The War of the Worlds by HG Wells

The Martians are coming!!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

London, at the tail-end of the nineteenth century, is the largest city on Earth, the centre of the world’s greatest empire; indeed, the centre of the world. As its population grows, its tentacles are spreading out to incorporate the various towns and villages around it into suburbs for the middle classes. A vast swarm of humanity, scurrying busily to and fro, like ants around an ant-heap. A tempting eat-all-you-want buffet for hungry aliens…

The story of The War of the Worlds is so well known that it requires very little in the way of blurb. Martians invade and use their vastly superior technology to destroy everything and everyone in their path. The only question is – will they ultimately win, or will they be defeated? On the remote chance that anyone doesn’t know the answer, I won’t say.

The book is far more interesting for what it says about Wells’ world than for the story itself. The unnamed narrator is on the spot when the first Martian spacecraft lands. He sees the creatures emerge and watches as they fiddle about with equipment. Then he’s as surprised and shocked as everyone else when it turns out they’re not here with peaceful intentions and have no desire to communicate with humans. Instead, they set off on a course of massive destruction. The British Army – the greatest army in the world, the army that has defeated and massacred untold thousands of people in its imperial triumphs around the world – is crushed, its best weapons as ineffective against the Martians’ as a native spear against a machine gun. As the narrator wanders the countryside trying to find his wife from whom he’s become separated, he describes the horror of this invasion – death and destruction only the beginning of the Martians’ terrible plan for the inhabitants of earth…

From the 2005 movie

Britain’s psychological relationship with its empire never ceases to fascinate me. When Wells was writing this, the Empire was at its height, seemingly invincible. But already there were signs of cracks appearing – uprisings, demands for self-rule. Plus there was the question of its moral justification, beginning to be debated. Were we bringing civilisation to the barbarian, or exploiting him? Could we even be sure he was a barbarian? Was victory in war still glorious when one side had weapons the other side had never even dreamt of?

Wells turns the whole question on its head by doing the unthinkable – he makes London the centre of the invasion rather than the home of the invaders. He brings onto our village greens, our city streets, our familiar landmarks, the kind of destruction Britain itself had been perpetrating around the world. Invasion! Perhaps Britain’s biggest fear and biggest boast. This tiny island nation with its massive navy, supreme in its confidence that it was able to defend itself against all comers. No invader had set foot on British soil in almost a thousand years. Our naval supremacy was our protection and our pride. But the Martians don’t come across the sea… they come from above. Was it coincidence that Wells was writing at the time that man was about to successfully take to the skies, creating a new threat that would lead eventually to the massive destruction rained down on us in the middle of the twentieth century?

Schiaparelli’s Map of Mars

To us, the idea of invasion from space is almost laughable. We know there’s no life on Mars, or if there is it’s not of the kind that builds spacecraft; and distance alone makes the likelihood of invasion from other solar systems seem negligible. But to the late Victorians, the idea of life on Mars was real. Schiaparelli had seen the ‘canals’ and some scientists believed they were a sign of a technologically advanced species, trying to harness what little water remained on a dying planet. What more likely than that a species who could do that could build spacecraft? And that, seeing the lush blue and green of planet Earth, they would want to colonise it, exploit it, as we exploited other nations?

The whole idea of evolution, Darwinism, was also at the forefront of the late Victorian consciousness. Suddenly it isn’t quite so clear that humanity is the ultimate species, born to dominate all others. Maybe, just maybe, there are other species out there that have evolved further, or faster. And who’s to say they’ll necessarily be peaceful? Evolution is a recurring theme in Wells’ books – he’d already addressed it extensively in both The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Time Machine. In this one, he makes the double suggestion that there may be more evolved species out there in space, and also that ultimately man may not be the most resilient form of life here on earth. Scary stuff for a society that had been so sure of its mastery of all it surveyed!

HG Wells

As a story, I might only rate this one as 3 or 4 stars. It tends to be more description than action and the ending is somewhat anti-climactic for modern tastes. But for what it says about the British psyche of its time it fully deserves its place as a classic and the maximum 5. And I haven’t even talked about how influential it’s been on science fiction in books and films over the last century.

