“With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter.”
Author: H. G. Wells
Published: 1897 in serial format; 1898 in hardcover
Publisher: Pearson’s Magazine; William Heinemann
Ahoy hoy! I finally finished reading The War of the Worlds. It took me a little longer than I had anticipated, but I got to spend more time with it and that was great. I really enjoyed this classic by H. G. Wells for so many reasons. It was creative, well written, philosophical, and there was heavy use of the word forthwith (one of my favourite words, alongside post haste). Let’s get right into it.
Plot & Narration
Once again, the story is narrated from the first person point of view, past tense. It’s the classic re-telling of the story after the fact. There is, however, one important difference from the other novels: War of the Worlds is much more plot-driven than it is character-driven. In this one, all the actions of the protagonist are informed by the central plot issue: Martians have invaded the planet! And as far as a synopsis of the novel goes, that’s pretty much all you need to know.
One of my favourite aspects of this novel are the descriptions of the Martians and their machinery. Wells describes in detail the physical characteristics of the aliens. For example:
“There was a mouth under the eyes, the lipless brim of which quivered and panted, and dropped saliva. The whole creature heaved and pulsated convulsively. A lank tentacular appendage gripped the edge of the cylinder, another swayed in the air.”
This is just one of the many great physical descriptions of the aliens. I won’t divulge more so as not to rob you of the joy of reading it yourself!
Wells also describes the advanced technology possessed by the Martians. And I must say, the imagination and creativity displayed here by Wells is amazing. For example, one of the weapons the Martians have is a heat ray that incinerates its victims instantly. And Wells thought of this in 1897!
As for the ending, I won’t give it away, but let’s just say it’s not what you think it would be (though very astute readers may see it coming).
Theme: Alien vs. Man = Man vs. Ant
One of the interesting themes in War of the Worlds is the relationship between man and alien. In the story, the narrator (whose name we never learn) and other characters liken the relationship between man and alien to the relationship between man and ant or other animals.
“And we men, the creatures who inhabit this earth, must be to them at least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us.”
Despite (or given) man’s dominance over much of the natural world, the narrator is able to come to this humbling conclusion regarding the Martians without much ado. He understands that they are so advanced compared to humans that he doesn’t really blame them for at least trying to take over the planet.
“‘This isn’t a war,’ said the artilleryman. ‘It never was a war, any more than there’s war between man and ants.'”
There are many more such comparisons made but I’ll leave those for you to find out yourself.
I like this theme because it is humbling. On Earth, we are at the top of the food chain, and it’s easy to get caught up in our own dramas and manufactured lives. But somewhere out there are beings who may very well be the man to our ant. It’s exciting to think about what that means for us and how far we still have to go.
Theme: The Arrogance of Man
Man’s arrogance is another prominent theme in the story that makes you re-think things:
“Yet so vain is man, so blinded by his vanity, that no writer, up to the very end of the nineteenth century, expressed any idea that intelligent life might have developed there far, or indeed at all, beyond its earthly level.”
I think this idea is captured well in the story by this quote and the one above with which I open this post. Even once the invasion starts, many people can’t believe it until they see it with their own eyes. Even for us right now, the idea that aliens would come en masse to Earth to invade or to simply say hello seems totally impossible and improbable, like one of those things that only happens in the movies (or stories). And yet, we don’t know what’s going on out there in another part of the universe. Because we’re at the top of the food chain here, it’s hard not to extend that thought to the rest of the universe. (Remember how hard it was for us to accept that the sun does not revolve around the earth?)
Like it or not, we’re not the center of anything. If we are here, then somewhere out there they are there.
In this theme too, Wells shows extreme wisdom by creating a protagonist who is not surprised by the actions of the Martians. The narrator doesn’t take the attack personally. The Martian’s aren’t attacking humans in particular. Humans just happen to be the creatures that exist on the planet they want. He knows that the Martians are simply doing what we humans would do in the same situation.
“Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”
So those are the main points I wanted to talk about regarding The War of the Worlds. I really enjoyed this novel for all of its descriptive prose and humbling themes. Wells did a great job in describing how a possible alien invasion might occur and the human reaction to it.
On that note, I spend probably way too much time thinking about hypothetical scenarios that push people to the limits. But the reason I love such thought exercises is because it’s in those situations that you really get to know someone. People are never revealed in everyday life as much as they are in adverse situations. And that’s partly what Wells explored here.
If you love science fiction (and even if you don’t), this is definitely a must-read.
Stay tuned for the next story on my list, the play R.U.R.
Quotations: Wells, H.G. The War of the Worlds. Canada: Simon & Schuster, 2012. Kindle Edition.