Fiction Review: The War of the Worlds

My first encounter with H.G. Wells' classic The War of the Worlds was as a broadcast of the 1950s film version of it - on WPIX Channel 11 in New York I believe. I later read the novel for a high school book report and greatly enjoyed. It remains a favorite of mine to this day - every few years I find myself rereading it.

The novel tells of the invasion of then-modern England - the suburbs around London in the late 19th century - by Martians. It is told by an unnamed narrator, a journalist by trade, and how he and his wife dealt with the invasion. It also gives a view of the invasion in London from the perspective of the narrator's brother, a medical student.

The Martians arrive in meteor-like cylinders which serve as small bases of operations for their invasion. The Martians march across the landscape on nimble tripods. These tripods carry various weapons - most notably a heat ray and "black smoke" projectors - a type of poison gas. Red weeds from Mars proliferate wherever they go. We also get glimpses of the Martians themselves as they toil under Earth's greater gravity. We learn the Martians do not eat but rather exist in a vampiric existence - taking nutrition by blood transfusions - and they have a taste for human blood it seems.

We see the British army confidently standing up to the Martians - and getting their collective arses kicked. We see civilian populations fleeing as the invaders approach -  with many dying from poison gas. These types of scenes that would become all too common in the real-world wars that were to come.

There are moments of heroism. British artillery manages to bring down one tripod and in the Thames, H.M.S. Thunderchild boldly rams a tripod, allowing refugees to escape - and providing a name for a starship in Star Trek. But for the most part the British military and civilians don't stand much a chance. The narrator is trapped in a house partially destroyed by a cylinder landing for two weeks, much of that time spent with a curate he comes to despise. He also meets a surviving artilleryman who concocts bold yet unpractical plans for generations of resistance. In the end the Martians are defeated by bacteria - it's not that they have no immunity to Earth's bacteria specifically but rather they have no immunity to any bacteria.

Why do I find the novel so appealing? I find it offers a lot - and what one gets out of it in one reading may be different from other readings. There are many mysteries to it - and finding one's own answers can be part of the appeal. Why, for example, is the invasion centered around London? Did the invaders recognize the United Kingdom as the primary world power and decide to knock it out first? What sort of commentary is intended? For example, what is to make of the negative portrayal of the curate and the animosity the narrator feels towards him?

The novel is a great source of inspiration. It's been adopted as a famous radio play and has had multiple movies made about it - my favorite easily being the classic 1950s one. And there have been numerous expansions of it. Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has a storyline taking place around the invasion and dives into the Martian biological vulnerabilities. There is a great Elseworlds Superman story which features Superman facing up against the Martians. They appear in various RPGs. Chaosium has included them in one of my favorite 6th edition supplements, Malleus Monstrorum. There really is something Lovecraftian about uncaring aliens that invade the Earth and view humanity not with hate but rather as a food source. Golden Age Champions makes stopping the Martian invasion of 1938 a potential storyline to bring about a superhero team.

I think Wells would like his creation being used in RPGs, considering he created one of the first (if not the first) wargames, Little Wars.


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