Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Lana Reviews: The War of the Worlds - H.G. Wells

First published in 1898, H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds is a work of science fiction that I, as a reader in 2014, feel must have been way ahead of its time back when it was first released. Although some of the scientific ideas brought up in this novel are a bit out of date today, they were actually the theories that were thought to make sense back then, and Wells himself did a pretty good job explaining such scientific and technological ideas in his works so that the average person could understand them better.

One day, something unexpected happens over south-eastern England. A falling star is observed, few noticing the greenish streak it is leaving behind as it rushes across the sky. Incidentally, it turns out that the 'meteorite' lands somewhere in Surrey, not far from Woking where the narrator of the story lives. Only the next morning, however, when someone ventures out to find it, is it discovered that it is not a meteorite at all, but a cylinder, its top unscrewing slowly indicating that someone or something must be inside, trying to get out.

What comes out of the cylinder is clearly not a creature of our world, and before long, it becomes clear that it has no intention of making friends. After witnessing the violence and chaos unleashed upon the curious but innocent masses gathered around the cylinder, the narrator hurries home. He decides to get his wife and servant out of Woking to somewhere safe, a journey they manage without much trouble. But as he returns home with the horse and cart he loaned for the trip, it turns out that what happened earlier near the cylinder was only the beginning of the destruction that Woking and the rest of the area would see. The rest of his story tells of how he tries to make it back to his wife, while at the same time trying to stay safe as the Martians have started moving around.

The book is told in first person view by a nameless narrator mostly telling us the story of what happened to him when the Martians invaded. Through a few chapters however, he also shares his brother's experiences with us, something I think Wells chose to do to give his readers a second point of view from a different, and perhaps more well-known, location. Not every reader would recognize Woking and the surrounding country-side, but most would have heard of London. Since the whole story is supposed to be a factual account of the invasion from Mars, we get to know very little of the characters - few of the principal ones are even named.

The story itself starts out with a chapter that, among others, does two things. First, it links something that actually happened in real life a few years before, to the events of the story. In 1894, a French astronomer observed a strange light on Mars. This became the starting point of Wells' story. He makes this into one of the times the Martians launched one of their many cylinders: destination Earth.

Second, it explains how come the inhabitants of Mars are so far ahead of humans intellectually and technologically, and since it was the prevailing theory of planetary formation at the time, this is explained as a result of Mars being an older world than ours because it is further away from the sun than Earth, the theory being that the outer planets formed first, and also cooled and aged faster than the ones closer to the sun. Since they didn't know what we do today about Mars being cold and barren, one cannot blame them for thinking that if life was possible on earth, it would only make sense that life would be possible on Mars too. Believing Mars to be an older world, it would then not be far-fetched to think that the Martians would have come along further in their development than the people of earth, having had more time to evolve.

Talking about evolving, Wells' background as a science teacher in training and a believer in Darwinism shines through as he, somewhere along the way, describes the evolution of the Martians. He had already aired a lot of the ideas he brought up in The War of the Worlds in an essay he had published in 1896, named Intelligence on Mars. Here, he speculated about the evolution of Martian species compared to those on earth, thinking they would have to be different since the conditions would undoubtedly be different. He also played with the idea that perhaps, if Mars had changed enough that the Martians could not live there anymore, they would be looking for a new place to settle. His genius was that, where contemporary authors stuck to the usual plot of the then popular invasion novels, letting humans fight humans, Wells raised the stakes so much higher by introducing a formidable and near unbeatable enemy from another world.

The only book I had read by Wells before picking up this one, was The Time Machine, which I read in my late teens and really enjoyed. Still, I was a bit skeptical about The War of the Worlds as I really disliked the 2005 Steven Spielberg movie of almost the same name, which is the only filmed version I have seen. Fortunately, the book is so much better. I especially like that it is set in a time when horses and carts are still in use (where the movie was set it in our day and age), and yet you have these Martians moving around in metal vehicles with three long legs, brandishing laser-like weapons! How Wells came up with these things I will never know, the man sort of invented the future. As for this book, it served to remind me of an author I had enjoyed in the past, and now I cannot wait to pick up more of his works.

Book Details
Title: The War of the Worlds
Editor: H.G. Wells
Publisher: Penguin Books
Pages: 199
Year: 2005
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-14-144103-0
First published: 1898

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