The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells.

The War of the Worlds 1960 edition illustrated
by Edward Gorey and published by Doubleday.
The War of the Worlds is, I believe, H. G. Wells' sixth novel, which follows perhaps his most famous novels: The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), and The Invisible Man (1897). It's a strange thing, but although I strongly dislike the science fiction genre, I've not yet read an H. G. Wells that I didn't like. What's more, such is my aversion to science fiction I feel as though describing the plot of The War of the Worlds would put off those who feel the same way as I do. So I'll start by saying that this is such a good novel and H. G. Wells is a brilliant writer!

It's a very short novel, and is divided into two parts: 'The Coming of the Martians' and 'The Earth under the Martians'. It is, as the title suggests, about a war - an invasion from extraterrestrial beings: Martians.

The novel opens,
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.
Martians vs. Thunder Child by Henrique Alvim Correa (1906).
In the next chapter, what people believe is a meteorite lands in the sand pits on Horsell Common - in fact it is a cylinder (with a diameter of 30 yards) and it contains the Martians:
Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of its appearance. The peculiar V-shaped mouth with its pointed upper lip, the absence of brow ridges, the absence of a chin beneath the wedgelike lower lip, the incessant quivering of this mouth, the Gorgon groups of tentacles, the tumultuous breathing of the lungs in a strange atmosphere, the evident heaviness and painfulness of movement due to the greater gravitational energy of the earth--above all, the extraordinary intensity of the immense eyes--were at once vital, intense, inhuman, crippled and monstrous. There was something fungoid in the oily brown skin, something in the clumsy deliberation of the tedious movements unspeakably nasty. Even at this first encounter, this first glimpse, I was overcome with disgust and dread.
Armed with guns, heat rays and the like, the Martians attack and soon the world is at war with the Martians.

A strange, nightmarish little book indeed, and I've no doubt that everyone who does not like science fiction has vowed now never to pick it up. But H. G. Wells writes so well - it's such an exciting tale! All of this is presented as fact, and one somehow gets attached to the narrator, he's a sympathetic character who loves his wife, and so the tension is built even more. This is the genius of H. G. Wells - he is so compelling and writes so convincingly that even readers like me (who prefer, on the whole, realism) are completely enthralled.

Evolution is an important part of understanding The War of the Worlds. The Martians are more intelligent than us ("their mathematical learning is evidently far in excess of ours") and more evolved than us:
Yet though they wore no clothing, it was in the other artificial additions to their bodily resources that their great superiority over man lay. We men, with our bicycles and road-skates, our Lilienthal soaring-machines, our guns and sticks and so forth, are just in the beginning of the evolution that the Martians have worked out. They have become practically mere brains, wearing different bodies according to their needs just as men wear suits of clothes and take a bicycle in a hurry or an umbrella in the wet. 
But this high level of evolution has led to a desensitised race of killing machines: science and intelligence is important, but there are too other important elements in humanity - compassion, which Wells notes is in decline almost -
And before we judge of them 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 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? 
From The New York Times, 31st October 1938.
In this sense, The War of the Worlds is a cautionary tale that has captured the imagination of many readers. So convincing was the presentation that the Orson Welles radio production aired on 30th October 1938 (you can listen to it on YouTube here) created a panic (although the extent of the panic is debatable), and later complaints and outrage at the public being cruelly duped. Similarly a tweeting of the novel by @PhysicsHenry (#WotW) in 2014 led to confusion! The War of the Worlds is fabulously engaging, though, so it's of no surprise! I do urge people who do not like science fiction to try this chilling classic.

Finally some illustrations - these are by Edward Gorey from the 1960 Doubleday edition of The War of the Worlds -



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Further Reading

Comments

  1. Doesn't your intolerance of S/F and your praise of Wells underscore the real issue? Good writing trumps all other considerations. In other words, a good writer can write in any so-called "genre" and transform/convert readers through the quality of the writing. Perhaps your intolerance of S/F is because so much so-called "genre" writing is so poorly written. I would argue that so-called literary fiction suffers from the same problems. This all means that discerning readers ought to set aside prejudices against "genre" and pursue/embrace good writing wherever it can be found. And I bet I or someone else more knowledgeable than I could point you to great S/F. You might even become converted. (Note: I am not necessarily an S/F fan, but I am a fanatic about good writing and an enemy of wretched writing.)

