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Book Review: The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells

Mars attacks! The granddaddy of all alien invasion stories.


The War of the Worlds

Originally published in 1898. Approximately 60,000 words. Available for free on Project Gutenberg.



First published by H. G. Wells in 1898, The War of the Worlds is the granddaddy of all alien invasion stories. The novel begins ominously, as the lone voice of a narrator intones, "No one would have believed in the last years of the 19th century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's."

Things then progress from a series of seemingly mundane reports about odd atmospheric disturbances taking place on Mars to the arrival of Martians just outside of London. At first, the Martians seem laughable, hardly able to move in Earth's comparatively heavy gravity, even enough to raise themselves out of the pit created when their spaceship landed. But soon the Martians reveal their true nature as death machines 100 feet tall rise up from the pit and begin laying waste to the surrounding land. Wells quickly moves the story from the countryside to the evacuation of London itself and the loss of all hope as England's military suffers defeat after defeat.

With horror, the narrator describes how the Martians suck the blood from living humans for sustenance and how it's clear that man is not being conquered so much as corralled.





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.


H.G. Wells' classic is now over 110 years old. While Wells is generally considered not to be a "hard SF" author (that distinction would go to Jules Verne), The War of the Worlds is rather impressive given what science was understood at the time — Wells had only a rudimentary understanding of rocketry, and the iconic Martian tripods are not really the most sensible constructs, but revolutionary new ideas like the germ theory of disease and the theory of evolution are handled well, and prescient descriptions of lasers and poison gas make this truly science fiction to this day.

The War of the Worlds is a grim and brutal invasion story. While Wells did not describe the Martian atrocities in graphic detail, post-invasion London as described by the first-person narrator is a charnel house, then an empty, post-apocalyptic landscape. These images — of London devastated, of the Martian red weed choking out all terrestrial vegetation, of hundred-foot tall tripods wading up the Thames and destroying everything in their path with heat rays — make the novel as much a horror story as a science fiction adventure. Indeed, the narrator is rather passive, only scurrying about in the shadows of the Martians, trying to survive and find his wife as the invaders overrun England until being felled by terrestrial microbes.


Never before in the history of the world had such a mass of human beings moved and suffered together. The legendary hosts of Goths and Huns, the hugest armies Asia has ever seen, would have been but a drop in that current. And this was no disciplined march; it was a stampede--a stampede gigantic and terrible--without order and without a goal, six million people unarmed and unprovisioned, driving headlong. It was the beginning of the rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind.


Tripods

His time spent with other survivors — the hapless curate trapped in a basement with him after a Martian cylinder lands on the house above, and the ambitious but ineffective artilleryman who grandly schemes to start a guerilla campaign against the Martians — makes the novel more than just a war story. Wells focuses on human psychology and society more than Verne did.

One can also read an obvious metaphor into the conquest of Britain by brutal, technologically superior invaders:


And before we judge them [the Martians] too harshly, we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished Bison and the Dodo, but upon its own inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?


In the century-plus since it was published, The War of the Worlds remains a landmark, inspiration for countless imitators from Independence Day to John Christopher's Tripods. There have been film and radio versions (the most famous of all being Orson Welles' 1938 radio drama that panicked America), comic books, TV series, and my favorite of all, Jeff Wayne's musical.



Wells' prose is descriptive but not particularly memorable, and of course the story is dated now, but The War of the Worlds is still capable of evoking fears of alien invasions and stirring imaginative ideas about the inhabitants of Mars. Have there been better stories in the genre written since then? Yes, but all of them owe their existence to the original.

Adaptations



The War of the Worlds (1953)



The War of the Worlds (1953)

A now-classic film, the 1953 adaptation modernized H.G. Wells's story to take place in the present day. The Martian invasion in this version is fought by the U.S. military, which deploys everything from tanks to atomic weapons against them, without effect. The Martian war machines are hovering saucers rather than the iconic tripods (which would have been difficult to animate at the time).

A bit cheesy and typical 1950s Hollywood fare, it was still a sci-fi landmark, and it's still a pretty good alien invasion film that retains much of the horror of the original story.

The War of the Worlds (2005)



The War of the Worlds (2005)

The Tom Cruise version can be forgiven for updating and relocating the story, since most American versions have done that. It's harder to forgive it for making Tom Cruise an action hero single-handedly blowing up Martian war machines. With Cruise as the main character, the 2005 film becomes an individualist narrative, about a negligent father manning up to protect his family, which rather misses the point of the original story, which was the helplessness of the entire human race before the invaders.

The special effects were pretty, but it's a dumb and not very faithful movie.




Verdict: Truly the granddaddy of alien invasion stories; The War of the Worlds is still a frightening and entertaining classic. The plot is slow in places, and the characters don't really do much, but Wells describes a near-end-of-the-world in words that could be applied to any civilization that's been crushed, bombed, or genocided. 8/10.




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