War of the Worlds is a science fiction classic by anyone’s standards. It has inspired comics, movies, more movies, other novels, TV shows like the classic 1970’s series The Tripods, yet more movies, most recently starring Tom Cruise. A mass panic when the infamous Orson Welles radios version was first broadcast (which is somewhat overstated as the broadcast had a relatively small audience in reality, but has a mythic quality all of its own.) And even a 70’s prog rock album, narrated by Hollywood royalty in the person of Sir Richard Burton. The album has even been adapted to the stage as a musical in recent years. Indeed from its humble beginnings as a pulp magazine serial in ‘Pearsons Magazine‘ there is very little the novel has not been adapted to, or in some way inspired. (including Robert Godard who invented the multi-stage rocket and claimed he was inspired to the idea by reading ‘War of the Worlds’)
All of which begs the question of how it stacks up against its modern equivalents. As I said when I did this with 20000 Leagues Under the Sea there are plenty of Wikipedia entries on H.G.Wells, War of the Worlds, and the usual veneration of strange facts and figures about the novel. But seldom is it talked of as if it was a new release, needing to stand or fall against its modern contemporaries. So let’s see if this 120-year-old novel can hold up to scrutiny.
To start with though there is much of the mythic about ‘War of the Worlds‘ more so than Verne’s tale of submarine piracy because H.G.Wells himself has a certain mythic quality about him. In part, this is due to one of his other novels ‘The Time Machine.’ Another novel to invented its own and much-mined sub-genre. Both novels were written by Wells with a first-person narrator. One who he does not name himself, placing us in the position where the writer wants us to believe the writer has experienced all he speaks of himself. While a far from an original literary device. In the case of Wells fiction, we often find ourselves wanting to believe it’s true. Which is a neat trick, and one that was hard to pull off even in his day. Yet a part of every reader still wants to suspend their disbelief, and believe H.G. himself really did invent the time machine. Perhaps because it is the original time travel story. (it predates Mark Twain’s ‘Connecticut Yankee in King Authors Court’ by two years). But when we read ‘The Time Machine‘ (or me at least), I want to believe Wells went into the far future, then came back to tell us about it. Just as while reading ‘War of the Worlds‘ we want to believe it is a survivor’s account of the great Martian war. In the same way as when you read Max Brooks ‘World War Z‘ you’re drawn into this world where the great zombie war is a fact of history rather than a fiction.
Because of ‘The Time Machine’ H.G. Wells crops up in other people’s fantasies all the time. There is more than one movie, or tv show that has made a character out of the writer. In one Wells uses his time machine to chase down Jack the Ripper who is hanging around London Bridge, in modern day Arizona. In warehouse 13, Wells the writer is actually his sister Helena who made all the weird stuff like time machines and funded her inventions by selling the stories to her brother. As a character, she was so popular that there were rumours of a spin-off series. And I can hold my own hand up here, having referenced that odd prog rock album and a song from it in my second novel ‘Passing Place‘. Richard gets a job in ‘Esqwiths‘ odd little bar when he finds an advertisement looking for a piano player who ‘Must know Forever Autumn.’ Because when you’re a bankrupt drifter at the end of the road, reading strange signs in bus station windows that name your dead wife’s favourite song from an obscure prog album, then taking the job because a cat tells you to, is exactly what you do…
If that’s not bad enough Wells himself is a major character in my next novel, which is a steampunk romp of sorts, in fact, the writer is more or less the linchpin of the book, without which it would not exist. But H.G.Wells is, arguably more than Jules Verne, one of the great influences on steampunk culture, and ‘War of the Worlds’ is as vibrant source of that influence as ‘The Time machine.’ I have a sew on patch at home that declares the wearer as been a member of the 13th Royal Tripod Brigade, waiting to be sewn on an appropriate uniform jacket. After all, what would the British Empire had done post-martian war but use that technology themselves… Tripods and War of the Worlds art crop up in steampunk circles constantly. All of which seems a little odd when you read ‘War of the Worlds’ itself as it is possibly the least steampunk, steampunk classic imaginable.