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    1. I think it boils down to preferring realism - I just can't get away from the ridiculousness of some of it! But that is, as you say, partly down to good / bad writing. With Wells it works, but with others I cannot get passed the "this is absurd" thoughts. I wouldn't discount all science fiction, but I *would* have to have someone recommend a book.

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  2. Postscript: Because of your posting, I am on the verge of downloading some Wells onto my Kindle. I need to have a healthy dose of good writing right about now. Wells might be just what the doctor ordered.

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    1. Yes, I'm thinking of jumping straight into The Invisible Man quite soon. I really enjoy his books - I think I'd like to read another one very soon. :)

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  3. I'm not a sci-fi fan either. But I own copies of this and The Time Machine. I've only read the TM. You make a great case for Wells, and I will eventually reread TM and (for the first time) War of the Worlds.

    I must add: these ideas make great stories for film b/c they can be frightening and thrilling; and therefore, I have loved the 1960's version of TM (though the ending does not follow the book) and the 1953 version of War of the Worlds. (I watched them as kids, which may also be why I still especially remember them.) But the Tom Cruise version of WotW (2005) was so scary, I still cover my eyes. Probably not a lot like the book though - I don't know.

    So if you ever get a chance, you should watch them for fun.

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    1. LOVE The Time Machine, and the 1960s film - ah, that was a childhood favourite! :) I'll look out for the others as well. Like the idea of the old 1953 version :)

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  4. I remember that I was entertained but not overly impressed by the quality of the book, so I looked back in my notes to see why not.

    I was surprised and a little perplexed at the admiration that the narrator showed for the Martians. He lauded their accomplishments, which to me only seem commendable if you are looking at them from a purely scientific point of view. For instance, he praises the way they derive sustenance as being superior to humans (the method), but completely misses that the way humans get nutrition (food, meals, sitting at the table with family) has further reaching implications, such as receiving pleasure, satisfaction, socialization, entertainment, etc.; and the ability to experience these very things are what makes us human. Also, I can see you admiring a lion before he attacks you ..... I can understand admiring a lion after he attacks you ........ but I have a hard time imagining admiring his qualities when he is attacking you. If the narrator had been studying the Martians to ascertain any weaknesses, that would have been logical, but to simply generally admire them in the middle of the war, changes them from the enemy into something else. It wasn't entirely believable to me.

    His conversation with the man on Putney Hill was also unsettling. The man seems to be almost choosing the types of people he considers worthy of living and the types of people who are not. He considers the people who have "spirit", "dreams" and "lusts" to be the ones who are going to be able to survive and completely writes off certain segments of the population. I didn't like this and I can't remember if Wells tied this up or not.

    Yet, in spite of this experience, I'm very keen to read more Wells. If it turns out that I don't agree with his worldview, at least I'll get to learn more about it, which will be interesting AND he was one of my favourite author's (C.S. Lewis) favourite author, and with your review, that is enough recommendation to put him up on my list!

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    1. I see what you mean about the admiration - I took it as more reflective on what had happened rather than a straight narrative of his thoughts and feelings that were true of the time (there's a great word for that and I've been unable to think of it for the past few minutes - how frustrating!). I'm so frustrated not being able to think of that word... but do you know what I mean, anyway? I haven't explained at all well.

      The conversations - that was all, to me, a rather unsettling commentary on evolution. I actually can't remember if he tied it up either, but I do think Wells wasn't very happy in his times - I think he dreamed of a better society and how it could be achieved. Perhaps that's an indicator.

      I didn't know he was C S Lewis' favourite author! I must read some more C S Lewis, and I also must re-read the Narnia books... that might be a nice little winter project! :) (I can't imagine reading them during summer, plus I've got Chaucer , Woolf, and Boccaccio dominating my thoughts at present!).

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    2. Don't you hate it when you can't think of a word? I assumed Wells was expounding on an admiration for pure science and logic, which for me, doesn't hold water.

      When I had mentioned to someone that while I liked the book overall, I felt the writing was weak, they made a good point; both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien started to write their own novels because they felt there was nothing being written at that time that they wanted to read, so they wrote the types of books they wanted to read. Interesting, isn't it?

      Yes, I think you're right about Wells wanting a better society. I do find his ideas interesting and certainly plan to read more of him and Aldous Huxley as well.

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    3. I think my word was going to be "retrospective"!

      I like that about Tolkien and Lewis - yes, that is very interesting.

      I never got into Huxley - going to have to revisit at some point. Actually, I'm in mind to read some George Orwell as well :)

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