It’s difficult to get much more classic than H.G. Wells 1898 The War of the Worlds. The first novel to Martian aliens, a significant number of books and stories have since fallen under its influence; to say it was a door opener would be putting it mildly. From the B-movie likes of Burroughs in the aftermath on through the likes of Alastair Reynolds, Iain Banks, John Scalzi, and Vernor Vinge today, there are few who have not been directly and indirectly affected by the novel. Given the apocalyptic proportions the story takes on with the star of war at its helm, flowing through to the religious and political sub-texts, it would be remiss not to name the novel one of the most influential sci-fi works of all time.
Told from Wells’ typical competent-British-male perspective, The War of the Worlds is the first-hand account of a science journalist’s witnessing the great Martian invasion. The man unnamed, he is living a normal life until astronomers observe strange bursts of light coming from Mars. Metal capsules streaking in from space and plowing into the suburbs of London a few days later, little happens at first. The public gathers around the pits containing the half-buried cylinders, listening to the thumping and tapping noises that emanate from within, and speculate on the qualities of Earth’s neighbors. But when a disgusting specimen plops out and lays waste to the surrounding crowd with never-before seen weaponry, London turns to panic. The chaos and destruction which result, and too humanity’s reaction as the British homeland is razed to the ground, is now classic. But reading for one’s self is all the pleasure.
Given the narrative is a firsthand account, particularly the narrator’s involvement in the escalating disarray, readers truly get a feel for the fear and feeling of utter helplessness Britain undergoes meeting with a nightmare for which there is no rebuff. The Martians superior technology, including the now iconic tripods, the heat guns, the the Black Dust, easily overmatch the cannons and pistols Britain wheels out in defense. The setting and technology of the novel concomitant to Wells’ time, the war of the worlds is wholly one-sided, leaving haunting imagery in the wake of the destruction.
The political agenda on the author’s shirtsleeve, Wells’ The Time Machine was a pointed story to say the least. The War of the Worlds more sublime, Wells presents the agenda in human terms rather than symbolic (read: abstract), as was the case with the eloi and morlocks. While on the run, the unnamed narrator encounters a cross section of society, including a priest and common soldier, and meets with other various personages of greater London. Achieving a sense of realism, the individual reactions and commentary provide voices for Wells’ concerns, making the novel an understated examination of people in the face of such catastrophic circumstances.
But there remains symbolism inherent to the main premise. Holding a mirror up to British imperialism, Wells openly questions the nature of empire building. (That the novel is set entirely in London, and that Britain is the focus of the Martians’ destruction, would only seem to highlight this idea.) If Social Darwinism dictates the strong take power, Wells asks: what happens when Britain is on the other side of the coin? WWI and WWII both occurring in Wells’ lifetime, it would seem the commentary is more than apt.
Underlining its values as a cautionary, The Time Machine ends on a bleak note. The War of the Worlds, on the other hand, possesses a slightly more uplifting conclusion. This is not to say all ends well; it takes more than just a satisfying closing line to rebuild the destruction of war. Rather that the problem is outlined and a middle-ground—or at least a sense of optimism—is found when the narrator looks out upon the rubble of London, indirectly imbuing the sense it is possible for humanity to avoid such calamity.
In the end, The War of the Worlds is a work of science fiction that has remained in print more than a century for a reason. A combination of engaging storytelling layered on top of pertinent social and political themes, Wells strikes gold with his incipient story of life on Mars invading life on Earth. The style of writing may be slightly dated compared to today’s, however, the heart of the novel keeps pumping through time. Inspiring a generation of writers, those looking for the roots of the genre can’t go wrong picking up this book. The tentacled aliens roaming the land in their tripods, destroying people and life at will remains as memorable an image as it does relevant.