Reading 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?
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.