Review: The War of the Worlds

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Review: The War of the Worlds
For a time I believed that mankind had been swept out of existence, and that I stood there alone, the last man left alive.

It’s October, and that means a whole month of scary-book reviews! First up is H.G. Wells’s 1897 classic The War of the Worlds, and…what? Okay, I know it’s technically a science fiction book. In some ways it’s the science fiction book, one of the earliest alien invasion novels, spawning dozens of adaptations in several different media, even inspiring inventions that would eventually take mankind to the moon.

It’s also a horrifying story in places, with tentacled-aliens raining down death and destruction in several unsettlingly imaginative ways. And let’s not forget that one of the adaptations – a radio play that aired in 1938 – convinced people that a real invasion was underway, causing widespread panic in the streets. I think that puts this comfortably in the “scary” category, don’t you?

This was the first time I’ve read The War of the Worlds (I know, I know, bad sci-fi fan, no cookie), and I was kind of expecting a slightly dusty classic piece of literature with ornate Victorian phrasing and some quaintly out-of-date science. And there was a little of that; the narrator references oceans and canals on Mars (something that was debunked in the early twentieth century), and I had to keep a dictionary handy so I could deal with sentences like “…every church within earshot was hard at work killing sleep with a vehement disorderly tocsin.”

But then I started to realize how far ahead of his time Wells was. The aliens don’t land on earth in fanciful spaceships that gently touch down to earth; they travel through space in projectiles that are fired from Mars and literally crash like meteors. Everything the Martians need for colonization has to be cannibalized from the capsules or from ores smelted from the ground, and Wells goes into painstaking detail about each machine his narrator sees. Wells is able to come up with details about how the attacker’s heat-ray works, how the low-gravity and low oxygen on Mars would affect the way the Martians evolved and even shows evidence that they were working on a flying machine. (Remember, this was written before the invention of the airplane, so you can imagine how terrifying the idea of an alien flying machine would be.)

And then there’s the aliens’ attack machines: the Tripods. These things are legitimately terrifying, and not just because they slaughter thousands of humans over the course of the story. Wells paints these startling images of the tripods climbing over a hillsides, or appearing over the tops of a forest, or appearing in the brief flashes of lightning as they stride down the road. Every adaptation in film or illustration pictures them differently; the English town of Woking (where H.G. Wells wrote the book, and where the initial alien attack takes place) has a statue that’s a fairly simplified version, but still one of my favorites; imagine this charging towards you, faster than a horse can gallop, howling.

It was the beginning of the route of civilization, of the massacre of mankind.

The aliens burn entire cities with their heat rays, they shoot black poison smoke that flows across the ground like water. And instead of showing all of this from the point of view of a general or a world leader, we see everything through the eyes of the nameless narrator (and occasionally his brother), who can only find out things from hastily printed newspapers, or rumors, or from people running screaming because the aliens are right behind us! It makes for some panicky scenes, such as when the characters have to push through a mass of stunned refugees, or claw their way out of the ocean before the heat-ray parboils them, or (in one particularly claustrophobic section) are trapped for a week in a collapsed house with a priest who lost most of his mind in the initial attack and loses the rest after watching the aliens right outside the window drain the blood from captive humans.

the-war-of-the-words-coverThe book stands out in one way by not portraying the aliens as simply “evil”; Wells regularly has the narrator consider that this is what humans must look like to a rabbit being hunted with a shotgun, or the dodo being driven into extinction, or even other humans beings with the boot of a stronger nation on their neck (het HEM, British Empire). Humanity is no longer at the top of the food chain, and it’s that kind of chill along with some of the amazingly visual scenes Wells created that can explain why the book is still in print and being adapted almost one hundred and twenty years later.

Oh, and a few quick words on my favorite adaptations. I first heard the famous radio play on Halloween when I was in high school, and I can easily imagine someone turning to the station at just the right point and thinking there was an actual attack going on. Granted, there’s some evidence that the panic wasn’t as bad as the newspapers played it up to be, and a lot of people who panicked thought the broadcast was about a German attack. Still, it’s pretty convincing.

I’m actually rather fond of Jeff Wayne’s musical version from 1978. It’s unbelievably, unapologetically 70’s of course: the disco-era music, the rock ballads, the characters randomly bursting into song.  But it works! I like the theme song, it’s really exciting in places (especially the gunship battle at the end of Part 1), and you can’t go wrong with Richard Burton for a narrator.

Last but not least, there’s book two of Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series. Forget about the LOEG movie (please), the comic book adaptation retells the story of The War of the Worlds from the point of view of several Victorian-era fictional characters, with all of the mind-bending cleverness and insanity that comes with any of Alan Moore’s creations. There’s action! Intrigue! Sex! A traitor who dies really, really badly (don’t ever get on Mr. Hyde’s bad side), and even a new wrinkle on how the Earth is “miraculously” saved when the aliens are killed by bacteria. Definitely worth a look.