Sunday, October 13, 2013

This Is Halloween: The War of the Worlds

Every year, I celebrate the Halloween season by reading classic works of horror throughout October. This year, I decided to write about some of them. First up: H.G. Wells' 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.


  1. Excellent breakdown of one of my favorite stories. I'm scandalized to admit I've never thought of the word "aresforming."

    That's a good analysis of where Wells was coming from re: the British empire/ his thoughts on society in metaphor, etc. You ever read his History of the World? I was surprised at how he viewed things. He was definitely a Socialist, tho that had a bit different connotation in his era, of course. But a fascinating and very historically literate (and of course, far-seeing, almost clairvoyant) dude.

    You'll be happy about the Thunder Child sequence/ song on the rock-musical version when / if you give that a spin.

    1. p.s. Wells' best work, would you say? I wouldn't argue. I've read this and The Time Machine so many times (and will continue to do so; the stories are forever compelling to me, and I just love his narrators.) it's difficult for me to pick one of the two. And like you say, he had no shortage of other great works. (Tho Food of the Gods is a little silly... tho the metaphors/ societal analysis is even more above-board in that one.)

    2. I would say it's his best, but it's close between it and The Time Machine. I may well seesaw back and forth in my opinion about the two books.

  2. I agree with the timelessness of the story. I wrote a review of Jeff Wayne's rock opera version of WOTW several years ago. Here it is:

    "I recently pulled this album out from a box which hasn't seen the light of day for over 25 years. I had completely forgotten about this amazing rock orchestra version of H.G. Wells "War of the Worlds." Fortunately, I had recently purchased a turntable which I was using to digitize old albums so I was able to spin this hunk of wax once again.

    Immediately I was pulled back to the late 70's, when my roommate and I would to sit and listen to this album over and over again while we drew stupid science fiction comic books which would never see publication. We must have listened to this amazing work several hundred times. As I listened to it again, more than 30 years later, I was blown away by how relevant the music and the performance have remained after all these years. There are not too many albums from the 70's which I can really listen to anymore and even fewer which I would listen to more than occasionally, but this masterpiece has risen to the top of the playlist once again.

    We were simply transfixed by the awesome use of repeated, layered musical themes and sound effects, especially the haunting "heat ray." About 16 minutes and 30 seconds into the first side Richard Burton saying, "now and again a light like the beam of a ship's searchlight swept the common and the heat ray was ready to follow," fully releases the "heat ray" sound effect in a rapidly building staccato of terror, changing from individual blasts into a nearly constant, horrifying, inescapable weapon of pure destruction. To this day it still causes me to shiver. You can just picture fleeing humans bursting into flame with every electronic blast.

    When WOTW was released, there were no home computers, much less the internet and Wikipedia, so much of the production detail and story remained unknown to us. All we had were the production notes, the extraordinary album art and the haunting music accentuated by Richard Burton's commanding narration. That was really all we needed. I often regret the ability to find every detail about something like WOTW. Somehow it seems to lessen the majesty of it.

    I absolutely believe many current artists and writers were inspired by this musical treat. I would not be surprised if science fiction writer William Gibson was influenced by this because this album is "Steampunk" in its purest and most primitive form.

    This is truly theater of the mind. Listen to this and enjoy one of the most remarkable theatrical musical performances ever produced. To call it a rock opera is both incorrect and belittling.

    Question for discussion: Taking this album into account, along with George Pal's classic movie, and Orson Welles' brilliant, revolutionary radio drama which had entire populations believing they were truly being attacked by Mars; what is it about this H.G. Wells story which inspires so many artists to such greatness? I'm not even counting the many other presentations of this work or the thinly veiled alien invasion variations too numerous to list. Is there really any other work of fiction which has done the same thing over so many decades and over so many different types of media?"

    1. Very cool review of that album. Thanks for dropping by!