I read the new Oxford World’s Classics edition which includes an interesting and informative foreword and notes by Darryl Jones, who is the Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Trinity College Dublin. He goes into much more depth on the themes I’ve mentioned and more, and puts the book into its historical and literary context. I highly recommend these OWC editions – I find the forewords, without being overly long, pack in a lot of information and add a huge amount to my appreciation of the books.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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54 thoughts on “The War of the Worlds by HG Wells

    • I can’t remember if I’ve ever seen that one but I did see the Tom Cruise version and enjoyed it as a piece of light entertainment. I’m hoping to find time to watch both though while the book’s still fresh in my mind…

    • Thank you! 🙂 Yes, indeed, that was another interesting aspect – you’d have expected more of the old bulldog spirit in a book of that era, perhaps. I also thought the pictures of millions of refugees streaming across the country was eerily reminiscent of the modern world…

  1. Given what a science fiction buff I was in my childhood and early teens I can’t beleive that I haven’t read this. I suppose that it has always been so much part of the general conscious of the sci-fi community that you think you’ve read it even if you haven’t. I agree about the quality of the Oxford World Classics. I must get hold of a copy of this one.

    • I think when a book is so well known and ‘done’ all the time on film and TV, it can easily feel as if we’ve read it, but I do like going back to the source from time to time, to remind myself of the author’s own version. I’m thoroughly enjoying reading some of these classics with the OWC – they either confirm my own tentative speculations about the author’s intent, or lead me off in a whole new direction. Both good outcomes!

  2. This is one of those books that I have down to read and will get to one day. I love your review, which has made me think I should read sooner than later, it’s given me a lot to think about.

    • Thanks, Emma! 😊 I love these early sci-fi books of HG Wells – there’s so much in them apart from just the story. And they’re short, which is always a bonus… 😉

  3. I think you put that very well, FictionFan. It’s a classic because of what it says about the times and the people. To me, anyway, it’s a well-conceived way of turning a mirror on Wells’ society, and the premise – aliens who invade – is creative.

    • Thanks, Margot! Yes, I think it’s that that makes Wells’ book classics more than the stories which, although very original in their time, feel a little dated now because they’ve been adapted and updated so often. But sometimes it’s good to revisit the source…

  4. I really enjoyed your analysis, FictionFan. Great points about the Victorian mindset. At least Wells’s imagination was vivid. Many sci-fi books I’ve read in our technologically advanced age all seem to have the same premise as Wells’s book or the same as someone else’s (like Philip K. Dick).

    • Thanks, L. Marie – glad you enjoyed it! Yes, I often feel as if the early sci-fi authors must have used up all the good plots because most of the modern stuff feels a bit recycled. And I don’t think most of it says as much about today’s society as the older writers packed into their much shorter novels. But maybe it takes a hundred years to see them objectively…

  5. I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t read this one! I can’t fathom why either. Yes, I’m familiar with the story and the movie, but somehow I’ve missed reading it. Must remedy that soon, drat it all! January is barely half over, yet already you’re adding to the bloat of my TBR — well played, FF!!

  6. Great review and all that but I came for the Rafa pictures! Maybe I should just pull up the copy of The War of the Worlds that has been sitting on my kindle for years and read it while also watching a tape delay of the first round? No, that is going to have to wait until this evening. In the meantime, I will thank you for the review and for not adding to my TBR this time.

    • Hahaha – I suspect most of my visitors only come in the hopes of Rafa pics… 😉 I suppose I’m going to have to go nocturnal again for the next two weeks – I do wish these Aussies would arrange their schedule around Scottish time! The good thing is The War of the Worlds is quite short, so you’ll be able to fit it in during one of the boring matches… 😂

    • Thank you! 🙂 Yes, I’m certain I didn’t realise all the empire stuff when I first read it a hundred years ago. That’s mainly why I like re-reading classics – I tend to find I get much more out of them now than I did when I was younger. One of the very, very, very few benefits of ageing… 😉

  7. I’ll get to this eventually, mostly because I enjoyed his Island of Dr. Moreau much more than I had anticipated. Didn’t Tom Cruise star in a very bad movie version of this not too long ago? I will try not to think of that when I pull out the book.

    • I think the story telling in Moreau might be better than in this one, maybe, but they all say so much more than just the simple story. Hope you enjoy it when you get to it! Ha! He did, and I vaguely remember rather enjoying it… but then it had my Tom in it, so… *swoons* I’m planning a re-watch of it and the earlier version while the book is fresh in my mind.

