Monday, January 31, 2005

7. The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds book pictureI've read a lot of H.G. Wells (I went through a big phase in college while avoiding my thesis), but I was never sure if I'd actually read the War of the Worlds. I knew a lot about it and have listened to Orson Welles' famous radio broadcast many times. What spurred me to read it this time, was a great sci-fi book by a Quebec author that I read last year. It was called La Cage de Londres (The London Cage) and took place on earth after a succesful second invasion by the martians. Now, humans lived naked, enclosed in giant concrete domes where all their food and shelter needs are taken care of. They are "milked" regularily for their blood by the martians. The book takes all the initial concepts in the War of the Worlds to their logical conclusion and it was really great. The author wrote an afterword explaining how he'd used the source material and urging sci-fi fans to re-read the original.

The narrator and his story about being separated from his wife is basically a very thin vessel to hold Wells' speculation on what an invasion from Mars would look like and how it would effect Victorian England. The first half of the book is very similar in structure to many apocalyptic classics, where civilized people first remain ignorant of the danger, then don't take it seriously, then get worried, then totally freak out and revert to a more and more savage state. Wells describes this process by showing small vignettes that he or his brother witness during their escape: crowded train platforms, looting, horses and weapons being confiscated by self-empowered local militias, etc.

Wells is ultimately a scientific moralist and this book fundamentally rests on the notion that man is in no way ethically superior to any other creature. We just happen to have an intelligence that privileges us with perspective. Referring to the martians, he discounts any rancor towards them:

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. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?

Constantly, he compares himself and other humans when they encounter martians to how animals must feel when encountering humans.

It's a short book and an engaging read. Wells is a great writer. His sentences are strong. He writes with some of the complexity of the english of his period, but you always sense a direct honesty behind it. War of the Worlds was written in 1898, when they didn't have phones or planes, which makes the details and consistency of his vision even more astounding. His science fiction barely dates.


Doc Holaday said...

I am a huge fan of The War of the Worlds. In fact, it is a constant annoyance to me when someone mentions the radio play or one of the movies. All are derivative and change the work radically for the worse. (Astoundingly, the latest movie kept the general spirit of the work, but it was still pretty bad.) Anyway, thank you for your thoughtful write-up. I just discovered your blog and am mining it for future reading material. I can't find a copy of The London Cage on Can you supply the name of the author?

Doc Holaday said...

In case I don't think to check back could someone email me more info on The London Cage? tholaday "at" gmail "dot" com.