The History of Science Fiction Literature – A Modern Utopia by HG Wells (1905)

A Modern UtopiaDeclaration of interest: I really wasn’t looking forward to reading this and debated not bothering at all. However, it has merits in the history of science fiction so is worth my time.

Originally published (as so many novels of the time were) in serialised form from October 1904 to April 1905, A Modern Utopia came to be a book later in 1905. I use the term book deliberately. This is no novel. I read a free Gutenberg edition published of the first edition.

What is a novel? Fiction. Certainly. A narrative journey. Correct. A description of events and characters which change over the duration of the story. Hopefully. For me, a story is all of the above and something more. Something almost intangible. A novel encompasses the story. Embraces it. A Modern Utopia is no novel, despite describing fictitious events and characters. There is little plot to describe. The Owner of the Voice, the narrator, and his companion, the Botanist, find themselves on a planet exactly like the Earth in terms of biology and geography, but on the far away in space ‘out beyond Sirius’. All the individuals who exist are duplicated on both planets. The companions are in alternative Switzerland and meet some people. They go to London and meet some people, including the Owner’s duplicate. The Botanist pines after a woman back home, and meets her double. Nothing else happens. There are no events, no character development – both the Owner and the Botanist remain at the conclusion as they were at the beginning of their journey. The Botanist is there to provide a counterpoint to the Owner of the Voice but he is passionate, irrational and driven by unreason. Hardly the definition of the personality of a scientist. All that remains is discussion and description of the utopian society and comparisons with Earth.

This is a long essay, not a novel and the best way to have read it would have probably been the in its original serialised format as published. In the light of history, and specifically the history of science fiction literature, A Modern Utopia is not a good read. Indeed, the opening line of one of the chapters is “were this a story”. Wells himself knew this was no novel or tale. The occasional dips into the narrative of the companies feels like an afterthought. It would have made more sense if Wells had scrapped the narrative conceit and the elements of fiction.

Wells opens the debate with descriptions of other written utopias, some of which I’ve written about, including those by More and Morris, as well as the science of Darwin and the histories and philosophies of Plato for example. He certainly knows his stuff. It is competently researched. This is a self-aware and I think, self-serving piece, which ultimately fails by its own rules. Via the Owner, we learn, as previous utopic novels have done before, about the culture, economics, politics and such like of this planet. Wells says a utopia must be planet-wide to succeed. Maybe he is correct about that, if little else. There is little talk about how the companions arrived, by the way. They just did. Why should the reader accept such a thing? There is little talk of technological advancement anywhere. A train travels 200mph. That’s about it…This becomes more fantasy than science fiction.

The protagonists understand the language of this planet because the whole world has a common language they know. But while everything else is the same as Earth, the culture, traditions, ideas being different, have led to a different destiny. Which is odd, because history dictates destiny. If Greece hadn’t risen as it did in the times of Plato, I would not be sat here in Kent, typing on a laptop, no matter what my personality and philosophy.

So Wells talks about free will, personal freedoms and a migratory nature of people of this place. There are no positive compulsions. The society is split amongst broadly unrealistic lines, with people falling in odd categories. While writing, this is presented as speculation of what the planet should be, rather than fact. The writing itself is very dull and plodding with very long sentences and paragraphs the length of pages. I found myself bored for much of the book. I don’t know if there are a lot of great ideas in his utopia, because I stopped caring. The comment about drinking on Earth to “lighten up dull days and hopelessly sordid and disagreeable lives” did bring a wry smile to my face, however. Some things never change. It was only when the bad ideas came up I woke from my slumbers.

Wells plays a dangerous game, criticising past written utopias but making the same mistakes he points out, reflecting the views of the era. He says Plato failed to mention machines because he knew nothing of them. Yet Wells cannot name technology from his future either. Surely a utopia would have better technology than he describes. He is a prejudiced as those who went before. This is best exemplified by the general misogyny of the book. Women cannot be equal to men, he writes, but must be paid for motherhood as they cannot do the important work men do. It is Wells attempt at saying women should be free. He fails. His views on marriage are equally archaic. No mention at all of LGBT issues for example. A utopia would embrace and respect all. And as for race: “an adult white woman differs far from a white man than a negress or pigmy woman from her equivalent male”. Where to begin! Thus he talks about religion and race, ill-informed as the times were. He even suggests that the only “sane and logical” thing to do with inferior races is to exterminate it. I don’t think he was satirising the ideologies of the time, merely reflecting them. If he was true to his utopic beliefs, he should be more aggressive in his dismissal of such notions, not providing the reader with a cure for insomnia.

