The War of the Worlds (1898)
H.G. Wells (Modern Library, 2002)
205 p. First reading.
This must be one of the most famous science fiction stories ever written. It has been said that in his first batch of novels Wells annexed the whole scope of subsequent science fiction writing: monstrous creatures, other worlds, time travel, special powers, technological dystopias — and here, in The War of the Worlds, alien invasion. Its imagery, especially that of the Martian tripods striding across the countryside, has entered the popular imagination.
The apocalypse is an ancient literary genre, but Wells’ variation on the theme strikes a distinctively modern note. Past ages have imagined that the end of human civilization would be accompanied by a great judgment, the triumph of justice, the vindication of the good and the destruction of the wicked. It would have meaning, and could be seen as the ultimate culmination of human history. All of that is gone for Wells. He is ready to see the end as sheer destruction, just another stage in the remorseless triumph of the strong over the weak. Our culture, religion, art, and science simply fall useless on the wayside, false or irrelevant. A lot of things had to go wrong to make that vision possible.
To describe the confrontation between the Martians and us as a “war of the worlds” gives us too much credit. The Martians’ enormous technological superiority — which nonetheless appears rather quaint by today’s standards — renders humanity’s defences useless. Even if it is true that in the end the Martian invasion fails, it is not quite fair to say that they are defeated. The means Wells uses to save humanity is certainly clever, but it comes about, as it were, by accident, and only serves as an ironic coda to the theme of history as meaningless struggle. We are saved, but this kind of salvation is good news only in a sense.
Stylistically The War of the Worlds is the best of these early novels that I have been surveying. The tone is that of a newspaper report: direct, taut, and unsentimental.
After finishing the novel, I listened to the 1938 “The War of the Worlds” radio broadcast made by Orson Welles. Roughly the first half of this radio program is “staged” as a radio news program, which famously led some people to worry that an actual Martian invasion was taking place, though I am told that the scale of the reaction has been exaggerated. (It is always so pleasant to think that people in the past were dumber than we are.) In any case, it becomes obvious in the second half of the program that it is just a dramatization. The program makes a fleeting reference to a “MacMillan University” in Toronto, but this venerable institution, laden with so many undoubted excellences, nonetheless lacks the particular excellence of existence.