The Martians, of course, have their tripods, heat rays and other strange devices, but the humans in the novel are merely average 19th-century humans with average 19th-century technology, doing their best while hopelessly outmatched. Artillery fire, cannons and belt fed Lewis guns are no match for the Martians fighting machines. Even the HMS. Thunder Child, the pride of the British Navy, is outgunned and outfought, though she does go down valiantly on the Thames after bringing one of the tripods down. It’s an event that is even more valiant on Jeff Wayne’s prog rock album, where the desperate fight has its own bombastic track. In comparison with the musical version, the battle in the novel it is slightly disappointing, as it suffers Wells somewhat dry descriptions. The occasionally arid nature of the original text could be a bit of an issue to a modern reader. Wells style is similar in ways to his contemporaries Lovecraft and Poe. First person narrators, giving a dry accounting of events, it lacks a little in the pace and vigour you would expect reading modern science fiction.
The humans in the novel don’t have the time, or indeed the right kind of mad inventiveness, to create steam-powered rail guns or backpack gyrocopters, or anything else on the scale of steampunk craziness, in order to fight back against the Martians. Unlike contemporary novels in the same vain, the humans are not looking for some flaw in the Martian DNA or some other weakness they can exploit. There is no secret weapon they are trying to construct or, indeed anything. But then this is not a tale of valiant resistant, it is the tale of the rout of humanity. And a lone man’s struggle to survive in the chaos. Driven on by a desperate hope, trying to find his wife in the fleeing masses, a plotline which remains unresolved in the novel. In the end, it is luck that saves humanity’s world. Germs of all things, kill off the Martians, who are remarkably unprepared for Earth’s viruses. Which shows a distinct lack of planning on the Martians part.
There they are with all the technology needed to invade another world, without the wisdom to make sure they can stay alive upon it.
From a modern reader’s perspective, this just seems a bit unlikely. You end up feeling that if this was the climax of a novel dropped on a submissions editors desk it would be laughed off as having too much of a get out of jail free ending, “They go to all the trouble of invading then catch a cold and die,,,, really? You want to go with that ending?..” they would ask old H.G.
Yet, as in Wells other novels, that dry style of narration and the slightly lacklustre but straightforward way he tells the story works. For all it lacks passion in some ways. My ancient copy, a 2nd edition reprint, battered into submission by generations of readers and missing pages 7 to 11, is as old and slightly tired as the text. Though it feels right all the same. The journal of a survivor, recounting the events of the war from his perspective. It feels real, in the way a less arid, more colourful telling would not. It manages to hold on to realism at the heart of the tale. This, more than its connotations to steampunk, and its many re-imaginings are what makes this a classic. It’s a novel you can lose yourself in. The ‘Everyman’ narrator is easier to relate to than some gun totting resistance leader fighting a war against the Martians. For let’s be honest here, if the Martians did invade, running, hiding and cowering in basements is what the vast majority of us would be doing. There is a truth to this, which is why generations have gone back to the original text then reimagined their own versions.
It’s a short novel, like most of Wells famous works, something you can read in one sitting if the desire takes you. By modern standards more novella than novel, so I recommend that you should read it that way despite the flaws it may seem to have. In truth, it is a novel as much about the human condition as an alien invasion, something it shares with other novels by H G . Wells. ‘The Time Machine‘ and ‘The Island of Doctor Moreau‘ are more overt in this, but the same, occasionally damning contemplation of humanity exists within ‘War of the Worlds.‘
If you’re looking for a steampunk classic, this really isn’t it. If you’re looking for adventure, that not really here either. If you looking for something more considered and contemplative of humanity, then you have found it. The original may have been eclipsed by all that it inspired. But it remains an original work and a wonderful window on a reality that never existed, thankfully. We never ran from Martian tripods and heat rays. Humanity has never suffered at the hands of invaders from beyond our planet.
Kind of glad about that personally, even more so having read once more Wells’s vision of mankind’s rout…