A Modern Utopia is no novel, no story. It is a dull essay that falls into the same traps as it accuses its forebears of. It takes a very naïve view of people and society and answers no questions. As for science fiction, barely! Although it might be the first novel-length prose fiction that takes place almost entirely on another planet.

Stepping out of the comfort zone: Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

Mother NIghtMother Night by Kurt Vonnegut, Confessions by Kanae Minato, Anagrams by Lorrie Moore, The Thought Gang by Tibor Fischer, No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas. Various works by Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami.

When I pick up a book I have a rough rule of thumb: nothing that can possibly happen to anyone in the real world today. It is rare that I don’t read anything that is covered by fantasy, science fiction, horror or magic realism. The above examples are the closest I come to reading what some might call normal or contemporary fiction. Of those examples, I haven’t really enjoyed Moore and Minato. The rest I’ve loved. Having just read Mother Night I thought I might investigate why.

I set myself a meaningless challenge at the start of 2015 which goes against my usual dislike for conformity. I plan to read all of Vonnegut’s novels in order. And so I come to Mother Night. Published in 1961, it was his third novel, following the science fiction of Player Piano and Sirens of Titan. I didn’t choose the read non-genre other than within the limitations of my own challenger.

This book is the story of Howard W. Campbell Jr. It is presented as a fictional memoir, edited by Vonnegut. This is a literary trick I like and dates back to early gothic novels which were purportedly lost texts found by the author. The best example is probably The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764). The protagonist is an American who moved to Germany as a young boy in 1923 and then a well-known playwright and Nazi propagandist. He is now awaiting trial for war crimes in an Israeli prison, and he recounts his last days in America after the war, before he came to be arrested. Incidentally, this is the first time Vonnegut uses his ‘so-it-goes’ approach to narrative, which I’ll come across again later in the year. Admittedly, in Mother Night the author plays with fiction and narrative, so although there is no fantastical elements, it is far from straight forward fiction. It is satire, as black as night. It is speculative fiction at its best.

Mother Night is clever, funny, bleak and brilliantly written. Vonnegut was a practiced writer before he became a novelist. His debut was outstanding and this isn’t far behind in terms of technical achievement. The plot is interesting enough but it is the themes and characters that keep you interested. Campbell feels like a classic unreliable narrator. He describes his motivations but remember, he is on trial in Israel for being a Nazi. How honest is he being? Only the actions of others hint at the truth. Vonnegut is so clever with his plotting and how he plays with the reader.

I think I’m happy enough to read what might be described as non-genre fiction but it appears there are some conditions. Literary tricks. Metafiction. Playing with the reader. Dark comedic satire. And if the list above is examined carefully, none of it could actually happen in the real world under normal reality rules and conditions. Mother Night is not science fiction and is not alternative history. It is not fantasy in the traditional sense. However, most good science fiction tells the reader something interesting about the human condition, either on an individual or global level. Vonnegut achieves this in the 175 pages of a memoir of a war criminal. Genius.

Telling Tales: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Buried GiantThe best novels are about great stories, interesting or surprising character development and taking the reader on a journey of discovery. The latest novel by Kazuo Ishiguro is a historical fantasy and as has been said by others, two out of three ain’t bad.

What I have enjoyed previously about Ishiguro’s novels have been the power of his writing to evoke a sense of time and place. Whether he’s in a dystopian horror or a dream-like Eastern European city, the reader feels a part of the novel; understands its place. In The Buried Giant Ishiguro hits those notes perfectly again, despite the tale being told is set in Arthurian times. The main characters are, as the narrator describes, known as Axl and Beatrice. An elderly couple, Britons, living out their days in a village, perhaps somewhere in the south west of England. As with the other villagers, even the younger ones, memories are foggy and motivations are unclear. Even recent events. Ishiguro plays with words and ideas when describing the fuzziness of memory – and indeed with being – with a deft touch. The couple’s relationship is beautifully solid too, despite the difficulties of time. Axl only ever refers to his wife as ‘princess’ and they have very real ups and downs.

