The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells is an alien invasion story first published in serial format (1897) and shortly after in book format.
I came to this a little late, having already watched the 2005 movie and having vague recollections of the 1950’s black and white adaption (i’m nowhere near old enough it was a re-run).
Blockbusters are not the only adaptions The War of the Worlds has received – Orson Welles modernised and adapted the novel for a radio broadcast in the late 1930’s, supposedly causing a national uproar, although no doubt 1930’s hyperbole and hype look similar to todays.
Of all the adaptions, the 2005 Tom Cruise blockbuster was arguably the most true to the source material. While it did modernise the setting and change the story somewhat, the restricted viewpoint narrative and its associated personal closeness are directly derived from the novel.
The War of the Worlds follows an unnamed English protagonist during an alien invasion in late 19th Century England. Our protagonist Englishman is among a number of other unnamed characters in the novel: “The Artilleryman” and “The Priest” among others, along with minor named characters.
Wells’ scientific reasoning and explanatory powers seem almost prophetic when viewed with a 21st century gaze, the technologies have modern comparisons and their similarities in use are striking; the fighting machines are described in similar terms to modern super materials. The invaders use of “Black Smoke” (chemical warfare) to create huge areas of disruption and minimize visibility combined with their “Heat Ray” (laser analogue) weapons and their vast mobility lead to a version of War never before seen. The aliens ignore what would have been considered conventional targets opting to destroy infrastructure, communication lines, transport hubs and all of the key targets we see in warfare now.
The military tries and fails to destroy the alien menace. Although initially routed men are not completely without victories, the HMS Thunderchild manages to destroy two of the fighting machines but the ship is destroyed in the process and it becomes apparent even the most powerful human machines are outmatched by the invaders.
The Martians soon start to capture humans, draining them of fluids and spreading an alien “red weed” across the landscape which acts as a strong and bloody visual reminder of the death and destruction the Martians have wrought.
Wells comparisons between the alien motivations and their human equivalents paints a dark tone on the driving forces of intelligent nature and Wells is influenced by what would have been contemporary imperial and colonial themes of the time. There is a distinct undercurrent of something dark in humanity and its arrogance over others presented by Wells;
“And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years.”
The survivalist reaction of the Artilleryman is an interesting scene – the description of a possible existence under the Martians and the lengths to which the human spirit may be willing to degrade itself for survival;
“We can’t have any weak or silly. Life is real again, and the useless and cumbersome and mischievous have to die. They ought to die. They ought to be willing to die. It’s a sort of disloyalty, after all, to live and taint the race.”
At the height, or more correctly phrased, depth, of human despair, the Martians begin to fail. The fighting machines become more erratic and eventually all stopping completely. The death of the Martians and the ending of the novel is similar in tone to Morgan Freeman’s closing statements in the 2005 blockbuster;
“For so it had come about, as indeed I and many men might have foreseen had not terror and disaster blinded our minds. These germs of disease have taken toll of humanity since the beginning of things….But there are no bacteria in Mars, and directly these invaders arrived, directly they drank and fed, our microscopic allies began to work their overthrow. Already when I watched them they were irrevocably doomed, dying and rotting even as they went to and fro. It was inevitable. By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers; it would still be his were the Martians ten times as mighty as they are. For neither do men live nor die in vain.”
Overall I think Wells succeeded in producing a piece of invasion literature that has ignited imagination and thought across the century since its publication. Despite a few wrinkles the story has aged well and would have been a terrific read at the time.
I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys alien invasion stories, overlord Martians, ticking off lists or even just fans of the genre in general. The War of the Worlds is at heart a personal tale of an Englishman trying to get home during a war that ultimately shows how the smallest of things can sometimes outweigh the largest.