Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Books with Friends – The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells – reviewed by Chris King

So today we have a guest review by the delightful Mr Chris King...

While most reviews tend to focus on new things and how fun – or terribly – they are, I like to think of the turn of the 20th century, a time I would have fit in with perfectly (or so I have been frequently told). The movies (2005 and 1953) of The War of the Worlds just do not do any justice to the original story of world invasion, by H. G. Wells, a master who defined science-fiction far more than I think Asimov ever did. The Invisible Man and The Time Machine were both genre-defining and The War of the Worlds is no different; it had to be  called a ‘scientific-romance’ when it was first published.

So, the movies are bad. The 2005 version has pre-earthed tripods emerge, shoot people (but not their clothes, so that the first time I saw it – and I have to say I did not watch much of it – I thought that the tripods turned people into clothes). This causes Tom Cruise to go into an angst spiral that lasts most of the movie (so I am told). It causes him to shout at his children and throw toast at windows while his children (whom he is estranged from, gasp, the drama!) explain how sticking your fingers in your ears and saying the name of the yellow Tellytubby repeatedly helps deal with the destruction of the world (or you know, America – I think it was pandering to an American audience’s perception of ‘the world’). So, that’s that one over with.

Now the 1953 movie was better. It got in the breakdown of society as men are thrown from escaping lorries because all they have to offer is money. A church is the last refuge of humanity and they know full well that it will not work. There were no annoying children or jam covered windows. The film also had the first example of nuclear weapons used on aliens (but alas, to no effect), a trait since borrowed by Independence Day and a host of lesser films. However, the film avoided the book’s historical context and instead set it after the First and Second World War to contextualise their concept of what a world war (or a war of worlds, gasp) would be. The film also missed out the red grass as a further invasion of Earth. The tripods flew rather than having three legs (and don’t give me all that about them using three invisible magnets, people don’t name things after magnets if they can help it). And, you know, they missed out the fact it’s set in Britain.

Now to the actual book.

It is 1897ish and Britain has colonies across the globe. The American War of Independence has proved in the long-run to be good for Britain, sparking the decline of France (except that one spat of wars) and the beginning of the second expansion of the British Empire. It’s left America as a musket-using nation still recovering from a civil war whose only noteworthy acts were a failed invasion of Canada, being defeated by Britain, and genocide. American’s greatest achievement is trading with Britain (them coming to us was a lot more lucrative than us going to colonies on the other side of the Atlantic). Oh yes and the Americans have also banned slavery several years after it was banned in the British Empire and had a Civil War about it. Rest assured that as far as the world is concerned America is about as much in it as the island of St. Vincent.

Now, the world – not just the British Empire – is invaded by Martians from space with their death-rays, black death gas (the gas is black, it does not bring back a medieval disease, please note the lack of capital letters) and their vastly superior walking fighting-machines. However, this is where the title is more apt than you think. This is a war, and the British Empire is not without its well-trained infantry, artillery pieces and a powerful navy. This is no extinction averted at the last minute by you-know-what but a back and forth war that Earth is currently losing. During the war the narrator witnesses the destruction of a fighting-machine as an artillery round strikes through the front panel of a fighting-machine and destroys it. Also the narrator’s brother escapes the mainland thanks to the efforts of HMS Thunder Child which is capable of engaging the fighting-machines on equal terms (or there-about) and it destroys two fighting-machines before three more ironclad naval ships arrive to (we assume) avenge the destruction of HMS Thunder Child. There ends the book The War of the Worlds: The Coming of the Martians.

The second book The Earth under the Martians is much darker and shows the effects of the losing war on the people much more than the shock and awe first book. It is here that we really start to meet the characters. There is the narrator (unnamed), his brother and two traveling companions whom the narrator is separated from. The narrator is philosophically inclined and that is about all we know. However, he meets more interesting people, the artilleryman who reports the events of a lost battle against the fighting-machines and the Curate with whom the narrator is trapped for several weeks. While with the Curate, the deeper parts of the book come to the fore. These are situations that prove that Wells was incredible forward thinking, or just proved right.

Wells’ description of total war, of black gas and the precision strikes against railways, telegraph stations and so on, are exactly what happened in the Second World War. In the First World War military theorists in the army and navy postulated on the creation of a land-dreadnought, a walking fighting-machine of which the land-ship or ‘tank’ was made. Furthermore the Curate’s plan that with a handful of men they could go underground and, when the time was right, emerge again and defeat the Martians, was a plan held by the British (and many other national governments) as a genuinely viable strategy in the 1960’s. It was to be a counter to nuclear war (if ‘counter’ that is the right word – though I understand that the viable response in the face of nuclear war is to become dust as soon as conveniently possible).

There were other aspects that did not take off so well, but Wells is hardly to blame. His teacher Huxley had written the (fantastic) Brave New World, where people are engineered to specific roles at birth, socially, physically and mentally. The Curate’s idea of which books are worth keeping to teach children and which traits should be removed from the genetic pool, has thankfully not caught on, but Social Darwinism is standard in Germany today. (The concept is most often applied to jobs: if you are better than someone else then you should take the job from that someone else, no question; whereas in Britain we tend to take the best at the time and as long as they don’t mess up will not be replaced, rather than constantly fighting for the job you find a niche. You make it your own, something horrifying to my German friends). But in the War of the Worlds, the Martians are better evolved (or so it seems until the end), they have superior skills and technology, so should we humans roll over and die or is fighting back fighting against our own principles? Clever stuff.

Overall, Wells is divine in terms of writing. This, one of his greatest works, is one you should check out. It is not too long either and it is astounding that so much was fitted into such a small number of pages. Yet the amount that Wells has inspired people and genres from this book attests to its value. I will now leave you with the interpretation that only came to me recently, before finishing on a quote from The War of the Worlds.

The War of the Worlds is (amongst all the other things) a discussion of colonialism, showing what happens when the roles are reversed. That justifies the events being entirely within Britain. Now that humans are all together again for the first time since the evolution of man in Africa we seem to have decided to kill and annoy each other. So, say a nineteenth century European army arrives on an exotic island and they decide that they want rid of the natives. They use their heat-rays or ‘guns’ that fire smoke into the air as they release shots to kill people. They have their fighting machines pulled by horses. They bring other animals and their own plant life and in the fighting the invaders win. However, in doing so the invaders die to the one thing their smoke guns and fighting-machines cannot counter: diseases. These diseases take a toll on the invaders while the natives suffer from the weaponry. This was perhaps best illustrated in 1895 when France sent tens of thousands of troops and laborers to Madagascar to fight the native Howa (who had been given minor British assistance). While the Howa fled or died in battle every French unit suffered between 75-100% casualties from disease. Ten men led by three officers was all that was left of a 250 man engineer company and both the French and Howa suffered in the short war (for more info see The Guinness Book of More Military Blunders).

I like history.

‘And before we judge them too harshly, we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished Bison and the Dodo, but upon its own inferior races. 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?’

With many thanks to Chris King for this review. 

And next week it'll be back to me (Katie), probably with a review of The Help by Kathryn Stockett

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