The joy of this book is how extraordinary events are grounded in the mundane and the everyday. Thus he talks of real places: Shepperton church tower is destroyed when a Martian war machine stumbles against it, there is chaos at Waterloo station as people attempt to board trains to flee the capital, a spaceship lands on Wimbledon Common. These have a particular attraction for me because I grew up in Sunbury-on-Thames and this is one of the few books (also Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens and Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome) in which that sleepy little suburb is mentioned: it is where the narrator first witnesses the Black Smoke. So I know many of the places mentioned in the book; they were the background to my uneventful childhood and this makes the terror and excitement of the story even more vivid against this plain backdrop.
- “‘Are we far from Sunbury?’ I said in a matter-of-fact tone.” (1.13)
- “Towards Sunbury was a dark appearance, as though a conical hill had suddenly come into being there,” (1.15)
- “In Sunbury, and at intervals along the road, were dead bodies lying in contorted attitudes” (2.1)
The book has been adapted many times, perhaps the most famous being the Orson Welles radio broadcast which was done in the form of news announcements and, in the early days of radio, allegedly convinced Americans that the world was really being invaded by Martians. Recently, the BBC made a three part adaptation (the third episode was aired on 1st December 2019). This differed enormously from the book to the extent that I gave up watching after the first two episodes. I could understand why they made the changes. Firstly, there are very few female characters in the original; the BBC solved this by making the lead character a feisty and intelligent female and added a back story to do with marital infidelity; her partner 'George' was a new creation. Secondly, the fundamental theme of the original is an alien invasion and this is uncomfortably close to current political issues regarding immigration; the BBC added a heavily environmental theme to counterbalance (and disguise?) this. This also involved huge additions of new story. The religious and socialist propaganda of Wells was omitted. As a result, a classic of its own time was turned into a rather formulaic story of today. It was made predictable (of course the female character is going to be brave and strong and resourceful; all contemporary lead female characters are).
These changes were so enormous that it seemed inappropriate to name it after the Wellsian original. But the original was a best-seller in its day. I dream of a classic being adapted in an authentic manner and the limitations of its time being accepted.
- The narrator's ideas include:
- “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.” (1.1)
- “Strange night! strangest in this, that so soon as dawn had come, I, who had talked with God, crept out of the house like a rat leaving its hiding-place – a creature scarcely larger, an inferior animal, a thing that for any passing whim of our masters might be hunted and killed. Perhaps they also prayed confidently to God.” (2.7)
- “By the toll of a billion deaths, man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers” (2.8)
- “we cannot regard this planet as being fenced in and a secure abiding-place for Man; we can never anticipate the unseen good or evil that may come upon us suddenly out of space.” (2.10)
- The Curate prompts these thoughts:
- “What good is religion if it collapses at calamity? Think of what earthquakes and floods, wars and volcanoes, have done before to men. Did you think God had exempted Weybridge? … He is not an insurance agent, man.’” (1.13)
- “He would weep for hours together, and I verily believe that to the very end this spoilt child of life thought his weak tears in some way efficacious.” (2.3)
- There is also a distinct Biblical tinge to: "Beyond were the pillars of fire about Chobham. They became pillars of bloodshot smoke at the first touch of day.” (1.11)
- The Artilleryman thinks:
- “This isn’t a war, ... It never was a war, any more than there’s war between men and ants.” (2.7)
- “it’s the man that keeps on thinking comes through.” (2.7)
- “They haven’t any spirit in them – no proud dreams and no proud lusts; and a man who hasn’t one or the other – Lord! what is he but funk and precautions?” (2.7)
- “on Sundays – fear of the hereafter. As if hell was built for rabbits.” (2.7)
- “Life is real again, and the useless and cumbersome and mischievous have to die. They ought to die. They ought to be willing to die. It’s a sort of disloyalty, after all, to live and taint the race.” (2.7) Several portions of the narrative reflect on Darwinism and this makes the leap towards Eugenics.
- “dying’s none so dreadful; – it’s the funking makes it bad.” (2.7)
- “Then, by the light of their own destruction, I saw them staggering and falling, and their supporters turning to run.” (1.5)
- “It came to me that I was upon this dark common, helpless, unprotected and alone. Suddenly like a thing falling upon me from without came – Fear.” (1.5)
- “They must have bolted as blindly as a flock of sheep.” (1.6) Wells regularly emphasises how humans are much like animals with a few pretensions to civilisation.
- “A few minutes before there had only been three real things before me – the immensity of the night and space and nature, my own feebleness and anguish, and the near approach of death.” (1.7)
- “As he talked, things about us came darkly out of the darkness"
- “‘It’s no kindness to the right sort of wife,’ he said, ‘to make her a widow;’” (1.12) (Presumably it is a kindness to the wrong sort of wife)
- “one could have hung that June morning in a balloon in the blazing blue above London, every northward and eastward road running out of the infinite tangle of streets would have seemed stippled black with the streaming fugitives, each dot a human agony of terror and physical distress.” (1.17) Orson Welles in the Third Man was later to do something similar from a Ferris Wheel.
- “She seemed, poor woman! to imagine that the French and the Martians might prove very similar.” (1.17)
- “They did not eat, much less digest. Instead, they took the fresh living blood of other creatures, and injected it into their own veins. ... The physiological advantages of the practice of injection are undeniable, if one thinks of the tremendous waste of human time and energy occasioned by eating and the digestive process.” (2.2)
- “That night was a beautiful serenity; save for one planet, the moon seemed to have the sky to herself.” (2.3)
It ends on a call for space exploration that is still being made, for example by Elon Musk:
- “Dim and wonderful is the vision I have conjured up in my mind of life spreading slowly from this little seed-bed of the solar system throughout the inanimate vastness of sidereal space.” (2.10)
A fun little novel, easy to read and a great perspective of the future from a world without aeroplanes or motor cars.
HG Wells wrote many books. He is most famous for his science fiction novels such as The Time Machine. He also wrote semi-autobiographical works of social commentary such as Kipps, Tono-Bungay, Love and Mr Lewisham, and The History of Mr Polly.
Biographies of HG Wells include: