Classics Corner: War of the Worlds

War of the Worlds

Take a second right now and imagine with your brain all of the cool technology things we’re likely to have in the future. You’re probably thinking about flying cars or teleporters or some sort of sex-booth. If you think a bit harder your also likely to start thinking of laser guns and robots and even better sex-booths.  And here’s the thing you silly millennial: you had decades of science fiction to inform what you think the future will look like. A wise man named H.G. Wells had none of that, but he looked at a horse and carriage one day and thought to himself “It would be totally rad if I blew that shit up with a heat ray.”

That’s right. He wrote a book called War of the Worlds, starring Tom Cruise.  In it, a bunch of Martians whose planet is slowly turning into garbage spy on Earth for years and years (like a whole bunch of years) until they determine that it’s ripe for harvesting and decide to invade. They do so by shooting big metal cylinders from giant cylinder shooting guns on the surface of Mars. Once these things land in England they begin to mess. Shit. Up. The main character is an unnamed man who is in the middle of the whole ordeal.

Things start out slow. The aliens wait around a few days before they start slowly unscrewing the cylinder from the inside, because they’re coy. Then, when they come out they are described as monstrous creatures with oily leather skin. They have a giant head with two eyes and a mouth and the rest of them is basically a mess of tentacles. Then they crawl back into the cylinder because of the Earth’s atmosphere and wait, because if there’s anything we’ve learned about aliens in the last few sentences, they’re coy. Soon after, a heat ray from the cylinder starts decimating everyone near the crater where it landed and thusly our adventure begins.

We follow this nameless protagonist throughout war-torn England and catch glimpses through his perspective of the redcoats firing artillery guns at these robotic monstrosities. In turn the aliens use their aforementioned heat-ray, along with a billowing black smoke that, once breathed in, kills the victim instantly.

One of the first things that I noticed as I was enjoying about this book, was that it was straight up petrifying. A big part of that has to do with the isolation we feel with the main character. Except for a brief two chapters that follow the narrators’ brother, most of the story consists of insane violence from the narrator’s point of view. Face-smashings, rib-impalings, and body-incinerations are all explained excruciating detail. Things get intense and the narrators cluelessness about the overarching situation affecting the country is shared with us. Basically the entire book feels like that scene in Jurassic Park where the kids are in the kitchen hiding from raptors.

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It’s interesting to put yourself in the head of a reader from the era this book came out (Circa 1897 if you were wondering). As a modern reader, it was hard not to put the 24 years of sci-fi transplant garbage in my head in the place of the action on the page. At the same time I kept wondering: what the hell did readers at that time put in their head? If you’re like me, it’s hard to read a book without turning it into a movie. A close-up here, cut to this scene now, those aliens would be shot at such-and-such an angle, etc. When this book came out, there was no reference for how cool movies could look. Say what you want about the Transformers movies (I will right now: they’re awful), but they would melt the brain of anyone who saw it in this time period. This book chronicles the English countryside in the brink of total destruction and the only cinematic reference point anyone has is this shit.

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To help illustrate how bonkers this is, imagine that you are an old timey farmer right now.  Go ahead, close your eyes for a second and do it. Look at you! You’re a total boss right now. You probably have a bunch of kick-ass crops next to you that you sowed yourself. I bet you have some overalls on too and a family that calls you ma or pa and asks permission to have the last pig’s tail of the season. Now imagine you read about a giant robot burning down your family with a giant laser, except when you’re reading it, you don’t see the word “robot” or “laser” because, as we discussed earlier, NO ONE KNOWS WHAT THOSE THINGS ARE YET! When you read the word “robot” a million images probably pop into your head, but for someone in the late 19th century, when they read the description of a giant mechanical monster, all they can think of is, “Holy shit, this might actually happen!” because they have no reason not too.

In fact this brings up a very important question to the author, which is why did HG Wells decide to write such a terrifying book. This is long before people were making things like this because “blowing shit up is cool and sells books” and there was no guarantee that frightening your reader base would sell your book. Well I actually have an answer to these questions. In the edition I was reading there was a handy afterward written by Mr. Isaac Asimov ,that puts the book in a bit more historical context which I will gladly pass off as my own.

You see, for many hundreds of years, the British people were kind of dicks. They had a sprawling empire across most of the world and were on a colonizing hot streak that didn’t have to many hiccups except for the time Mel Gibson put them in their place.

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A big reason they were able to do all this world conquering is because, say what you want about muskets and cannons, but they will mess you up if you have nothing to fight back with. They owned so much of the world that they pretty much used Australia as a giant toilet.  So Wells set out to show the British elite what it would feel like for something with vastly superior technology to not give a second thought when it comes to taking the queens country. And it worked too! A lot of people shit their britches, and we have good ol’ HG to thank for that.

To be fair, I wasn’t being entirely accurate when I said that it wasn’t cool to blow shit up back then. Here’s a quote from Wells in a letter to an acquaintance at the time of the writing.

“I’m doing the dearest little serial for Pearson’s new magazine, in which I completely wreck and sack Woking — killing my neighbors in painful and eccentric ways — then proceed via Kingston and Richmond to London, which I sack, selecting South Kensington for feats of peculiar atrocity”

It’s nice to know the man had an almost Tarantinoesque sense of humor about what he was doing. In fact, if I could go interview Mr. Wells right now and I asked him about how this book pertains to British imperialism or certain evolutionary paths we as humans might take, and all he said back was “What the hell are you talking about son? I just wanted to blow up some goddamn carriages. Now hand me a beer before I start handing out smackings.” I’d be ok with it. Because when you get right down to it, this book is just a cool freaking book, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Recommended to read if you enjoy:
Jurassic Park
Dead Space
Alien
Independence Day

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