The War of The Worlds – HG Wells (1898)
The problem with the current public perception of this novel is that it suffers from a certain level of subsequent re-imagining in various forms, from Orson Welles’ 1938 historic real-time broadcast through to the 1953 film; Jeff Wayne’s truncated but brilliant concept album version and – in the Nineties – an execrable American TV series which is best forgotten, as is the Cruise/Spielberg shenanigans that is so far from Wells’ vision they might just as well have called it something else .
Re-reading this afresh is a liberating experience and an affirming one since Wells’ original version is as chilling and compulsive a read as I remember it, and dispels some of the subsequent myths which have arisen more from the American film version than from the book. The Martians, for instance, do not have three eyes or travel in threes. Apart from the fact that their fighting machines are tripods there is no other mention of ‘threes’. The Martians are beautifully described early on in the novel and have only the two eyes.
One legacy of other versions is that it is now difficult to read without imagining Richard Burton’s voice narrating in one’s head, which is not on the whole a bad thing.
Wells’ problem in limiting his book to first person narrative is that he is faced with having to describe both the Martian arrival and initial attacks in Woking, and then their subsequent rout of London, which he does by giving a retrospective account of his brother’s escape from the Capital. It’s a clumsy device which telegraphs the fact that he is eventually reunited with his brother and that the Martians are defeated, but this is a minor criticism of what is the definitive novel of Earth invasion which features most importantly Wells’ sharply observed characters and the range of reactions of humanity to such an event.
As in ‘The Time Machine’ we are shown that despite the trappings of civilisation we are still capable of regressing to animal behaviour albeit peppered with occasional acts of selfless heroism.
Cleverly, the scenes which are truly horrific are those in which humanity turns on itself, such as when the narrator’s brother – shepherding two women out of London – encounters a stampeding mob being driven by the Martians. Symbolically, one man, attempting to protect his gold, fights off an offer of help and – after having his back broken – falls under the wheels of a carriage.
Wells also gives us two contrasting characters; The Curate and The Artilleryman.
The narrator’s conversation with the Artilleryman is telling, for although he is shown to be a braggart and has no real inclination to put his grandiose schemes of Resistance into operation, his opinion of the future of humans living under Martian control has the chilling ring of truth.
‘Very likely these Martians will make pets of some of them; train them to do tricks – who knows? – get sentimental over the pet boy who grew up and had to be killed. And some, maybe, they will train to hunt us.’
‘No.’ I cried. ‘that’s impossible! No human being—‘
‘What’s the good of going on with such lies?’ said the artilleryman. ‘There’s men who’d do it cheerful. What nonsense to pretend there isn’t!’
And I succumbed to his conviction.
The Curate is a curious figure, a broken rambling coward, his faith driven to breaking point by the very existence of the Martians. It is interesting to note that in the US, some fifty years after the book was written, the film version portrays The Curate as a heroic figure who faces the Martians openly and defies them. Whether this is an attack on organised religion is unclear, Wells himself, at the denouement – in which the Martians are destroyed by the Earth’s bacteria – describes them as ‘the smallest of God’s creatures’ which some might interpret as a kind of Divine plan.
Putting the book in a historical context, we have to look at Britain of the time, still essentially an Empire with Victoria as Empress/Governess of many foreign countries which were being ruled under unwanted occupation. Wells is simply here putting the British people in the position of the citizens of many of those occupied territories. He is clear to point out, in the section of the novel in which the narrator describes the physiology of the Martians, that we are upon the same evolutionary path. In literary terms Wells’ Martians are early cyborgs, using their mechanisms as extensions of their bodies, without which they are helpless. Their development has taken them to a point where they are merely a brain, some sense organs and a cluster of tentacular ‘fingers’. Once, the novel suggests, they must have been much like us. It is not too much of a mental leap to imagine humanity on a dying world, watching a younger, life-bearing world with envious eyes, and to make comparisons between our Victorian Empire-building and the Martian invasion.