Okay, so everyone has rushed out to see the spiffed-up, modernized Steven Spielberg movie version. And most of us have also probably seen the George Pal version, where the special effects were slick for their day but not yet up to the task of Martian mechanized walking tripods. It's even hard to live in the civilized world and not have been exposed, at least once, to Orson Welles' panic-inducing radio broadcast, which demonstrates that Average Americans in the late 1930's were at least as pitifully gullible as they are today.
But have you actually read the novel? Hands? Hmm. Thought so. Never fear. This book is actually wicked cool. Yes, it singlehandedly invented the alien invasion story, becoming a classic work of English literature, remaining in print consistently for over a century, and has been the subject of more essays, analyses, dramatizations, critiques, and even unofficial sequels than nearly any novel this side of the Valles Marineris. But what you might miss in weighing all those impressive academic credentials is that it's a good story, entertaining to read. Which a lot of "important" works of "literature" are not. So, chalk one up for Victorian geek culture.
The War of the Worlds has been interpreted as many things: an anti-imperialist polemic, a prophetic tract on modern warfare, a Darwinian screed. There's truth to all of this, though — pragmatist that I am — I think none of that would matter if it weren't first and foremost a cracking good yarn, and Wells the sort of storyteller who knew how to best incorporate such themes into a strong narrative, so that the one never overshadows the other.
Still it's possible to get too academic, and read too much into classic fiction. Tolkien, after all, never intended for The Lord of the Rings to be a religious allegory, though that is how the trilogy has been interpreted by a zillion masters' theses. I do think that Wells did intend for The War of the Worlds to be a jab at the complacency and arrogance of the British Empire, then at its wane. There is a clear anti-imperialist theme to be derived from the way in which the Martians simply run roughshod over old Blighty, similar to the way Britain was accused of doing over its many foreign possessions. And Wells' fascination with Darwin is seen in his descriptions of his Martians' biology, and speculations about their development. These may be the first instances of hard SF (at a Victorian level, natch) put to paper. But there are, I think, a few myths that have arisen about the book over the years. For instance, though Wells was atheist, this novel is not nearly so hostile to religion as some have surmised.
Okay. Plot. We all know it, right? "Safe and tranquil" Victorian England is alarmed by the sudden arrival of octopoidal Martian invaders, who tromp around the landscape on hundred-foot-tall mechanical tripods incinerating everything in sight with their heat rays and killing whatever's left with noxious black smoke, until, deus ex, they all catch colds and die. That's the short version. The beauty of it all, however, lies in Wells' passionate execution. The story is thought out with an impressive amount of detail that might surprise readers expecting something antiquated and crude. For one thing, there's a credible motivation for the Martians' invasion (they covet our warmer climate), instantly making the book a cut above the myriad BEMs-invade-us-and-carry-off-our-women-because-that's-what-BEMs-do knockoffs that cluttered the Gernsbackian pulps until John W. Campbell smacked sense into everyone and demanded intelligent storytelling for a change.
For another — and I think this is crucial to the influence this novel has on directing SF towards real literary sophistication — Wells humanizes the story from beginning to end. His unnamed, first-person narrator is not the macho hero of Golden Age space opera, nor is he even what you might think of as a Victorian gentleman. He is an ordinary man (though, admittedly, a philosopher) whose chief motivation throughout the book is to reunite with his missing wife. He also tells us, in concise and uncluttered prose, of his brother's ordeal. It is remarkable how real and relatable — that is to say, not like you'd expect a protagonist in a century-old novel to be, where the age of the story alone would distance you from him — this man is. I felt for him and his desperate struggle. The book manages to connect to human needs and drives that are universal and timeless. How many popular bestsellers written today do you think have characters with whom readers in 2105 will identify?
I also admired the subtle and unhurried way in which Wells builds suspense, and marries it to ironic observations of daily life. In a time long before instant global communication, news at first travels slowly. When the first cylinder crashes into the countryside on Horsell Common, not many people take note of it. Soon, the object becomes a popular curiosity. But even after the first Martians emerge from it, and even after they've parboiled their first hapless human victims with their heat rays, panic does not set in across the land. The narrator, running from the scene, notes how strange it is to see unaware individuals continuing about their daily lives only a few hundred yards away from the landing site. As news spreads of the Martians' threat, concern grows, but their presense is still seen as an aberration. (It is foolishly thought that, despite their horrible weapon, they cannot get out of the pit their cylinder's in, and the approaching army will make short work of them.) The British lip is, as ever, stiff and upper (to swipe a line from Wodehouse), and even first contact tinged with terrifying violence is not enough to upset daily routine.
