Not too many books can boast such a tangle of underlying currents as The War
of the Worlds and few are as deep and dark flowing. Wells spent much of his formative
years in a basement kitchen with a domineering mother whose fierce faith in God was
in start contrast to his own low opinion of religion. This stygian existence was
continued when she took up her housekeeper's job. The kitchens of the great house
where she had found work were also underground, and then once again during his
apprenticeships, Wells usually found himself working or lodged in grim cellars.
That these experiences were imprinted upon his mind and emerged in his writing
is incontestable. The subterranean Morlocks and surface dwelling Eloi in The
Time Machine are the most obvious example, but there is a more disturbing parallel
to be found in The War of the Worlds. The narrator and a curate find themselves
trapped beneath a house upon which a Martian Cylinder has crashed. They are
imprisoned in a kitchen, which has effectively been turned into an underground
tomb, and there within, bicker, argue and ultimately learn to hate each other.
Is it reading too much into things to ask what Wells was thinking when he has
his hero attack the curate with a meat cleaver?
All of these bleak ideas may be central planks of the book, but Wells was
not prone to lecture or hector his readers. He was indeed a social commentator
of great skill, but could also write a story of unsurpassing pace and excitement.
Even read today, over 100 years after its publication, The War of the Worlds has
hardly dated at all. The action scenes read as if from the latest science fiction
blockbuster. Take for instance an attack by a Martian war machine on the town of
In another moment it was on the bank, and in a stride wading halfway across.
The knees of its foremost legs bent at the farther bank, and in another moment
it had raised itself to its full height again, close to the village of Shepperton.
Forthwith the six guns which, unknown to anyone on the right bank, had been hidden
behind the outskirts of that village, fired simultaneously. The sudden near concussion,
the last close upon the first, made my heart jump. The monster was already raising
the case generating the Heat-Ray as the first shell burst six yards above the hood.
I gave a cry of astonishment. I saw and thought nothing of the other four Martian
monsters; my attention was riveted upon the nearer incident. Simultaneously two other
shells burst in the air near the body as the hood twisted round in time to receive,
but not in time to dodge, the fourth shell.
The shell burst clean in the face of the Thing. The hood bulged, flashed, was
whirled off in a dozen tattered fragments of red flesh and glittering metal.
"Hit!" shouted I, with something between a scream and a cheer.
I heard answering shouts from the people in the water about me. I could have
leaped out of the water with that momentary exultation.
The decapitated colossus reeled like a drunken giant; but it did not fall over.
It recovered its balance by a miracle, and, no longer heeding its steps and with the
camera that fired the Heat-Ray now rigidly upheld, it reeled swiftly upon Shepperton.
The living intelligence, the Martian within the hood, was slain and splashed to the
four winds of heaven, and the Thing was now but a mere intricate device of metal
whirling to destruction. It drove along in a straight line, incapable of guidance.
It struck the tower of Shepperton Church, smashing it down as the impact of a
battering ram might have done, swerved aside, blundered on and collapsed with
tremendous force into the river out of my sight.
A violent explosion shook the air, and a spout of water, steam, mud, and shattered
metal shot far up into the sky. As the camera of the Heat-Ray hit the water, the latter
had immediately flashed into steam. In another moment a huge wave, like a muddy tidal
bore but almost scaldingly hot, came sweeping round the bend upstream. I saw people
struggling shorewards, and heard their screaming and shouting faintly above the
seething and roar of the Martian's collapse.
By the middle of the book, the Martians are well on their way to completing what
Wells called "the rout of civilisation." His narrator finds himself travelling through an
England undergoing a hideous transformation as a virulent Martian Red Weed begins to
choke and overwhelm our native vegetation . After his encounter with the Curate who is
driven mad by the affront to his religion and a young soldier with implausible plans to
retreat underground and plot revenge, he reaches a devastated London. It seems that the
human race is finished, but just as he is about to despair, the Martians are revealed
to have perished, laid low not by human ingenuity or force of arms, but microbes. For
all their scientific superiority, they could not contend with the germs and pathogens
that we take for granted.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the book is that Wells does not take sides.
The Martians are portrayed without any real rancour. The narrative does not implore
us to hate them or even root for humanity but rather to observe events dispassionately,
just in fact as Wells had his Martians scrutinise us like "the transient creatures that
swarm and multiply in a drop of water." Yet despite the innate pessimism of the novel,
humanity gets a second chance, for though his natural inclination was to accentuate the
negative, Wells remained at heart an optimist. He was a committed socialist, a campaigner
for world peace and women's rights and dreamt of a utopian paradise on Earth if only we
could settle our petty squabbles. The novel thus ends on a cautious note of optimism,
with a world rebuilt, society restored and a newly gained respect for our tenuous
place in the universe.
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