Of Martians and Men

Over the years I have a commented on many of H. G. Wells’ tales. In this post I want to profile his greatest work, The War of the Worlds (1898). I first encountered the novel around the age of twelve and have read it many times since. Picking up the story now, I am much more aware of its ethical contrarieties. There is Wells’ Malthusianism (the old bugbear of “overpopulation”) and his repeated moral equivalency  in comparing the Martian attitude toward humans with our treatment of animals—which is no doubt a very popular outlook today.

Wells’ harsh parody of organized religion in the guise of the cowardly curate is well known, though to my mind it is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the cleric’s beliefs actually seem to mock the modern “social justice” type of clergy rather than the traditional theologian. It is rather ironic coming from Wells, as is his notion of divine providence when he notes that “after all man’s devices had failed” the Martians are slain by bacteria, “the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.”

Equally curious is the ambivalent character of the artillery soldier. His answer to the apparently triumphant Martian invaders is that the surviving humans should adopt a ruthless creed of social Darwinism. He pleads his case with convinction. Eventually, however, the main character finds that for all his swagger, the soldier is more talk than action and so he resolves “to leave this strange undisciplined dreamer of great things to his drink and gluttony.”

While War of the Worlds is an escapist tale, the most harrowing scenes deal not with alien horrors but the desperate brutality of thousands of people clawing and stampeding their way to safety. Such descriptions, though restrained by today’s standards, ring true in the light of so many man-made terrors that have afflicted our world since Wells penned his story. Fortunately even this savagery is relieved by the chivalrous conduct of the narrator’s brother, who aids as many people as he can in the final days of the Martian attack.

All things considered, the artistry and taut suspense of the novel overcome its didacticism. It succeeds as a work of masterful storytelling right from the opening lines:

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own….

For related commentary, see my posts on Wells’ Invisible Man, The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau and The War in the Air.

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