Thursday, October 19, 2006

The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds
Another entry in the Readers Imbibing Peril (R.I.P.) Autumn Challenge

Title: The War of the Worlds (full text at Project Gutenberg).

Author: H.G. Wells (brief biography)

Copyright: 1898 (ie. this work is in the public domain); The Penguin print edition that I used was copyright 2005 (See work on Library Thing ).

Length: 173 pages, excluding introduction, preface, and footnotes.

Summary: An academic gentleman experiences the invasion of his safe, secure existence by Martians who view the local population as a food source rather than as any equal entity with whom they might negotiate. The academic interacts with a curate and with an artilleryman, each of whom has a unique perspective on how to manage and/or survive the unforeseen circumstances. Ultimately, Man survives but with a changed sense of his position in the universe. This is a good read; it fits within the context of the RIP criteria on the basis of the atmospheric, melancholic series of destructive events. Man as a race does not perform with overmuch nobility in this crisis. Naturally, as Englishmen, the narrator and his brother maintain a certain sense of duty and maintain a certain level of responsibility for those about them. But the internal check on civilized behavior slips as the narrator himself admits when it comes to the question of basic survival or death.

Eerie/Creepy Quotient: Perhaps a 3.5 or even just a 3. Not overly scary in the sense of monsters in the night, but there's a definite sense of suspense and fear present in the narration. Certainly, there's no reason *not* to read this book in a house alone at night. Our modern sensibilities are less apt to believe in the Martian invasion than in the ghost of some previous tenant wringing his hands over his wealth left behind. But the writing is very good and pacing is consistent. There is some sense of character granted to the narrator although the curate and the artilleryman are clearly intended to represent schools of thought or archetypes rather than being fleshed out as recognizable individuals. The fear I suppose that is inherent to this book is the fear that comes with recognition of one's own vulnerability rather than fear of any BEM (bug-eyed-monster). Or for that matter, the fear that arises at the idea of war coming to one's familiar area. Eerie/Creepy aren't appropriate words to apply here; Uneasy might be.

Genre: Speculative Fiction -- Appropriate to 10-13 year olds and older could benefit from some of the discussions that emerge here with regard to human response to crisis.

Extract (from Book 1, Chapter 16):

There were sad, haggard women tramping by, well dressed, with children that cried and stumbled, their dainty clothes smothered in dust, their weary faces smeared with tears. With many of these came men, sometimes helpful, sometimes lowering and savage. Fighting side by side with them pushed some weary street outcast in faded black rags, wide-eyed, loud-voiced, and foul-mouthed. There were sturdy workmen thrusting their way along, wretched, unkempt men, clothed like clerks or shopmen, struggling spasmodically; a wounded soldier my brother noticed, men dressed in the clothes of railway porters, one wretched creature in a nightshirt with a coat thrown over it.

But varied as its composition was, certain things all that host had in common. There were fear and pain on their faces, and fear behind them. A tumult up the road, a quarrel for a place in a waggon, sent the whole host of them quickening their pace; even a man so scared and broken that his knees bent under him was galvanised for a moment into renewed activity. The heat and dust had already been at work upon this multitude. Their skins were dry, their lips black and cracked. They were all thirsty, weary, and footsore. And amid the various cries one heard disputes, reproaches, groans of weariness and fatigue; the voices of most of them were hoarse and weak. Through it all ran a refrain:

“Way! Way! The Martians are coming!”

Also Relevant: This is an interesting read on a number of levels. For one thing, just as there are numerous attempts to dramatize for screen The Island of Dr. Moreau, there have been similar attempts at dramatization of The War of the Worlds. There was the admittedly successful radio show by Orson Welles which created such havoc in 1938. (For more information, go here.) One of the amusing things I encountered when browsing this book initially was the shock of recollection that the story was actually set in England -- in Woking rather than in Grover's Mill, New Jersey. Somehow internally, I had classified War of the Worlds as a twentieth century American experience, rather than a nineteenth-century British novel despite my knowledge of Wells and his timeframe. At the same time, even before reading the original novel, I had never thought that any of the movies of War of the Worlds were very good. The movies present The War of the Worlds as a story about Bug-Eyed-Monsters and our vulnerability in the face of greater technological weapons than our own.

I think that Wells was writing here to make a different point about an immediate issue in his time and culture (ie. integration of Darwinist thought into the popular consciousness). He uses the invasion by more advanced creatures as a trigger device for introducing a new idea to his fellow Victorians and as a philosophical suggestion as to how they might go on once the idea had been fully integrated. Rather than being the apex of God's creation, the invasion by the Martians suggests that man is neither at the top of the biological family nor at the bottom. His lack of characterization in portraying the curate and the artilleryman is to suggest that the right response is neither to surrender to despair (as the curate does) nor to indulge one's baser instincts (as he suggests when he accuses the artilleryman of gluttony). There is the middle ground found by the narrator in the end of the story which is neither surrender nor a ratlike survival. Instead Wells offers the recognition that we can only progress from where we are as creatures, being aware that there are forces in nature which take over and we must submit to the limits of our own knowledge of those forces and consequent lack of control. He was examining that idea for strength as one might test a bridge to see if it can hold one's weight.

Wells presents an England in chaos due to the arrival of the Martians. But in the chapter, The Man on Putney Hill, he reasserts the place of a human being. Hubris is dangerous as there are those forces in nature that we cannot and may never control, but cowering in fear is equally unacceptable. Humankind should neither be arrogant nor frightened by their place in nature -- just recognize that such is the situation and act accordingly.