My first experience with H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds was not the Victorian novel itself but the Jeff Wayne concept album, which my parents have on vinyl, and must have had on tape as well because I have a distinct and deeply-lodged memory of listening to it on a long car trip and lying in bed that night gripped by the terror that tentacley aliens were going to ooze through the ceiling vent and eat me. It was… with some trepidation and assurances to my eight-year-old self that it couldn’t be that bad, we’ve moved past this by now, come on, that I picked up the original book to read for a class on genre fiction.
I was wrong. To both the credit of Wells’ story and my eight-year-old self, this crap is terrifying.
The War of the Worlds is the grandfather of the modern alien invasion story as we know it today, or at least, carries all the hallmarks that the alien invasion story as we know it today loves. Being more familiar with the Men From Mars!! plotline as it appears in (parodies of) pulp 50s and 60s sci-fi and its later, grittier incarnations like Independence Day, it was a little odd to see it transplanted so naturally into 19th century England. There are still horses and carts trundling around, steam power is in its heyday, and the lush, quaint landscape of a country town and its quiet heath forms the stage for the beginning of a terrifying alien conquest that will make mankind question everything it knows about itself.
The anonymous narrator—very few of the characters are given actual names, an interesting point I’ll get to in a moment—is an academic, philosophical man, and so he has the right gentlemanly wits to express interest in the strange plumes of gas sighted on the surface of Mars, which his astronomer acquaintance is rambling about. If nothing else, this book proved my ignorance about how much people knew about space even at this early stage, given that their scientific knowledge of Mars is fairly deep and to this day fairly accurate. Through the telescope, the narrator does indeed see weird gas explosions happening on Mars, but he and the good nation of England think little more of it until a strange asteroid crashes into the wilderness outside his hometown. It is, of course, not an asteroid but an alien spaceship, from which emerges a bunch of greasy, weird-looking Martians with the express intention of kicking Earth’s ass.
One ‘asteroid’ is followed by many more, and a whole host of the spacey buggers rise up equipped with their now famous tripods, which lope around shooting heat rays and laying waste to everything and everyone in their path. The narrator gets caught up in the kerfuffle and ends up trapped under a ruined house for some time (with an exceptionally irritating curate who CP pointed out is basically Mr Collins from Pride and Prejudice but stuck in an alien invasion story), emerging to find the world overtaken by Martians. Red weed, brought from their planet, is covering everything like villainous ivy, and the Martians themselves are legitimately eating people to survive. See? My young fears were justified.
Meanwhile, the narrator’s brother fills in the story, describing the panic and mayhem that gripped the far bigger, more populated city of London when the Martians strolled in, fairly accurately capturing the utter animalistic chaos—not to mention the sense of tension—that comes from a disaster and mass exodus. Because where do you go when death suddenly arrives at your door and all your exits are blocked? Fortunately, the only experience I’ve had with this sort of panic and sudden need to flee was when bushfires tore through the outer suburbs of my city years and years ago and we had to evacuate (boy, this book really played into all my childhood terrors without realising—thanks H. G.), and that, I am dearly thankful, was nothing on this scale. The sense of raw humanity at its worst is palpable and the tension is high in these scenes, and, as a bonus, they’re very interesting in hindsight.
After all, this kind of total war—fire from above, indiscriminately attacking civilians and structures to cripple the invaded nation—hadn’t really been seen on such a scale before at the time this book was written. In an obtuse way, as good science fiction often does, it predicted things to come, as the next time we would see this sort of industrial carnage would be World War One, and on an even greater scale, World War Two, which were both decades away when the novel was written. The cynical food-for-thought point to take away from that bit of information is that hey, humans don’t need hyper-advanced aliens to make a mess of the world: we’re perfectly capable of doing it ourselves. How frightening.
And yeah, the book is legitimately frightening. The Martians are creepy in and of themselves and their uncaring nature, and their unstoppable, chaotic havoc gives us puny Earthlings nowhere to run, and the novel captures this sense of both immediate terror and deep dread really well. The narrator largely detaching himself from the story to lay it down as an anonymous account gives it another degree of realism, weirdly enough—it doesn’t give you characters to get attached to, and even his beloved wife and brother only go by ‘my brother’ and ‘my wife’, but it serves the purpose of making it a story that could be about anyone. If you read a blog post, for example, relaying the details of a disaster like this, its writer would probably do the same thing (and indeed I’ve seen them do the same thing): you, a reader who could be anywhere in the world, don’t need the intimate details, you just need to know what is happening, that people are in danger, that wives and brothers are in trouble.
I can see how this would create an unwelcome detachment from the story, but I thought it worked for what it was going for—the same goes for the ending, which many have complained is a big old deus ex machina. Long story short, the Martians catch an Earth-specific disease from bacteria their immune systems aren’t prepared for, and the protagonist stumbles into the wreckage of London to find all the aliens dead or dying. It might be a bit of a cop-out, but how else were they going to end that on a vaguely positive note? I think the ending holds the most fear of the entire novel, in a way: it says listen, we came this close. If these guys hadn’t just happened to catch the common cold, life as we know it would be over forever. It’s a somewhat existential reminder that we are at the mercy of both the enormity of the universe and the microscopic world of bacteria; we humans think we’re pretty great, but one proud miscalculation is all it takes to bring about a race’s downfall.
You can read this as a metaphor for colonialism (see how you like it, Britain!), as a ponderous vessel for asking big questions about our place in the universe, as a warning about the terrible things that can happen if one race is greedy and bloodthirsty enough to engage in total war (which, as I mentioned above, very much came true). And, with these big themes and inherent terror at its centre, it’s a very versatile story too, so you can see how it spurred the good fun of the alien invasion narrative as we know it. If there’s one thing we Earthlings love, it’s a little bit existential dread combined with explosions.