Saturday, October 23, 2010

The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds
© 1898 H.G. Wells
from The War of the Worlds with The Time Machine and Selected Short Stories, collected 1963.
303 pages


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 scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize 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 the late eighteen-hundreds, the high-water mark of western civilization. Western man and his science are ascendant, triumphant:  while the old empires of the east wither and decay, the virile west takes dominion of the world, uniting it with iron rails and ships belching steam. The earth surrenders her bounty to the miners, and in the cities -- in which people gather in ever-increasing numbers -- towers of steel climb into the skies, rivaling the trees from which we sprang so long ago.  But far away, lurking in the cold of space, lies another civilization, one which sees in the flourishing Earth new life for its own people -- and salvation from its dying world. Like the the Trojans of legend, they have come to our own Italy seeking to establish a new home for themselves -- and they care little for its current occupants.

The narrator of this work, an unnamed intellectual who is trained in comparative biology but is well-versed in all manner of sciences and technology, was there the night the first cylinder arrived. It crashed not two miles from his home, and he regarded these unannounced visitors with wonder, curiosity, and even sympathy at first -- hoping as the cylinder cooled and began to open that the brave men inside had survived their journey all right. Never does it occur to our guide that these visitors come to Earth as the Puritans came to the Americans -- for gold, god, and glory.  Even when the heat-ray vaporizes the fascinated crowds,  the survivors cling to the hope that there's been a misunderstanding.  Every night that passes brings with it a new cylinder, and from the landing sites rise terrifying machines that visit death on anyone and anything that they approach. The crowds were first scattered by the heat-ray, but when the Martians' advance is countered by artillery and iron-clads the otherworldly machines begin belching black smoke of their own -- visiting the area around them with clouds of noxious gas that mitigate any thoughts of resistance.

They march toward London, and civilization flees from them, leaving behind towns in flames and thousands dead. A great mass of humanity routs southward, but our own guide through this harrowing time is trapped  in a partially-destroyed home. The man who had enjoyed a quiet evening chatting with his wife over wine, followed by a session at the typewriter discussing civilization's moral progress is reduced to hiding in rubble, scurrying from ditch to bush and eating anything he can find while surrounded by the ruins of his old world and wondering what is yet to come. Will men take to the sewers, begin life anew while the Martians?  But this is not to be -- for humanity's greatest weapon is its heritage, having overcome generations of diseases that the Martians are utterly unprepared for.

War of the Worlds is a fascinating book; when doing research for my various WW1 papers I learned of the genre of  "invasion literature"*, which became popular in the late 1800s following Prussia's swift technological victory over the French Empire in 1871. Fantasizing about how technological advances like balloons and airplanes could render a nation helpless in a matter of days was quite popular for a time, and though I am not familiar with the history of science fiction,  I wouldn't be surprised if Worlds grew out of that and the increasing interest in Mars and other close astronomical bodies.  The devastation visited on civilian populations and the use of poison gas predicts some of the ravages of the Great War.

Wells is an effective writer, taking the reader through our guide's wonder,  fear, terror, and joy. The guide is ideal for me: I like idealistic intellectuals like our unnamed host, who takes pleasure in the pursuit of knowledge. His status as an intellectual allows him to analyze the aliens' biology, their machines, and what their world may be like -- and his well-rounded education makes the epilogue's musing predictions fascinating.    War of the Worlds is very much a classic, enjoyable though dated: the vastness of space probably insulates us against alien invasions, and I snorted when Wells mentioned that the Martians had effected a landing on Venus. Knowledge gained throughout the 20th century indicates that Venus is as inhospitable as it gets.

Good reading for those interested in a harrowing adventure, or a peek into classic science fiction.  If you enjoy Wells or want to own some of his works, this particular edition seems like a good investment. It gathers two classics along with a few short stories I've not yet read but intend to.  The publishers are Platt & Munk, a division of Grosset and Dunlap.  ISBN: 0-448-41106-7. The cover has a retro feel, and the introduction refers to Wells' work as "scientific romance", which I find endearingly quaint.


* Walter J. Boyne's The Influence of Air Power Upon History shows that invasion literature was not just the stuff of fiction, but a concern to military strategists.

4 comments:

  1. Loved War of the Worlds, it's a great book. Imagine how scary it must have been when it was first published! It's such a classic tale of humans full of their own self importance being brought to the brink of extinction.

    It's also *much* better than the two movies. I do wish they'd make one as close as possible to the book. I think it'd be quite dramatic.

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  2. I read The War of the Worlds, and enjoyed it! Great review of the book. :)

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  3. @ CyberKitten: do you think maintaining Wells' setting would be most effective? Contemporary settings have to up the ante by finding someway to put nuclear missiles, blockbuster bombs, and heavy tanks out of commission.

    @Golden Eagle: :) Thanks.

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  4. sc said: do you think maintaining Wells' setting would be most effective?

    Yes, it would show the huge technological disparity between the two opposing sides and make the possibility of our victory more remote.

    sc said: Contemporary settings have to up the ante by finding someway to put nuclear missiles, blockbuster bombs, and heavy tanks out of commission.

    Contemporary settings have to up the ante by finding someway to put nuclear missiles, blockbuster bombs, and heavy tanks out of commission.

    Oh, I hated the whole force field business. That I found very silly - but thought that the original film did that better than the risable Tom Cruise version. Give the humans cannon and general gunpoweder weapons and you don't need force fields to protect the tripods.

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