world, which has been brought about more speedily than anybody anticipated by unregulated time travel. The people from Observer Wells’s world have been sending out Executioners in an attempt to buy more time by killing time travelers, but, given all the holes that have been made in the fabric of time and space, all of the parallel universes have grown unstable and are now about to collide. Fortunately, the main group by now has become acquainted with Observer Jane, who reveals that she is Mrs. Lansbury, that she knows how to prevent the time-traveling epidemic, and that she is the narrator of the entire trilogy.
I don’t usually read sci-fi and there were a couple of things in the narration that drove me crazy, but overall I really liked this trilogy. I don’t know if this should be attributed to Palma or to his translator, but the language used in the books is more than convincing. The writing is of a piece with the Victorian setting, and whoever made that happen did an excellent job. The humor can be sly at times, and is used to superb effect. The books are far funnier than I expected; I was expecting them to be somewhat dour, but they proved me wrong. Wells as a character is a riot. He is cranky, petty, easily offended, and somehow still incredibly funny. He holds his opinions with great conviction but will change them in a heartbeat if somebody tries to oppose him, as evinced in this scene:
“Don’t imagine I haven’t thought a great deal about the advice you gave me,” Murray resumed at last while Wells nodded with a paternal smile. “In fact, I have pondered it at length and have reached the conclusion that…er, how can I put this without sounding rude…I think it is one of the stupidest pieces of advice I have ever been given in my life.”
The smile vanished from Wells’s lips.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I said it was a stupid piece of advice, George, and I’m sure you’d agree with me if you thought about it for a second…So I have decided not to tell Emma anything.” Murray folded his arms as a sign of his determination. “And nothing you say, George, will make me change my mind.”
Then Wells took a deep breath and…Ah, but what can I tell you, dear readers, that you don’t already know about man’s irresistible need to defend his most misguided and outmoded beliefs when someone else questions them! I am sure that you have found yourselves more than once justifying absurd notions you no longer believed in simply because someone doubted your ability to do so. And so, in order to spare you the lengthy and tedious conversation that ensued, in which both men put forward arguments those of you who have been paying attention will be only too familiar with, suffice it to say that Wells’s discourse was never more brilliant, lucid, and convincing, more ruthless and irrefutable in his reasoning and responses than in that debate that took place in the intimacy of the small room, amid clouds of plaster dust floating in the air like snowflakes in a storm. So that by the time the two friends heard [Arthur Conan] Doyle’s booming voice as he came looking for them, concerned about how long they were taking, Murray left the room transformed once more into a man overcome with remorse, more eager than ever to atone for the unforgivable sin weighing on his conscience, whereas Wells did so puffed up with pride, triumphant and exhilarated, at least until the moment when it occurred to him what he had done.
Poor Murray never stood a chance. I would say I aspire to be that level of petty, but I’m pretty sure I’m already there.
The female characters were another pleasant surprise, especially given the Victorian setting. I didn’t like Emma when I was first introduced to her, but then she shot a man in the foot and fought off a rapist without any help. Observer Jane is as brilliant as Observer Wells and is frequently frustrated by the misogyny she encounters in the final universe, but still finds ways to use her knowledge to help save the world. The Countess de Bompard, a beautiful woman who doesn’t seem like she’ll amount to much at the beginning of The Map of Chaos, turns out to be a werewolf and the mastermind behind a series of brutal murders, for which she almost manages to evade detection. Not every portrayal is perfect, but there’s more than enough badassery to keep me satisfied.
That being said, the writing isn’t amazing. I don’t have enough words to describe how much I hate epithets. I always refer to my characters by their names or their pronouns, but Palma likes to refer to Wells as “the author” and to Murray as “the millionaire,” and so on. Even more egregious is his habit of both misusing and overusing the word “declared,” which is employed even when the speaking character is asking a question. If anyone is confused right now, here’s the official definition of “declare.” Maybe this is permissible in Spanish. I don’t know Spanish well enough to say if it’s right or wrong, but this is something that should’ve been caught during proofreading.
If we leave aside the writing, the trilogy’s greatest weakness lies in its tendency to get sidetracked into lengthy detours that don’t seem relevant to the overall plot until the reveal at the end. This makes for some very long reads, as each book is in excess of 550 pages; however, though I thought the books could’ve been edited down a lot more than they were, the reveals were very satisfying. Nothing was random; every event could be traced to some moment in the history of these universes, from the proliferation of time travelers to the dog that bit Martian Wells to Marcus Rhys, the Invisible Man. I am of necessity wary of time travel stories, given that they are easily tangled and often don’t hold up to scrutiny, but this one was extremely well done. If you’re into Victorian novels or time travel at all, I highly recommend these books.
P.S. I might be the only one dorky enough to appreciate this, but The Map of Chaos included a truly excellent reference to The Lost World (Arthur Conan Doyle, not Michael Crichton). I won’t ruin it. If you see it, you see it.