‘No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.’
So H.G. Wells began in what was to be the first modern science fiction novel. The planet Mars had been cooling; its oceans had shrunk and the planet was in the last stages of exhaustion.
‘The immediate pressure of necessity has brightened their intellects, enlarged their powers, and hardened heir hearts.’
As the Martians looked upon the earth with their advanced instruments, they saw what they regarded as inferior creatures, as we would look upon ants. They saw a planet that could offer them an escape from their own doomed orb and they prepared for war.
The anonymous narrator of The War of the Worlds witnesses the first arrival of the Martians in Britain and documents their actions and his experiences of their invasion.
Reading The War of the Worlds in 2018, it does come across as sensational and dated at times, but to readers living in the 19th Century before the invention of flight, let alone space travel, it would have been an entirely different experience; one which would have been quite confronting and perhaps terrifying to some.
It’s been said that The War of the Worlds is a critique of imperialism; a political allegory of the climate prior to World War I, more than a work of science fiction. Wells made comments throughout the book that seemed to reflect this idea. It took some time after the Martians came for humans to move from complacency to action which suggests a sense of superiority or hubris, and even then the action wasn’t a collective response but every man to himself, more or less.
‘For that moment I touched an emotion beyond the common range of men, yet one that the poor brutes we dominate know only too well…I felt the first inkling of a thing that grew quite presently clear in my mind, that oppressed me for many days, a sense of dethronement, a persuasion that I was no longer a master, but an animal among the animals, under the Martian heel. With us it would be as with them, to lurk and watch, to run and hide; the fear and empire of man had passed away.’
‘And before we judge of them 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.’
Wells described a Martian as possessing a tentacled brain. They were genderless, with no digestive system, and received nourishment by drinking the blood of humans while they were still alive…
Their behaviour towards the people on the earth was compared to that between humans and ants.
“This isn’t a war,” said the artilleryman. “It never was a war, any more than there’s war between man and ants.”
‘By ten o’clock the police organisation, and by midday even the railway organisations, were losing coherency, losing shape and efficiency, guttering, softening, running at last in that swift liquefaction of the social body.’
The War of the Worlds is a work of literature, beautifully written by a skilled wordsmith, so I found much to enjoy in my reading of it. However, I wasn’t so enamoured by the whole Martian thing and a few times I felt like skipping some parts of the book…I didn’t, and preferred the latter part of the book much more than the earlier parts.
The book is scheduled as a free read in Ambleside Online Year 10. I think it’s a good fit there and would appeal to anyone who likes the science fiction genre. I much prefer dystopian fiction but I possibly would have enjoyed this book more if I’d read it when I was going through a science fiction stage in my late teens.