Monday, April 4, 2011

The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

Rating:4 & 1/4 Stars

H.G. Wells’ (1866-1946) predecessor, the French writer, Jules Verne, was a fascinating story-teller. However, by modern standards, his books fall short on the scientific know-how, and technical details, that are so essential in anchoring this genre to the realm of the believable. The War of the Worlds, published in 1898, in its vivid recounting of space travel, mechanical monsters, predatory aliens, a post-apocalyptic Earth, and a plausible explanation for how this all came to be cleared the way for science fiction as we know it today. 

The unnamed Narrator tells us how at the turn of the century, invaders from Mars land on England, intent on conquest and occupation. The reaction of the general populace is rather dampening. As the Narrator wryly remarks,

“So some respectable dodo in the Mauritius might have lorded it in his nest and discussed the arrival of that shipful of pitiless sailors in want of animal food. ‘We will peck them to death tomorrow, my dear.’”

This phlegmatic response doesn’t last long. Once more of the Martian cylinders start bombarding the earth, and the tripods begin strafing the earthlings with their laser guns, people start panicking in the oldest traditions of humanity – rioting, looting, and scrambling for safety. Wells was perhaps not a big believer in the heroic potential of men. Depending on your perspective, the story’s conclusion might be seen as either ironic or anti-climactic. 

Written as it was at the tail-end of the nineteenth century, this is one classic where the language is accessible. Wells had an ear for the common accent, which somehow makes the story more probable than a cast of characters stiffly enunciating the Queen’s English. There is a chilling lack of sentiment to the narration. The breakdown of law and order is described in a methodical manner; and when the Narrator meets with the artilleryman, the latter’s prognosis for the future of mankind is as bleak as it is utterly logical.

Wells treatment of the topic isn’t to cow his audience with shock and awe. He gradually ratchets up the tension, and trusts the reader to allow his imagination to fill in the gaps. If only more modern authors would emulate that technique.

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