War of the Worlds

War of the Worlds is probably HG Wells’ best known book, having been the inspiration of two major Hollywood films, an infamous 1938 radio play by Orson Wells, as well as Jeff Wayne’s 1970’s recording extravaganza (revisited from 2006 onwards live on stage).

TWOTW.jpgThe radio play and two films relocated the story to 1930’s, 1950’s and later 2000’s America while the musical version retained the setting of Victorian England.

While looking for something to illustrate an earlier blog post about Red Mars, I came across the following video, and was motivated to dig out my copy of Wells’ book.

A few decades must have passed since I read it. I suspect it might have been as far back as my teen years, scarily almost half a century ago now.

One thing made obvious by War of the Worlds is how things have changed since Wells wrote the book. The “science” and the societal attitudes expressed in the book could best be described as naïve or ill-informed.

Too much criticism of the science is unfair, considering it’s only in recent decades that our scientific knowledge has reached the capability of identifying Mars as an uninhabitable, desolate planet, with many long held assumptions about it being overturned by information gained through NASA’s space program.

Criticism of “societal” attitudes is a different matter. There is a clear colonial superiority displayed early in the book, where Well’s narrator tries to understand the justification of Martians attacking earth and wiping out humanity.

“…before we judge 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 own 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?” [my bold emphasis]

That idea of “inferior races” may also have some relevance in the fact that the Martian invasion of earth seems entirely focused on London (presumably the centre of the civilised world in Victorian thinking), with the invaders cylindrical spacecraft all being launched at targets in the countryside surrounding London.

I considered that maybe London only seemed to be the target because the story is being told by a narrator from that area, and the actual invasion is more widespread. But if that was the case, how is it possible for some to flee London, by ship, to safety in Europe as many do?

She had never been out of England before, she would rather die than trust herself friendless in a foreign country… She seemed, poor woman, to imagine that the French and the Martians might prove very similar.

Apart from the politics and science, the style of writing is also clearly of another era. Written in a dry, matter of fact way (with just an occasional hint of restrained melodrama: ” ‘Death!’ I shouted. ‘Death is coming! Death!’ “).

As a reader, through most of the book, I felt like a dispassionate observer with little reason to feel the horror, sorrow or fear that would in reality have pervaded the characters’ experience throughout the story. There’s a strong “stiff upper lip” feel to the narration.

The narrator’s voice also creates distance through its use of formal, perhaps outdated, language. I can only wonder how that would have worked with Wells’ contemporary readership. Would they have been more emotionally drawn into the story?

The outdated language also provides an occasional unfortunate turn of phrase:

He heard footsteps running to and fro in the rooms, and up and down stairs behind him. His landlady came to the door, loosely wrapped in dressing-gown and shawl; her husband followed ejaculating.
[A term used a few times by Wells to describe a character’s vocal outburst – onesimus]

The Victorian setting provides one of the more interesting aspects of the book: being written when communication wasn’t instant.  In a time when news travelled slowly, even to the next town or village. Those only a few miles away remain ignorant of a major, world-changing event, a Martian invasion, because news sources and communication methods are limited, relying on telegrams, newspapers, and word of mouth from travellers.

…he saw a news vendor approaching him, and got a paper forthwith. The man was running away with the rest and selling his papers for a shilling each as he ran – a grotesque mingling of profit and panic.

And from this paper my brother read that catastrophic despatch of the Commander -in Chief:

“The Martians are… slowly advancing towards London destroying everything on the way. It is impossible to stop them.”

That would be handled so differently today, where the majority of the population would be informed instantly by text, email or social media of what was going on. In considering that, I have to wonder how much of the news of a present day alien invasion would be dismissed as just another internet conspiracy.

When Wells wrote this book, obviously so much technology we take for granted didn’t exist – and neither did alien invasion literature. This is the book that started it all. When we look at the countless novels and films about invaders from mars, or “it” coming from outer-space,  or invasions of body snatchers – and countless similar scenarios, it was HG wells who started it, with this book.