No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. [SNIP.] Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this Earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.
Few would believe, in the year of our lord 2020, that The War of the Worlds has yet to receive a decent television or movie adaption. The 1953 film was quite good for its time, but missed the ethos of the book; the more recent BBC adaption was a period drama that became infected with ‘woke’ politics and problematic attempts to expand the story (the former being an irony, as The War of the Worlds was quite ‘woke’ for its time) which effectively ruined the story. The closest anyone came to producing a genuinely good adaption was Jeff Wayne’s musical version of The War of the Worlds, which followed the book closely rather than trying to innovate. Jeff Wayne noticed something, deliberately or otherwise, that nearly everyone else who tried to adapt the story missed. The War of the Worlds is so close to perfect that any attempt to innovate is almost certain to ruin the story.
It is hard to overstate just how impressive that truly is. The War of the Worlds was written in 1898. It created a new genre out of something that was starting to grow stale – ‘invasion literature’ – and inspired countless sequels. The early works are generally left behind by the newer books, written by authors who learn from their predecessors mistakes or write in response to the original, in the way Martians Abroad is a response to Podkayne of Mars, but very few alien invasion stories have matched The War of the Worlds and only a couple have surpassed it. Indeed, only Starship Troopers remains – in my opinion – so perfect that any attempt to adapt or improve upon it is doomed to failure. And yet, it should be possible to turn The War of the Worlds into a decent television series.
The War of the Worlds works because, at base, it combines both pulp and literary sci-fi into a single entity. On the surface, we follow the unnamed narrator (and his brother, in three separate chapters) as he watches the invasion, then tries to survive in the world under the invaders. We see the army trying to stand against the fighting machines, their primitive weapons effective … but not effective enough; we try to survive with the narrator as he hides and, eventually, realises the aliens have met their doom. And, on a deeper level, we see an analogy for colonisation, from the arrival of a genuine Outside Context Problem to the invaders being killed by diseases to which they had no resistance. There is a message here, but – unlike so much modern-day message fiction – it doesn’t overshadow the story.
The book is divided into two parts. In the first, flashes of light are observed upon Mars. The narrator hears speculation that they are the work of intelligent beings, but such speculations are roundly dismissed until the first cylinder falls to Earth. The Martians reveal themselves, slaughter the spectators (including a group who tried to make peaceful contact) and then start to expand their foothold. The authorities – and the narrator – are unaware of the true scale of the threat until the first Fighting Machines – giant tripods – make their appearance. Thrusting towards London, the Fighting Machines crush all opposition, first through the heat-ray (laser-like weapons) and then the black smoke. The invaders do not have it all their own way – they are utterly unprepared for ironclad warships, allowing HMS Thunder Child to score the greatest human victory of the war – but they press ahead and effectively win the war.
In the second, the narrator finds himself on the run, first falling in with a clergyman who has been driven to madness by the alien horror (including the discovery that the Martians drink human blood) and then with an equally-maddened survivalist who believes that humans will have to go underground to survive, then prepare to take back the world by capturing Martian technology and using it against its builders. Going mad himself, the narrator eventually reaches the enemy base … and discovers the Martians are dead, killed by earthly diseases. It ends, as the country starts rebuilding, with a grim observation that mankind may have learnt of the dangers from the stars, but there’s no guarantee of survival. The brief victory may be nothing more than a reprieve.
I’ve often thought that the best alien invasion novels and films blur the mundane with the fantastic. The War of the Worlds was never intended as a period story – to Wells, it was a present-day story – and remains convincing, at least in part, because it doesn’t look on the world with a present-day eye. Wells does an excellent job of depicting a peaceful England – it all looked so safe and tranquil- that steadily falls into chaos as the invaders land and the war begins. In this, he drew inspiration from the earlier invasion books. We move rapidly from countryside doings – the calm life of the ideal England – to a rapidly-growing nightmare, as the army is beaten, London is occupied and hordes of refugees are forced to flee. The atmosphere grows darker and darker – early successes, as limited as they are, being replaced by total defeat – until the final moment, when the Martians are defeated by bad luck and ignorance.
Part of the reason it works, it should be noted, is that The War of the Worlds is unashamedly an event story. The narrator is largely a cipher. We know he has a wife and a brother in London – the story follows the brother’s flight from London – but very little else. Wells depicts a handful of other characters – the Curate, the Artilleryman – yet he doesn’t name them. They serve as both depictions of human attitudes, rather than three-dimensional beings. The Curate gives up in despair, seeing the invasion as punishment for humanity’s sins (his selfishness nearly gets the narrator killed); the Artilleryman, faced with humanity being totally outmatched, gives up in a different way by choosing to go underground. The book makes it clear that his plans are doomed to likely failure. This works very well for the story. One of the reasons the BBC adaption failed was that it tried to expand the characters to appeal to modern sensibilities.
