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The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1898), part 1.

The War of the Worlds by H. G Wells (Tor 1993)

Herbert George Wells (for ever known by the more familiar H.G. Wells) was a writer whose work always strongly reflected his passions. He would likely not have recognised himself as a science fiction writer as we understand it in the modern sense; the phrase had yet to be invented, so instead he wrote scientific romances, a curious phrase which brings to mind all the wrong connotations. His most immediate contemporary in the field was Jules Verne, who might be considered the better science fiction writer of the two (in the strictest sense of the term), as he paid more attention than did Wells to the scientific underpinnings of his stories. Wells was more concerned with the effects of science rather than the mechanics, and this I think makes him the greater writer.

Yet Wells was no slouch when it came to science, having qualified as a teacher and studied under the great T. H. Huxley, and so given his wide ranging interests, it is no surprise that Wells would involve himself in the question of life on Mars. On October 19th 1888 Wells had spoken to the debating society at the Royal College of Science in London. His topic was "Are the planets habitable?" and on the subject of Mars he had stated, "there was every reason to suppose that the surface of Mars was occupied by living beings." He returned to the subject in an unsigned article for the April 4th 1896 issue of the Saturday Review, proposing that any Martians were they to exist, would have little in common intellectually with humans. The pieces were falling into place for the creation of his greatest novel.

The story Wells was about to spin for The War of the Worlds was however a completely new concept in literature, though he was not quite the first to postulate a visit to Earth from the Martians. This honour belongs to the German author Lasswitz Kurd, but while the Martian visitors in his 1897 novel Auf Zwei Planeten (Two Planets) were essentially benign , Wells chose instead to create a race of warlike beings with no interest at all in dialogue. The Martians as envisaged by Wells are quintessential bug eyed monsters, but though they are inhuman in appearance they are all too human in character.

Wells was quite deliberate in this regard. Science fiction has long been regarded as a vehicle for social commentary, and more specifically as a way of sneaking in criticism beneath the radar of societies not well disposed to unwelcome home truths. While the creation of the Martian foes was clearly predicated on the work of Percival Lowell and other canal proponents, the main thrust of the story had been influenced by events closer to home and a chance conversation between Wells and his brother Frank.

Walking in the countryside one day, they had discussed the calamity visited upon the aboriginal Tasmanians when the Europeans discovered their land. It had been an invasion in all but name and resulted in genocidal behaviour by the Europeans, who had no regard at all for the rights of the indigenous population. Systematically persecuted, robbed, killed and interned in concentration camps, by the time of the brothers' conversation they had been wiped out. It was another shameful episode in the history of colonialism. "Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?" would ask Wells in the opening chapter of the book.

During the same walk, Wells credits Frank with a crucial observation. "Suppose some beings from another planet were to drop out of the sky suddenly," mused Frank, "and begin laying about them here!" At a stroke Wells had two key elements of the story, to which he would add a third prophetic element. He had in mind a warning for his readers, that the comfortable existence they took so much for granted could be removed at a cosmic whim, or indeed by something much more prosaic. The British Empire was then facing resurgent threats from abroad, notably from France and Germany but Wells was of the opinion that people had their heads buried in the sand as to the nature of the threat. "Tragedy, people thought, had gone out of human life for ever. A few of us were trying to point out the obvious possibilities of flying, of great guns, of poison gas, and so forth in presently making life uncomfortable if some sort of world peace was not assured, but the books we wrote were regarded as the silliest of imaginative gymnastics."

The opening chapter of The War of the Worlds blends all these elements together, setting the scene of a dying Martian civilisation, and an England that is snug and secure in its compliancy as a power upon the Earth. Upon a serene and indolent corner of that unsuspecting country comes the fall of what at first is taken to be a meteorite, but as the unnamed narrator of the book soon discovers, it is in fact a manufactured cylinder of metal. From within emerge the horrifying Martians. At first it seems these creatures can be contained within the pit gouged out by the arrival of their cylinder, but this conceit is quickly banished and a furious battle for supremacy erupts. Canon and rifle are pitched against a foe armed with giant walking machines, devastating heat rays and a choking black gas. The fighting is vicious and uncompromising, and shows to merciless effect how thin the veneer of civilisation is. The scenes of refugee columns, frantic stampedes and selfish acts of brutality are amongst the most harrowing passages of the book.

An equally important influence was Wells' own innate dislike of the society he lived in and the social inequities he saw about him. His early experiences as an apprentice had taught him that that there much to deplore in capitalism and his country of birth was not nearly as great as it liked to pretend. The relish with which he would knock down the great edifices and symbols of authority in The War of The Worlds is abundantly apparent in a letter he wrote to his lifelong friend Elizabeth Healey. "I'm doing the dearest little serial for Pearson's new magazine, in which I completely wreck and destroy Woking - killing my neighbours in painful and eccentric ways - then proceed via Kingston and Richmond to London, which I sack, selecting South Kensington for feats of peculiar atrocity."

The tone is macabrely cheerful, but while Wells happily pedalled about town on his bicycle selecting targets, he was finding a way to work in another of his pet hates. As he wrote in his own autobiography, "To most Londoners of my generation these rows of jerry-built unalterable homes seemed to be as much in the nature of things as rain in September" It is only with the wisdom of retrospect that I realise the complete irrational scrambling planlessness of which all us who had to live in London were the victims." In the War of the Worlds, those houses were anything but unalterable. This was urban renewal the Martian way.

Not unsurprisingly given the influence upon him of his teacher Huxley, he was also a vocal proponent of Darwinism and viewed this subjugation of the human race as a perfectly natural outcome in the battle for survival of the fittest. His Martians therefore had no interest in negotiation or truce. They fought total war and viewed the human race literally as cattle to be herded, bred and consumed.

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See also

Books

1898
Fighters from Mars

Fighters from Mars. Published only months after the release of Well's War of the Worlds, this unofficial version of the novel is set in and around Boston.

1898
Edison's Conquest Of Mars by Garrett P Serviss

Edison's Conquest Of Mars by Garrett P Serviss. The unofficial 1898 sequel to The War of the Worlds that sends the inventer Thomas Edison to Mars.

Comics

1955
Classics Illustrated 124

Classics Illustrated 124. The most famous and enduring comic book adaptation of The War of the Worlds.

1976
Marvel Classics: The War of the Worlds

Marvel Classic Comics: The War of the Worlds. The novel gets a more extreme and faithful comic book makeover from Marvel.

Film

1953
The War of the Worlds by George Pal

The War of the Worlds by George Pal. The action relocates to cold war America, with the Martian war machines re-invented as sinister flying machines.

2005
The War of the Worlds, Spielberg.

The War of the Worlds Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise get a huge bang for their bucks in this massive re-imagining of the story.

Radio

1938
The War of the Worlds by Orson Welles

The War of the Worlds by Orson Welles. The infamous radio broadcast that panicked America on Halloween night.

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