One morning, as Axl vaguely recalls a visitor and her conversation with his wife, it is decided they should go to seek out their son, who lives in a distance village. Although they cannot remember why it should be so. And so they set out. This is a journey narrative. A movement of characters from a to b with encounters and trials along the way. They meet a warrior and a boy who it seems has been bitten by an ogre. They meet a mysterious boatman and one of Arthur’s knights. They visit a monastery where nothing is as it appears. They learn of the she-dragon called Querig and why it is so important to not only their lives, but all of England. To reveal more would be to spoil the journey, and its conclusion.

The framing of the story, revealed at its conclusion, is brilliant and as realisation dawned on this reader I felt that the reading journey had been worthwhile. Because to be honest, I’d struggled somewhat in the middle section of this book. While the main characters are interesting, the others, especially the warrior and the boy, weren’t as developed. Some of the events show some imagination (the boatman and the pixies are but two) and wit; proving Ishiguro is as comfortable in this genre as in others. However, the story itself was a bit thin. The book is about memory (the buried giant) and perceptions, along with history and the wars fought in historical England. Trouble still brews between the Britons and the Saxons. There is an element of religion too and implications that the dragon and the memory loss are punishments from God (our heroes are Christians). The concepts are brilliantly woven throughout the book and characters’ interactions. The sense of walking through this country highly evocative. I love the fact that this is a fantasy adventure where the main protagonists are an aging couple with no special powers or, for example, remarkable courage other than the desire to see their son. It is all about the journey and the reveal. However, the actual narrative, from village to village to monastery to dragon’s lair to Axl and Beatrice’s son is a little on the dull side. The dialogue a little on the trite side.

There was significant hype about The Buried Giant with Ishiguro admitting he threw out the first draft and press interest in whether or not he thinks of this as a fantasy. I think for me, the hype and the anticipation are not met by the actual tale told. I am big fan of fairy tales. Usually they are resolved due to human kindness, and contain a sense of mystery and wonder. Ishiguro has attempted to write a fairy tale here, and it does have those elements to it. While there is nothing wrong with the descriptions, the main protagonists and story-telling, the actual tale needed more focus, more texture. Style – a beautifully written and powerfully cleverly constructed idea – over substance.

Original version published here: http://www.nudge-book.com/blog/bookhugger/2015/03/23/the-buried-giant-by-kazuo-ishiguro-2/ 

Literary tricks: Thoughts after reading Day Four by Sarah Lotz.

Day FourFine lines. Brilliant fiction is often about fine lines.

I like a literary trick. I find them clever (I like clever). Providing they’re not at the expense of a plot. When the author is going all hey look at me, aren’t I clever but there’s no story, I’m not so keen. You can admire the effort but find the result and even the intention pretentious. Almost all fiction that I read, probably what anyone reads, is standard format: chapters and prose; first person or third. I often ache for something different, original, challenging. But again, not at the expense of story. When I read, story is paramount.

In Sarah Lotz’s The Three, which was presented as reportage, the ideas and plot where left open to interpretation. I was delighted by the book. It was a refreshing read, although not really a literary trick. Reportage is reasonably common in fiction. The Three, thankfully, defied genre and left questions unanswered. I was eager for more. When I started to read her follow up, Day Four (which incidentally can be read as a sequel or a standalone – no previous knowledge required) I thought, nice, she hasn’t tried to repeat herself. No, instead Lotz does something more rewarding.

The Three was a thriller which could be read in a variety of ways. When four planes crash with only three survivors, speculation is rife about what it might mean. Day Four is a more conventional tale of a disaster aboard a cruise ship. The first few chapters are, apparently, standard narrative. It is day four on the ship’s voyage. We meet a PA of a superstar medium. Then Gary; a man with a perverse secret. Next up is one of the ship’s crew – a chambermaid called Althea. By now I thought I wouldn’t like this one so much. Straight forward pot-boiler and lots of characters it would take a while to get to know. I sometimes struggle with novels that begin with multiple viewpoints because each time a chapter begins it feels like a new book is beginning. These things take time. The next chapter features a couple of elderly women. The one after, a medic called Jesse, who has a dubious past. And then Devi, another member of the ship’s crew. Oh, and now we’re into day five and there’s a blog post. This is a lot of POVs. And then we’re back with the PA and the chapter headings are repeating. Intriguing.