I thrilled, as a child, to the stirring moments when the Fighting Machines march across the land, only to meet brief rebuffs by human guns. Wells depicts the battle very well, moving neatly between the narrator’s point of view to a more omniscient depiction of the war. Indeed, when I was young, the first half of the story always appealed to me more than the second half. It works, at least in part, because it hints there may be a deserved victory. The army stands against the invaders and hurts them, as does the navy. They may be outmatched, yet they can hurt the enemy. The fight is not completely one-sided. It is not until the second half of the book that it is revealed that human resistance is, at least on the surface, futile.
The book’s more literary aspects are blended neatly into the pulp. On the surface, The War of the Worlds is yet another invasion story, with the invaders coming from the skies rather than France or Germany. It isn’t until the text draws a line between the alien invasion and colonisation, as it existed in the time, that it also becomes a condemnation of said colonialism. The Martians are more than just invaders, they’re bloodsuckers who regard humans as just another form of prey. Wells makes the point – very ‘woke’ for its time – that the Martians are merely doing unto humanity what humanity has done unto itself:
“And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”
It is, perhaps, too subtle for many readers of that era. Colonisation was neither wholly good nor bad. It brought good things and bad. And, as SM Stirling pointed out, the people who got the short end of the stick were not always the good guys. The Aztecs, for example, were a genuinely evil empire (as evidenced by how many of their subjects joined the Spanish and fought to bring the Aztecs down); the Native Americans had customs and traditions that were undisputedly evil. The Martians of the novel are nothing more than a destructive force, effectively a force of nature. It is possible, of course, that the colonised saw the colonisers in the same light. But that strikes me as unlikely.
The War of the Worlds is also a striking depiction of possible future wars. The Martians deploy heat-rays, rather than machine guns, but they have similar effects. They also deploy the black smoke, which is a form of poison gas, and evade the navy by the simple expedient of staying out of range. The book sidesteps the dilemma faced by more earthly antagonists – they don’t have to cross the English Channel to invade Britain – but otherwise it outlines the problem of rallying the troops in time to prevent a breakout. Like the other invasion books, it touches on how unprepared Britain is for all-out war without drumming the point in repeatedly (unlike The Invasion of 1910). It is striking to realise, in hindsight, just how much Wells got right.
In addition, Wells neatly points out the difficulty of understanding an Outside Context Problem, with the narrator assuming – at least at first – that the Martians simply cannot leave their pit. In hindsight, as the text points out, that was naive. The Martians would have anticipated the problem and devised countermeasures. There’s also the somewhat confused reaction caused by the question mark over alien intentions. Were the Martians friendly or not? The invasion might have been beaten, at once, if the cylinders had been blown up before they had a chance to open. The Martians, of course, have the same problem. They are both surprised by human resistance and, later, killed by human microbes. This makes sense, if one assumes that Mars is effectively sterile (with all diseases wiped out long ago) but it’s also an allegory for colonisers moving to foreign parts and catching deadly diseases (a common problem in Africa and East Asia).
It is hard to understand quite why The War of the Worlds is difficult to film. A smart filmmaker could simply follow the plot quite closely, as Jeff Wayne did; it wouldn’t be that hard to depict the invasion and, if one had to have a female lead, to give the brother’s role to the narrator’s wife. (Send her to London, then have her witness the last stand of HMS Thunder Child.) This would, of course, require an understanding of the story’s true nature – the characters themselves are largely immaterial, rather like Independence Day. (Who cared about the romantic relationships of ID4?) No one wants to hear a discussion about divorce – they want to see the tripods marching over the green and pleasant land.
It is a little easier to see why The War of the Worlds has rarely been matched, let alone bettered. It is that rarest of works, a combination of pulp and literary sci-fi that blends together perfectly. Stephen Baxter’s authorised sequel, The Massacre of Mankind, relied more on literary aspects than pulp, while the (presumably) unauthorised updated edition, War of the Worlds: New Millennium (Douglas Niles), focuses more on the pulp aspects of the storyline, to the point where the modern-day US military deploys biological weapons against the invaders. Neither one matches the original. The non-Martian books – Footfall and Operation Thunder Child – are both event storylines, but very different.
It’s easy to say that The War of the Worlds is outdated. It is a window into a bygone world – in some ways, a sanitised world. There will be people who will insist, I am sure, that some of the social attitudes are deeply problematic. And yet, it still has its power to thrill. I highly recommend it.