When the Time Machine is accidentally altered, Edward Turnbull and his love, Amelia Fitzgibbon are taken through space, rather than time, to the planet Mars, right before the Martians' invasion of Earth. They must get back to Earth in time to warn the government!
The Space Machine is a curious entry in the list of unofficial sequels to The War of the Worlds, though sequel is perhaps the wrong word for this book. It is more in the way of a re-examination of the events of the original novel, seen through the eyes of a new set of characters and greatly expanded upon. Familiar scenes such as the Martian assault on Weybridge are vividly presented, but whole new vistas are also opened up, specifically a long sojourn to Mars and a close up look at the Martian civilisation.
Edward Turnbull is a travelling salesman who spends most of his time in drab hotels, sharing his evenings in dull discourse with men in similar trades. But all this is about to change when he chances to discover that a young lady named Amelia Fitzgibbon has tantalisingly intruded on this formally all male preserve. Learning that she is connected to the famous inventor Sir William Reynolds, Edward becomes determined to make her acquaintance in the hope of interesting her patron in an idea of his own, but all thoughts of commerce are swiftly discarded as he becomes smitten and a romance develops.
Visiting Amelia at her employers home, he learns that Sir William has invented nothing less than and a Space and Time machine. This glorious contraption is just crying out for a test drive, and when the hour grows late and with Sir William absent, Amelia suggests that she and Edward borrow the Space Machine. Thus is set in motion a disastrous course of events, as on their first tentative journey a short way into the future, Edward witnesses a fiery assault on Sir Williams' house and the death of what can only be a future version of Amelia. Distraught by the sight, Edward inadvertently sends the Space Machine careering off course, fetching up in a landscape dominated by a crimson weed and populated by a ragged race of peasant workers. In due course they realise that the Space Machine has deposited them not as they first think in some remote corner of the earth, but on the planet Mars and that the workers have some nightmarish masters. Throwing in their lot with the peasants, the travellers become involved in plans for an uprising and discover that the Martians are on the brink of launching their invasion of the earth. The scene is thus set for the story to marry up with the original novel.
Written in 1976, the author has gone to strenuous efforts to channel the spirit of H.G. Wells and succeeds quite well in spinning a space opera in a style consistent with it's Victorian setting. The dialogue sounds like it could have been written in the 1890's and the romance between Edward and Amelia presents plenty of opportunity to make good natured fun of the straight laced Victorian ideas of propriety between the sexes, though in broader terms, you can't shake the feeling that more has been lost than gained by sticking so rigorously to an old fashioned style of story telling. There is a fine line between homage and parody, and this book wobbles dangerously between the two.
It must also be said that readers used to the more sophisticated ideas of modern science fiction may find themselves becoming frustrated rather than charmed by the pseudo scientific elements of the story and the remorselessly quaint dialogue. Wells did not trouble himself unduly with the scientific elements of The War of the Worlds, and Priest's attempt to invest the story with a good deal more description of the technology of the Martians is not a complete success, hemmed in as he is by the self imposed restrictions he has placed on himself. Perhaps 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. It must also be said that the Martian civilisation described in this book does not quite dovetail as well as you might expect with the original novel. The human slaves of the Martians are particularly disconcerting, especially as Priest proposes that it was these slaves who piloted the Martian cylinders to Earth. Perhaps the author never intended there to be a perfect correlation with the original source material, for the introduction of H.G. Wells himself as a character in the story pretty much torpedoes any idea that the Space Machine should be treated as a sequel and that really this is best treated as an interesting but ultimately flawed alternative reality of an alternative reality.