First published by H. G. Wells in 1898, The War of the Worlds is the granddaddy of all alien invasion stories. The novel begins ominously, as the lone voice of a narrator intones, "No one would have believed in the last years of the 19th century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's." Things then progress from a series of seemingly mundane reports about odd atmospheric disturbances taking place on Mars to the arrival of Martians just outside of London. At first, the Martians seem laughable, hardly able to move in Earth's comparatively heavy gravity, even enough to raise themselves out of the pit created when their spaceship landed. But soon the Martians reveal their true nature as death machines 100 feet tall rise up from the pit and begin laying waste to the surrounding land. Wells quickly moves the story from the countryside to the evacuation of London itself and the loss of all hope as England's military suffers defeat after defeat. With horror, the narrator describes how the Martians suck the blood from living humans for sustenance and how it's clear that man is not being conquered so much as corralled.
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Originally posted with links at Fantasy Literature.
“It was the beginning of the rout of civilization, of the massacre of mankind.”
H.G. Wells’ earliest novels had a major impact on science fiction. The War of the Worlds, first serialized in Pearson’s Magazine in 1897 and published in novel form in 1898, is one of our earliest examples of the First Contact theme. In Wells’ story several spaceships from Mars land in England, creating vast craters. At first the English are either amused or indifferent until Martians pop out and start terrorizing them with heat rays, “fighting machines,” “black smoke” and a Martian plant that begins spreading across England. The English are not prepared to fight this kind of war and, because it’s the late nineteenth century, are unable to communicate their situation quickly enough to the outside world. By the time the Martians make their way to London, it looks like the entire human race is doomed.
The story is related in the first person by an unnamed narrator, a writer who lives in Surrey and observes the landing of one of the Martian ships, the building of their fighting machines, and the mass slaughter of his countrymen. He has a wife who he sends to a relative’s house, though it isn’t long before he realizes that she’s probably not safe there either. We also hear from our narrator’s brother and another character who let us know what’s going on in other parts of England where the Martians have landed. At one point our narrator and another man are trapped together in a partly destroyed house at the edge of one of the craters. For two weeks they must try to get along with each other, sharing very little food and water. During this time they are able to observe the Martians’ activity, which is horrifying, but they must stay hidden and silent so the Martians don’t notice them. This is not a favorable situation for maintaining one’s sanity.
The plot of The War of the Worlds is exciting but the best part of the novel is its imagery and language. The tall fighting machines which walk on long jointed legs and have tentacles that grab people are horrifying, as is the image of the craters and the intrusive red weed that grows wild and threatens to overrun our planet. Even the domestic scene at the beginning of the story is eerie and foreboding:
… I remember that dinner table with extraordinary vividness even now. My dear wife’s sweet anxious face peering at me from under the pink lamp shade, the white cloth with its silver and glass table furniture — for in those days even philosophical writers had many little luxuries — the crimson-purple wine in my glass, are photographically distinct. At the end of it I sat, tempering nuts with a cigarette, regretting Ogilvy’s rashness, and denouncing the shortsighted timidity of the Martians.
So some respectable dodo in the Mauritius might have lorded it in his nest, and discussed the arrival of that shipful of pitiless sailors in want of animal food. “We will peck them to death tomorrow, my dear.” I did not know it, but that was the last civilized dinner I was to eat for very many strange and terrible days.
Or this one in which he vividly contrasts the glory and the humility of man:
Since the night of my return from Leatherhead I had not prayed. I had uttered prayers, fetish prayers, had prayed as heathens mutter charms when I was in extremity; but now I prayed indeed, pleading steadfastly and sanely, face to face with the darkness of God. Strange night! Strangest in this, that so soon as dawn had come, I, who had talked with God, crept out of the house like a rat leaving its hiding place — a creature scarcely larger, an inferior animal, a thing that for any passing whim of our masters might be hunted and killed. Perhaps they also prayed confidently to God. Surely, if we have learned nothing else, this war has taught us pity — pity for those witless souls that suffer our dominion.
H.G. Wells’ interest in Darwin’s ideas about natural selection are obvious and he seemed particularly interested in the evolution of intelligence (this was also a major theme in his novel The Time Machine).
Wells also doesn’t miss opportunities to mock the personalities and social customs of some of his fellow Englishmen. There is some of this when he’s trapped with the man in the house, but my favorite example is when he meets a man who has grandiose plans for kicking the Martians off Earth and recruits our narrator to join up. This part is just funny.
There’s so much for the modern science fiction reader to enjoy in The War of the Worlds. It’s a classic which has never been out of print and its story has inspired not only sequels and pastiches but also movies, dramatizations, music, and comics. If you’re only familiar with it from one of those secondary sources, I highly recommend reading Wells’ original. It’s in the public domain so it’s easily found for free, but I recommend the audio version narrated by Simon Vance who is one of the top narrators in the business. You can get this superb version for only 99¢ if you use the Wispersync deal from Amazon and Audible. (Purchase the Kindle version for free and then purchase the audio version (by Simon Vance!) for 99¢.)
- Katherine "I'm the managing editor of the Fantasy Literature blog. Life's too short to read bad books!"
Curate Cabin Fever, or Watch out for that Tripod!
What an imaginative, objective, gripping, bracing, and humbling novel H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds is! The story is well-known: Martians land on earth, in Woking in Southern England, and quickly set about destroying the British infrastructure and military defenses and crisping via heat ray the humans they don't capture to use as handy blood sources, all as detachedly and efficiently as humans would deal with a colony of ants or wasps. The first person narrator relates all this in a compellingly honest and passionate way. His relationship with the curate is more provocative and terrible than that between Tom Cruise and Tim Robbins in the 2005 movie version by Spielberg. For that matter, the novel, depicting the narrator's attempts to survive and to find his wife, is sparer and cleaner than the film, clotted by Spielberg's corny additions of a little daughter and teenage son into his divorced protagonist's life. Wells' imaginings of the Martian tripod war machines with their terrible heat-ray and poison gas weapons and of their spider-like handling-machines (with their uncanny animation and dexterity) and of the red creeping Martian weeds and of how panicked masses of people would behave are all vivid and morbidly fascinating. Via his Martians, Wells forces us to look again at our actions towards the ???inferior??? species and aboriginal peoples on our own world and also at our ???right??? to survive in an uncaring universe.
Simon Vance does his usual fine job of reading, everything being just right except perhaps that his female voices may verge on the artificially feminine. But all in all this is a great audiobook.