Monday, January 4, 2010

War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

I must admit, I approached War of the Worlds as an artifact. I wasn’t sure what a novella written at the close of the 19th Century could say about an alien threat that would still be horrifying or relevant (as I was familiar enough with some of the bones of the story going into it to know that the encounter would ultimately go poorly) and at first, as the crowd gathering around the fallen object grew in size, all I could think was “What’s wrong with these people? Doesn’t it occur to anyone that what might come out of there could be harmful?” Soon, though, I accepted this pre-Lapsarian world, one in which the country you live in is so powerful that it would not occur to you to imagine harm could come to you on your own soil, one in which nothing is so alien that even innocents were not guaranteed safety.

Beyond the thematic resonance, Wells’s truly alien aliens are part of the reason the story has aged so well. These aliens do not attempt to communicate and are not humanoids with easily comprehensible features upon which people are able to ascribe sentiments that are similar to their own:

Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of its appearance. The peculiar V-shaped mouth with its pointed upper lip, the absence of brow ridges, the absence of a chin beneath the wedgelike lower lip, the incessant quivering of this mouth, the Gorgon groups of tentacles, the tumultuous breathing of the lungs in a strange atmosphere, the evident heaviness and painfulness of movement due to the greater gravitational energy of the earth-- above all, the extraordinary intensity of the immense eyes--were at once vital, intense, inhuman, crippled and monstrous. There was something fungoid in the oily brown skin, something in the clumsy deliberation of the tedious movements unspeakably nasty.

In fact, they are so foreign that even their method of consumption is radically different.

They were heads--merely heads. Entrails they had none. They did not eat, much less digest. Instead, they took the fresh, living blood of other creatures, and INJECTED it into their own veins. I have myself seen this being done, as I shall mention in its place. But, squeamish as I may seem, I cannot bring myself to describe what I could not endure even to continue watching. Let it suffice to say, blood obtained from a still living animal, in most cases from a human being, was run directly by means of a little pipette into the recipient canal. . . .

To these aliens, human inhabitants of earth are merely a food source. Nothing to be regarded or to be reasoned with or even really acknowledged and, as the aliens are clearly technologically advanced and able to build all that they need as needed, completely unstoppable by humankind. In fact, it was not human ingenuity that saved the day. Bacteria dispatched the alien threat, and the people who remain are irrevocably changed:

We have learned now that we cannot regard this planet as being fenced in and a secure abiding place for Man; we can never anticipate the unseen good or evil that may come upon us suddenly out of space.

* * *

At times, I felt myself jolted from the story, mostly due to the passage of centuries as opposed to any perceived fault in the story. Surely we would do better in modernity. After all, our means of communication are superior to the telegram. Even after the aliens had decimated a nice bit of the population near where they initially landed, people were largely unaware that the aliens had even been able to ascend from the pit that proved their first obstacle because the method of communication was slow and easily disrupted. But one needs only to think back to how quickly even our communication systems erode in emergencies to realize we might not do better in their place. And then, too, after the narrator catches his first glimpse of the aliens he realizes he must get his family out of the area. So he borrows a neighbor’s carriage and secrets his family away safely . . . 12 miles away. Again, given the time that has passed, it is easy to titter when the narrator posits this as a solution, unless you contemplate that with an unstoppable alien as pitiless and, well, alien as the one presented here, the modern ability to quickly move hundreds of miles as opposed to twelve might not really create a distance that is any safer.

Additionally, I found the pacing in the beginning quite slow, particularly as the action in London somewhat duplicates the type of actions transpiring in Horsell Commons/Maybury. Having taken the time to re-read it again (after all, this is a short work) I do appreciate that Welles wanted to take his time establishing the depth of the naivety of the society in which the aliens landed. Ultimately, I forgave the initial slowness because the building sense of despair was absolutely worth it.

Also, now is the time to admit that last month I was up too late desperately attempting to finish knitting gifts before Christmas when I stumbled across the second half of the Tom Cruise movie version of this book. Most of the commonality remains in title and mechanical creatures only although now, after having read the book, I’m not sure why the scriptwriters felt compelled to make so many changes. I can appreciate why they brought it into a modern era (and, since I missed the beginning I have no idea how/whether they explained away people massing around an alien Thing like a bunch of slack jawed locals), but the basic plotline would have held up and the movie really is missing the slow revelation that what the aliens want is to eat people and the horror in which future human races were merely going to exist to be farmed.

Rating: 7/10

Pages: 98

Genre: Science fiction

And, lastly, because it is so hard to discuss H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds without mentioning another Orson Welles's take on alien invasion:

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