So the ship is floating without power and the passengers and crew are becoming restless. Weird shit goes down, although we as readers, are never spoon-fed. Each chapter, from the POV of each character, moves the plot on nicely without repetition or cliché. As one chapter ends, the next takes place a few moments later, but without telegraphing or an obvious handing over of the baton. Lotz’s skill is to make us care about each character, although we spend precious little time with them, while presenting an intriguing plot, with more questions than answers. The skill is also to forget the literary trick and simply follow the narrative. The feel of the book is more of a classic ghost story with a medium as the conduit for the action, although there are hints of other weirdness going on. I’m not usually a fan of the page-turner, the pot-boiler or what-ever you might call it, but I couldn’t put Day Four down. When the coda comes along, again in a changed format, I hadn’t an inkling of what was going on. When the denouement presented itself I was more than happy to go along with it because Lotz had proved herself to me. I wasn’t being played with. I was being told a decent story in a captivatingly different way.

Day Four isn’t a profound novel. It doesn’t say a whole lot about the human condition that hasn’t been said elsewhere. It’s not a particularly original story either. The sub-text, as with The Three, is minimal – people are basically animals. But it comes with an ending that makes you reflect on the story and the style of writing as a whole (and whether or not a sequel follows I’m happy with my own council). However, it is an interesting story, without being stuck up its own arse. This fiction stays on the right side of a fine line. It isn’t brilliant, but is highly enjoyable and eminently readable. What elevates it into something more is the interesting style. Lotz’s isn’t going on about how clever an author she is – and she is clever – but she can write a readable story in an attention-grabbing style. And for that, I thank her.

There will never be a great superhero novel pt 3: Thoughts on Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

TigermanThere’s a slightly troubling element to the making of gritty realistic portrayals of superheroes, which Christopher Nolan’s Batman series just manages to steer clear off. Mostly down to the selection of the villains in those films. However, as soon as you think about the rest of the DC canon, especially the rest of the Justice League members (aliens, mystical princesses et al), a realistic Batman is ludicrous. Realism and superheroes just don’t mix. The concept is ridiculous. But then, how can you portray superheroes, at home in the visual medium of comics and on the big screen, in 300 or more pages of black and white; words in a book. I don’t think you can.

Nick Harkaway’s third novel, Tigerman, is the real deal. His first novels were interesting starters – full of flavour but with way too many ingredients and an uncertain and confusing final dish. Tigerman is a main course worthy of fine dining. A few high quality ideas executed with near perfection.

The title and the branding of the book suggests that we’re in the land of superheroes. While the novel is a fantasy, it could almost be real. Because it is the story of a man and a boy; an ex-soldier lost in the world and a child looking for friendship in a world dominated by American pop-culture – comics, music, film and YouTube. The boy speaks in brilliant hybrid dialogue: “Emote later. Right now: Voight-Kampff FTW”. The story is set on the island of Mancreu. Our hero is Lester Ferris. Mancreu is a fictional island in trouble. Located ‘somewhere’ it is a cocktail of African, Asian and Arab influence. The cocktail is about to blow: pollution from chemical companies have led to semi-regular ‘discharge clouds’ which have some interesting effects on the local wildlife (fish changing sex) and people (brain damage causing language and memory defects). The UN and other bodies have populated the island with various representatives, all of whom play a part in Lester’s life. The big one is coming and the island is to be evacuated. Officially, an ‘Interventional Sacrifice Zone’. Lester is the impotent yet dutiful British Brevet-consul. Single and childless, has befriended the comic-book literate boy (who has no name). He is serving his time as the friendly bobby-on-the-beat. Meanwhile, as Mancreu is effectively a non-place, lawless, there is a mysterious fleet of ships just beyond the horizon. All sorts of illegality might be found on the ships. From extraordinary rendition to whore-houses and more, anything is possible.

Lester wonders if there is a future for him and the boy. Maybe he could adopt him? There seems no sign of a family. They usually meet in a local bar where the boy talks of superheroes and comics. Until the day bar-owner, Shola, is murdered and our heroes are almost killed too. Lester begins an investigation which uncovers more about the island and the fleet than he expected. When visiting Shola’s grave, he has an encounter with a tiger. Later, he discovers that he must create something powerful and frightening (and to disguise his identity so he doesn’t get in trouble with the bosses back home in London) to get to the truth about Shola, and the boy. He takes his cue from the tiger and a superhero is born.

