The War of The Worlds
by H. G. Wells
Genre: Classics, Science Fiction
Length: 192 Pages
Published: December 1897
Blurb via GoodReads:
With H.G. Wells’ other novels, The War of the Worlds was one of the first and greatest works of science fiction ever to be written. Even long before man had learned to fly, H.G. Wells wrote this story of the Martian attack on England. These unearthly creatures arrive in huge cylinders, from which they escape as soon as the metal is cool. The first falls near Woking and is regarded as a curiosity rather than a danger until the Martians climb out of it and kill many of the gaping crowd with a Heat-Ray. These unearthly creatures have heads four feet in diameter and colossal round bodies, and by manipulating two terrifying machines – the Handling Machine and the Fighting Machine – they are as versatile as humans and at the same time insuperable. They cause boundless destruction. The inhabitants of the Earth are powerless against them, and it looks as if the end of the World has come. But there is one factor which the Martians, in spite of their superior intelligence, have not reckoned on. It is this which brings about a miraculous conclusion to this famous work of the imagination.
I find it really difficult to review classics, particularly when it comes to someone as influential as H. G. Wells. I won’t be giving this a star rating because it feels very difficult to contextualize the work from a modern vantage. Ideas which were fresh and exciting back in 1897 can understandably feel tired and overdone in 2018. This was the second book I’ve read by Wells; The Time Machine was a childhood favorite of mine. I found The War of the Worlds somewhat less enthralling.
While I loved the concept of the story, I was a bit put off by the tone. The prose feels very formal and detached, almost clinical. Certain chunks of the book feel almost like a textbook, describing the plot in the dry tones of a dusty old history text. This was not entirely different from the prose in The Time Machine, but that style worked better there than in this story.
The protagonist of The Time Machine was a scientist; he built the time machine with the purpose of using it in his research. A somewhat clinical tone when recounting his discoveries felt proper there. The protagonist of The War of The Worlds was an ordinary man, just one of many, whose life was thrown into chaos with the arrival of the Martians. It felt like the story was missing an emotional undercurrent. When combined with the surprisingly slow pace for a short book about such a sensational topic, it made for a somewhat sluggish read at times.
No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.
All that being said, there was a lot to like about this book. Life seems to go on as normal for a short time after the Martians arrive. The news is treated as a mere curiosity, and few have any inkling of the threat they truly pose. The descent into panic is surprisingly slow, especially when contrasted with the 1 hour radio show adaptation of the same story. Modern sci-fi tends to lean towards rapid and full-blown panic in similar scenarios.
Particularly interesting for me was the way Wells explored the biology of his fictional Martians; it’s clear that he spent a good deal of time mulling over not only how creatures which evolved in such a vastly different environment would differ from humans, but how those differences would impact their ability to survive on Earth. The musings on this topic neatly foreshadowed the resolution without making it overwhelmingly obvious. I envy the people who were able to read this when it was new, before the ending became common knowledge even among those who haven’t read the book.
We must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its own inferior races. The Tasmanians . . . were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space if fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?
I also don’t want to ignore the societal commentary ingrained into the narrative. There is a sharp condemnation of colonialism and lack of regard for the environment (albeit while using the somewhat unfortunate phrasing of “inferior races,” a cringe-inducing reminder of the time period in which this was written.) This wasn’t meant to be simply a fun science fiction story or a thought experiment. The best of science fiction is often political, and Wells delivers in that regard.
While The War of The Worlds feels somewhat dated at times, it remains a worthwhile read with an important message.