Wednesday Book Club: The War of the Worlds

Wednesday, 1 October 2008 — 11:24pm | Book Club, Literature

This week’s selection: The War of the Worlds (1898) by H.G. Wells.

In brief: The weakest ingredient of Wells’ prototypical alien invasion story is the one that has left the greatest cultural legacy, the image of bloodsucking Martians in giant war machines obliterating the core of civilization and reducing it to an anarchic ruin while panicked citizens scramble for their lives. Far more intriguing are the periodic dip into social philosophy and the speculation based on Victorian science; the latter remains astonishingly relevant over a century later, now that ecology is emerging as one of the dominant issues of world politics.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on The War of the Worlds, keep reading below.)

One thing you begin to discern as you read older works of fiction—the ones that have survived to remain in print, that is—is the effect the transformation of the publishing industry has had on the novel form. The perceived difficulty of older novels is markedly different from the challenge of more recent ones, not least because of the ascendancy of narrative visual media, and the customary attention spans that audiences have since developed.

A preponderance of prose fiction from before the visual era, especially that of the English language, exhibits a strong sense of self-awareness: the narrators consciously acknowledge that they are presenting their tales as documents, be they letters, memoirs, or histories, and treat their subject matter with a frank earnestness that, in stylistic fashion alone, begs the reader to believe that the writer behind the curtain does not construct, but merely depicts. No matter how obviously absurd its subject (Jonathan Swift, anyone?), fiction pretended to be non-fiction, not to hoodwink anyone but to participate in a sort of textual costume party.

I have not read quite enough speculative fiction of the Victorian era to be confident in my broad generalizations, but it suffices to say that The War of the Worlds belongs to a class of novel more concerned with documenting an imagined chronology of observed events than escalating a plot composed of hard decisions. The novel cannot help but read like a belated eyewitness account: given that the narrator survives to tell the tale, and that one man (a moral philosopher, at that) can only have so much influence on the aggressive military operations of “minds that are to our minds as ours are to the beasts that perish”, a significant chunk of the book in its middle chapters involves the narrator describing the carnage around him, then running away.

See the problem? Wells has the ambition to imagine events of tremendous global upheaval—a full-scale interplanetary invasion of England, then the heart of the world’s most powerful empire—but he tries to give us the whole package while constraining us to a view from the ground, via a narrator with little influence on anything that transpires.

It is clear that Wells works against this choice more than he works with it, and he goes out of his way to cheat the limits of the first person. The first half of the book ends with a lengthy sequence that I can paraphrase thus: “I didn’t make it to London because I was trapped in a house in Halliford, but my brother was there when the Martians arrived, so here is everything he told me long after the fact. It features highway robbers and ironclads, and many shells are fired.” In the alien invasion subgenre, indulgent special-effects spectacles predate the medium of film. It is a bit trickier to do it in words, though: the more fireworks you add, the slower the pace.

In Wells’ defence, I understand why early speculative fiction was keen on the narrator-as-observer, and not just because realism was the trendy thing to do back in those good old Victorian days. Writers who imagined things we have not seen (and in some cases, cannot see) tried to make us “see” them using words that decompose the unfamiliar into the familiar, much as we can “see” images from the invisible spectrum when we transpose them into the visible colours. The narrator of The War of the Worlds reminds me, at every turn, of the one in Edwin Abbott Abbott’s dimension-hopping piece of mathematical fiction, Flatland: A Romance in Many Dimensions. He is an observer in the capacity of the reader’s proxy amidst the heretofore unseen.

Not that this is a lot of comfort, as there is no getting around the uncomfortable realization that running away from marauding Martians is actually quite boring. The second half of the novel is far more engaging: the narrator is in large measure still an observer, but he gets close enough to the Martians to describe who they are and how they operate on a level of detail that provokes further discussion.

We find out, for one thing, why it makes sense for the narrator to refer to the Martians’ tripodal war machines as “Martians” as well, which is as silly as referring to battleships and carriages as “humans” until you realize that Wells is making a point. The Martians proper, we are told, developed such a reliance on technology as an extension of the body that their anatomy degraded until they were little more than brains with arms. When they sit in their machines, we can think of them as the nerve centres of a larger sentient being.

What I find most admirable about Wells’ vision of Martian civilization is his attention to its fictitious history of development. There is an evolutionary history of adaptation and mutation behind what the Martians have become by the time they reach Earth. There is a technological history implicit in the tentacular vehicles of a species that never invented the wheel.

Prescience is what prolongs science fiction’s lifespan long after many of its suppositions have been disproven, and The War of the Worlds has it in spades. Wells beats the hygiene hypothesis by a century flat. And while the easy reading of the novel maps the Martians to the European empires and the humans to the native populations that colonists wiped out with no hint of empathy, in the twenty-first century we can see Wells’ novel resonate in the politics of ecological sustainability. The Martian war machines are boilers with legs that set the countryside aflame with heat-rays and pollute it with black smoke; they terraform England with their own vegetation to make the world habitable for themselves, motivated as they are by the prospect that climate change will drive them off their homeworld.

Or to put it another way: what happens to the survival of the fittest when the environment is unfit to survive? After all, Darwin’s legacy, even in terms of the crude hierarchical taxonomies of the late nineteenth century (see “The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness” below), is the keystone of the book:

The intellectual side of man already admits that life is an incessant struggle for existence, and it would seem that this too is the belief of the minds upon Mars. Their world is far gone in its cooling and this world is still crowded with life, but crowded only with what they regard as inferior animals. To carry warfare sunward is, indeed, their only escape from the destruction that, generation after generation, creeps upon them.

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. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?

Wells applies the principle of the survival of the fittest to social organization as well as biological dominance (as if anybody hasn’t). Late in the book, an artilleryman who survives the Martian onslaught delivers a stirring speech about how he believes humans must act to preserve the existence of the species—the strong ones, anyway; he condemns most of humanity for being so complacent that they will accept Martian supremacy as a matter of course. It is a surprisingly persuasive piece of rhetoric or a self-criticizing bit of sophistry, depending on how you react to the libertarian ethos that scorns the moral decadence of a society that happily depends on its imprisoners for living space and nourishment.

What a pity, then, that the cultural legacy of The War of the Worlds comes primarily from its monster-movie moments, where one envisions the prospect of alien invasion as a manifestation of conventional fears (mechanization, vampirism, tentacles) rather than a test of humanity’s collective character. H.G. Wells does both, but there is no question he conducts the latter with greater finesse.

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