Except he’s not a real superhero. He’s not even Batman. He’s a skilled fighter who uses surprise and fear as a weapon. No real superpowers or billionaire’s playthings. No magic or science. There is a passage about half way through when Harkaway is discussing the philosophy of his hero (and one echoed by Nolan’s version of Batman) that Lester can’t fight the bad guys, but Tigerman can. He can do anything, because he isn’t real. Beautifully observed. There are many myths on the island, such as the eternal Bad Jack, so Lester and the boy create a demon. The international cast of supporting characters (Dirac, Lester’s French counterpart, the Japanese scientist Kaiko, Jed Kershaw from American intelligence, the Ukranian and others) all play their part in what is more like an empirical spy thriller, set in some darkest Africa. Of course, the set-up is pure superhero – the boy being Robin to Tigerman’s Batman.

The key to Harkaway’s writing is the textured depth and imaginative characterisation. It is one of those books who’s character are so rich than by the climax, you feel like they’ve penetrated your reality and you want to keep them close, even after the book is over. Many of the supporting cast are fairly one-dimensional but the two leads are so well-written you can empathise with Lester’s every emotion and smile at the boy’s cultural references. The writing is terrific and the plot is as complex as any novel: fantasy, superhero or familial drama. Which is what this really is. Tigerman might be magic realism dressed up in a 4-colour comic-book costume, but at its heart is story about a lonely middle-age man looking at his single, parentless life, and the boy who he hopes might think of him as a father. It is Lester’s flawed paternal desire that drives him to dress up as Tigerman, not a sense of heroism. There is plenty of that to come, mind – fights, rescues, plans and such-like.

When the denouement arrives, I almost didn’t buy it. I couldn’t decide if Harkaway has been too clever or not clever enough. On reflection: Goldilocks. Just about right. To his credit. There are so many ideas to the novel, and like his previous novels, I kept expecting a stumble. It never came. For example, the island’s overseers are an organisation with a name shortened to NatProMan. I’m sure this is deliberate, hinting at an evil adversary for our hero. But it doesn’t descend into cliché. NatProMan is a red herring. Even the secret James Bond baddie-base isn’t hackneyed and is portrayed with affection.

Throughout the book I kept wondering if the goo-soup of a volcano that had doomed the island would somehow go off and turn Lester into a real unreal superhero with proper fantastical powers. I’m glad it didn’t. Tigerman isn’t really a superhero novel, and only just a novel about heroes, even though it has affections for comics. I never really equated to other superhero books I’ve read. I didn’t imagine Lester’s costume as a comic-book creation at any point (although I might have if my expressed fear had come true). Tigerman is an entire novel about how Peter Parker was bitten by the radioactive spider. Except it turns out that bite has no after-effects. It’s also a novel about the Gwen Stacey decision on the George Washington Bridge (Lester has to make a choice – be a hero or be a father). It is not a great superhero novel but a great novel about superheroes. Real ones.

Original review published here: http://www.nudge-book.com/blog/bookchap/2015/03/30/tigerman-by-nick-harkaway/

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut.

Player PianoKurt Vonnegut had his debut novel, Player Piano, published in 1952. Much of western civilisation was still in a period of recovery following the devastation of World War II. Vonnegut was an active serviceman and was captured in Europe. Post war, he became a technical writer and worked in PR for General Electric before becoming a journalist. The post-war period directly informs what is a brilliantly written if flawed novel.

Upmost in Vonnegut’s mind could have been the result of the war. Was the life of the average American worth the fighting? Where do we go from here? And the classic staple of science fiction, where is man’s place now surrounded by machines that can do a job better than him? I say man, because Player Piano is set very much in the man’s world of the time. Men are managers and engineers – the ones who run America – and women are wives and secretaries. Our hero is high-flying Dr. Paul Proteus who is head of industry in New York. His wife, Anita, is a social climber who detests her roots. His secretary is Dr. Katharine Finch. Yep, the females need a doctorate to serve their masters.

