For those of us of a certain age, War of the Worlds by H G Wells is an iconic story. First published in 1898, Well’s enduring and familiar tale of a Martian extra-terrestrial attack on Earth has been told memorably in film, radio and music.
First came the George Pal‘s liberal interpretation of the book, glossy and glamorous with new found Technicolor, then came the panic-inducing Orson Welles radio version striking fear into the heart of middle America. In the seventies, serious muso Jeff Wayne‘s concept album stuck closely to the original text creating a long-standing impression using Richard Burton as narrator. More recently Spielberg’s 2005 CGI drenched version delivered a modern take on alien destruction a la Independence day etc. It’s testament to Wells’s nineteenth century imagination that his story lives in our minds so, each generation has found something to draw on, interpreting his themes to deliver relevant messages to each generation.
“Yet across the gulf of space,minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us”
We read and reviewed this book as part of our annual book club trip book – this year, Palma if you were wondering – and sat around a lovely table in a tapas bar overlooking the sea we discussed at length the book’s merits and foibles. Perhaps disappointingly, the scores for the book around the table were uniformly the same, which is never the sign of a classic book club discussion. Where we find common ground, we often find accord which is all well and good, but discord often creates a more vibrant discussion.
I think if we were scoring this book on the ideas and the time in which they were written, it would have to be ten out of ten for me. In 1898, Wells was imagining martian invaders, spaceships, complex machinery, mechanised warfare and mass hysteria well before any of these things had become part of the modern lexicon. This is a book chock full of ideas and Wells uses the Martian invasion superbly as a thinly veiled attack on the British, who at the time were at the peak of Empire, conquering all before them with little thought of the consequences. He doesn’t stop there either, releasing both barrels to the church’s ineffective ministry in the face of crisis.
So if the ideas are massive and well considered, it’s ultimately the narrative and characterisation that suffers. Although the book moves along at a good old pace, it’s hard to get past the turn of the nineteenth century language that at times reads like a boys own tale to a modern reader. It’s not without its charm, but the simple story arc gets a bit muddled, ends suddenly and has a ludicrously happy ending, which for me was unsatisfying after what I thought was an effective build to the all out destruction of middle England.
A few things worked really well for me: the action is set in the home counties, bastion of Englishness which up until this moment had never been threatened in any way. The Martians set about destroying suburban towns like Leatherhead with genuine enthusiasm using their heat ray with gusto and they land showily in banal places like Horsell Common (the image above captures the otherworldly ordinariness I’m getting at). Our modern experience of destruction porn movies is the White House getting it or New York slipping into the Atlantic. I loved the mundanity of everyday, wanton destruction.
I savoured also the ententacled metal-clad invaders, almost steam punk in their kit and destruction, gouts of green gas spewing from clanking limbs. The Martians showed no mercy whatsoever to the pathetic humans – in what were surprisingly graphic chapters – Wells certainly pulled no punches. I mused also on the dreadful prophesy it foretold of mass destruction, mechanised death and total war that would come our way in the Great War, just 16 years after he had written the book.
Ultimately we all felt a little let down by the book. It wasn’t the classic of literature ( or even the sci fi genre) that we were looking for. And although the themes War of the Worlds are thought-provoking and vividly relevant still today, many of us were left untouched by the inadequate and incomplete manner in which they were delivered.