I must admit: I only just read H.G. Wells‘ War of the Worlds for the first time. I know, I know, shame on me right! A degree in English literature and not having read this book sooner. We did study it in class, though we weren’t required to read it since we were looking at it more from a cultural point of view and we focussed on the radio play by Orson Welles.
That is exactly why I decided to go for it and read it anyway. Orson Welles took Wells’ journal-style recounting of an alien invasion, added sound effects and scared the crap out of people :D. And the fact that Wells’ writing was able to convince an entire city that it was real and literally made them flee their homes in a panic… lovely stuff!
I picked the book up recently and thought “go for it and read it anyway.” I was hesitant because of that abysmal movie adaptation with Tom Cruise. I mean, in and of itself, there is nothing wrong with the movie. It’s your typical Hollywood end-of-the-world action packed movie. But to think that they took that beautiful, quite distant and almost objective telling of an alien invasion and turn it into a let’s-save-the-world-before-everyone-dies-and-be-overly-dramatic-in-between Hollywood movie … that’s like sacrilegious!
Anyway, so when I saw this book at my library’s book sale, I decided to ignore Tom Cruise (as people are wont to do) and go for it. And I loved it! If you don’t know, here’s the story. I’m not sure if I should warn you about spoilers, because I mean, the story is about an alien invasion. Leaving out that detail kind of leaves you with nothing left to tell. So, spoiler alert: ALIENS!
The book starts out with a kind of rant about how arrogant people are to assume they are the only intelligent life in the universe. So you already know what is coming, right from the start. Which I kind of like, it immediately shows you what kind of book this is: an account of “that time the aliens invaded” :).
So when the actual story starts, the main character (an unnamed philosophical writer) is at an observatory when he and the astronomer perceive strange, green lights exploding from Mars several days in a row. Then a few days later there is a meteor that lands on Earth. Well, they think it’s a meteor. It turns out to be a cylinder filled with Martian lifeforms. They move sluggishly first, because they’re adapting to the heavier atmosphere on earth and stay hidden in their ditch. When humans get too close, they use a “heat-ray” that incinerates everything in its path.
It turns out that all the lights they saw coming from Mars for those two weeks, were all pods filled with Martians coming to earth. Their world is burning up and is close to destruction, so they sought out Earth to make a new home for themselves. They fight and wreak havoc and destruction. (By the way, the book plays out in and around London). People flee the UK and go overseas to France, where they think it’s safe while the entire world follows what’s happening with the Martians.
At the end of the first book, people have given up hope, realising that the Martians are technologically far more advanced and that resistance is futile. We also get a double view at the end of the first book: narration splits up between the what’s happening with the narrator in the country and with his brother who is in London.
In the second book, we learn more about the Martians themselves. The narrator gets trapped in a house with a curate and a Martian pod lands right next to them, so they are stuck. They dare not go out of what’s left of the house since the Martians are keeping guard right next to it. Instead, the two of them keep quiet and observe the Martians. At that point, the narrator discovers how they eat: they have no digestive tract (as is discovered in dissections later on) so they take the blood they need to survive right from their victims. Basically, they take live humans, put a funnel in their veins and hold it over their mouths to drink. They learn to distinguish the Martians’ bodies from their armors and identify the actual Martians from their machine helpers. It also becomes clear that the Martians are building something (in my opinion: your usual run-of-the-mill Doomsday device).
Then the narrator’s companion starts to lose his mind. He wants to eat all the food at once and starts complaining loudly. They fight more and more. And the curate’s cries of “God has deserted us” and the like eventually drive the narrator to the edge and out of frustration and the fear of discovery he snaps and kills the man. They made a lot of noise in the struggle however and the Martian has heard them. The narrator runs and hides in the cellar for days. When he eventually gathers the courage to come out, he finds the place deserted. Not a living (or Martian) thing in sight but for some ravenous dogs.
So he hazards out on the road again (throughout the entire book he’s trying to go to the town where he left his wife for some unknown reason). He comes up to a military man he met earlier who is convinced the human race is doomed to become slaves and pets to the Martians. But he will fight and ensure mankind’s survival with a colony set up (and presumably lead) by him in the sewers and tunnels under London. At first, the narrator is entranced and happy to think of something other than what has happened and might be happening in the future. Later he realises what a stupid plan it is and that the military man is all talk but no action. So he sets out on his own again until he meets the Martians again. But they all appear to be dead. All Martians and their machines are lying there not moving and obviously dead. He doesn’t comprehend this and loses his mind. His mind shuts off, for the first time dealing with everything that happened.
He comes to a few days later and is told he was found wandering and shouting “The Last Man Left Alive, Hurray!” A few friendly people took him in and took care of him. He sobers up and immediately sets off for his house in the hopes of finding his wife there still alive. They find each other and are happily reunited, as told in the epilogue. It’s also then that the writer’s point of the story becomes clear: he wanted to tell what he went through, saw and learned as a warning. It happened once, it was horrible and it can happen again and we need to be prepared.
In conclusion, I liked the way the story was told. A man describing what he experienced and being as honest and open about it as possible. I would even go so far as calling it an objective eyewitness report since I felt the narrator was observing what this character went through, rather than explaining what he was feeling in real-time. It was a completely different approach to a (by now) classic dystopian, futuristic sci-fi story.
Have you read it already? What did you think? Not quite what you expected?