Title: War of the Worlds
Author: H.G. Wells
Year: 1988, text of the original 1898 edition
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 moral as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinized the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. [i]
When I put The War of the Worlds on my Classics Club reading list, I did so because I felt it was a book I ‘needed’ to read. Needed as in should: A classic work by an important author, whose works are the foundation of modern science fiction.
I also thought I knew the story having heard snippets of the infamous radio program devised by Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater on the night of October 30, 1938 that scared almost a million people into believing Martians had landed and were destroying planet Earth.
But from the opening pages, I realized I really didn’t know the story of the nameless narrator who, when looking through the telescope of a friend, sees 10 flashes of light coming from Mars and the gaseous flumes pulsating from its surface and the catastrophe these events bring.
Then came the night of the first falling star. It was seen early in the morning, rushing over Winchester eastward, a line of flame high in the atmosphere. Hundreds must have seen it, and taken it for an ordinary falling star. [ii]
The story follows the unnamed philosopher/writer from his telescopic viewing of Mars and the first “falling star,” to the landing of the cylinders that house the Martians and the destruction they bring with their heat rays and black powder. They are 100 feet in height with spindly arms and legs that tuck into their war-machines that have the capacity to destroy the world and enslave the human race. We follow him as he escapes from his home to take his wife to her family miles away and through his arduous journey to London where he craves understanding, insight and a way to stop this menace.
The writing was so compelling that I found myself thinking of the story in the car repair waiting-room as well as at the doctor’s office. So near to the end of the book, I sat in the parking lot to finish it!
The book is also a study in behavior when people are confronted by such a monumental disruption to their world view. Most ran for their lives without regard for the needs of anyone else, some wanted to stay and fight or study the invaders, some appeared to be in a paralyzed daze. One of these characters waylays the narrator with his plan to save humanity by moving mankind underground into the sewers while they learn about the Martians and try to find their Achilles’ Heel.
It’s saving our knowledge and adding to it is the thing. There men like you come in. There’s books, there’s models. We must make great safe places down deep, and get all the books we can; not novels and poetry swipes, but ideas, science books. That’s where men like you come in. We must go to the British Museum and pick all those books through. Especially we must keep up our science—learn more. We must watch these Martians.[iii]
The narrator is caught up in this plan until he sees the true nature of the man: he is just a “strange undisciplined dreamer.” He is once again off to London.
Entering the city, the signs of Martian destruction are everywhere: the black powder, the charred bodies and buildings and the strange red vine brought by the Martians that springs up trees, on bushes and in ponds. At Oxford Street by the Marble Arch he sees black bodies strewn around, incinerated. Breaking into a pub he finds food and drink which lulls his tired body to sleep. Awakening at dusk, the humming noise of “Ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla” fills his ears. Making his way toward the sound he comes upon a howling Martian in its death throes having been torn apart by dogs. Moving up to Primrose Hill he looks down upon another Martian, dead. And the “Ulla, ulla” stops abruptly.
Surveying the land below he sees overturned war-machines and their Martian inhabitants stark still. But how did they die? Not by any manner of military might or strategy, but by the smallest microscopic army. “Slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared;…slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.”[iv]
The novel ends with the narrator reunited with his wife and the world getting back to an uneasy normal, because knowing Martians can space travel, this may only be a reprieve. As it is, telescopes have detected light and gas coming once more from Mars, and lights falling on Venus.
We have learned now that we cannot regard this planet as being fenced in and a secure abiding place for Man; we can never anticipate the unseen good or evil that may come upon us suddenly out of space…It may be that across the immensity of space the Martians have watched the fate of these pioneers of theirs and learned their lesson, and that on the planet Venus they have found a securer settlement….[v]
I came away from The War of the Worlds with a desire to read more ‘old school’ science fiction. I would describe this book generally as ‘character-driven by events,’ with a noble protagonist who managed to stay uncorrupted by circumstance.
It is interesting to note that Wells compares the Martian invasion and desire to conquer and vanquish with our own behavior toward the animals and peoples of earth:
And before we judge of 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 inferior races….Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?[vi]
Finally, if we ponder our reactions to what some say is our own dying planet will we at some point look out into the dark universe for some other bright star where life might be possible on one of its plants, as the Martians did to save their own kind? How much more are we like them that we would have this same feeling?
That last stage of exhaustion, which to us is still incredibly remote, has become a present-day problem for the inhabitants of Mars. The immediate pressure of necessity has brightened their intellects, enlarged their powers, and hardened their hearts. And looking across space with instruments, and intelligences such as we have scarcely dreamed of, they see…a morning star of hope, our own warmer planet, green with vegetation and grey with water, with a cloudy atmosphere eloquent of fertility.[vii]