War of the Worlds is one of those classics that feels as fresh as if it had been written last week. I knew this book was great – but until I re-read it a few days ago I had completely forgotten how great it is. I had forgotten how well it deals with the psychology of terror and displacement, and how immediate it feels despite being written and set in the late 1800’s. Above all, if you’ll pardon my use of a complex literary term, I’d forgotten that it is scary as shit. It’s terrifying. I may have whimpered occasionally.
For those of you who have somehow missed the multiple movie versions and, of course, the radio version narrated by Orson Wells (no relation to H.G.), The War of the Worlds is narrated by a man who lives in a small English town where a capsule lands. This capsule turns out to be full of invading Martians, as do several other capsules. The Martians themselves are impaired by Earth’s gravity, but they use giant mechanical tripods to move around. Armed with the first ray guns of literature, they devastate England while our narrator flees, hides, flees, hides some more, and basically has a terrible, terrible time.
So what makes this story so creepy? Obviously, there’s the Martians. Unlike many depictions of aliens, they aren’t humanoid in either their biological or mechanical forms. The narrator points out that their mechanical forms, which include tentacles (in case the ray guns weren’t enough to freak you out), move in a more recognizably organic way than the Martians themselves, and this disconnect is eerie and disturbing. As TV Tropes points out, “These aren’t just Martians, they’re humongous mecha cyborg vampire Martians”. They are smart and able to adapt to human technology and easily overpower it. They ingest the blood of humans (they inject it directly into their veins, because they have no digestive organs, thus including large and lethal needles in the mix of things to worry about). They don’t want to communicate. They are truly “alien” – truly unknowable and mysterious.
Part of that alien quality is that we are utterly insignificant in the eyes (figuratively speaking) of the Martians. Over and over again, Wells compares the plight of people to the plight of small animals like rabbits or ants. The narrator encounters an artillery man who points out that the best hope humanity has of surviving is to hide in the sewers, making babies and hoping the Martians will ignore them as “vermin”. Maybe some Martians will keep one or two humans alive “as pets”. The Martians aren’t being sadistic or greedy or stubborn. They are just stamping out the anthill so they can have their picnic in peace.
The other thing that Wells does with exquisite care is show how people might react to this kind of sudden, random, totally unprecedented event. The scenes in which refugees flee through crowded streets are chaotic and bloody and full of emotion. The narrator is at times stricken with panic but frequently he is so shocked, so profoundly stunned by events, that he behaves almost randomly. The Chaplain’s search for meaning that leads to his own destruction, and the narrator’s role in that destruction, are chilling claustrophobic and heartbreaking (and also irritating – one could hardly picture a worse companion in an apocaplyse than the Chaplain who just won’t shut up). For a modern reader who is accustomed to instant communication, it’s unsettling to see how some parts of the country are under attack, while others are completely unaware of any looming disaster.
When Orson Wells did his radio broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938, some people believed that the story was really happening. As I read the book, I felt a similar sense of immediacy. I also felt familiarity. Any reader of apocalyptic tales will recognize the pattern of small isolated events, denial, growing apprehension, and then total destruction. H.G Wells was the first to tell us to pack light and leave early, don’t split up, make alliances, and leave dead weight behind you without looking back. It’s a stark picture but one that contains a seed of hope.