an alien invasion story in a time when people aren’t expecting them – a review of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds

Many people will know The War of the Worlds from the story of its 1938 radio broadcast — directed and narrated by Orson Welles — which apparently was so realistic that some listeners believed a Martian invasion was actually taking place. But 40 years earlier, H.G. Wells published the novel that the radio broadcast was based on. As one of the earliest examples of an alien invasion novel (albeit not the earliest), I found this tale intriguing, despite knowing how it ends. (I saw the Steven Spielberg / Tom Cruise movie a few years ago.)

Here’s the basic premise: A philosopher in England is witness when cylinders start landing on earth. From them emerge squid-like aliens who construct giant walking machines and can kill with lasers and poison gas. Mayhem ensues. Over the course of his journey, the philosopher falls in with a man of faith, a curate, who doesn’t come across well: “He was one of those weak creatures, void of pride, timorous, anaemic, hateful souls, full of shifty cunning, who face neither God nor man, who face not even themselves.”

Nowadays, people have an idea of alien invasions, due to books and films and stories. But it was fascinating to see the invasion take place against a backdrop where people didn’t have a preconceived notion of it. Furthermore, it was intriguing to see how slowly — and inaccurately — information traveled from place to place.

As I read this, I saw its influence in many subsequent science fiction tales. This was part of my “read a book mentioned in a book.” I read David Mitchell’s Slade House, which mentioned John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes, which in turn mentioned this. The Kraken Wakes, which I found moderately enjoyable, takes the concept of apparently weak aliens who construct great machines to attack the humans and simply shifts the landing spot from the land to the ocean. The concept of squid-like aliens comes back in Independence Day and in Galaxy Quest.

This was a great introduction to the science fiction of yesteryear. I listened to the unabridged audiobook narrated by Simon Vance. The entire text is available free on-line on Project Gutenberg. If you want an extra treat, check out the wide variety of visual representations of the aliens in this book.

A few tidbits:

  • On police brutality in the face of chaos: “The policemen who had been sent to direct the traffic, exhausted and infuriated, were breaking the heads of the people they were called out to protect.”
  • On pity for creatures less powerful than us: “I, who had talked with God, crept out of the house like a rat leaving its hiding place–a creature scarcely larger, an inferior animal, a thing that for any passing whim of our masters might be hunted and killed. Perhaps they also prayed confidently to God. Surely, if we have learned nothing else, this war has taught us pity–pity for those witless souls that suffer our dominion.”
  • On hope as a habit: “I had still held a vague hope; rather, I had kept a lifelong habit of mind.”
  • On serious books: “We must make great safe places down deep, and get all the books we can; not novels and poetry swipes, but ideas, science books.”
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