Wednesday, August 19, 2009

193. The War of the Worlds – H.G. Wells

History: This book was published in 1898, it has much influenced the science fiction genre and mainstream literature, cinema, radio, and most other media.
Plot: The narrator is at an observatory in Ottershaw when explosions are witnessed on Mars, causing interest among the scientific community. Later a "meteor" lands south west of London, close to the narrator's home. He is among the first to discover that the object is a space-going artificial cylinder. When the cylinder opens, the Martians—bulky, octopus-like creatures the size of a bear— briefly emerge, show difficulty in coping with the Earth's atmosphere, and rapidly retreat into the cylinder. A human deputation moves towards the cylinder, but the Martians incinerate them with a heat-ray weapon, before beginning the construction of alien machinery.
After the attack, the narrator takes his wife to Leatherhead to stay with relatives until the threat is eliminated. Upon returning home, he discovers the Martians have assembled towering three-legged "fighting-machines" armed with a heat-ray and a chemical weapon: "the black smoke". These Tripods easily defeat army units positioned around the crater and proceed to attack surrounding communities. Fleeing the scene, the narrator meets a retreating artilleryman, who tells him that another cylinder has landed between Woking and Leatherhead, cutting the narrator off from his wife. The two men try to escape together, but are separated at the Shepperton to Weybridge Ferry during a Martian attack on Shepperton.
More cylinders land across southern England, and a panicked flight out of London begins, including the narrator's brother. The torpedo ram HMS Thunder Child destroys two tripods before being sunk by the Martians, though this allows the ship carrying the Narrator's brother, and his two female companions to escape. Shortly after, all organized resistance has ceased, and the Tripods roam the shattered landscape unhindered. Red weed, a fast growing Martian form of vegetation spreads over the landscape, aggressively overcoming the Earth's ecology, in much the same way the Martians have overcome human civilization.
The narrator takes refuge in a ruined building shortly before a Martian cylinder lands nearby, trapping him with an insane curate, who has been traumatized by the invasion and believes the Martians to be satanic creatures heralding the advent of Armageddon. For several days, the narrator desperately tries to calm the clergyman, and avoid attracting attention, while witnessing the Martians feeding on humans by direct blood transfusion. Eventually the curate's evangelical outbursts lead the Martians to their hiding place, and while the Narrator escapes detection, the clergyman is dragged away.
The Martians eventually depart, and the Narrator heads towards Central London. En route he once again encounters the artilleryman who has plans to rebuild civilization underground, but their quixotic nature is shown by the slow progress of an unimpressive trench the artilleryman has been digging. The Narrator heads into a deserted London, finally decides to give up his life by rushing towards the Martians, only to discover they, along with the Red Weed, have succumbed to terrestrial pathogenic bacteria, to which they have no immunity. At the conclusion, the Narrator is unexpectedly reunited with his wife, and they, along with the rest of humanity, are faced with a new and expanded universe as a result of the invasion.
Review: The opening chapter of The War Of The Worlds, setting the scene of a dying Martian civilization, and an England that is snug and secure in its compliancy as a power upon the Earth. Wells does not take sides. The Martians are portrayed without any real rancour. The narrative does not implore us to hate them or even root for humanity but rather to observe events dispassionately, just in fact as Wells had his Martians scrutinise us like "the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water." Yet despite the innate pessimism of the novel, humanity gets a second chance, for though his natural inclination was to accentuate the negative, Wells remained at heart an optimist. He was a committed socialist, a campaigner for world peace and women's rights and dreamt of a utopian paradise on Earth if only we could settle our petty squabbles. The novel thus ends on a cautious note of optimism, with a world rebuilt, society restored and a newly gained respect for our tenuous place in the universe.
Opening Line: “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 mans and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns that they were being scrutinized and studied; perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”
Closing Line: “And strangest of all it is to hold my wife’s hand again, and to think that I have counted her, and she has counted me, among the dead.”
Quotes: “But he was one of those weak creatures, void of pride, timorous, anemic, hateful souls, full of shifty cunning, who face neither God nor man, who face not even themselves.”
“Strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness.”
Rating: Very Good.

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