The War of the Worlds by HG Wells

One sentence plot
A man’s experiences and observations of an invasion from Mars bent on the destruction of humans in Victorian England.

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The review
The first book in my classic sci fi challenge, I quite enjoyed The War of the Worlds. Having somehow not read it or seen any of the adaptations (including the radio play version which reputedly had Americans believing the invasion was really happening and causing national panic…), I didn’t know how it would end, which made for a suspenseful read as these Martians land, construct machinery, and kill everything in their paths.

The story is narrated by a dispassionate, slightly pompous, ‘ordinary’ Englishman observer, akin in style to the narrator in The Hopkins Manuscript, or plenty of the John Wyndhams. This book must be one of the originators of this particular tone of narrator, which seems to permeate much of the sci fi I’ve encountered. However, I must admit I enjoyed the Hopkins Manuscript and the Wyndham narrative voices more. There was something a bit irritating about this man. And like all the other characters in this book, he seemed a bit two dimensional, just playing out his purpose in the plot without evoking personal sympathy or even much interest.

As the book progresses, it feels a bit unusual compared to some of the adventure style sci fi stories encountered today. I wonder whether calling it ‘war of the worlds’ is in fact ironic – as the narrator notes, it’s no more war than the act of humans crushing an anthill. The point of this book is a treatise on Darwinian philosophy – humans may currently be at the top of the food chain, and hold the power in the world – but it only takes a more sophisticated species to emerge for humans to lose all that power we currently have, and be crushed, reduced to a pet, or food supply… If survival of the fittest is true, we shouldn’t assume that humans will always be the fittest. Also, should we think more carefully about how we treat other living things? Intriguing, progressive,and thought provoking ideas. This book was first published in 1898.

Its other unusual point is that there is not some great climactical battle. It doesn’t play out like that at all. Granted this made for a read that was occasionally a bit dull. (This book was not a page turner for me – it took oddly long for me to get through it.) But on the other hand, I really liked this thoughtful, measured approach to the destruction of civilization: rather than dramatics, humans simply have to lie down and concede they are already defeated, and the survivors to consider their few options. All with an occasional wry tone which I enjoyed. I’d have liked to have heard more about what was happening abroad. But in general the conclusion felt quite satisfying. I don’t think this will be my favorite sci fi book of the year, but it’s a classic of great influence on the development of the genre that I’m glad to have read.

The verdict: 3/5 shoes

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