1898, Books, Fiction

The War of the Worlds (1898) by H.G. Wells

This is a landmark novel which manages to still be pretty entertaining but has dated in a few ways which make it kind of hard to appreciate how important it probably was when it came out.

Wells has a knack for momentum, and I found myself usually wanting to constantly read the next to chapter to find out what happens next. Occasionally things get bogged down – whenever the narrator is physically stuck – but in those cases Wells still does a good job describing things. And his imagination is, of course, unparalleled, successfully guessing about lasers (sort of) and poison gas for example. There are parts of the novel that are horrific and parts that seem incredible. It’s not the hardest thing to imagine how extraordinary this book would have been when it came out. I know of know earlier novel to discuss alien invasion.

Some things have dated, not the least his prose: “He heard footsteps running to and fro in the rooms, and up and down stairs behind him. His landlady came to the door, loosely wrapped in dressing gown and shawl; her husband followed ejaculating.” As you might a imagine, this caused me to guffaw just a little bit. Of course nobody can predict where language will go but I found Wells’ sentences a little stilted compared to some of his contemporaries.

But the thing that has really dated is what he gets wrong about the science – though he guesses right some of the time he also guesses wrong some of the time and you can really feel how other writers have read this book and thought they could do better with our greater knowledge of physics, chemistry and biology. He did invent little green men (apparently) but they aren’t really believable. Nor is the fact that they are susceptible to gravity and, um, something else, but not, say, our atmosphere.

But the real issues are with Wells’ storytelling itself: Wells’ story is compelling in many ways – especially how the narrator just hides out and isn’t part of the main action – but his story is also very flawed. The narrator is no saint but he is still pretty lucky and pretty capable for an academic. And, like so many authors of the time, Wells uses poorly drawn characters to spew out views he doesn’t like. Maybe that worked then, but it’s hard to take now.

Still, it’s a very important book and it’s mostly entertaining even now. It’s also of interest if you want to see where this stuff came from, as so much of what Wells wrote here has been borrowed ad infinitum.


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