by H.G. Wells
180 pages, Penguin Classics
Review by Dave Loftus
Think of the word Martian; I bet you haven’t in a long time. You definitely wouldn’t classify it as a competent ‘baddy’ anymore would you? It’s too childish a monster, too garish and clichéd. The shiny, hovering, ray-gun-wielding Martians are too connected to the 1950s, to the point that they seem as outdated as the decade itself. Think of Marvin the Martian from Looney Tunes with his stupid hat and nasal whine of a voice. I ain’t afraid of no Martians.
And yet, there’s still a morbidly alluring glimmer locked in the word. It has an eerie otherworldliness. If it turned out the Martians were coming tomorrow, you’d run for the hills and not look back. For that animalistic mistrust of something entirely fictional, you have H.G. Wells to thank.
I’ll admit now I approached The War of the Worlds with trepidation. It seemed so irrevocably entangled within popular culture it gave me claustrophobia. Imagine if you had to explain the events of the 20th century to a goose, using only TV catchphrases. It was just like that. Wikipedia has an entry simply listing adaptations of the book. Film, radio, TV, comics, games- it has seemingly caressed every medium with diminishing levels of quality. Part of me also feared that the grandfather of alien invasion wouldn’t stand up to the streamlined muscle of its descendants, that the prose would seem clunky or outdated and the birth of the most popular science fiction genre would come away laughable, patchy or just downright sad.
It delights me how wrong I was. Abandoning florid prose in favour of a stark chronological account, the story feels concreted in reality, absorbing you into the unkempt hysteria of a most unreal kind.
After a cylinder fired from the red planet crashes into Horshell Common in South England, villagers flock to see it open and a hideous creature emerge. Locals initially wave a white flag but a truckload of wrong arrives when the Martian deploys a fearsome heat-ray, killing the witnesses. The beauty of the story at this early stage is the snail’s pace at which the horror unfolds. With people lying scorched on the common and thus unable to report back, the panic is basically non-existent; hard to imagine nowadays when news can circle the globe in seconds.
Villagers begin to chat, great artillery guns and troops make their way to the scene and the narrator remarks on the ‘dovetailing of the commonplace habits of our social order with the first beginnings of the series of events that was to topple that social order headlong.’ Little else happens. This may sound dull but I was enraptured. Action can be overrated. Here we have a simmering tension on the boil and a delicious dread in the air.
Soon enough the story kicks into gear when the Martians, who’ve been constructing frightening metallic tripods, clamber from the pit and become unstoppable. Merry old England’s precious villages are razed to the ground and hundreds flee to the capital. ‘It was the beginning of the rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind,’ the narrator says as London itself begins to empty.
Invasion literature was in full swing during this time. Bram Stoker’s Dracula told people they weren’t safe in their own bodies. The War of the Worlds told people they weren’t safe in their own civilisation. London was the booming heart of the Industrial Revolution and a global empire, so to have it zapped to shrapnel by ‘intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic’ would have been a crushing blow.
Victorian writing and the lavish period dramas of today paint an image of the time as one of stiff corsets and gleeful rapscallions. H.G. Wells went for something different- a Lark Rise to Navarone if you will, either that or one of Dickens’s worst nightmares.
What makes the story stand out to a modern reader is the baffling incongruity generated between Victorian London (crashing omnibuses, panicking street urchins) against the ghastly horror of the cosmic invaders (lasers, poison gas, robotics). I had to keep reminding myself that this tumult wasn’t just some lazy steampunk, where the writer sticks a whisk in the stuffiest society in history and sees what happens. No, this was written at the time it was set. Think about that for a second. This is a tale about extraterrestrials trouncing the iron might of the British Empire, written five years before mankind had even got aeroplanes working.
For all its sprawling progeny, the original 1898 text of The War of the Worlds remains unique. It mashes together epic, barrelling chaos with the polite quaintness of Victorian England and still ends up coming away looking fresher and more terrifying than any sci-fi blockbuster of the here-and-now. Even today, Wells must be looking down with impatience, waiting for us to catch up.