Young salesman Edward Turnbull has the meeting of a lifetime while on the road one day. Attempting to cash in on the trend for motor cars, he peddles goggles for the Sunday driver, and in doing so meets the lovely Miss Emily Fitzgibbons at an inn. The young lady’s overseer ensuring the two spend as little time together as possible, a spark is nevertheless lit, and upon his return to London Edward receives an invitation to visit Emily at the estate of her uncle, a rich, eccentric inventor. Over drinks, the young couple decide to test out his time machine to see a few years into the future. The blind twist of a knob here and an accidental kick to an instrument there, and the two are winging their way through space and time to ends unknown. Awaking in a strange place with red weeds and a strange, pallid coldness to the air, it takes the two some time to figure out where, in fact, those ends are. It takes them even longer, a fact supported by the capture, enslavement, wars, and otherwise inadvertent detours the two are put through, to even consider getting back to turn of the 20th century England. And when they do, well, it’s nothing like they left it.
Part The Time Machine and part The War of the Worlds, The Space Machine is clear homage to H.G. Wells. Priest using many of the ideas and elements from those two novels, Edward and Emily have off-planet adventures in dramatic style—Wells himself appearing as a key character. Priest writing in period style, I daresay he even one-ups the grandfather of British sf for precision and accuracy in telling of their dramatic voyage.
Light on theme compared to the average Priest novel (or even Wells’ source material, for that matter), The Space Machine takes Wells’ character as its substance more than any social or political cause. There are brief looks at sexual and women’s emancipation circa the end of the 19th century, environmental warnings, and power and class (the latter of which may be more plot parallel to The Time Machine than examined subject matter). But as a whole, the novel’s subtitle A Scientific Romance seems to sum up the proceedings best, the inquisitive, innovative nature of Wells’ personality the heart.
As such, The Space Machine is the novel that would seem most likely to be a mainstream hit for Priest. Ironically, however, it is one of his least known novels. Stephen Baxter’s bloated, convoluted The Time Ships, purported sequel to Wells’ The Time Machine, for example, has garnered more attention despite the gap in quality. (I’m likewise scared of Baxter’s 2016 sequel to The War of the Worlds entitled The Massacre of Mankind…) Significantly more reminiscent of Brian Aldiss’ homage to Wells in “The Saliva Tree”, The Space Machine comes recommended to readers looking for more fiction in Wells’ worlds, but fiction that pays his creations respect in comparable style.
I have read complaints that The Space Machine “would have been a more satisfying book had the author modernised the science fiction elements, but kept the authentic period writing style”. I would strongly disagree. I found Priest’s “retro” technology and society highly complementary to the style of writing. Reading of cyberpunk or hard sf adventures in Victorian prose, for example, may be a viable product, but I don’t think it would feel as holistic or be as much an homage had Priest done differently. But more importantly, the novel’s conlusion wouldn’t have made any sense, making me wonder if Lupoff read the same book. And the comment that Priest starts the novel too slow is downright laughable. Only somebody steeped in pulp sf would make such a comment. Chapters come swiftly and it only takes a couple before Edward and Emily have landed in unfamiliar surrounds, their exotic adventure in full swing. From another view, the halfway point of the novel forms the climax of many other novels, Priest packing a lot of story into 350+ pages.
In the end, The Space Machine is a wonderful homage to H.G. Wells that effortlessly combines elements of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds into a synergistic whole that likewise emulates the style and cultural perspective of the times. Ironically, the most overtly genre novel Prist has written (that is, if we ignore his movie tie-in work), the story moves at a quick clip and features that sf sense of wonder (i.e. adventure in exotic lands, with aliens and battles) that many readers are looking for.