Science Fiction Though the Decades

Friday, May 25, 2012

1897: The War of the Worlds (Wells, H.G.)

Bucolic English tour in the midst of an alien invasion (5/5)
From May 3, 2009

The War of the Worlds is more than a scary monster book, which some people who don't read science fiction may see it as. In fact, this is part of a broad foundation of the genre of science fiction as well as the father of sci-fi/horror. Though written in 1897, it is indeed filled with grisly descriptions of charred bodies lining in the English streets, dogs turned feral feeding upon their masters and rotting corpses. The people of southeast England find themselves "leaderless, lawless, foodless, like sheep without a shepherd" (268-269) once the Martian invasion begins to asphyxiate bucolic England.

Rear cover synopsis:
"At first they thought it was a falling star...
Then it landed, and THINGS began to emerge: ugly, tentacled monsters that saw men, not as slaves, but as food. In days the country was occupied. Mankind was helpless against the Martians' poison clouds, scalding steam jets, and flaming Heat Ray.
But Earth had a secret weapon--a weapon the earthlings didn't even know existed!"

Though written in 1898, the narrator doesn't give the year of the invasion, though he makes a number references to events, statistics ,and inventions which help the reader pin a year down. The current timeframe is one hundred years after the Lisbon earthquake, London is populated with six million citizens and the countryside is sparsely touched my automobiles yet still has a strong train line. From this data, we can estimate the time to around 1880-1900, which is different from many of today's sci-fi novels which typically take place ten or more years in the future. Wells' novel must have been hauntingly timely when it was penned.

From Woking (just 23 miles southwest of central London) to the Tillingham coast in Essex (50 miles northeast of London), Wells takes the reader, even though as ignorant as we may be of 19th century English country life, through a detailed cartographic wandering across the land. From the initial discovery of the Martian cylinder in the narrator's town, to the horse and bicycle escapements to the adjacent villages all the way to the eventual tours of mayhem and destruction of downtown London. The personalized tour of the 19th century bucolic England is exotic and charming, even in the midst of an alien invasion!

Needless to say, the English used is British English and dated, as well. Wells seemed to favor the word tumultuous and its root word tumult, which I don't come across very often in other novels. Reading this novel had me fetching my dictionary from time to time to reference Wells wide vocabulary. Sometimes his use of words is humorous to the modern reader. One example I giggled to myself for a number of minutes at the thought of Wells' words: "I grew very weary and irritable with the curate's perpetual ejaculations; I tired at the sight of his selfish despair." On a more serious note, the passages of the narration are full of wonderful imagery, imagination and an uncanny ability to convey the sense of despair himself and his fellow countrymen are experiencing before, during and after the invasion.

Not only is this the first `alien invasion novel' but it's also the finest... which hasn't been more poetically written or enriched with detail in over 110 years. Wells' The War of the Worlds has withstood one century already and will continue to awe readers for the next dozens of generations.


  1. This was the first science fiction novel I read. I still go back to it every now and then; while its vocabulary hasn't aged well, its ideas have. Very accurate (and great) review.

  2. An amazing novel! Though I preferred his The Time Machine, which is even darker and more focused, with wild ideas, than this one