British author H. G. Wells first published his science fiction novel The War of the Worlds in 1897 in Pearson’s Magazine, describing a wealth of scientifically advanced possibilities and stunning notions of technological progress.
At the time, his work could easily have been considered the ramblings of a mad man. From a contemporary perspective, however, one would rather characterize the author as a genius and the novel as a masterpiece.
In my book, one would do so rightly. Let’s have a closer look at why that is the case.
Wells was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature no less than four times (1), his works being critically acclaimed throughout his career all the way into the present. War of the Worlds, for one, has never been out of print. (2)
The author was also a scholar and philantropist, a historian and a futurist. His works of fiction and non-fiction include several ideas about technologies and inventions that saw the light of day almost a hundred years after he imagined them, in some cases. (3)
Having mentioned that – War of the worlds is a brilliant novel on a psychological level alone. It simply terrifies by poignant plays on suspense, fear, and elements of the unknown.
The unnamed protagonist describes his surroundings and experiences in a businesslike manner throughout the progression of events, all the while fleeing from a Martian invasion and dreading a most painful death. If kafkaesque were a term in Wells‘ time, it would fit the descriptory bill.
The main story follows a report-like style, giving more than sufficient logistical details about the Martians‘ attacks on different areas of Great Britain, detailed observations about fleeing caravans and watercrafts, and detailed descriptions of how and who is attacked at which point in time. Simultaneously, subtle changes in the protagonist are written between the lines, leading up to a sinister escalation which is quite surprising in itself. Naturally – the protagonist himself concludes – nothing has been concealed; rather, attention has been diverted:
„I retraced every step of our conversation from the moment when I had found him crouching beside me […]. And I set this down as I have set all this story down, as it was.
There were […] things I might have concealed. But I set it down, and the reader must form his judgement as he will.„
The narrative is woven in a clever way: horrific developments on the external level drown all internal developments, so when suddenly a twist of psychological nature occurs, it could not come as more of a surprise.
The contrasts in this book are high and sharp: mass killing and destruction of cities are described in a relaxed, sober, almost laconic manner. The juxtapositioned depiction of emotional turmoil the protagonist goes through is expressive and intense.
What is more: The author bypasses his psychological and scientific escapades and goes deep into a sociocricital rant at one point – by proxy of another character who is planning to organize an underground resistance and would probably do so even without an extraterrestrial attack pushing him to action.
Yet again, highly interesting and rather unnerving points are made about societally conform humans:
„They haven’t any spirit in them – no proud dreams and no proud lusts; and a man who hasn’t one or the other – Lord! What is he but funk and precautions?
…working at business they were afraid to take the trouble to understand; … and sleeping with the wives they married, not because they wanted them, but because they had a bit of money that would make for safety in their one little miserable skedaddle through the world.„
Being a pioneer of the sci-fi genre, it would suffice to say that Wells would have done well enough by creating the futuristic concept of a scientifically established threat from Martians, limiting the philosophical reflections to the manner in which they use humans to their benefit, and the sophisticated workings of their machinery.
Still, he chose to one-up himself further, and add even more layers to the novel: Questions of biological matter are investigated, such as the general functionality of the human body, and possible evolutionary developments our physiology might undergo in a hundred years. Or the topic of literal and figurative weight of the brain in regards to the entire circulatory system in a human body.
To sum up this short novel stacked with subject matter: H. G. Wells was an author and a scholar who surpassed regular standards in almost every means. His novels are suspenseful, incredibly rich in layers and vocabulary, and manage to ask a mind-boggling amount of questions about humanity in a very brief text.
Anyone and everyone who is ready to be very terrified and intellectually challenged at the same time, should strongly consider reading War of the Worlds.