I know it’s not new, but The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells is a Great British Classic, and one that up until this month I’d never read. The joys of owning a Kindle (though I agree they do not outweigh those of a hardback) meant that I could grab it for free for my daily commutes. And having just moved to Woking, it seemed appropriate.
Instantly, I was gripped – albeit mainly because the terrifying Martians had just landed in Horsell Common… a beautiful woodland not 10 minutes from my flat where I walked earlier this year. What I enjoyed throughout the book was the amount of detail Wells put into describing the locations as events unfolded. It wasn’t based in a stereotypical big city like London (though it does end up there) or New York, but rather the small villages that Woking, Byfleet, and Leatherhead were in the late 1800s. Roads that I drive down, town centres that I shop in – all these still exist, and travelling by the train from Waterloo I could see the vast machines on the horizon as I looked out the window, iconic horizon shapes not all that changed.
What is incredible about this book – which was published in 1898 – is the open-mindedness surrounding science, space, and man’s place in the universe. At a time when electricity was new and motorcars were few, the concept of beings more intelligent than mankind coming to earth would have been baffling, as would the intricate machinery Wells describes that enable the aliens to live, move, and fight. For an imagination limited by Victorian Britain, The War of the Worlds doesn’t appear to be stuck in the past or at odds with today’s modern society. Take out the use of telegrams and the number of horse carts, and you have a bustling civilisation, begrudging of inevitably late London trains, and all equally daunted by the prospect of extra-terrestrial invaders.
I’m sure a fair number have seen the 2005 Steven Spielberg film starring Tom Cruise – whilst it is an acceptable sci-fi action film, the book surpasses it in every way. The depth of character from the unnamed narrator as he faces horrors beyond his understanding shows Wells’ knowledge of psychology and human nature. Where the Spielberg film was all action, the book sees Martians to humans as humans are to ants, and therefore no amount of ‘go get’um’ could prepare humanity for the giant boot of these monstrous machines. The desperation, desolation, and destruction in the novel goes further into the apocalyptic nature of alien invasion than the book does. Perhaps this is due to the focus being a relatively small area of South East England – but nevertheless, I felt engaged, concerned, and remarkably tense by Wells’ writing.
Do not dismiss the classics as old fashioned, and only meant for English Literature GCSE classes. Within their pages is a breadth of understanding about the world around us that I think can so often get lost in our technologies and self-indulgent bubbles. The War of the Worlds is a comment about our place in space, our own sense of pride and importance, and ultimately how, small though we may be, we are a race ready to fight – even if it is just the germs that we take so for granted.
Oh and of course, remember to peek at the Martian still standing in Woking, in memoriam for all who lost their lives during that fateful battle for humanity…