Book Reviews

The War of the Worlds * H.G. Wells

Every passing decade, the culture of human beings as a whole has been significantly affected by technology and science. Whether it’s something small, like the invention of automatic doors, or something enormously important, like the invention of the telegraph or the discovery of DNA, technology and science change the way we live, and how we view life, all the time.

Generally these inventions and discoveries are considered “good;” they are making life easier for us and helping us better our understanding of both ourselves and the world around us. However, to some, science has challenged their way of life. Instead of embracing new perspectives, some religious followers have tended to cling to traditional beliefs and shun what science and technology have to offer. For instance, when Charles Darwin introduced his theory of evolution by natural selection, he was directly challenging the cardinal belief that God created the earth and its inhabitants. Traditional religious believers became outraged because Darwin and fellow biologists were claiming, with hard evidence, that everything they believed in was completely false. A century and a half later, ideas pertaining to evolution and religion are still mutually exclusive for many involved in the argument.

With this being said, there is no correct way of thinking. Not one person truly knows why we’re here on earth, and it’s very unlikely that any sort of science or religion will ever tell us the reason. These belief systems are simply attempts on our part to do all we can to understand. However, H.G. Wells’ novel, War of the Worlds, poses an interesting argument regarding this divide between science and religion.

“Now whenever things are so that a lot of people feel they ought to be doing something, the weak, and those who go weak with a lot of complicated thinking, always make for a sort of do-nothing religion, very pious and superior, and submit to persecution and the will of the Lord.”

War of the Worlds was only written a few decades after Darwin published his theory, yet it shows how quickly and powerfully his theory impacted the world, both scientifically and religiously.  In the novel we see our planet invaded and unmercifully attacked by Martians. The protagonist of the novel is depicted as a sensible, intelligent human being who we as readers know ultimately survives the attack because he tells it in the past tense. Through the text, Wells makes it obvious that the protagonist is fully aware of technology and what it has to offer.

“I began to compare the Martians to human machines, to ask myself for the first time in my life how an ironclad or a steam engine would seem to an intelligent lower animal.”

H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, the first story to speculate about the consequences of aliens (from Mars) with superior technology landing on earth, is one of the most influential science fiction books ever written. The novel is both a thrilling narrative and an elaboration of Wells’s socio-political thought on the subjects of imperialism, humankind’s treatment of other animals, and unquestioning faith in military technology and the continuation of the human species.

This edition’s appendices include other related writings by Wells; selected correspondence; contemporary reviews; excerpts from works that influenced the novel and from contemporary invasion narratives; and photographs of examples of Victorian military technology.

“This isn’t a war,” said the artilleryman. “It never was a war, any more than there’s war between man and ants.”

“Few people realise the immensity of vacancy in which the dust of the material universe swims.”

“For that moment I touched an emotion beyond the common range of men, yet one the poor brutes we dominate know only too well. I felt as a rabbit might feel returning to his burrow, and suddenly confronted by the work of a dozen busy navvies digging the foundations of a house. I felt the first inkling of a thing that presently grew quite clear in my mind, that oppressed me for many days, a sense of dethronement, a persuasion that I was no longer master, but an animal among animals; under the Martian heel.”

“By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers; it would still be his were the Martians ten times as mighty as they are. For neither do men live nor die in vain.”

“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”

A beautiful opening to the book but I must say the Martians did a very poor job of scrutinising us human chappies and our little blue planet considering what transpires later. Ah, but I must not spoil the book even though I imagine most people reading this review (all three of them) already know how it ends. Which brings me to my next point, if you know the story of The War of The Worlds quite well already but have not actually read the book I urge you to read it, especially if you are a science fiction fan. I don’t think there are many books in the pantheon of sci-fi as important as this one. This is the book that launched the alien invasion sci-fi trope and even manages to remain one of the best examples of it.

H.G. Wells was light years ahead of his time, the mind boggles to think what he was able to conceive in the 19th century; alien invasion, time travel, genetic engineering, all these when TV sets are still decades in the future. If historical importance is not much of an inducement for you and you are just looking for a thumping good read Mr. Wells is also at your service here. The War of The Worlds is often thrilling, skillfully structured and narrated with some unexpected moments of philosophising and surreal dialogue. I generally find that Wells wrote much better prose than most of today’s SF authors do.

He even included some element of hard sf into his novels, here is an example from this book:

“It is still a matter of wonder how the Martians are able to slay men so swiftly and so silently. Many think that in some way they are able to generate an intense heat in a chamber of practically absolute non-conductivity. This intense heat they project in a parallel beam against any object they choose, by means of a polished parabolic mirror of unknown composition, much as the parabolic mirror of a lighthouse projects a beam of light.”

Yes, you may already have a fairly good idea of The War of The Worlds’ beginning middle and end without ever reading the book but you would miss Wells’ marvelously immersive and visual storytelling and the subtexts embedded in the original texts. The scene of naval battle between the military’s ironclads and the Martian tripods is vividly depicted and should please fans of military sf and general badassery.

I appreciated some of the artilleryman’s ideas on cohabitation, in so far as he compared the surviving humans to rodents or small animals — the Martians (as the “New Kings of the Earth”) will let us be, as we mean them no harm– unless they run out of food, that is. Isn’t this really how animals must see us? I think so. Too bad that’s not true… Humans will hunt, kill and exploit for the sport of it, not just for survival.

The ending is the mother of all Deus Ex Machina, I suppose Wells may have written himself into a corner a bit here as Victorian Brits are never going to be much of a challenge for giant tripod riding aliens armed with heat rays and weird smoke guns.

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