Tuesday, October 07, 2014

The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells



Why I Read This Book/ My History with this Book
          Like The Time Machine, I had read an abridged and simplified children’s version of The War of the Worlds as a child.  And, like The Time Machine, and many other classic books I encountered in simplified children’s versions, for years afterwards I considered War of the Worlds as already read.
            But part of the journey to adulthood is that at a certain point in your life, the literary snob in you suddenly kicks in and you realize, “Well, I haven’t really read that book.  Not really.  Unless I read the original 1898 actual text by H.G. Wells himself, I shouldn’t count this as already read.”  (One of the jobs of adulthood is to go back and actually read the original versions of all those classic books that you readabridged - versions - ofas - children).
            So, having recently read the original text of The Time Machine, it was time to go on to War of the Worlds.

            In addition to the abridged version of this book, like everyone else in the world I’m also familiar with this novel through its various Hollywood adaptations.  As a youngster, I was a huge fan of the 1953 George Pal movie of War of the Worlds (W), which I first saw when I was about 10 years old.  And I saw the more recent Steven Spielberg version of this movie in 2005 (W).  And then there are all the Hollywood films that are clearly stealing from War of the Worlds, but appear under different names—too numerous to list here.

The Review
          A couple months back I gave a rave review to The Time Machine, but I have to confess that I didn’t enjoy The War of the Worlds quite so much. 
            It wasn’t a bad little book.  It was quite readable.  But it just didn’t intrigue my imagination as much as The Time Machine did.  (Perhaps my expectations were too high after reading The Time Machine.  Maybe I would have given this book a more positive review had I read it first.)

            The War of the Worlds started a whole new genre—that of the Martian invasion storyline—which has been since picked up by many other novelists, pulp writers, and Hollywood screenwriters.
            But the problem with books that start their own genre is that they become victims of their own success.  Now that the basic story line has been done to death by a million other writers, it’s hard to go back and approach the original story with the same sense of excitement that must have thrilled its original readers back in 1897.
            I mean, even if you’ve never encountered this book before, you already know all the beats of the storyline before you even open to page one.  Mysterious visitors from outer-space arrive.  At first, no one has any idea what their intentions are, and scientists speculate hopefully about a new era of peaceful cooperation between the two worlds.  Then, suddenly, the Martians begin to attack the unsuspecting humans.  They possess technology far in advance of anything we humans have.  The army and the navy are quickly called out to deal with the Martian threat, but the Martians quickly obliterate all our human armies.  As humans become more and more desperate, we throw more and more powerful weapons at the Martians, but each successive attack only reveals that the Martians are invincible to any human weapon.

            I’ve seen this story so many times before, I’m slightly bored with it now.  As the British army assembled to fight the Martians in The War of the Worlds, I began to lose interest.  I already knew that no weapon the British army could launch at the Martian would have any effect.  That’s simply the rules of the genre.

            None of this is to take anything away from H.G. Wells, of course.  It’s not his fault that he’s been imitated to death.  But it does affect the reading experience for the modern reader, I’m afraid.

            On the plus side, the narration and the prose are quite readable.  And the book is pretty short as well—my edition was only 162 pages.  So its one of those books that’s probably worth picking up and reading just to say you’ve read it.  And the original The War of the Worlds is interesting as a time piece.  Since I grew up in the Hollywood age, I’m used to seeing American tanks and airforce battle the monsters.  It is a bit of a novelty to see this same story played out in Victorian Britain, with 19th Century technology and artillery being arrayed against the Martian invaders.

            Also, once the British army has been destroyed, and the Martians establish their complete dominance over England, then the book becomes more interesting.  There are some great scenes of chilling claustrophobia where the narrator, and his companion, a curate [priest] are hiding from the Martians and are trapped in a house for days while the curate goes insane.  (There are similarly chilling scenes in the 2005 Spielberg movie, and I had completely forgotten that those scenes are straight out of the book.)

Other Notes:
Colonialism and Invasion Literature
          This book was written during the height of the imperialistic era.  (In 1898, when it was first published, the Scramble for Africa was in full swing.)  It’s hard not to see the Marian colonization of Britain as an allegory for Britain’s colonization of everywhere else.  [Although the book is called The War of the Worlds, the Martians only get as far as invading and occupying Britain.]  And if this message wasn’t obvious enough, the subtext becomes text, and the narrator explicitly draws attention to the parallel in the opening chapter:
            “…before we judge of them [the Martians] 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. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years.  Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?” (from Chapter 1).

            The modern reader will of course cringe at phrases like “inferior races” and human “likeness” used to refer to non-whites.  But the assumption of inferiority is the whole point of the argument.  Even if we accept 19th Century racial inferiority theory, that still wouldn’t give the Europeans the right to go in and take the land from the native inhabitants simply because the Europeans are more advanced.  Or rather, if it did give them the right, then the British would have to accept the right of the more yet advanced Martians to come and conquer Britain. 

          So the lens of anti-colonialist literature is one way to view this book.
           
          The other way to view this book is as an example of “Invasion Literature”
            The phenomenon of Invasion Literature (W) was mentioned in The Scramble for Africa by Thomas Pakenham.  *  “Invasion Literature” is a genre that became very popular in Britain during the period from 1870 to 1914, in which the story revolves around Britain being invaded and subdued by another country (often a fictional country, but usually a German speaking fictional country.) 
            Wikipedia (W) classifies The War of the Worlds as belonging to the genre of invasion literature, and playing on the paranoias common at that time, but with the twist of making the invaders extraterrestrial.  (The good folks at Cracked.com also place The War of the Worlds as an outgrowth of 19th Century “Invasion Literature” [LINK HERE].)

