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The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

February 17, 2010

The Book: The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.  Originally published in 1898.  The edition read was published in 1966, copyright in 1964 , by Berkley Highland Books.

The Setting: England, greater London area, early twentieth century

The Story: A man, a science writer, witnesses the invasion of the earth by the Martians.An enormous cylinder falls to earth near Woking.  People, including the narrator, investigate.   Martians emerge from the tube and kill lots of people.  They build super suits of death and destruction. The narrator narrowly escapes with his life at several points.  The narrator tells how his brother escaped London.  Chaos is everywhere.  The Martians seem to be unbeatable.   The narrator teams up with a stressed-out curate.  They get trapped in a house together near a Martian base.  They spend a lot of time watching Martians.  The Martians drink human blood.  The curate snaps; the narrator knocks him out.  The Martians find them in the house and take the curate.  The narrator hides in some coal.  Days later he emerges and the Martians are gone.  They were all killed by viruses and bacteria.  The narrator and his wife are happily reunited in the end.

The Science: Wells likes to make stuff up.  We know that.  And he made up some darn good stuff, in my opinion.

  • Space travel and Martians:  Wells wrote this book before heavier than air flight was invented.  He imagines the Martians coming to Earth in enormous cylinders shot out of some sort of enormous Martian cannon.  It’s a pretty neat idea, but the physics involved in making something like that work must be mind boggling.  Not to mention the sort of force needed in the cannon.  So I’m not sure that’s a go.  The Martians came across, to me, as a sort of jellyfish shaped creature – all head and tentacles.  The narrator imagines that the Martians are a reasonable evolutionary outcome of man, and the brain grows and the hands are all that continues to be needed.  I can buy that.  I’m not so sure about Martians sustaining themselves directly on blood.  Wells’ premise is that the Martians had no digestive system to process food into blood, which is not precisely how it works.  I’d be curious to see a learned treatise on Wells’ Martian biology.  Seems to me that the exterior form of the Martians is possible, but not the internal structure as described.
  • Heat rays and black smoke:  Killing devices.  The Heat Ray which kills men on contact and heats whole rivers to boiling.  It sounds a lot like a super powered laser – a pretty awesome idea for 1898.  The black smoke is more insidious – a heavy gas which rolls over towns and kills all who breathe it.  It dissipates in water or jets of steam.  The black smoke is almost eerie in its description, given that World War I breaks out less than two decades later and makes real the threat of a weaponized,  deadly gas.
  • Viruses and bacteria:  Ultimately, man doesn’t defeat the Martians – they are wiped out by everyday viruses and bacteria.  I totally buy this.  How many humans succumb to these tiny creatures everyday?  How much more deadly would completely unfamiliar viruses be to an unexposed population?  Very.

The Reaction: This is a great story.  A fantastic adventure with interesting aliens, enough detail to make the threat believable, and a credible ending.  It is, however, another story where Wells doesn’t name his protagonist and spends a sizeable portion of the book having the narrator tell the story of a second person (the brother in this story).  Not necessarily a bad thing, but very much seeming to be a hallmark of Wells.

The Cover: Wait.  What?  What the heck is going on with this cover?  It’s like they grabbed the cover for some other story and stuck it on this book.  Only two things relate to the story:  the color red, and a sense of chaos.  No where in the story did Wells describe the citizens of early twentieth century Britain as wearing tube-heavy space suits and pointy pointy helmets.  It’s a great cover…  but not for this book.  I mean, honestly.  Who gave the go ahead on that?

Etc: My only prior experience with The War of the Worlds prior to reading this book was watching the Tom Cruise movie version.  And I was constantly comparing the two while reading.  I was pleasantly surprised by how well the movie interprets the book.  Except for the child drama, it’s surprisingly faithful.  Certain changes are made to account for our more advanced science, but they’re changes I think Wells would have approved of.

Next Up: The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells (who else?)

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