The novel is set after a third world war with most Americans fighting abroad. In order to keep the country running, the managers and engineers made machines to replace the men in the factories. Unlike the reality of the WWII, in this fiction, women cannot even do the work of the missing men. Now, with the war over, most men have no work and those live in segregation away from the managers and engineers. As well as following Paul’s story – the main thread of the text – Vonnegut also presents the perspective of the visiting Shah of Bratpuhr, a spiritual leader of six million residents in a distant, underdeveloped nation. Via his translator, he struggles to understand the American life-style, even to the point of believing that a super-computer might be a deity, as it can answer any and all questions (although it cannot talk).

Paul begins the novel understanding his place in the world but soon, thanks to a few unrelated events, finds himself dissatisfied, despite his lofty position. He comes across an old friend, Ed Finnerty who has quit his own lofty position. Ed and Paul visit the Homestead, where the disenfranchised live. They go to a bar where some truths are spelled out to Paul. The Homesteaders have meaningless lives and a minister, Lasher, helps solidify Paul’s doubts in the system he manages. There is a rebellion on the cards and Ed joins up. Paul wants to but doesn’t have the courage. Initially. Paul’s superiors ask him to betray his old friend which spurs on his discontent. He buys a run-down farm hoping to persuade Anita into a simpler life but she rejects him.

As Paul has been groomed for a superior position it becomes clear that he wants to reject it, but he is still wary of the competition for it, and for his wife’s affections. It comes to a head in a corporate away-day scenario where Paul must chose the comfortable life or battle against the system where men are rendered pointless by machinery.

In the denouement, Vonnegut shows the reader that even after given a choice and a chance at a simpler life-style, mankind will condemn itself in the name of technological progress.

Remember that this was written and published pretty much before the computer age and you might think that Player Piano is remarkably prescient. The gadget of the title being a piano that plays itself it perhaps symptomatic of reliance we now have with technology. All our stuff no-longer relies on us users – other to change the occasional batter. I remember growing up in the 1970s and 1980s when car engines were tinkered with every Sunday morning, garages and sheds were a hive of activity with repairs and improvements, garments were sowed and jumpers knitted. Today, everything works or is replaced if it doesn’t. We throw things away rather than repairing. We have the society (albeit not as divided) that Vonnegut feared.

The fiction itself is almost excellent, let down only by a slightly weakened ending to the middle third that could have been a bit tighter in execution – my mind wandered a bit during the Meadows section as points were hammered home repeatedly. However the final act and coda more than made up for it. The last few pages are genius. I found the fluidity of narrative and writing style remarkable for a debut novel; but in reality of course, Vonnegut was a seasoned writer confident in his subject matter. The characterisation was interesting, watching Paul make choices that would seem to turn his world upside down – and not for the better in the world he lived in. His motivations were realistic and sympathetic. The plot never felt forced or unbelievable. The placement of both the female characters and the machines mean that the novel is a sharp satire even today. Women might do better in education but are still paid less and are massively under-represented in senior management (although I personally suspect this is because they aren’t as psychopathically egotistical as most high-achieving men – and probably through choice). Anita’s character is sadly a one-dimensional caricature but makes a valid point about position of the trophy wife, while Katharine shows to have some depth. Meanwhile, the Shah appears to have some black comic purpose, basically shouting at America that ‘you’re all stupid, can’t you see what you’re doing!’ Which I like.

As with all the best dystopian science fiction, Vonnegut presents a seemingly perfect utopia – a one that western nations are even now apparently striving for; the worship of technology – and tears it down with well-observed satire and effortless prose fiction. I’m surprised Player Piano isn’t regarded higher than it is, and should be spoken about in the same context as Brave New World and the like.

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – The War of the Worlds by HG Wells (1897)

War of the WorldsReading an old favourite that you’ve not read for years and believe you’re familiar with is potentially problematic. I hadn’t read The War of the Worlds for more than 20 years. This is the fourth or fifth time I’ve read it. Wells originally published the novel in serialised form in 1897, and the book made its appearance the following year. My copy is my old and dog-eared 1975 Pan edition which I’ve had since I was a child. There are no notes, introductions or comments in this edition.

The plot to The War of the Worlds is a familiar one to most: Martians land in Victorian England and slowly take over London, while our narrator fights to survive. You must acknowledge the classic status of such as novel. Throughout the book, sentences and descriptions fire the memory and bring a smile to my face. I had a shiver of excitement when I read the first few paragraphs. Later, when I read It was the beginning of rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind, I thought it might be the greatest sentence I’ve ever read. Probably not, but you take my meaning.