            It’s an odd phenomenon for an imperialistic country, at the height of their global power, to indulge in paranoid fantasies about being conquered by their rivals.  After centuries of empty boasts, the years 1870 to 1914 were when the British Empire finally actually did rule the sea.  In other words, they were far less likely to be invaded and conquered from 1870 to 1914 than in any other period of their history before or since.  And yet it was precisely at that historical time period that they became obsessed with imagining the invasion of Britain. 

            Perhaps, just as only rich people can be paranoid about losing their wealth, and only beautiful people can be paranoid about losing their beauty, perhaps only a nation at the height of its power can really be paranoid about losing that power, and being conquered by its rivals.
            (Although that being said, I suppose one could also take the opposite interpretation, and read Invasion Literature as a sign of security.  If Invasion Literature is read not as realistic commentary, but simply as escapist fiction, then perhaps you could argue it can only be popular in countries that know themselves to be secure against invasion.  One could easily imagine that in present day Ukraine or Iraq fictional invasion stories would not be extremely popular at the moment.)

            It may be stretching things somewhat, but it’s tempting to look at some of the Hollywood films from the period of American dominance, and see modern versions of this Invasion Literature.  The 1987 television miniseries Amerika (W), for example.  Or the original Red Dawn (W).  Or the re-make of Red Dawn, in which American invasion paranoia hit all time ridiculous levels, and imagined North Korea, a country which can’t even conquer it’s own peninsula, invading and subduing the United States.
            And, if the original The War of the Worlds can be taken as an example of invasion literature with an extra-terrestrial twist, perhaps the last 50 years of alien invasion movies from Hollywood can be interpreted the same way.  (In The War of the Worlds, only Britain is invaded and conquered by the Martians.  In Hollywood films, it is always the United States that bears the brunt of the alien invasion—no Hollywood film ever shows the Chinese struggling against alien invaders.)

[Note: * At least I think it was in The Scramble for Africa that I first read about Invasion Literature, although I can’t actually find the passage right now.  At any rate, it was in one of the books I’ve read recently.]

Religion
          Since H.G. Wells was a die-hard atheist, I suppose it’s not surprising that he makes the Curate [priest] into a weak-minded and sniveling character.
            It’s a cheap shot of course, and doesn’t harm the doctrines of Christianity at all.  For one thing, the character is straight out of Well’s imagination, and Well’s presents no evidence that priests are like this in real life.  Much like Aesop’s fable about The Lion and The Statue [LINK HERE], a Christian writer would have turned the atheist into the weak-minded coward, and neither would have proved anything.
            (According to Wikipedia, all of the characters in this novel were based on H.G. Wells’s real life neighbors, and he got some enjoyment out of killing them off in his fiction (W).  So probably the character of the cowardly Curate is just pure mischief and not an attempt at a serious philosophical point.)

            Similarly, when the Curate’s breaks down because the Martian invasion has shattered his faith in God’s protection, it is also not a valid philosophical point for the real world.  In the real world, the Martians have not invaded, so the point is meaningless. 
            “What does it mean?” he [the Curate] said.  “What do these things mean?”
            I stared at him and made no answer.
            He extended a thin white hand and spoke in almost a complaining tone. 
            “Why are these things permitted? What sins have we done?  The morning service was over, I was walking through the roads to clear my brain for the afternoon and then—fire, earthquake, death!  As if it were Sodom and Gomorrah!  All our work undone, all the work—What are these Martians?”
            “What are we?” I answered, clearing my throat.
            “All the work—all the Sunday schools—What have we done—What has Weybridge done?  Everything gone—everything destroyed.  The church!  We rebuilt it only three years ago. Gone! Swept out of existence!  Why?
            This must be the beginning of the end,” he [the Curate] said, interrupting me.  “The end! The great and terrible day of the Lord!  When men shall call upon the mountains and the rocks to fall upon them and hide them—hide them from the face of Him that sitteth upon the throne!”
            “Be a man!” said I.  “You are scared out of your wits!  What good is religion if it collapses under calamity?  Think of what earthquakes and floods, wars and volcanoes have done before to men! Did you think God had exempted Weybridge?  He is not an insurance agent.”
  [From Chapter 13].

            In the real world, of course, it’s not a useful conversation to ask why God permitted a fictional alien invasion in a fictional novel.
            However, as the narrator indicates, one can point to many natural disasters in real history that brought great death and destruction on human society, and ask why God permitted those.
            That would be the subject for another book.
            But then again, that book’s already been written.  Candide by Voltaire (W) is, among other things, one long discussion about how a good God could have allowed the great 1755 earthquake in Lisbon (W) to kill so many people.

Notes and Tangentially Related Links
* As of this writing, Wikipedia is claiming that The War of the Worlds is the inspiration for Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian series (W). 
I’m skeptical of this claim myself.  The two books are nothing alike.  (One is an invasion story, the other is a sword-and-sandal adventure story transferred onto Mars).  I don’t think you could argue that one influenced the other unless you take the view that every book that involves Mars in any way owes some sort of debt to H.G. Wells (which, actually, does seems to be what Wikipedia is arguing.)

* For a review of the War of the Worlds musical, see HERE.

* For a very intelligent breakdown of all the strengths and weaknesses of the 2005 Spielberg War of the Worlds, see this review HERE and HERE.  (For my money, this girl is the most intelligent movie reviewer on the Internet.  Can’t recommend her highly enough.)

Also from Cracked.com Acts of Staggering Hypocrisy From Self-Righteous Critics: #4. Ayn Rand, Ultimate Government Program Denouncer, Collected Medicare and Social Security
Wow!  That is hypocritical.  As far as I'm concerned, there's no reason why anyone should ever have to take Ayn Rand seriously again after reading this!

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