Classics Book Club: The War of the Worlds

Classics Book Club: March 2014

Book: The War of the Worlds
Author: H. G. Wells
New or Reread: Reread, technically, although I read it once about thirteen years ago and barely remembered it.

Spoilers for The War of the Worlds below the jump.


Plot

Pretty much everyone knows what The War of the Worlds is about: aliens come to earth and attempt to annihilate humanity. It’s not the most complex or intricate setup, but Wells builds a quite compelling horror story about it.

Characters

Although the novel is narrated by an unnamed philosopher from one of the towns near which the aliens first arrive, part of the story he tells relates the adventures of his brother, a medical student in London, during the invasion.

Few of the characters are named, and even fewer are drawn in detail.

Wells hardly hides this lack of character depth: his lack of nuance in minor characters actually highlights their stark reactions to the invasion. Wells is so good at describing human characteristics that characters only seen once on a road feel incredibly human even if their actions are almost inhumanly visceral.

  • The narrator: he’s a good everyman through which to experience the invasion due to his shock and curiosity about the aliens, but his inner monologue sets him apart. He’s intelligent, if occasionally discombobulated, but he is prone to flights of fancy and seems exceptionally drawn into the grotesque horror of the invasion.
  • His brother: Fairly practical and less prone to dreamy philosophizing, he’s more of a man of action. Had the novel been written by H. Ridder Haggard or G. A. Henty, he probably would be the protagonist.
  • The curate: He’s a scene-stealing marvel of horror. His rapid descent into incoherent insanity and subsequent death is one of the most intense moments of the novel and creates a dark, claustrophobic atmosphere.
  • The artilleryman: He seems to exist mostly as a critique of visionaries who are incapable of acting. His interlude with the narrator highlight the narrator’s growing sense of discontent and desperation.
  • Mrs. and Ms. Elphinstone: These two women with whom the narrator’s brother joins up are stereotypes: one is an irrational hysteric, the other a Marian Halcombe-like pillar of sense and competence. They serve the dual purpose of humanizing the women of the invasion and casting the narrator’s brother in the role of protector.

Good bits

  • The narrator’s close-up description of the aliens during the bit with the curate is deliciously disgusting and horrifying, and sounds like it inspired Ridley Scott.
  • The scene set in London after the aliens deploy their mist is one of the creepiest I’ve read. The wrongness of the city’s silence and the horror of bodies rotting quietly in cellars around the city stays with you long after you read it.
  • The novel actually ends a bit more hopefully than I remembered, but the ending doesn’t jar or feel laid on after the darkness of the rest of the story. The last chapter is very well-written.

Not So Good Bits

  • The second set of scenes with the soldier does drag on. The slowness does add to the tone and makes one feel the narrator’s growing irritation and unease, but parts of it just annoyed me as a reader and made me want to skim that chapter.

Random Bits

  • The parallels between the aliens’ actions and those of British colonists are pretty obvious. Wells even refers to them on one or two occasions. The narration does seem to imply that this sort of colonization is bad, but the fact that the aliens are just naturally so much smarter than the humans jars a little.
  • Wells also likens humans to animals or insects: the way the humans first survey the craters then run away at the first fire with tails between their legs, and, later, the stampede along the road feel pretty animalistic. Moreover, the mist that the aliens deploy acts like an exterminators’ gas, allowing the aliens to annihilate humans quickly, indiscriminately, and coldly, like a man spraying cyanide on a beehive.
  • I really noticed as I read that the way this novel develops would never work in the age of smartphones and television. The horror in the novel spreads slowly, as most humans, having no pictures or evidence of the aliens beyond telegraphs, think it a hoax, and panic takes quite a while to set in. In the modern day, the entire first half of this novel would be radically different, with panic thousands of miles away within a few minutes.
  • The split between the narrator and his brother’s story really shows the difference in scale: the intimate, quiet struggle against insanity and desperation and the trampling, looting, stampeding mass hysteria of a crowd.

Spoilers for the 2005 movie adaptation:

  • A lot of people (online, anyway, on forums/sites I frequented at the time) had a problem with Tom Cruise’s in-movie son showing up alive at the end of the 2005 film, but that’s exactly what happens with the narrator’s wife at the end of the novel, with no better explanation as to how she survived. I’ve never heard anyone annoyed that she just pops up alive and well.
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