Since I’m reading a biography of HG Wells, I wanted to accompany the read with a few of Wells’ books, and there is perhaps no more classic entry in that catalogue than War of the Worlds. I first read the book in fourth or fifth grade, and have read it several times since, including making it the feature of an essay in a literature class I took. It is truly a classic work of science fiction, representing the kind of story that came to define the entire genre, and it is one of my favorite HG Wells books, even though, if it were written today, I would probably hate it.
You long-time followers and readers of my reviews know that I enjoy hard science fiction: books like Rocheworld, Ringworld, Heavy Planet, and Inherit the Stars. I’ll occasionally dip into something closer to a space opera or other, more plot-oriented science fiction story, like Dune or Ender’s Game, but one science fiction subgenre I cannot abide is horror. You know the story, because you’ve seen previews for it a dozen times, you’ve seen episodes of classic shows done this way, maybe you’ve even read books of this nature. Some humans somehow stumble upon some aliens bent on destruction, or maybe the aliens are invading Earth and the brave humans must overcome their utter incompetency to save the day after shedding lots of blood and a few teammates. I say that I would hate War of the Worlds if it were written today because it is arguably that very plot.
A lot of what would come to be called science fiction during this time period spun out of gothic horror – think Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus, which is always described as horror, but really has quite strong science fiction elements that would be familiar to anyone who watches one of those science fiction movies where the scientists accidentally unleash some terrible pathogen, or build a robot that tries to take over the world. Jules Verne is the exception, drawing instead from the travelogue or adventure story tradition, but HG Wells fits neatly into the category. Consider the plot for War of the Worlds: grotesque Martians invade Earth on a mission of conquest, smashing the human militaries, drinking human blood, and generally being unstoppable. Our protagonist is not a scientist or military commander in a position to understand and affect events, but a hapless civilian caught on the frontlines and trying to get back to his wife.
Despite all of that, War of the Worlds works for me. It works because the protagonist is not gibbering and useless, for all his ineptitude, nor is he saddled with a tropey character arc – actually, he doesn’t have much of an arc at all. Instead, he acts almost like an omniscient narrator, a distinctive voice reporting the story instead of a character actively involved in it, for all that much of the story is his. It works because, while the Martians are depicted as overwhelmingly powerful, the humans take reasonable efforts to resist, and to comprehend what is happening. They even achieve a handful of strappy victories, which do not change the course of the larger war.
In other words, it is a more realistic depiction, devoid of cluttering drama, and reads like the framing story intends: as a pamphlet describing a few experiences and perspectives on the Martian invasion. While the anecdote about War of the Worlds being presented as a radio play and frightening the populace in New England with the belief that Martians were really invading the English countryside is probably invented, or at least exaggerated, you can see, reading the book, how convincing the story would be to a contemporary audience.
As probably the best-known HG Wells book, and maybe the best-known work of classic science fiction, it was practically inevitable that I would review War of the Worlds in conjunction with the HG Wells biography. In this case, though, it is a classic that has remained a classic for a reason. If you somehow haven’t read it before, then I really hope you read it soon, and if you already read it, maybe take this as a prompt for a reread.