Book Review: The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

Quick review (read on for full review)

The War of The Worlds is an important book, given its publication at the start of the science fiction genre. For that reason alone it is worth a read. But there are other reasons to read this book: to get a glimpse into how different people react in a crisis, for its criticism of colonialism and because it raises questions of humanity and morality. 5 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

‘For countless centuries Mars has been the star of war’

The night after a shooting star is seen streaking through the sky from Mars, a cylinder is discovered on Horsell Common near London. At first, naive locals approach the cylinder armed just with a white flag – only to be quickly killed by an all-destroying heat-ray as terrifying tentacled invaders emerge. Soon the whole of human civilization is under threat, as powerful Martians build gigantic killing machines, destroy all in their path with black gas and burning rays, and feast on the warm blood of trapped, still-living human prey. The forces of the Earth, however, may prove harder to beat than they at first appear.

The first modern tale of alien invasion, The War of the Worlds remains one of the most influential of all science-fiction works. Part of a brand-new Penguin series of H.G. Wells’s works, this edition includes a newly established text, a full biographical essay on Wells, a further reading list and detailed notes. The introduction, by Brian Aldiss, considers the novel’s view of religion and society.

Favourite Quote

‘It’s a pity they make themselves so unapproachable,’ he said. ‘It would be curious to know how they live on another planet; we might learn a thing or two.’

(From The War of The Worlds by H.G. Wells, page 38)

Review

After watching the recent BBC adaptation of this story, I thought it was high time I got around to actually reading it as I had yet to.  And I wasn’t disappointed…not at all.  And I must say, that although seeing the TV dramatization was the driving force behind me picking up the book, the book was so much better.  Not necessarily because I didn’t enjoy the adaptation – I didn’t think it was that bad – but the original story was fantastic.

Part of the reason it came across as fantastic is, I think, due to the context in which it was written.  First published in 1898, many things we consider “science” and “technology” had not been invented yet, or if it had, was still in its infancy.  So to read descriptions of alien spaceships and weapons where the author had little-to-no point of reference illustrates the power of the imagination.

If this book was written today, I think it would look quite different.  The story would be told from the POV of a reluctant hero who would some how manage to beat the aliens and save Earth. It would be a battle and we would win.  It would be a triumph of good over evil.  But this isn’t the story H.G. Wells wrote.  Rather it is, for the most part, a first-hand account of an alien invasion and how ordinary people react to this sudden and terrible event.  And, against a technologically superior foe, this response is limited.

This allows us to see what the main character sees: the aliens, the landing craft, their weapons, the desolation of settlements turned to ruins (a foreshadowing of the horrors of modern warfare, less than two decades away…), the panic-filled people not knowing what to do or where to go…

As the main character meets other people on his journey, we get to see how different personalities respond to this immense stress.  An artilleryman searching for order in the chaos, a curate who struggles with his faith, an astronomer whose curiosity is piqued, but there are others too.  The disbelief of those who had not seen first-hand what had happened clinging on to normality. The abject terror and then hope of those on a paddle-steamer heading for the continent, when a navy ironclad decides to attack three Martians that are following them.

A number of references are made throughout the book that almost suggest that mankind, at least the colonial powers, do not have a justified right to complain at being on the sharp end of things for once.  And, it’s hard not to see where the author is coming from with these remarks, given species extinction through human activity and the decimation – or worse – of native populations through expansion and colonialism, both of which the author mentions, before posing the question:

Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?

(The War of The Worlds by H.G. Wells, page 9)

The War of The Worlds is an important book, given its publication at the start of the science fiction genre.  For that reason alone it is worth a read.  But there are other reasons to read this book: to get a glimpse into how different people react in a crisis, for its criticism of colonialism and because it raises questions of humanity and morality.

Rating