Overnight, the situation changes. More cylinders fall, the busy Martians assemble their walking tripods, and no one is safe. At this point the novel's pace shifts into high, and we're treated to some action setpieces still strong by today's standards. But what really startles you as you read these passages is just how creepily prescient Wells' writing was. World War I was nearly two decades off when this book came out, and yet the descriptions of mechanized warfare — including the use of chemical weapons by the Martians, canisters that release a deadly black smoke — shockingly presage the Great War with its tanks and mustard gas and its unprecedented casual annihilation of entire armies. Also, scenes of thousands of refugees making their way out of London might have seemed beyond the pale to Victorian readers. Not so to contemporary readers who've seen refugees on a million newscasts (or even post-WWII readers still traumatized by the Blitz). This half of the book culminates in an explosive sequence that's still a doozy: a battle in the waters of the Channel between three tripods and the courageous battleship Thunder Child. If you want to know what keeps a book in print for a hundred years, I'd nominate "ass kicking" to a high position on the list.
The second half might, at first blush, be dismissed by readers as "the boring part." I disagree. Here is where Wells gets into the meat of the story: succinctly, the aftermath of the invasion. In so doing, the novel, clearly not content with inventing only one genre of popular fiction, goes on to invent another, the "last man on Earth" story. Of course, as the climax will reveal, our narrator isn't really the last man on Earth. But for two weeks, as far as he's concerned he might as well be. Despite a handful of desperate encounters — a mad curate, a strangely delusional artilleryman obsessed with odd visions of humanity surviving underground — Wells' everyman hero finds himself bereft and alone in a demolished world. This is also where Wells engages in most of the book's scientific speculation, and though some of it is, to modern knowledge, nonsense (there's no convincing biological basis for the Martians' blood-drinking), it was 1898 after all. The point is that Wells was striving here not merely to write some tawdry, violent melodrama, but to give it an authentic feel.
Our narrator is a philosopher. Thus, so is his story. Repeatedly the notion that we are unto the Martians as ants are unto humans is drummed in. Wells offers some eloquent ruminations on the value of living in harmony with our environment and the creatures in it as opposed to acting like the masters over all. For what if something, someday, proves to be masters over us?
If your only exposure to The War of the Worlds has been the movies or TV shows or what have you, odds are the "death by bacteria" surprise ending has always seemed implausibly abrupt. Not so in the book, where its appearance is logically consistent and credible following all of the scientific passages (the term "natural selection" appears several times) that have preceded it. Also, the climax works dramatically as well, because Wells, as he did in the early pre-attack scenes, builds to the revelation slowly. It opens with a deliciously eerie sequence as our narrator wanders into a deserted London, where the sepulchral silence is broken only by a strange alien cry. Following the sound, he slowly makes his way to Regent's Park, where he discovers one of the tripods standing silent, with crows circling its cockpit. Read fully, the sequence, with its apocalyptic imagery and remarkable use of silence and sound to build atmosphere and tension, is not merely satisfying but stunning. And it's only enhanced by Wells' gifted prose.
And as I looked at this wide expanse of houses and factories and churches, silent and abandoned; as I thought of the multitudinous hopes and efforts, the innumerable hosts of lives that had gone to build this human reef, and of the swift and ruthless destruction that had hung over it all; when I realised that the shadow had been rolled back, and that men might still live in the streets, and this dear vast dead city of mine be once more alive and powerful, I felt a wave of emotion that was near akin to tears.... With overwhelming force came the thought of myself, of my wife, and the old life of hope and tender helpfulness that had ceased for ever.
Finally it must be said that much of the imagery the novel evokes remains — after over 100 years, two world wars, and other human tragedies too numerous to list — as alarmingly prescient as ever. I happened to finish re-reading it on the day several terrorist bombs went off in London in early July of 2005, and couldn't help but be struck by the following passage.
The farther I penetrated into London, the profounder grew the stillness. But it was not so much the stillness of death — it was the stillness of suspense, of expectation. At any time the destruction that had already singed the northwestern borders of the metropolis, and had annihilated Ealing and Kilburn, might strike among these houses and leave them smoking ruins.
Does one have to be prophetic to write great SF? Not really. But if speaking in a language, cautionary or otherwise, that still addresses the apprehensions and insecurities of people across centuries is what it takes to be a true classic, then The War of the Worlds is a true classic. If you've still never read it, it's time you did. Especially if you didn't like the movie.
Of the numerous versions of this book that have seen print over the years, probably my favorite is the 1960 edition illustrated by the inimitable Edward Gorey (second cover), which has been reprinted and is available now as a nice little $16.95 hardcover. The inexpensive Modern Library version (third cover) has an Arthur C. Clarke intro and an appendix featuring an essay on Wells by Jules Verne and an 1898 review, making it kind of like a book version of a Criterion DVD. It is available free as an ebook virtually everywhere.