The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells - Sci-Fi Classic Review
You have to love a classy, simple hardcover
This week, we come at long last to H.G. Wells' most enduring and successful novel, the crown jewel of a career filled with priceless works of science-fiction literature. The War of the Worlds has never been out of print since it was first assembled as a novel in 1898, and it set the mold by which alien invasion stories are still cast today. It's not quite the first alien invasion story, but it was the first to be widely read. Wells, whose sci-fi career is filled with novels that changed the landscape of the genre, managed in The War of the Worlds to do something even greater: he left a permanent impression on the human psyche.
Thinking about the British genocide of Tasmanians, Wells posits what would happen if aliens decided to treat humanity the same way, decided to take our land by a show of overwhelming force. His protagonist is an academic, a philosopher working on a tretise about the fluid nature of morality, and indeed, underneath the anti-colonial concept that sparks the narrative, The War of the Worlds is about the meaninglessness of every human concept of morality when faced with the wanton cruelty of war. Wells makes a point of giving us the aliens' motivation for the attack: they are from Mars, a dying world, and are intent on taking Earth as a way of ensuring their own survival. To them, humans are mere pests, ants to be exterminated before the foundations of a new civilization can be dug. They have no moral qualms with doing that.
It is an existentially terrifying novel, one that recontextualizes so much of the human experience as illusory, foolish, or just outright pointless. While mankind does manage to get in a few hits on the Martians, humans are so ridiculously outmatched by their celestial neighbors that defeat seems inevitable after less than a fortnight. In one of the most famous deus ex machina endings of all time (though you can make the case that it is telegraphed well in advance), the Martians are defeated not by humans but by bacteria, highlighting that mankind's technology, intellect, and strength are nothing compared to the relentless and amoral workings of nature itself.
This cover best captures the tone of the novel
One of the things that always strikes me about Wells is how dark he can be. The Morlocks are as frightening as Moreau's island is macabre and Griffin is psychopathic, but none of their stories are quite as bleak and brutal as The War of the Worlds. It's not a fun read, as Wells' narrator relates mayhem, destruction, and loss of life on a scale not easily imagined prior to the wars of the Twentieth Century. Unconsciously, Wells taps into the underlying fears of a society nearing a breaking point and describes things that would become all too familiar a few decades later, such as chemical warfare, submarine battles, mass exodus, and a blitzkreig-style attack on London.
Towards the end of the novel, before it is revealed that the Martians are dying by no success of humanity's machinations, Wells uses the character of the artilleryman to imagine a future where humans are forced underground, to scurry, scavenge, and hide like rats, to survive by recognizing the simple fact that they are no longer the dominant form of life on the planet. The unnamed protagonist is even drawn in by this horrible vision, momentarily accepting it as inevitable in the face of everything he's seen. This entire sequence, in which the protagonist and the artilleryman are the only two survivors in a desolate town, feels torn out of a work of post-apocalyptic fiction, even though the subgenre wouldn't emerge (Mary Shelley's The Last Man notwithstanding) until after the invention of the nuclear bomb.
Even though it is a cliché to call something "ahead of its time," The War of the Worlds is thus ahead of its time. Wells somehow managed to peek into the near future and foresee the horrors of both World Wars, along with the scars they would leave behind. If he were a time traveler trying to warn people of the devastation to come, using a thinly-veiled novel, I can't imagine he'd write it much differently. Even the title seems a bit on-the-nose. This is probably why so many adaptations don't feel the need to preserve the setting, as it almost feels anachronistic for the tale to exist in a world that hasn't yet experienced global warfare.
The Martain tripods only came to dance!
It's also a fairly startling exercize in scientific speculation. While it's easy to laugh off the idea of Martians nowadays, a lot of Wells' science remains strong. A student of biology and evolution--armed with the teachings of his late mentor T.H. Huxley (Darwin's bulldog)--Wells doesn't shy away from the details of Martian anatomy, and he makes an interesting extrapolation based on the idea of evolution resulting from technological dependance. He also utilizes the fairly new science of spectography and doesn't skimp on the astronomy. Even though Wells refused to consider himself a true science-fiction author (he insisted on calling himself a fantasy writer), he clearly did his homework.
Where the novel can be seen as a bit weaker is on things like pacing and characterization. The protagonist is largely a blank slate--he's basically a very slightly tweaked version of the author himself--as is his brother, who takes over the protagonist role for an extended digression involving the evacuation of London. That digression--while it contains some of the novel's most important setpieces, not the least of which is the awesome battle in which the ironclad HMS Thunder Child kamikazes a pair of Martian tripods--does slow the pace of the novel down considerably, with a lot of descriptions of mayhem that get mind-numbingly repetitive. As for other characters, they flit in and out of the story without leaving much of an impression, bar the curate, whose insanity is the most memorable trait of any character in the entire story.
These are incredibly minor nitpicks, however, vastly outweighed by Wells' futurism and writing style. The opening chapter is one of the most exceptionally poetic things Wells ever wrote, and this book's influence somehow managed to supercede the influences of his other works, which is no small feat. As much as I adore The Time Machine, I have to admit that, if there is one Wells novel that should be required reading, it is The War of the Worlds. We'll look at its two biggest film adaptations in the coming weeks (George Pal's and Steven Spielberg's), but after that, rest assured, even though this is his most important work, I'm nowhere near done with Herbert George Wells.
-e. magill 4/30/2020
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: