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A Nasty Business

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H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1897) has long been one of my favourite books. I first read it half a century ago – when I was about 10, to judge by the date on my Penguin edition (price 3/6d). I must have read it half a dozen times since; my battered copy is now held together with Sellotape. Recently I began watching a television adaptation: it was so disappointing that I abandoned it halfway through the first episode. This unhappy experience led me to question why it is that I like the book so much.

The most obvious reason is that it is a compelling story. From the famous opening paragraph, which imagines aliens studying mankind across the abyss of space, rather as humans might contemplate infusoria under a microscope, our attention is seized; and it remains gripped through to the end.

The action of the novel is set in the last years of the nineteenth century, and is told in retrospect, looking back on the Martian invasion six years before. The story is narrated in the first person, which gives it the immediacy of an eye-witness report. The narrator is a writer ‘on philosophical themes’, a modern man of science, much like Wells himself. He addresses us as kindred spirits. ‘The planet Mars, I scarcely need remind the reader, revolves about the sun at a mean distance of 140,000,000 miles . . .’ He refers to ‘men like Schiaparelli’ and ‘Perrotin of Nice’ as if these astronomers would be familiar to us.

The narrator lives on the edge of Woking, about twenty-five miles south-west of London – as Wells was doing at the time; indeed the house that he lived in is still standing, now graced with a blue plaque. One characteristic of the novel is the strong sense of place, reinforced by frequent references to the satellite towns and suburbs – Weybridge, Walton-on-Thames, Shepperton, Hampton, Richmond, Kew, Sheen and so on – through which the narrator passes as he flees from the Martian advance. Apparently Wells researche

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H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1897) has long been one of my favourite books. I first read it half a century ago – when I was about 10, to judge by the date on my Penguin edition (price 3/6d). I must have read it half a dozen times since; my battered copy is now held together with Sellotape. Recently I began watching a television adaptation: it was so disappointing that I abandoned it halfway through the first episode. This unhappy experience led me to question why it is that I like the book so much.

