H.G. Wells: ‘The War of the Worlds’
The War of the Worlds is one of those novels that it is impossible to come to without a serious amount of cultural baggage, such has been the force of this books influence on Science Fiction and on western culture as a whole. Indeed, the opening paragraph feels so familiar that reading it gives you goosebumps, it’s somehow like coming home. From the famous Orson Welles radio adaptation, the 1953 movie, Jeff Wayne’s 1978 concept album, and latterly the 2005 Tom Cruise
travesty movie, we derive notions of what the Martians and their fighting machines should look like, what the most important scenes and characters in the book are, and a whole slew of other preconceptions. In an attempt to leave these aside, I aim to concentrate on what the book shows us that later (and lesser) adaptations have seen fit to excise.
From the opening chapters, one thing becomes clear; this is a book about England. The puffs of smoke from Mars and the first sallies of the Martians off of Horsell common are set against an idyllic background of rural England in the opening throes of a long, hot summer. Not only does Wells paint a beautiful picture of the countryside with the hay standing ready in the meadows on a balmy June evening, but he also describes in loving terms small village life. Granted, Wells then proceeds to bludgeon and burn this rural idyll through his Martian proxy’s, but the tone of the story at this point dwells heavily upon what is being lost rather than on the invaders themselves.
The second section of the novel describing the adventures of the narrators brother take the action to London, but this does not have the same effect. London is reduced to a set of street names and we must wait until the end of the book when we see a deserted London that a picture of it is painted in any kind of lyrical or aesthetic form, and only then because it has become devoid of the type of heavy industry that has become synonymous with the Martians over the course of the novel. This section does, however, contain wonderful descriptions of the exodus from London. It is here that the period in which this novel takes place and in which it was written asserts itself. The description of the refugee column is at once both familiar from our television screens and movies, but also strangely alien. The scene of a mass of late Victorian humanity travelling English country roads in full flight, interspersed with horse, cart, and carriage, is strangely disconcerting. This is what we have come to think of as 1950’s style B-movie SF happening to the world of Thomas Hardy.
Perhaps the best part of the novel for suspense and sheer SF goodness is the middle 8 of the book, where the narrator and a curate peer out from the ruins of a house that has been struck by the last of the Martian cylinders and, in a tense atmosphere of claustrophobia, fear, and madness, they watch the Martians at their industry. This section is rightly famous for its sense of impending doom, however it is just as strongly descriptional and imaginative. The detail Wells put into the Martians and their alien technology, however ‘steampunk’ it may seem to us now, was a feat of pure original imagination that stands absolutely unparalleled, not just in the literature of Wells’ time, but also up to the present day.
Like much of Wells’ work, the book is lacking in structural clarity or any kind of literary subtlety. Despite this, it is not only the plot devices that became the stuff of narrative legend; the novel bears the imprint of Wells’ liberal and unreconciled colonial anxiety on its sleeve, making it not just the first true interplantary SF novel, but the first to be, in some sense at least, an allegory about the other of the western psyche. The conclusion to the novel describes Earth as humanity’s birthright, as something conquered through generations of struggle and death, and this is as ringing an endorsement of imperialism as we ever really get from Wells. Likewise, the open-endedness of the narrative and the possibility of the return of the Martians is the very least of his far-sighted warnings about the colonial projects possible pitfalls.