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

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Yes, my first exposure to this story as a child was Jeff Wayne’s rock opera musical version.  Then the 1950’s George Pal movie, and… well, I’d seen and heard just about every adaptation of this story (including the infamous Orsen Welles radio broadcast that allegedly caused mass panic in New York), before finally getting around to reading the original alien invasion story that they were all based on.

Almost all of Wells’ famous sci-fi works – War of the Worlds, Invisible Man, The Time Machine – were written in a quite short period in the 1890’s, but are by far his most remembered works.  Whereas Verne was a renowned futurist and wrote a great deal of early engineering and technology porn, Wells background was in biology and that shows a little in his writing.  In War of the Worlds, for example, he’s obviously far more interested in the Martians themselves and the evolution of life on an alien world than he is in all their war machines.  In Verne’s story ‘From Earth to the Moon’, he obviously did a lot of research and spent a lot of time describing how we might get there.  In Wells’ ‘First Men in the Moon’, how they get there obviously didn’t matter so much to him as exploring another world and encountering its strange new creatures.  It’s a much more exciting story which no doubt helped to really popularise the genre.

While The War of the Worlds might be the most famous alien invasion, it was definitely not the first future war/invasion tale.  During the Napoleonic Wars, the French general had first proposed a Channel Tunnel as a means to invade England, and even had plans drawn up for it.  By the later half of the nineteenth, Germany was also becoming an industrial power in mainland Europe.  With new technologies being developed, the British began to sense that their position as a global power was tenuous and lived in constant fear of invasion.  In 1871 a story appeared in entitled The Battle of Dorking, told from the perspective of an old soldier in the future recounting an invasion of Britain from Germany.  This was followed by other accounts of future war, such as Albert Robida’s ‘War in the 20th Century’, that proposed the use of tanks, aerial bombardment, and chemical and germ warfare.  In the future, many believed, it would be whoever had the most advanced industry technology that would win wars.  And then H.G Wells stepped in and proposed the ultimate threat, penning perhaps one of the best opening paragraphs ever to a novel:

‘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. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us…’

At this point however I would like to point out that the title of the story is misleading.  It’s not so much a ‘War of the Worlds’ as it is just Mars versus England.  At least as far as we know from the story, they never land anywhere else.  The story, an account of the invasion, is told from the point of view of a nameless journalist in Woking at the time the first Martian cylinder lands nearby (although there is a diversion as he also relates what happened to his brother who was caught up in the flight from London after the war had begun).

After initial attempts to establish contact fail after the Martians unleash their heat-ray burning Earth’s ambassadors to a crisp, and half the nearby village, the army is called in while the Journalist gets his family to safety.  But he then goes back, for some reason which I’m sure must have seemed important at the time, only to find the Martians have emerged from their cylinder in huge mechanical tripods and annihilated the human forces arranged to contain them.  The Journalist is then just swept along as the Martians make their way north toward London, and although the British to succeed in destroying a few war machines, ultimately the superior technology and weapons of the Martians prevails and they rout everything in front of them.  In addition to the heat-ray, they unleash a gas simply referred to as ‘black smoke’ that chokes the life out of everything in front of them.  The journalist witnesses a couple of battles, but then becomes trapped in a cellar with an increasingly erratic Parson after another cylinder lands on his house, where he witnesses the vampiric nature of the aliens as they suck the blood from human’s they’ve captured.

And then, after defeating everything thrown at them and winning the war, the Martians just… die.  According to the narrator, killed by the one thing they hadn’t counted on – bacteria.  If you remember from the Verne story I looked at, in the nineteenth century it seemed a number of people believed that in the future we would eliminate all bacteria and thus do away with illness.  The Martians, being more advanced, had already done that and so had no immunity to micro-organisms.  Yes, it seems silly to us now as we know that bacteria can’t really all be killed and it wouldn’t be a good idea to do so even if we could.  But Wells’ had to end the story with Martians beaten not by anything humanity had thrown at them, as to do otherwise would defeat the point that no matter how powerful we think we are, the universe is a huge and there’s always going to be something out there that can kick our ass.  It is worth noting however that everything about the Martians and what happened to them is merely speculation on the narrator’s part as no-one is ever able to talk or communicate with the aliens directly.

Some view this story as in fact being a satire of The British Empire and colonialism, and there are certainly passages to suggest that.  Especially at the beginning of the book where the narrator discusses the treatment of native peoples by the British, and the fates of the many colonists who succumbed to diseases they had no immunity to (of course it more often happened the other way round, with Europeans bringing over diseases native people had no immunity to).  But indeed to this day, fear of alien invasion really stems from how human beings have treated each other in the past.

All that aside, if you’re a sci-fi fan you obviously have to read this book as it’s the original alien invasion, and like Jules Verne collections of Wells’ works are today usually available in book and e-book forms at a quite low price.  Also, if there’s ever a chance again for you to see the rock opera version, do so – it’s effing awesome.

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