Review: The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

book cover: the war of the worlds

I didn’t include The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells on my Classics Club list because it didn’t appeal to me at the time. It’s one of those books that, while influential, is too well known to offer any surprises. Plus, while I knew Spielberg’s movie took liberties since it’s set in modern times, I thought it was a fairly faithful adaptation since it opens and closes with quotes from the book (as read by Morgan Freeman). While some story beats are adapted faithfully, the book is very different. For starters, Tom Cruise flees aliens alongside his children, but the book’s unnamed narrator spends much of the book alone. Many disaster books/movies show people banding together to survive, but the narrator’s isolation adds to his vulnerability and the book’s overall tension.

There’s no fluff in this book. The opening lines:

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. . . . Yet across the gulf of space minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.

The Martians are watching Earth because they’re facing “the secular cooling that must someday overtake our planet.” (A few lines have aged badly.) The Martians feel no compunction toward stealing Earth and destroying humanity, but before the reader chalks their actions up to incomprehensible villainy, they’re reminded: “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 inferior races.” To make this parallel more clear, the Martians soon destroy London, the seat of the British Empire.

The narrator, separated from his wife, shelters in various houses and learns snatches of the Martians’ movements. The news he gets is fragmented and creates the impression that the Martians are unstoppable. There’s no radio to supply updates or plans for a coordinated resistance, no inspirational speeches from world leaders, and no real hope that things will improve. Though I knew what would happen, Wells creates a good amount of tension. It’s bleak, but entertaining, and there are enough cinematic moments that I can see why it’s been adapted to film a few times.

I’ll concede that the ending is abrupt and lacking confrontation, and it’s fair to label it a deus ex machina, but I like it. This story isn’t set up for a big battle. And from what we see of the narrator, he’s unlikely to be involved in a battle so he’d have to inform the reader what happened after the fact, based on another character’s account. Or maybe humans could figure out the Martians’ weakness and exploit it, but again, that probably wouldn’t involve the narrator. It’s always less than ideal when big events are reduced to a “here’s what happened” speech, but this “here’s what happened” speech covered something I didn’t expect. I think I can say this without directly spoiling it: the big revelation hits harder in light of current events. It might have seemed a little pat a few years ago.

Overall: 4.7 (out of 5.0) Now that I’ve finally read the book, I can see there are references to it all over the place in books and movies. It’s like a missing piece in my imagination has been filled in. There are places where the language is a little old fashioned, and that bit about the Earth cooling, but it still holds up.

Image credit: Goodreads

NB: I read this book as part of an H.G. Wells collection on my Kindle, so no page numbers are available.


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