Book Review: The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

Genre: Science Fiction, Classics
Publishing Info: 1898 by William Heinemann (this version published in 2018 by Penguin Classics)
Pages: 180
Publisher’s Summary:
From the planet of war they came to conquer the Earth …

The night after a shooting star is seen streaking across the sky, a cylinder is discovered on Horsell Common. Fascinated and exhilarated, the local people approach the mysterious object armed with nothing more than a white flag. But when gruesome alien creatures emerge armed with all-destroying heat-rays, their rashness turns rapidly to fear. As the rays blaze towards them, it soon becomes clear they have no choice but to flee – or die.

The forces of the Earth, however, may prove harder to beat than they at first appear …

The War of the Worlds Cover

As a first-time reader of this book, I did wonder whether The War of the Worlds would translate well to someone consuming it in 2020. I needn’t have worried. Through the use of mixing the familiar and unfamiliar, H. G. Wells has created a terrifying portrayal of an alien invasion to our world, but one that can still be imagined today. Moreover, certain images and chapters that have been imprinted into my brain would not be out of place in a contemporary science-fiction book. Put simply, it’s fair to say that this book is timeless.

The War of the Worlds is an easy and exciting book to read, even though it was first published more than 120 years ago. This can be attributed to many different things, one of the most obvious is the pacing. The fact that this novel was first published in parts in magazines, as were many in that period, should not be ignored, as it feels like the author is keenly aware that they have to keep raising the tension and increasing the stakes to keep their audiences engrossed. In terms of the plot, it starts with the familiar, following an unnamed narrator who lives near Woking, Surrey, and slowly brings in the unfamiliar as an object falls in a nearby park from Mars, before hell breaks loose and mankind is forced to flee. This works well for readers in the 21st century just as much as those in the late 19th, as readers can appreciate the switching of pace, especially in the second half of the novel where it even matches the action of something written decades later. To manage this, the writer uses shorter chapters in the first half to keep the plot moving, before creating longer ones focusing on a particular scene, knowing that the audience will be hanging on to every word.

What also added to the immersive nature of this book for me personally again links to how the familiar and unfamiliar combine, through the use of place. I spent several years in Surrey as part of my undergraduate days at university, and have visited the likes of Woking, Weybridge and Wimbledon, as well as the central London locations briefly visited by the narrator. When the author uses rich description during a Martian attack on the banks of a canal, it is easy to imagine such an event, such is the relative unchanged nature of the Surrey countryside since the writing of this novel. But this stretches to the naming of certain railway stations and the author’s way of stating what settlement lies in which direction, which gives the reader a sense of what is around them, again a technique which, helped by Surrey’s relatively unchanged town locations, allows modern readers to get that same immersion as the original readers must have had. Woking has even embraced its role in this novel by installing an artistic interpretation of a Martian walker near the railway station. Sometimes, the science-fiction genre is easier to imagine when a great deal of the locations and types of characters are of the familiar.

Arguably the greatest moment of the book comes in the second half, when the narrator and a curate descending into madness becomes cornered in a partially destroyed house for says on end, whilst the Martians were engineering something just metres away. Something akin to this was seen in the movie starring Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning. Like the majority of the book, it has stayed effective and full of tension, even to audiences reading many years after its creation. It is incredibly well done, from the long descriptions of the curate and how his mind was deteriorating, to the activities of the Martians seen through a small hole in the wall, to the frantic sections where the pair thought they had been detected. It is the image that stays most vividly in my mind, yet arguably is straightforward in terms of the lesser number of characters and action. The fact that this sequence worked so well in a film adaptation nearly a century after the book was published highlights that Wells was ahead of his time with The War of the Worlds.

When one thinks of the science-fiction genre in literature, you’d be hard pressed to forget the influence H. G. Wells has had on it. This book, along with The Time Machine, are two of his greatest works that continue to be loved by millions, as it was when it was first published. Combining a familiar setting with something not from this earth allows those reading this book to vividly imagine the events taking place in London and Surrey. As a first-time reader, this book was thoroughly enjoyable, and I could appreciate the multitude of pieces that are in some way influenced or inspired by Wells’ brilliant mind.

Star Rating: 5/5

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