I’ve always been good at finding something to like in every book, even books that are written for a different audience or time. With science fiction in particular, I like looking back and seeing how previous generations thought about the future. During the early to mid 20th century, there was a cheery optimism about the future of technology and what a space-traveling society might look like.
War of the Worlds, of course, is not one of those books. But then, happiness doesn’t make for good fiction.
H. G. Wells didn’t technically write about the future. The novel takes place in 1898, the year it was actually published, and imagines what would happen if Martians with superior technology decided to take Earth for themselves (after more than 100 years and multiple radio/TV adaptations, I don’t have to worry about spoilers, right?).
The chilling thing about this story is how helpless humanity is. There’s barely a sense of mankind regrouping or forming any effective counter-attack against the invaders. The military is powerless, individuals are powerless; the Martians take over with an almost cavalier attitude, giving no sign that they even consider humans anything other than food. The invaders are clearly not animals, in that they have minds and emotions, but their utter lack of humanity adds to the overall sense of helplessness in the novel. There is no chance of peace or alliance with our neighbor planet.
They are not simply different. They truly are alien.
War of the Worlds is almost a myth at this point, a story that people are familiar with even if they haven’t read it, because its tropes are echoed through invasion stories even today. I think the genre is long-lasting because of that view of the future. I once read somewhere that, while ghosts symbolize our fear of the past, aliens symbolize our fear of the future. And though invasion literature is often linked to people’s views of the military (and there’s some of that in it, as well), I think it also carries a fear that something in the future is uncontrollable, that one day humans will run up against something stronger and more intelligent. The question such stories ask is, if that happens, what will save us?
First published in 1898, the novel terrified readers of the Victorian era with its account of an invasion of hostile creatures from Mars who moved across the English landscape in bizarre metal transports, using deadly heat rays to destroy buildings and annihilate all life in their path. Its power to stir the imagination was made abundantly clear when Orson Welles adapted the story for a radio drama on Halloween night in 1938 and created a national panic.
Despite readers’ increasing sophistication about space travel and interplanetary invaders, The War of the Worlds remains a riveting reading experience. Its narrative energy, intensity, and striking originality remain undiminished, ready to thrill a new generation of readers with old-fashioned storytelling power.