Ambitious Reading List: War Of The Worlds by H.G. Wells

Well, I finally did it. As the days of summer come waning towards fall, I actually finished the first book in my Summer Reading List that looks to be turning into a 2010 Reading List. And even though my copy of War Of The Worlds clocks in at 172 page, it STILL took me a while to read, mostly because the story is just a recounting of what happened instead of putting the reader in the story more with actual dialog. It’s almost epistolary or like reading a journal entry with almost all telling without showing.

As far as my review goes, I didn’t read any of the supplemental material in the book or anything about Wells or the book’s background. I just jumped in. So, some of my observations and revelations might be really obvious to anyone knowing the history of the era (late 1800s/early 1900s). I took a history class of that time period in college and most of my excellent English professors in college would give us lots of background before diving into a text. I kind of just wanted to leap in feet first and see what I would see. Now that I’m done, I might go back and read the chronology or just move on to the next one.

For anyone who might not be familiar with it, the book follows a philosopher as he survives an invasion by the Martians in 1898 (at least that was the year the book came out, so give or take a few years). The Martians look kind of like Krang from Ninja Turtles and walking around on giant tripods. They’ve got weapons that include heat rays and something akin to mustard gas that kills automatically. We hear about the invasion both from our narrator and from a recounting of the narrator’s brother’s adventures in London (the narrator lives in the country). The narrator’s journey isn’t particularly heroic in any way, he just happens to survive without influencing the battle in any way, which makes for a somewhat boring account of the action. For instance, he spends a week in an abandoned house under which one of the Martians is building his war machines and doesn’t do anything but eat and beat the crap out of his annoying companion at the time. I kept wanting him to grab a knife or something, drop down into the pit and straight-up murder that little ball of slime. But nope. He doesn’t do jack but watch. Overall, it’s kind of disappointing that this is the best way HG Wells could think of to tell a really interesting story.
The epistolary-like presentation of the material really sucks the tension out of things. Obviously, our hero survives all of his trials and tribulations as does his brother who either told him what happened or recounted it to someone else who told the narrator. As if that weren’t bad enough, our narrator hints at and then flat out tells us that the invasion gets pushed back and society gets back to the point where they can publish pamphlets soon enough well before the end of the book.

Really what gets me is the lack of dialogue. The book could have been so much more interesting had we actually read the interactions between the narrator and, say, the curate or the infantryman as opposed to just hearing this guy ramble on and on and on.

There are two aspects of the book that I did find interesting. First off is the complete lack of a basic sci-fi language. It’s kind of funny reading Wells’ narrator try to explain a heat ray, when you’re just like “CALL IT A HEAT RAY!” but obviously science fiction was in its infancy back then, so the terms were all there. Wells deserves a lot of credit, of course, as he was one of THE guys back then for this kind of fiction, but that doesn’t make this story any more fun to read.

The other aspect of the story I thought a lot about was the actual Martian invasion. Unlike alien invasion stories of today, it’s not like there’s a mother ship waiting outside Earth’s orbit, the Martian soldiers are just sent hurtling across space based on whatever intel their overlords could glean from watching Earth from afar. Once the soldiers are there they either succeed or fail and carry on the plan while their people watch back home.

For a while I was thinking this was really interesting and unique, but then I realized that this was basic military tactics for the day. Without mass communications or speedy transport, the terrestrial versions of these battles were pretty similar. Some general somewhere sends a bunch of soldiers off to war in a far off place. Whether they survived or failed would decide the next move. So, while I was thinking this was some kind of crazy, cool aspect of invasion fiction I hadn’t really heard before, it was actually commonplace military practice for the time, which doesn’t make it any less interesting, just makes me think about it differently. All of which makes me think the story while on the surface trying to entertain with an alien invasion story, also was trying to say something about England and other countries’ desire to expand their holdings on other continents. It’s got a “how would you like it if someone bigger with better weapons tried to take what you have?” vibe to it. I wonder how that went over with the people.

I did find myself enjoying the last few chapters of the book, after the narrator finally got out of the house and realized the invasion had stopped because the Martians weren’t used to Earth germs, or more accurately any kind of bacteria. Yes, it’s kind of a flimsy excuse that they had absolutely NO germs, but what are you gonna do? Our “hero” wanders around, meets the infantryman again who’s got big plans for lying low and taking over one of the walkers to blast the Martians (at the time, they don’t know the invasion’s over). Now THAT would have been a fun read! From there we get a recounting of the few days after the events and everyone’s happy to be alive and also freaked out that aliens attacked and the narrator notes that they’ll be keeping an eye on Mars, but also that they saw what looked like Martians being launched at Venus. The humans also studied the Martian technology to figure out flight, though the heat ray seemed to be giving them trouble.

The version of the book I read is the 1993 Everyman edition. I’m not a huge fan because there’s a complete lack of footnotes or notation of any kind explaining what the hell these hundred year old words mean or how far away Woking is from London. It does include a timeline and a chronology of Wells’ life in the beginning as well as a section in the back about Wells and his critics, but what I really needed was a little help in understanding the text more. As it was, I found myself trying to speed read through a fairly boring text.

I bought this version back around ’93 because as I’ve mentioned my dad introduced me to old time radio at a young age and I was fascinated by Orson Welles’ radio play. But, as it’s so dense, I stopped reading pretty quickly. Even so many years later, I feel like I did when I was 10. That book was rough to get through, but at least I can say I read the original and will be able to compare it to the radio play, the Steven Spielberg movie and the second League of Extraordinary Gentlemen trade, all of which I will be absorbing soon and doing my very first Book Vs. Movie Vs. Radio Play Vs. Comic!

Next up on the summer reading list is Ulysses by James Joyce, one monster of a book. I read sections of it in college for a class and think I liked it, but the denseness of it plus the huge length are making me a little nervous. I’ve also been thinking of reading something light and short or maybe a few short stories as something of a palette cleanser, but we’ll see. I’ll keep you posted.

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