The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

26 Jul

I’m thrilled to post Better Know a Book’s first guest post today by Andrew Coletti on H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds! Very timely, especially given the recent closing of the NASA space program. I must admit I myself know very little about science fiction, but now I’m wondering if I’ve been missing out. So whether you’re a bona fide sci-fi nerd bumming out about missing Comic-Con this week, or you loved fantasy books when you were younger, or you just want to read something different, maybe try diving into some Wells (no, not an actual well, you’re not baby Jessica).

Published: 1898

War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

Quick Read?: Yes. It’s short and action-packed, with a lot of cliff-hangers to keep you turning pages.

Difficulty: Not very. There’s some technical exposition here and there by scientist characters, but it’s nothing that presumes you have a background in science (I certainly don’t).

Synopsis: Mars is a barren red waste, her resources nearly exhausted, but she has a neighbor with lush vegetation and wide blue seas—a planet which Mars’ inhabitants find ripe for the taking. In cylindrical ships fired into space by giant cannons on the surface of their desert world, the Martians come to Earth. They bear with them the seeds of an invasive red weed and horrific weapons, the product of technology more advanced than anything humanity has ever seen. Once they arrive on the island of Britain, they ignore attempts at peaceful communication from Earth’s native inhabitants, unleashing their military power and their landscape-transforming plant with equal aplomb. Meanwhile, our unnamed narrator embarks on a harrowing journey to escape the Martian conquest of earth with his own life. Along the way he makes friends and enemies among the many human fugitives he encounters, and struggles to comprehend a once-familiar world steadily being twisted beyond recognition.

What makes this book awesome?: Science fiction as we know it today owes a tremendous debt to this book, and to H. G. Wells in general (this is the man who invented the term “time machine” we’re talking about here). The War of the Worlds is so deep in our modern scifi mythos that any first-time reader will find it strangely familiar: from the laser weapons and giant walking war-bots to the malevolent Martians more brain than body. These and other ideas have become classic science fiction tropes, endlessly imitated and reinterpreted, but they all started in the imagination of H. G. Wells.

The fact that it pretty much founded the alien invasion story isn’t the only reason The War of the Worlds is worth reading; it also asks some very interesting questions about human arrogance and superiority. Born into an impoverished lower-class family, Wells was acutely aware that the society he lived in evaluated individuals based on their social standing. Wells’ novel has been read as a critique of the Victorian preoccupation with class and rank and the related doctrines of Social Darwinism, colonialism and imperialism. In Wells’ novel it is the English themselves who are “colonized”. But as Wells asks in the first chapter of The War of the Worlds: given the brutal conquests and exterminations that the human race has been responsible for, “are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit”? What happens when those who are accustomed to thinking of themselves as superior and advanced meet beings unquestionably more advanced than they? What happens to a society given a taste of its own medicine?

Aliens don't scare Wells, no siree.

Some neat-o facts:

  • American physicist Robert H. Goddard developed an interest in outer space and started trying to build a functional rocket after reading The War of the Worlds at age 16. Goddard went on to invent the first liquid fuel-powered rocket, and his research laid the groundwork for modern space travel. So you might say that this book is indirectly responsible for the Space Age.
  • The first radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds, narrated in the USA by Orson Welles (no relation; note the extra E) on Halloween night, 1938, caused one of the most celebrated cases of mass hysteria in history because it was presented as an actual news report, with the British setting of the original novel changed to New Jersey. It’s unclear how many Americans actually believed that Martians were attacking and fled their homes in panic, but the incident became an immediate global media sensation, even drawing comment from Adolf Hitler (he saw it as evidence of the weakness of democratic society). When Welles-with-two-Es and Wells-with-one-E discussed the results of the broadcast on radio two years later, Wells-with-one-E seemed disbelieving and perhaps a little embarrassed.
  • In addition to being a writer of just about everything, Herbert George “Bertie” Wells was a teacher, an outspoken socialist, a lady-killer (he had illegitimate children by several different women and left his wife/cousin Isabel for one of his students), and in general a lovable old curmudgeon. He also had a knack for predicting the future. We’re still waiting on that Martian invasion, but the wait is over for spaceships, “heat rays” and chemical weapons. Other future predictions of his that have come true include automatic doors, antigravity technology, manned moon landings, and World War II. When asked what he wanted written on his tombstone, an elderly Wells reportedly said, “Damn you all, I told you so”. That quote alone should give you an idea of what H. G. Wells was like. My other favorite Wells quote: “Queen Victoria was like a great paperweight that for half a century sat upon men’s minds, and when she was removed their ideas began to blow all over the place haphazardly.”

If you like this, try: Any of Wells’ other novels/novellas, particularly The Time Machine and The First Men in the Moon. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift shares with much of Wells’ work the device of inhuman, fantastical creatures and their societies as a means of social commentary, although Swift is much less violent and more lighthearted than Wells ever was. For more groundbreaking Victorian scifi, try Jules Verne or Hugo Gernsback, both of whom are called, along with H. G. Wells, “The Father of Science Fiction” (three fathers and no mother? Sounds like science fiction to me).



Andrew Coletti has been reading and attempting to write science fiction, fantasy, and mythology for as long as he can remember (although he would like you to know that he does, from time to time, read other stuff too). His other interests include traveling as much as possible, the ancient world, and drag performance/theater in general. Some of his favorite authors in no particular order include H. G. Wells, William Blake, Philip Pullman, C. S. Lewis, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Neil Gaiman, and Daniel Handler/Lemony Snicket.

He can be reached at Interested in contributing? See the tab at the top of this page.


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