Friday, February 03, 2006

War of the Worlds Revisited

Here is an interesting article I found on H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds that is worth reading if you are into Science Fiction.
-The Archer


A Classic Revisited
by Tony Fonseca
By now, we all know the story: A meteor falls from out of the sky, landing in a field near a small town. Suddenly, all the lights go out, telephones die, watches stop, radios cease to function, and in some versions, automobiles no longer run. The citizens of the town near where the meteor crashes decide to feed their curiosity by going to the landing site of the first meteor. Aliens, or what is later discovered to be alien machines, emerge, incinerating every thing in their path, hostile or friendly. Thus begins one of the greatest horror stories of all times, H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds.
The year 2005 saw the second coming of Wells' Martian invasion, with various movie adaptations1 and the release of the Cosimo Classics edition, with original illustrations by Henrique Alvim Correa and an introduction by Robert E. Bartholomew. Unfortunately, scholars of Wells and readers who are well-versed in definitive edition science may find the Cosimo edition somewhat lacking, as it includes almost no notes on the text. Yet, speaking as a librarian, I would have to say that the Cosimo edition is one that should be added to many a collection. Editions such as the Penguin Classics version2 offer biographical notes (by editor Patrick Parrinder) and a Wells bibliography, as well as a well-developed Introduction by Brian Aldiss that discusses the sociological and political influences that inform the novel—pointing out that one could easily read the Martians' attempt to "colonize" England is a metaphorical representation of the British Empire's policies in Tasmania, for example. What the introductory notes to the Cosimo edition concentrate on is is the influence that The War of the Worlds has had on writers, directors, and radio script writers since its publication in 1898. While readers won't find anything like Parrinder's “Suggestions for Further Reading” or his textual notes, they will get a glimpse of Correa's illustrations, which are detailed representations of Wells' pot boilers on stilts (I still can’t look at a water tower the same way), as he imagined the alien machines to be. Additionally, the print font in the Cosimo edition is larger that usual, a great service to those of us who have ruined eyes as a result of countless hours of reading horror and science fiction.
Regardless of edition, no reader ever easily forgets Wells' tale of an unnamed narrator's recollection of the horror of invasion, of seeing the huge spouts of flaming gas on the surface of Mars, of watching the meteoric cylinders drop from the sky into areas around London, and of observing as the other-worldly creatures as they begin building their seemingly unstoppable machines of war.
The story, for those of you who are unfamiliar, tells of Mars' being a dying planet, thus causing its inhabitants to search outside of their own planet for new resources. What they find is the third rock from the Sun. These invaders have no interest in asking the current inhabitants of that planet to share their resources. Rather, they practice colonization—using the indigenous population for its resources, which in this case turns out to be blood. Much like the Native Americans who met the first Europeans to come to this continent, Earthlings are at first innocent of the danger, but their friendly approach is met with lethal force. Needless to say, the culture with the superior technology instantly gets the upper hand in the ensuing battle for Earth, and human beings are relegated to becoming “insurgents,” doing what they can to knock out of commission individual Martian Bradleys, one at a time. But this type of guerilla defense is, in the short term, no better than throwing rocks at oncoming tanks.
The situation is grim—that is, until the climate itself begins to take its toll on the occupying army. While the Martians might be technologically superior, they are biologically unable to survive in the climate they have invaded, and are done in by the smallest members of the indigenous population, bacteria. Although Wells does take a few political shots in the text, he presents the tale as more of a human one, ending with the parting thought that in the long run, Earth defeated the Martians because God is on its side, having created the bacteria “in his infinite wisdom” as a defense mechanism.
The political ramifications of The War of the Worlds are not lost on the average reader. Ultimately, the story can be read as one of colonization―the domination of one civilization by another in the name of resource efficiency, or Christianization, or democratization. In this sense, one could not overstate the importance of social commentary to Wells' fiction. However, to assume that such politicizing is what informs The War of the Worlds would be the same as assuming that Mark Twain wrote Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as an abolitionist tract. Both novels are classics not for what they mean on a symbolic level, nor for their sub textual messages, but for how they relate a story. The charm of Wells' classic is that even though it was published in 1898, it reads like modern science fiction / horror. Wells eschews 19th century subtlety and symbolic language, while avoiding the pitfalls of melodramatic Romanticism. His narrator, albeit more educated than the common man, tells his tale in such a way that grabs the average reader, creating a genuine sense of foreboding. Granted, there is some argument as to how accurate the science behind the novel is, and many a reader has questioned the idea of an advanced intelligence that has apparently never heard of the wheel and fails to anticipate the problems associated with native bacteria. However, Wells is spot on with his speculation of the social ramifications of an alien invasion. In other words, he has a solid grip on how human beings would behave under the stress of imminent annihilation.
So, at its basic level, The War of the Worlds is a human story, and a well-written period piece to boot. Wells' portrayal of pre-automobile London and its surrounding counties is nothing short of fascinating for readers who enjoy historical fiction. His descriptions of types of people are wonderful. His character interactions are true to life, and his characters' emotional states ring true, even in 2006. There is real, palpable, drama here. The reader cannot but help feel real pity for human beings as they are being systematically exterminated, as well as for the narrator and his brother, the two of the witnesses who survive the attack and are then, like the Ancient Mariner, compelled to relive these traumatic events through narrative.
It is difficult to review a classic, because for the reviewer, such a task presents the problem of attempting to articulate the reasons that brilliance is indeed brilliant. Like the Supreme Court when deciding on the difference between pornography and art, I feel compelled to simply state that I know it (brilliance, in this case) when I see it. Perhaps the best way to determine whether a novel or story is a deserved classic is to look at its influence. When you consider that The War of the Worlds was first published in 1898, and that despite the fact that a century has elapsed since its conception, no other invasion from space story has usurped its place as being the most original, most often reproduced and copied tale, you cannot help but be impressed with what Wells accomplished in this novel.

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