The Map of the Sky is the follow-up to Felix J. Palma’s The Map of Time, a book that had much to recommend it but that I couldn’t in the end quite get behind. The Map of the Sky shares some of the same flaws as its predecessor, leaving me with a mixed reaction, but on the whole, I found it to be an improvement over the first book and more consistently enjoyable.
The Map of Time introduced H.G. Wells as a main character and centered its plot around his The Time Machine. Wells returns in The Map of the Sky, but this time the story uses The War of the World as its core, though Palma also brings in a slew of other literary/cinematic touchstones including John W. Campbell’s famous short story “Who Goes There?” (along with the movie based on it — The Thing), the work of Edgar Allen Poe, the New York Sun’s famous Moon Hoax, The Matrix, and a few Hollow Earth theories for good measure.
The novel begins with Wells being taken to see what he’s told is a dead Martian and his flying ship, which have been kept in a secret area of the British Museum since having been discovered in the Antarctic years ago. Suddenly, we’re back in time to the original Antarctic expedition, led by gruff Captain MacReady, Hollow Earth proponent Jeremiah Reynolds, and a young Edgar Allen Poe. The next 120 pages or so are basically a retelling of “Who Goes There?”/The Thing a la Dan Simmons’ The Terror (more on this later).
We then quickly move ahead in time through Reynolds and Poe’s lives and on into the mid-1800s, when we meet Emma, the great-granddaughter of the purveyor of the Moon Hoax. When Emma tells Montgomery Gilmore, an overly persistent suitor, that the only way she’ll marry him is if he recreates Well’s Martian invasion (to be fair, she asks only for the opening stage to be recreated) for her. He agrees and we’re now up to present time, back to Wells and the not-so-dead Martian in the British Museum. Soon, cylinders are dropping all over England, tripods with heat rays are incinerating the populace, and Wells, Emma, Gilmore and a Scotland Yard captain named Clayton are forced to deal with an actual invasion.
Clearly there’s a lot going on here, some of which works quite well, some of which doesn’t, and some of which I’m still mulling over. One aspect that works is the novel’s sense of exuberance and playfulness, which is mostly consistent throughout the book with a few areas that bog down. Shapeshifting monsters hunting down crewmembers in the barren arctic waste, huge tripods stalking the English countryside wreaking havoc, desperate flights, swooning love, heroes of humanity sprung to life unexpectedly. I’m not always clear if Palma is having fun or poking fun, but as a reader it didn’t really matter much as it was all entertaining.
There were also some surprisingly moving scenes, mostly in the latter part of the novel. I say surprisingly because with a few exceptions (a local priest for one), the characters never really felt all that real or fully alive. Some, like Wells, felt flat and others felt more like caricatures of Victorian fiction (again, possibly intended). Gilmore was probably the most interesting due to his changes, though he’s painted too broadly and one has to somewhat forget what we know of him from The Map of Time. Another surprise was Palma’s willingness to go dark toward the end. I was a bit concerned when it seemed as if he might try to have it both ways, and while (avoiding spoilers here) I had some issues with how he works his way out of some trouble, I liked that he doesn’t cop out at the end.
As with the first book, The Map of the Sky is overly long, though it isn’t as egregious. There are several slow sections throughout, and by the end I was severely tempted to do some skimming of pages. My version is nearly 600 pages long and I’d say it would have been better served to have come in 100 pages or so shorter.
Finally, the part I’m mulling over is just where the line gets drawn between pastiche and inspiration and retelling and not being creative enough. As mentioned, a good 100+ pages of the opening section of the book are basically directly challenging Campbell and John Carpenter’s The Thing. It’s tense, it’s enjoyable, but even as I was enjoying it I was feeling a bit uncomfortable as the reasons I was enjoying it were the exact same ones I enjoyed the originals — the barren, isolated setting, the paranoia as the men realize any one of them could be the creature, the descriptions of it morphing horribly, and so on. I can’t say Palma added anything to the originals, which leaves about a quarter of the novel to really be another’s achievement. The same holds true with some of the scenes of the invasion, which sometimes did and sometimes did not match Wells’ own, and with some of the post-invasion scenes, which came directly out of other works. Is this “sampling” to make a new creative work? Is it relying too much on others’ work to carry the water? Is it repurposing? Or just retelling? I can’t say I’ve decided just a day or two after reading the book, but I can say it at least left me a bit unsettled and still has me turning it over in my head.
Despite that concern, and the issues with length and character, I’d still recommend The Map of the Sky, as it is an entertaining, enjoyable ride throughout with lots of nods to well-loved fictions/authors. Palma has said there will be a third book in this series, and I’ll be interested to see if the improvement continues.