War of the Worlds is Still Relatable Today, a guest post by Rinn
Posted January 23, 2014on:
I met Rinn of Rinn Reads when she hosted Science Fiction Month back in November. What a great event! Not only because science fiction is near and dear to my heart, but because Rinn did an amazing job of getting authors and publishers involved AND getting bloggers who weren’t so sure about science fiction to pick up a few titles. People, this is what I love about the blogosphere. Someone says “hey, I’d like to do this, who wants to join me?” and suddenly a hundred people are raising their hands.
Why H.G. Well’s classic The War of the Worlds is still today, by Rinn
“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…” (page 1)
And so H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds begins, with these immortal and haunting words. To me, it is up there with those fantastic opening lines that include Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. But it’s not just the opening line that really has an impact – the entire book was, at the time, a brand new concept and something really quite shocking, and over one hundred years later it still grips and surprises: it is a timeless classic. It has been adapted time and time again, for the screen, stage and radio, and has influenced so many other authors and works, and even an entirely new genre of invasion fiction.
The War of the Worlds has been interpreted in many ways. Commentary on British imperialism, or perhaps Victorian fears, Mars was a very apt planet to use either way. Mars is the Roman god of war, equivalent to Greek Ares; where better for these alien soldiers and destroyers to come from? Wells was not the first to have this idea: it was used as early as 1880 in Percy Greg’s Across the Zodiac.
One of the scariest parts of the book is how the human race is completely and utterly powerless against the alien invasion – at least in in the tradition way. Weapons barely make a dent, and even taking down a tripod or two requires some sacrifices. The people watching the HMS Thunder Child fight a tripod believe that they are seeing progress, only to have the ship sink in front of their eyes. Their weapons include the Heat Ray, which burns people up instantly, the Black Smoke, a poisonous gas which chokes people to death, and the Red Weed. Were those aliens to invade today, when we’ve made so many technological advances, would we fare any better? Some people may look upon our ancestors of the nineteenth century with scorn, and have no doubt that today’s modern warfare would annihilate the Martians – and perhaps we would stand more of a chance – but it doesn’t just come down to that. Another factor to come into it is how we would react.
(A tripod fighting the HMS Thunder Child – image source)
How would people treat each other during the panic? Would it be everyone out for themselves, or would we help friends and family, complete strangers? Our narrator in The War of the Worlds indeed meets several people on his journe
y, but he never really learns any of their names. He refers to them by their job: ‘the Artilleryman’, ‘the Curate’. And he even knocks the curate unconscious, to save his own skin, which leads to the demise of the poor man. I don’t think people’s reactions to the invasion would be any different today to how Wells’ portrays it in the nineteenth century, although perhaps you’d get a few people foolishly filming the whole thing on their phones!
“The chances of anything man-like on Mars are a million to one” (page 11).
Another infamous quote from the novel, this one is particularly haunting as it is confidently spoken by the narrator’s astronomer friend, and is an excellent use of foreshadowing. The emergence of the tripods from the ground on Horsell Common is one of my favourite scenes in science fiction. It is wonderfully horrific, and Wells’ accurately grasps the human fascination with the unknown and the dangerous; the modern equivalent would be people slowing down on the road to witness the scene of a car accident.
Wells demonstrates just how small and insignificant the human race appears to the Martians when he says
“… the Martian machine took no more notice for the moment of the people running this way and that than a man would of the confusion of ants in a nest against which his foot has kicked.” (page 63).
A scary thought, when you think of what the human race has done, the things we have achieved and created; if these aliens think of us as insignificant then what is their own society like?
One thing that would definitely change today, is that the news of the invasion would spread – and quickly. We have so many different long-distance ways to contact each other: phone, email, Twitter, Facebook, Skype, and I’m sure that the news would be passed on before connections were wiped out. In Wells’ novel, the narrator encounters people on his journey who have not heard a thing of the invasion, despite being only a matter of miles from the first landing site, and don’t for one second believe his crazy and vivid tales of a Martian invasion. Which slightly reduces their longevity. However, although it is implied that this invasion is worldwide, Wells’ world feels very small. The majority of the story takes part in Surrey, London and various London suburbs and the fight feels very contained, almost as if the narrator could just pop into Berkshire or Hampshire and he’d be perfectly safe.
(A beautiful 1960 version of the book – image source)
“It was the beginning of the rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind” (page 104).
Luckily Wells’ narrator was wrong. As I’m sure you know, the Martians succumb to the common cold, not having previously been exposed to earthly germs. This does not make his tale any less scary: a completely unknown race, an unexpected attack and total war and annihilation. The Martians die out because of germs, yes, but it takes at least a month to happen. During that time they have easily wiped out entire villages, towns, cities, destroyed homes and families, killed thousands upon thousands. By the end of The War of the Worlds the Martians may be gone, but the tragedy and trauma that they left behind has not.
My copy of the book, and the one that correlates with the quotes used in this post, is the 2005 Penguin Classics edition, edited by Patrick Parrinder, with an introduction by Brian Aldiss and notes by Andy Sawyer.