Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The War of the Worlds




The original book - not the films transposed to America in which people (at least the central characters) behave more heroically and appear more religious than H.G. Wells imagined - whatever else his English victims are, they are not particularly stiff in the upper lip nor impressed by organising God!

Indeed Wells life long fear of disorder is prominent in the book - we are only a step away from social chaos and once the full horror of Martian invasion dawns, people collapse, for the most part, into panicked fear.

It was said that Wells picked the baton of science fiction from Jules Verne but as Borges noted whereas Verne extrapolates from the known - a submarine, rapid transport around the globe - Wells injects the radical break of the wholly speculative - time travel, an invisible man, life on Mars.

But, akin to much science fiction, they are extended thought experiments designed to reveal ourselves to ourselves and in 'The War of the Worlds', this is focused on our complacency. We imagine ourselves to have arrived at the top of an evolutionary tree but what if we are seen by another species as we see our supposed 'lower orders of animal' or indeed humans (and Wells makes an explicit reference to our own acts of genocide, specifically here against the Tasmanian aborigine). We must think harder about both what characterises moral responsibility to the other (and Wells was one of the original drafters of what became the UN Declaration of Human Rights) and, paradoxically, what allows us to continue our evolutionary ascent (which included not only global governance but also, uncomfortably, eugenics)!

The novel too is strangely prophetic - written before the First World War - he has the Martians use poison gas effectively against the defending human soldiers - and in describing vividly the exodus from London in the face of alien attack paints a scenario that will become only too familiar, especially in the Second World War.

It is good that Penguin have reprinted Wells' work. It deserves to be fully accessible and read. He was not in any way experimental as a writer (that is reserved for his content) and strove to be read by 'the masses' - being always touched, and more than touched later on, by the didactic - and, at times, you feel the text clunky and laboured but the overall impression remains of claustrophobic excitement and fear as the Martians relentlessly take over - only to be felled not by us but by a 'mere' microbe to which they have no immunity.

It is a denouement that even when known in advance never ceases to impress the core message of a necessary humility and a recognition of the uncertainty of our place.

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