  8. A terrific review FF. I don’t think I was thinking of all the connotations with Empire when I read it back in the day when I suspect most of us who have already read it, did so (in our teens)

    I’m sure you know Rafa has reverted to his earlier tops. What can I say (catches sight of self in the mirror…..horrors, drooling is NOT a good look) I’m sure it helps the service action (the tops, rather than the drooling)

    Alas, I just have to read the blow by blow commentaries on Guardian sport on line the next day. I need my beauty sleep (I probably drool in my dreams, too)

    • Thanks, LF! No, nor me – my interest in the empire only dates back about a decade and I wouldn’t really have thought about it when reading anything before then. But boy, it sure struck me this time!

      I missed his first match! What can I say? I fell asleep – sorry, Rafa! I missed Roger this morning for the same reason. Two days in and my sleep pattern is completely destroyed. In fact, it may be time for a nap… I’m almost too tired to drool. Almost…

      So sad about Andy.

      • Oh I know (Andy) He has given so much pleasure and excitement (and a bit of agony, too!) to his fans, and to UK tennis. When those Murray bros hang up their racquets we will probably be waiting another 77 years for another Wimbledon champ.

        They are all masochists, elite athletes, pretty well dooming themselves to hobbling pain in later life, in order to do the extraordinary things they do

        I’m SHOCKED you slept through Rafa’s reappeared ripped sleeve arms though, SHOCKED

        • I know – and he’s had one issue after another all through his career, first his back, now his hip. (Proving conclusively what I’ve always thought – exercise is bad for you… 😉 ) I do think that somehow they have to rethink elite sport so they don’t all end up crippled – fewer matches, less training, something…

          Me too!! I must check when his next match is and drink lots of black coffee…

  9. One of my all-time favourites: I must have read it at least a dozen times. There were a whole lot of “alien Invasion” books being written around that time – quite a few by military people using them as allegories for a German invasion, which of course they were not allowed to address directly.
    none of them was a patch on Wells though.

    • No, on re-reading the main Wells’ books I can completely see why they’re the ones that lasted and became classics – there’s so much packed into them. And I must say reading these OWC editions has pointed out loads of stuff my casual reading would have missed too. Great stuff!

  10. I’ve read a few books by Wells but not this one yet. It sounds as though there are more layers to this novel than I thought there would be! I’ll look for the OWC edition when I do get round to reading it.

    • I loved this because I’ve become so fascinated in recent years with the impact of the British Empire, and so got far more out of it than I did when I read it in my youth. I’ve read several of these OWC books recently and have become a little addicted – the intros are just the right length and they’re very readable – and they point out all the stuff my casual reading might miss. Enjoy!

  11. Hmmm I suspect the ‘layers’ of this book would be much more obvious/relevant to people living in the UK. Meanwhile us Canadians are just trying to find ways of keeping warm! Alien invasions, or invasions from other countries just seem too far off for us 🙂

    • Definitely, I’d say! I reckon it works as a straight story, but all the commentary is distinctly British. Haha – that’s what the people of London thought too – just keep an eye out for strange lights in the sky. And keep warm! We had snow last night but nothing in comparison to what you guys get…

  12. You’re going to think me a flaming idiot, but I had never thought of this story as commentary on the British Empire and colonialism. Looking at it through that lens, the ending is supremely disappointing. Imagine if the same thing was what ended the British rule in colonized countries? Imagine Gandhi had sneezed his way to independence??

    • Ha! Not at all! I don’t think any of us Brits realised it either when we read it when we were young. But I’ve been fascinated by the empire for the last decade, plus the introduction helped… 😉 Hahaha – well we do have an expression over here, Delhi belly… when, let’s just say, our bowels operate more frequently than we might desire – so I think Indian bacteria did help the fight… 😉

      • Ack! I had a friend from India whose husband was from Nashville, Tennessee. (I know, crazy). Every time they visited her family in India, he suffered from Delhi Belly and was nearly traumatized by the psychotic driving practices over there.

    • Thank you! I think you’ll enjoy it – it’s one of those ones where the story isn’t the most important thing about it. And reading it is a great excuse to watch the Tom Cruise film… 🙂

  13. As usual, you make a classic that I hadn’t really considered reading into something that’s appealing! Great job! I’ll get to it just as soon as I come out from under this pile of classics I’ve already got on my TBR, ha ha!

    • Haha! I’ll tempt you more by telling you it’s very short – more of a novella. Just a couple of hours worth… 😉 I must say I’m loving my re-reads of Wells – I’d kinda forgotten just how good he is.

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