WAR OF THE WORLDSA novel by H.G. Wells
(2005, Sourcebooks, Inc.)
[original copyrights 1897 (novel), 1940 (radio play)]
Martians land on Earth and start to take over, destroying population centers and terrorizing the native populations.
-- 2nd reading (trade paperback)
I first read The War of the Worlds when I was a teen, quite a number of years back. I also remember watching the movie soon after, thinking it did a terrible job of transcribing the book onto the screen. Now I understand better, but I have no desire to re-watch the movie. I think it was about ten years later that I actually had a chance to listen to the 1968 radio broadcast, as it was re-broadcast on CHOM-FM in Montreal. I thought it was quite enjoyable, but I don't remember comparing it to the book in any way, which I'm sure I only remembered vaguely.
As I started reading the novel for the second time, I found the opening chapters to be very slow and tedious. However, as the chapters progress, the novel gets more interesting. By the time the second part of the book begins, with the main character alone (or with the curate), often trapped, and through to his encounter with the artillery man, I was quite enjoying it.
Like many novels, this one starts off with everyday life. The author is great at describing scenes in vast detail, with a very romantic language. I have nothing to compare it with, as I have only read a couple of books from over a hundred years ago, and those long ago, but I expect that it was the style back then: much more formal. There were actually some words that I was unfamiliar with, but they might have only been military descriptions from long ago. Unlike the radio play, which describes everything in "real-time", the novel describes the flashes from Mars as being witnessed days or weeks ago, which is a much more realistic time frame, considering that it takes about six months to get to Mars, and a little less to get back. A projectile fired from a gun on the surface would certainly lack the necessary speed to cross in mere days, let along hours, or the minutes given in the radio play.
The entire book is written in the first person, weeks after the Martians had been killed. So right away we know that the Martians were defeated, but not how. It also allows the author to put in comments in hindsight, and to add information that he didn't have at the time the events occurred. He often states "would I have done that if I had known...", and so on. It certainly spruces up the text that way, heightening the anticipation.
As the cylinders land, the narrator watches first-hand the heat-ray in action, killing its first humans. He understands that he and his wife must get away, fast. He borrows a cart and horse, drops his wife off, and ends up destroying the cart and killing the horse on the way back to return them, as a Martian tripod blocks his way. He makes it back to his home on foot, and meets up with an artillery man. They make their way back behind the human lines, where they part ways, the artillery man rejoining his troops, and the narrator trying to get back to his wife at her cousin's house.
The story takes on a different perspective as we shift to London, the most populous city in the world at that time, as the narrator describes the mass exodus as recounted to him by his brother, and how they were overtaken by the Martians. Although the geography was completely unknown to me, and I found it rather tedious, that part of the story was actually quite exciting. A vast panic like that is very difficult to describe, and it is the small details, the human emotions and the little things that people do that are noteworthy. His brother rescued two women from bandits trying to steal their carriage, and led them through the throng of people, trying to get them out of Britain before the Martians arrived.
Book II describes how the narrator met up with another living soul, the curate, and how they traveled toward London, breaking into abandoned houses to try and find food and water. While in one such house, one of the Martian cylinders landed across the street, blasting a gigantic hole in the ground, and collapsing the house upon them. They stayed in that house for two weeks as the Martians assembled their machines. They watched as the Martians took humans and fed on them, injecting human blood into their veins.
All throughout the ordeal, the curate became more and more unstable, and refusing all the logical requests and demands of the narrator, even to the point of wrestling with him to get a larger share of food, though the narrator had divided up enough to last them for ten days. Finally, the curate snapped, and marched to the door shouting wildly, and the narrator was forced to kill him. But the nearby Martians had heard the commotion and came to investigate. They took the body of the curate, and narrowly missed the narrator as he hid under a pile of coal in the coal cellar.
When he emerged, the narrator found that the Martians had left. He made his way in isolation again towards London. On an isolated hill, he found again the artillery man, who seduced him to the idea of an organized secret resistance to the Martian rule of Earth. It was only when he found out that the artillery man was more interested in breaks than working, and had found some serious logic holes in the man's plans, and decided the man simply wanted to take control of a Martian tripod himself, and probably use it against not just Martians but men also, that he walked away.
He entered London unopposed, noting the abandoned city, and then the Martian tripod sitting alone on a hill, the Martian yelling wildly until suddenly stopping in death. The ending of the book is one of the most brilliant endings I can think of. The Martians were superior to mankind in every way, and were nearly invulnerable to man's weapons, though "we" destroyed two of them, one by lucky shots, and another rammed by a navy boat. What killed them was the Earthly bacteria, to which they were not immune, as we are. The author even leads up to this very cleverly, describing the red plants that quickly took root and then died just as quickly due to bacterial infections. And it is this ending, I think, that made people take note of the book, and why is continues to be popular.
The current edition of the book comes with several chapters of commentary, describing the lives of H.G. Wells and Orson Welles, the night of the 1938 broadcast from New York City and the panic is caused, and the narrative of the broadcast itself, which seems remarkably short, compared with the novel (but it would have to be, to run only an hour long). These other sections are interesting in their own way, making the collection more interesting than simply the novel. The section describing the events leading up to the panic and the aftermath were very informative, and it's easy to poke fun at the people who were fooled. The section dealing with copycat broadcasts were also interesting, even if the authors lose their impartial focus a few times.
In all, it was a very enjoyable retread into a book I remember enjoying quite a bit when I was younger.
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