Sunday, October 13, 2013
This Is Halloween: The War of the Worlds
It's tough to overstate just how important H.G. Wells is in the genesis of science fiction. His work established some of the most long-lasting and recognizable tropes in the genre. The War of the Worlds is almost certainly his best-known work, and its influence in popular culture is so pervasive that the basic premise of the story, and, perhaps, its plot as well, is familiar to most people in Western culture. Its only real rival would be The Time Machine, and I would be willing to bet that fewer people in our culture could rattle off the basic plot to it as they could that of The War of the Worlds. But my point remains: everyone has heard of these two books, and their basic elements continue to be used again and again in pop culture. And they aren't the only two books he wrote in the genre, not by a long shot. But The War of the Worlds towers above the rest.
So that's why even I'm surprised at how long it took me to finally sit down and read it.
The basic plot: meteors strike the Earth in various places near the city of London, and are soon revealed to be conveyances for an invading force from the planet Mars. The resulting "war" quickly proves to be a rout, with humanity finding itself almost completely helpless to turn back the invasion.
Similar to The Time Machine, the protagonist here is unnamed. Wells does a creditable job of making his narrator both a blank slate upon which the reader can project themselves, and an actual character with a definite personality. Through him, we witness the explosions on Mars, seen via telescope, that heralded the arrival of the Martians some time later, and their subsequent attempts to secure the Earth as their own.
Two things struck me immediately about Wells' tale: one, he makes his Martians ("alien" and "extraterrestrial" had not become common terms for creatures from other planets yet) truly alien, and two, they actually begin terraforming (or, really, "aresforming") Earth to be more easily habitable for them. Given the time period and almost complete lack of precedence for either at the time (1895), the fact that Wells included both concepts in the same book is stunning.
Wells' pacing and his narrator's viewpoints places the reader near the action and distant from it in turns, until there is almost a hypnotic tone to the story. Or, a better way to put it is there is a nightmarish quality, where events are beyond the reader's ability to change or comprehend, like the coming of a sudden violent storm.
So what was Wells getting at, specifically? Placing the book in context makes it obvious. The British Empire bestrode the world, dominant for centuries. Like the Martians, it could come and go as it would into any part of the world, its own agenda paramount. Wells was making some sharp societal observations about his nation.
The Martians are implacable and irresistible, their great metal tripodal machines striding the countryside and cities like colossi - not like; they are colossi. When humans prove troublesome, the Martians simply lay down clouds of killing gas, like an exterminator might fumigate a house for rats. There is an air of doom, in the sense of the word as fate, or judgment, here meted out by an uncaring universe rather than a divine hand. And what sins are being punished? One, above all: hubris. Man had come to see himself as the ruler of his planet, and, by assumption, the universe. The Martians were simply an instrument of the universe, sent to disabuse humans of their presumption.
Certainly the Martians were felled by simple organisms (I won't even SPOILER ALERT that; who doesn't know this about the story?), ones that Man himself could easily resist. Yet are not countless humans killed by diseases everyday, diseases that elude even our best science? In the end, Wells' conclusion was one that could apply to any empire, in any time: even the greatest of human powers is still subject to the world around it, helpless before the whims and onslaughts of time or chance or even the most humble forms of life on his own planet. Our greatest folly is to believe we control the destiny of everything around us; at best, we exert some control over our own actions.
I would have ended on that somber, high-falutin' note, but there was something else I wanted to add. Wells' story is a pretty good tale of terror. Like Godzilla some 60 years later, the giant Martian machines run over and through anything in their way, heat rays crisping any who don't flee. It isn't an adventure tale, by any means; no heroes show up to save the day. But for a glorious moment, Wells gives us a glimpse of a story that might have been just that heroic: the attack by the Royal Navy's torpedo ram ship, the Thunder Child. The Thunder Child charges into the fray, intercepting the Martians that have waded out into the English Channel to destroy the fleet of ships desperately carrying refugees to the continent. Ramming first one tripod and then another, the doomed ship manages to evoke a bit of hope before it meets its fate. It's a thrilling sequence.
The War of the Worlds is a true classic. The power of the narrative makes it obvious to me why it has endured for well over a century. In its time, there couldn't have been anything else remotely like it. It's hard to imagine what science fiction, or even pop culture in general, would have looked like without it. It's also far ahead of its time; it would be decades before science fiction could match it again for its literary and intellectual quality. In fact, it reads better and more logically than a lot of science fiction I've read from the 1920s and 1930s. A great book I should have read years ago.