Review: ‘The Crystal Egg’ by H. G. Wells

‘The Crystal Egg’ is a short story by H. G. Wells (1866-1946), first published in the New Review in 1897. The story might be regarded as a precursor to Wells’s novel, The War of the Worlds: the ‘crystal egg’ of the story’s title turns out to be a communication device Martians have left on earth.

First, here (briefly) is a summary of the plot of ‘The Crystal Egg’. Mr Cave, a man who runs a shop dealing in antiquities, has a crystal egg in his possession. Two men come by and offer to buy the egg, and Cave tells them that he will sell it for £5 – no small sum in Victorian England.

His reason for asking for such a large amount for the egg soon becomes apparent. He has no intention of selling it. When one of the men stumps up the cash, Cave comes clean and says he will not sell it after all. In time, he takes it to a Mr Wace, who works at a nearby hospital in the anatomy department, to look after it.

He tells Wace that he acquired it as part of a series of objects he won at an auction, and put it up for sale in his shop. But one night, he noticed ‘an unusual glow of light’ emanating from the egg, a light which – it turns out – not everyone is capable of seeing. And then:

And one day, turning the crystal about in his hands, he saw something. It came and went like a flash, but it gave him the impression that the object had for a moment opened to him the view of a wide and spacious and strange country; and turning it about, he did, just as the light faded, see the same vision again.

Wace agrees to help his friend, and notes down what Cave describes to him as he peers into the egg. This includes two small moons, the description of which lead the narrator to assert that Cave is about to observe the conditions on Mars. (Mars had two moons, Phobos and Deimos: something which Jonathan Swift had anticipated in Gulliver’s Travels, although the moons would not be discovered until the Victorian era.) The egg can apparently ‘communicate’ with other crystal objects via a series of masts, and strange flying creatures (Martians?) occasionally come up to one of the crystals and peer into it:

Occasionally one of the large flying creatures would flutter up to one, and folding its wings and coiling a number of its tentacles about the mast, would regard the crystal fixedly for a space – sometimes for as long as fifteen minutes. And a series of observations, made at the suggestion of Mr. Wace, convinced both watchers that, so far as this visionary world was concerned, the crystal into which they peered actually stood at the summit of the end-most mast on the terrace, and that on one occasion at least one of these inhabitants of this other world had looked into Mr. Cave’s face while he was making these observations.

This detail anticipates the sort of science fiction Olaf Stapledon, Wells’s great heir, would later write, or stories like J. G. Ballard’s ‘The Waiting Grounds’, from the late 1950s, in which a series of tantalum megaliths erected on a planet are used to record communications between various alien civilisations.

‘The Crystal Egg’ ends with Cave dying and some of the contents of his shop (including the egg) being sold to an untraceable buyer. The narrator concludes by wondering if other such crystals have come from Mars and are being used to monitor earthly affairs.

In An H. G. Wells Companion, the noted Wells scholar J. R. Hammond calls ‘The Crystal Egg’ one of Wells’s most remarkable inventions. And it’s certainly more than just a miniature forerunner to Wells’s more famous tale of Martian interaction, The War of the Worlds, serialisation of which would begin the same year that ‘The Crystal Egg’ appeared in the New Review.

‘The Crystal Egg’ is best-read, perhaps, as a straightforward science-fiction tale, and as such it’s a classic of the genre and shows all of the qualities which help to make Wells’s short fiction – which at its best can boast such tales as ‘The Star’, ‘The Country of the Blind’, ‘The Door in the Wall’, ‘In the Avu Observatory’, ‘Aepyornis Island’, ‘Pollock and the Porroh Man’, and perhaps half-a-dozen other bona fide classics – such well-crafted and immersive storytelling.

One of the things which mark out Wells’s science fiction – and this is another quality which Ballard perhaps learned from him, although Ballard always made a point of disavowing any direct influence from Wells – is his commitment to hinting rather than fully revealing, suggesting without ever entirely explaining, leaving the reader a sense of mystery and wonder and surrounding the story with an air of ambiguity. What precisely is the crystal egg for? Is it a surveillance device, like the ‘watch-towers’ in Ballard’s story of that name? And why can some people see what it transmits more clearly than others?

Wells provides some tentative answers to these questions but they are merely speculation on the part of his narrator, who naturally wants to understand and explain the strange phenomenon of the crystal egg. Freudians would doubtless have a field-day with this story, with its protagonist named ‘Cave’ (womb?), and the ‘egg’ at its centre, but perhaps a more fruitful analysis would focus on Wells’s penchant for what we might call ‘portal tales’: stories like ‘The Door in the Wall’, ‘The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes’, ‘The Plattner Story’, and, indeed, ‘The Crystal Egg’, all of which involve being able to see into some other world.


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