Introduction: The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells is the April selection for the local science fiction and fantasy book club that I lead. So that’s as good excuse as any to do a full review on it, right? 🙂
The War of the Worlds holds a special place in my heart because it was the first science fiction work I ever read. I first read an abridged, illustrated version for kids when I was ten, but I loved the story so much, I wanted to read the “grown up” version soon afterwards. I did and The War of the Worlds remains one of my favorite novels to this day.
(Fun fact: the two covers above were the same ones on both versions I read when I was younger. Tell me the cover on the left doesn’t scream – “READ ME – I AM AWESOME!!”)
The Story: The War of the Worlds is the alien invasion standard. Set in Wells’ contemporary England, the novel relates through first-person commentary the arrival and onslaught of a band of technologically-advanced Martians. Most of the action concerns itself with what the nameless narrator endures and encounters while he strives to be reunited with his wife as Martians seek to wipe out the English countryside. Along the way, the narrator encounters a sundry cast with only two unnamed figures purposeful standing out – an artilleryman and a curate. Through this unlikely trinity, Wells presents a frightening look at, not so much an invading alien force, but the affect it has on the Humans. In the end, man is rendered helpless and his only hope comes from the most unlikely of sources.
My Take: Since The War of the Worlds is one of my favorite novels, I can’t find too many faults or weaknesses with it. The writing is tight, the plotting perfectly paced, and the narrator genuine and authentic. His first-hand account of the Martian assault is further personalized as he fears for himself, his wife, and what is becoming of the world he’s always known. His encounters with complacent, ignorant onlookers only heighten his frustrations in that these folks are headed straight into danger and nothing he can do will save them.
Speaking of which, part of what inspired Wells to pen The War of the Worlds was a wish to condemn social complacency. The novel, which was originally written in serialized form, takes on the topic of colonialism. Wells wasn’t entirely against British expansion but he did disagree with some of the methods, such as killing off “primitive” natives of a land that colonizers sought to possess. Thus, The War of the Worlds turns this on its head: the colonizers, who believe they are too high and mighty to be taken, are the ones being invaded and slaughtered.
As much as I like the narrator (who, I believe, is a foil for Wells himself), I also find appeal in two other characters, the artilleryman and the curate. These figures serve as contrasts in extremes: while the artilleryman assumes mankind will have to restart civilization to escape the Martian oppressors, the curate has given up all hope on humanity.
The artilleryman’s bold predictions for the fate of mankind paint a desolate image that even the narrator seems to have a hard time wanting to grasp. But his character serves to show that, through hard times, he has become more bitter than emboldened.
Contrast his more determined view of humanity with the curate’s wishy-washy whining. This is a bit ironic seeing as the curate is a religious figure but his personal faith is weak. While I can’t say what Wells’ religious views were, it’s clear that he had no tolerance for folks who purported to be religious but didn’t live or act like what their teachings taught.
I love to hate the curate; not because he’s a poor character, but because he’s the antithesis of everything his faith stands for. Rather than acting charitable and compassionate, the curate is a whining, selfish man who can only lament over God’s “judgment.” Contrast this with the narrator who is compassionate, hopeful, and gains a renewed glimpse of faith later on in the novel. Under his light, the curate becomes a religious imposter who cares only for himself and his pious ways that, in truth, mean nothing to him.
Plot-wise, the novel is basic – the Martians come and the narrator tries to survive. And that’s okay. The War of the Worlds didn’t need a ton of subplots or complex characters. Its beauty is in its simplicity, and I give Wells credit that he avoided the soapbox technique of trying to preach to his audience. Overall, The War of the Worlds is a classic and deserves to be read both by science fiction and literature lovers alike.
Writing Remarks: From a writing standpoint, The War of the Worlds is eloquently composed. Its age and period are reflected in its execution and word choice. Unlike some modern books that just don’t challenge the mind, Wells wants readers to think, not only about social complacency, but also about the way the narrator explains himself and describes events. The prose is ornamental but stripped down. It’s not flowery but it’s not simplistic. If I could think of a good literary middle ground to compare it to style-wise, I would say it falls between Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Dickens – decorative enough to call attention to itself yet to the point and assuming the readership is intelligent and appreciative of the English language.
Content Breakdown: Based on its age, The War of the Worlds essentially has no problems. I read the unabridged version when I was ten years old and could understand the story just fine. But every reader has his or her thresholds, so I’ll call a few things to mind:
Language – Minimal. There are some exclamations of God’s name and a few PG-level profanities spouted in some tense situations but nothing pervasive.
Violence – Surprisingly, The War of the Worlds is tame in its depiction of the attack. People get vaporized and (off-page) devoured by Martians but it’s never described with gory details. Much of the book’s scare factor comes from what we don’t see through tense moments of looming death.
Sexual Material – None. The narrator relates to readers that the Martians lack genitals and produce asexually by “budding,” but his comments are intended to inform, not titillate.
Thematic Content – War and survival in the midst of tragedy and chaos are discussed to a satisfying conclusion but not in a true “happily ever after.” The narrator doesn’t forget what he’s seen or heard, thus redolent of PTSD in a way.
Recommended Reading Levels: In my opinion, I believe The War of the Worlds stacks up this way (note that just because a book isn’t recommended for a certain age group doesn’t make it “bad”):
Children – Not recommended. The novel’s overall tone and general storyline would be of little interest to young children.
Independent Readers – Recommended, but with a child’s maturity in mind. Most readers in this age group could probably take The War of the Worlds without issue. But if they are especially sensitive to stories where death is imminent for the characters, they might be scared away.
Young Adults – Recommended. Teens who love books about aliens or survival stories should be introduced to this classic. Good discussion questions include the probability of alien life in the universe, the “real factor” of an alien attack, and comparisons to similar alien stories both past and present.
Adults – Recommended. Science fiction and general literature readers should peruse The War of the Worlds at least once in their life. Further discussion questions include the exploration of Wells’ views regarding British colonialism and the dangers of social complacency.
The Run-Down: Overall, The War of the Worlds is not a classic by accident. It is a well-crafted novel with a simple premise but not a simple message. To anyone who has never read this defining work of science fiction, jot this one down as a need-to-read. And to anyone who enjoys a good, old fashioned sci-fi classic, you can’t go wrong with The War of the Worlds.