Of course, when you open the book and see the chapters listed, you know the eventual outcome of the so-called war. You read the book understanding that the narrator survives – this is no unreliable narration.

The narrator is unnamed and appears to be an expert in philosophy. After explosions are witnessed on Mars, an object lands at Horsell Common, close to the narrator’ house. At first, it is thought to be a meteorite, but when the lid screws off and aliens emerge, all hell breaks loose. Soon, death and destruction are reigned upon the watchers thanks to the famous heat-ray. Now, the narrator’s wife is sent away and the adventures ensue, while more alien craft from Mars land in the Home Counties. The descriptions of the devastating attack on London, and the intervention of the iron-clad warship Thunderchild are told through the reportage of the narrator’s brother. I’d completely forgotten about the brother’s perspective – probably tainted by other versions of the story. Again, the fact that the narrative is told in this way, and includes descriptions of Martian anatomy, gives the reader no-doubt about the eventual victor. History is always written by the victors: especially the history of war. Wells was clearly aware of this fact. He has plenty to say about real war and he uses this novel and others to highlight both its horrors and its impact. He believes it to be horrific. The Martians destroy everyone and everything. There is no room for negotiation or surrender. War is awful.

Wells also attacks religion in The War of the Worlds. One character, a curate, is shown to be weak under god. He questions the plans of the divine, which mirror the concerns of the time. How can a just creator inflict the pain of war? Even the curate questions his maker? His evangelical mania leads to his death.

The over-riding theme, however, is the Imperialism of England; shown in reflection to some extent. This invasion isn’t really about England but London. The Martians only land around London and move inward. Slowly. It amuses the reader in modern times that the initial landing and destruction takes place on a Friday and it isn’t until Sunday evening when most folks in London realise the implications. No instant communication channels at the end of the 19th century. So the island is invaded and the rest of the world continues as normal in a time after the real island had invaded huge chunks of the planet. And when the hordes panic through the streets of London, it is described as the end of civilisation. Book 2 is even called The Earth Under the Martians when in reality it was London and the Home Counties under the Martians, and nothing more. It is curious to know that while this horror falls down on London, most of the rest of the planet was oblivious. Maybe Wells thought London was the centre of the world or maybe he was satirising those others who did.

In the opening pages Wells acknowledges the story concerns the vanity of man. The topics are evolution and technological progress. This is a warning text. Wells suggests several times that the science of the age might be beyond man at the time. The recovered artefacts from the invasion are not able to be reverse engineered. And yet man is described as a curious beast. Of course, the topic of evolution was hotly debated through Victorian times and Wells had plenty to say on matter too (having been taught by Huxley); suggesting that human evolution might eventually lead to creatures similar in intellect but emotionless as the invaders. Is evolution a good thing? It is undeniable, but we must take care. The narrator only survives through several moments of luck and chance, and he acknowledges as much throughout. Does fortune favour the brave or is luck indiscriminate? Despite his education, he is an everyman, a decent ordinary citizen. How are we to read this juxtaposition of the ordinary and extraordinary in context with scientific advancement?

Public Domain

There a lots of lovely nuances in the text, reflecting Wells’ time. It is important to mention the fact that a man’s appearance was significant, even though his unkempt appearance was because a hat had fallen in the Martian’s initial pit. But Wells also uses poetic description (I had the sunset in my eyes) for its own sake. The horrors he describes are imaginative and not like anything written before. The way the Martians feed is brilliantly simply. As usual in novels from this time, the female characters receive short-shrift. Indeed, other than a few brief appearances of the narrator’s wife and some women his brother must save, there are none. Wells wasn’t telling a story about people however, perhaps highlighted by the fact none of the main characters has a name in the story.

As the book concludes, all the narrative and thematic strands are tied up as the Martians are defeated not by man’s ingenuity or guile, but by micro-organisms and disease. Man isn’t the victor despite regaining his home.

The War of the Worlds is the first mainstream science fiction book to feature an alien invasion, allowing the author to comment on the social topics of the time: religion, scientific advancement, imperialism and war. Wells does an exceptional job in such as short text. Not only does it address political and social concerns of the times in a proper science fiction setting, it is simply a great read. No wonder it is one of the most significant science fiction novels of all time.