The most obvious reason is that it is a compelling story. From the famous opening paragraph, which imagines aliens studying mankind across the abyss of space, rather as humans might contemplate infusoria under a microscope, our attention is seized; and it remains gripped through to the end. The action of the novel is set in the last years of the nineteenth century, and is told in retrospect, looking back on the Martian invasion six years before. The story is narrated in the first person, which gives it the immediacy of an eye-witness report. The narrator is a writer ‘on philosophical themes’, a modern man of science, much like Wells himself. He addresses us as kindred spirits. ‘The planet Mars, I scarcely need remind the reader, revolves about the sun at a mean distance of 140,000,000 miles . . .’ He refers to ‘men like Schiaparelli’ and ‘Perrotin of Nice’ as if these astronomers would be familiar to us. The narrator lives on the edge of Woking, about twenty-five miles south-west of London – as Wells was doing at the time; indeed the house that he lived in is still standing, now graced with a blue plaque. One characteristic of the novel is the strong sense of place, reinforced by frequent references to the satellite towns and suburbs – Weybridge, Walton-on-Thames, Shepperton, Hampton, Richmond, Kew, Sheen and so on – through which the narrator passes as he flees from the Martian advance. Apparently Wells researched his locations on a bicycle. The entire novel takes place in and around London. The reader never learns whether Martians have landed elsewhere. There is some logic to this, given that Britain was then the predominant power of the age, the centre of an apparently mighty empire that covered a quarter of the surface of the globe. London could still be described as ‘the Mother of all Cities’. It was, then, an obvious place for an alien attack. But in any case, the reader does not care what has happened elsewhere; with only a minor intermission, we are with the narrator throughout, sharing his fears and privations. The world that Wells describes is not so different from the one we know today. Many of the local residents commute into the city by train; in the evenings they return to relax, perhaps taking a leisurely bicycle ride or a stroll in the pine-woods, or chatting to their neighbours over the garden wall; at the weekend they play golf or go boating on the river. Science has tamed nature and made life comfortable. There is no television, but there are both morning and evening newspapers; no telephone, but a very efficient postal service, and telegrams for urgent communication. Milk is delivered by cart to the house each morning. With hindsight the unnamed narrator remarks on the complacency of that time, innocent of the coming catastrophe. ‘It seemed so safe and tranquil.’ It is this very familiarity, this sense of everything being normal and peaceful, that makes the subsequent chaos and destruction so shocking. The narrator is one of the first to catch sight of a Martian, having come across a huge smoking cylinder, about thirty yards in diameter, almost buried where it has crash-landed in sandy heathland near his house. Later other cylinders land nearby. At this stage there is little sense of danger. The arrival of the cylinder attracts more curiosity than apprehension; a small crowd gathers, and only when the cylinder opens and a Martian is seen does alarm ensue. ‘Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of its appearance . . . Even at this first encounter, this first glimpse, I was overcome with disgust and dread.’ The Martians are oblivious to a deputation of learned men trying to establish communication. They sweep the area around the cylinder with a heat-ray, bringing instant death to anyone within range. The narrator is lucky to escape with his life. But even then there is no widespread panic. The Martians, though hideous and evidently hostile, are bulky creatures, capable only of laboured movements in earth’s greater gravity; it seems obvious that they cannot leave the vicinity of their landing-site, and should they pose a continuing threat, they will quickly be destroyed. Soldiers are already moving into position around the site. The narrator returns home to supper with his wife, confident that the authorities will soon have the situation under control. The next day is hot and sultry; a thunderstorm is brewing. Feeling uneasy, the narrator hires a dogcart to take his wife to the safety of Leatherhead, ten miles distant, before returning at night. On the ride back the weather breaks. Amid thunderclaps and lightning flashes, he glimpses, through the lashing rain, a nightmare vision: a monstrous tripod, higher than many houses, striding over the young pine trees, and smashing them aside in its career; a walking engine of glittering metal, striding now across the heather; articulate ropes of steel dangling from it, and the clattering tumult of its passage mingling with the riot of the thunder. This is his first sight of a Martian fighting machine. He cowers in the mud until it has passed; once again he is lucky to have escaped. With their superior technology the invaders are quickly able to crush any resistance. In the next few days the Martians will advance on London, sweeping the ground with heat-rays and laying down clouds of poisonous gas to smother the artillerymen who have been positioned to protect the capital. The war of the worlds is not much of a war: it is a massacre. Only when humanity is helpless and civilization on the brink of collapse do the Martians succumb to an unforeseen enemy. In his flight from the advancing Martians, the narrator is caught on the bank of the Thames where it meets the Wey and survives only by flinging himself into the river. When he emerges, the charred bodies and ruined buildings all around remind him of images of Pompeii. At this point in the story Wells skilfully switches perspective, to that of the narrator’s brother, a medical student in London. Thus he is able to describe the terror and confusion in the city from the point of view of someone who was there. As the Martians approach from the south-west, a mass exodus begins. Fearful Londoners flee northwards and eastwards, jostling and trampling each other in their desperation. The veneer of civilization is torn aside: a cart is driven over a man’s back; men try to drag women from their carriage; a train ploughs through a crowd. With difficulty the narrator’s brother reaches the Essex coast: there, by paying an extortionate fare, he succeeds in securing a place aboard a paddle-steamer bound for Ostend. As this moves slowly out to sea amid a mass of other vessels, Martian fighting machines appear on the shore – and then begin wading out in their pursuit. He witnesses one of the few victories for mankind when a naval vessel, The Thunder-Child, rams one of the Martian machines and destroys it, before itself exploding under the glare of the heat-ray. Meanwhile the narrator is trapped in a ruined house in Mortlake, with Martians encamped outside. He is confined there for fifteen days, hungry and thirsty, witnessing through a spyhole in the rubble the grisly fate of human captives of the Martians. The claustrophobia and dread of this period of incarceration are powerfully evoked. Imprisoned with him in the ruined house is a curate, whose grip on reality, already loosened by the catastrophe, gradually fails. On the eighth day the curate begins crying out to his Maker in woe, attracting the attention of the Martians outside – until he is silenced by a blow. His body is dragged away by their probing tentacles. Eventually, the narrator emerges, to find the Martians gone. ‘And oh! The sweetness of the air!’ Dazed, he wanders through the desolate and silent suburbs of Putney and Wimbledon, the only signs of life being the occasional stray dog or the odd furtive figure scurrying for shelter like a disturbed scavenging rodent. Eventually he arrives in the centre of the city, to see the dome of St Paul’s with a great gash in its side. He remains fearful of the absent Martians, until he comes across a fighting machine on the summit of Primrose Hill and sees ‘a multitude of black birds circling and clustering about the hood’, picking at the decaying body of the Martian inside. The War of the Worlds, first published in serial form in 1897, was one of a cluster of novels that established Wells’s reputation as the ‘father of science fiction’, following The Time Machine (1895) and The Island of Dr Moreau (1896: see SF no.66), and The Invisible Man, also published in 1897. One can detect its influence on many subsequent novels, by writers as diverse as John Wyndham and J. G. Ballard. The War of the Worlds also satisfied the appetite for ‘invasion literature’, then growing keener as the perception of the danger from Germany grew. The most notable exponent of this genre was William Le Queux, whose invasion novel The Great War in England in 1897 was published in the same year. In The War of the Worlds Wells makes a passing reference to the German threat when he remarks that the arrival of the first Martian cylinder ‘certainly did not make the sensation an ultimatum to Germany would have done’. One can consider the novel as a parable of colonialism. Wells later revealed that the plot of The War of the Worlds had been inspired by reading about the slaughter of the indigenous people of Tasmania. In the text itself the narrator draws this parallel: And before we judge of them too harshly, we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its own inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit? Perhaps this gives The War of the Worlds a contemporary currency – if we ignore the jarring reference to ‘inferior races’. The TV adaptation tried to make the book relevant to twenty-first century concerns, and thereby diluted much of the period flavour that makes the book so enjoyable. This was a mistake: the novel still works for us as it was originally written: an enthralling story, vividly told.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 75 © Adam Sisman 2022


About the contributor

Adam Sisman is a writer, specializing in biography. His most recent book is The Professor and the Parson: A Story of Desire, Deceit and Defrocking (2019). You can also hear him discussing the art of biography in Episode 6 of our podcast, ‘Well-Written Lives’.

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