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Friday, January 31, 2014

Book Review: The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds

I’ve read that The War of the Worlds is one of the most commented-on works of science fiction, and I can certainly understand why. In fact, it seems to be the father of extraterrestrial literature; its influence on the subject has never dimmed. My interest was sparked by watching the 2005 Steven Spielberg adaptation … I’d also wanted to try H. G. Wells because he was a classic author, and this was what we had on hand. Although I’m not fond of alien stories, I did enjoy the out-of-comfort-zone excursion: I was impressed with his knowledge, imagination, and writing skills. Plus, I was pulled along by the mystery of how on earth the Martians were going to be defeated!

The protagonist is an unnamed philosophical writer, perfectly suited to be narrator. He’s observant and able to ponder the terrifying consequences of the Martian invasion, from the wide-scale destruction, to life under their rule, to his psychological anguish. The story was action-packed, but because the narrator explained everything, it moved slowly at times, which I didn’t always mind – I enjoy thoroughness in a story. (Though, the beginning was agonizingly slow; I wanted to get on with the action! But I admit it was a good set-up.) As I said, the narrator was unnamed, as was almost everyone else: it was “I,” “my wife,” “my brother,” “the curate,” “the artilleryman,” and so forth. The absence of personal names submerged the characters and emphasized the Martians; everything that happened to the humans was to explain the full effect of the invasion.

I wasn’t impressed with the evolutionary worldview which permeated the book, but as that’s the only way the Martians could be real, it had to go with the story. They landed in southern England, not far from London, and it was rather painful to me to imagine that beautiful country getting demolished, but obviously Wells thought using his native land was best. The widespread death and destruction was not too gory, though of course very unpleasant to think about, because I’m not the kind of person who gets thrills from things smashing, exploding, and burning, even in movies.

To end, I’d like to include this favorite excerpt because I thought it a brilliant piece of writing, a sustained metaphor: “In the center, sticking into the skin of our old planet Earth like a poisoned dart, was this cylinder. But the poison was scarcely working yet. Around it was a patch of silent common, smoldering in places, and with a few dark, dimly seen objects lying in contorted attitudes here and there. … Beyond was a fringe of excitement, and farther than that fringe the inflammation had not crept as yet. In the rest of the world the stream of life still flowed as it had flowed for immemorial years. The fever of war that would presently clog vein and artery, deaden nerve and destroy brain, had still to develop.” (Book 1, Chapter 8)

And this other favorite, because it’s one of the more powerful passages, with its raw emotion: “Since the night of my return from Leatherhead I had not prayed. I had uttered prayers, fetish prayers, had prayed as heathens mutter charms when I was in extremity; but now I prayed indeed, pleading steadfastly and sanely, face to face pleading with the darkness of God. Strange night! Strangest in this, that as soon as the dawn had come, I, who had talked with God, crept out of the house like a rat leaving its hiding place – a creature scarcely larger, an inferior animal, a thing that for any passing whim of our masters might be hunted and killed. Perhaps they also prayed confidently to God. Surely, if we have learned nothing else, this war has taught us pity – pity for those witless souls that suffer our dominion.” (Book 2, Chapter 7)

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