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The War of the Worlds (Modern Library Classics)
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67 of 71 people found the following review helpful
on November 20, 2009
I though I knew this story. I had heard the radio show and seen the movie - so I was just planning to read a classic in the original words but wasn't expecting anything new or interesting in the content. I was very surprised. Setting this back in Victorian Times when it was originally written totally changes the story. The speed at which the disaster is communicated is different. The speed at which the participants can flee from the Martians is different. The tools that the humans can bring to bear against the Martian invaders is different. All of these things make the story surprisingly new. I really enjoyed it.
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183 of 206 people found the following review helpful
Today H.G. Wells is chiefly recalled by the general public as the author of three seminal science-fiction novels: THE TIME MACHINE, THE INVISIBLE MAN, and most famously THE WAR OF THE WORLDS. But these are only three of the more than one hundred books Wells published in his lifetime, and it is worth recalling that Wells himself was a socio-political and very didactic writer, a determined reformer with distinctly socialist leanings. And his point of view informs everything he wrote--including these three famous novels.

In each case, Wells uses the trappings of science-fiction and popular literature to lure readers into what is essentially a moral lesson. THE TIME MACHINE is essentially a statement on the evils of the English class system. THE INVISIBLE MAN addresses the predicaments of the men and women to whom society turns a blind eye. And THE WAR OF THE WORLDS is a truly savage commentary on British imperialism and colonialism.

This is not to say that it isn't science-fiction--for it most certainly is, and moreover it is science-fiction well grounded in the scientific thinking of its day: intelligent life on Mars was believed to be entirely possible, and Wells forecasts the machinery and weapons that would soon become all too real in World War I. Set in England about the beginning of the 20th Century, the story finds a strange meteor landing near the narrator's home--and from it emerge Martians, who promptly construct gigantic and powerful killing machines and set about wiping the human population of England off the face of the earth. The Martians and their machines are exceptionally well imagined, the story moves at a fast clip, and the writing is strong, concise, and powerful. And to say the book has had tremendous influence is an understatement: we have been deluged with tales of alien invaders (although not necessarily from Mars) ever since.

But there is a great deal more going on here than just an entertaining story. Both the England and Europe of 1898 were imperialistic powers, beating less technologically advanced cultures into submission, colonizing them, and then draining them of their resources. With THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, Wells turns the tables, and imperialistic England finds itself facing the same sort of social, economic, and cultural extermination it has repeatedly visited on others.

The upshot of the whole thing is that Wells ultimately paints the English habit of forced colonization as akin to an invasion by horrific blood-sucking monsters from outer space--and even goes so far as to suggest that if the present trend continues we ourselves may follow an evolutionary path that will bring us to the same level as the Martians: ugly, sluggish creatures that rely on machines and simply drain off what they need from others without any great concern for the consequences. If we find the idea of such creatures horrific, he warns, we'd best look to our own habits. For these monsters are more like us than we may first suppose.

And this, really, is why the novel has survived even in the face of advancing scientific knowledge that renders the idea of an invasion from Mars more than a little foolish. THE WAR OF THE WORLDS is a mirror, and even more than a century later the Martians reflect our own nature to a truly uncomfortable degree. A memorable novel, and strongly recommended--at least to those who have the sense to understand the parable it offers.

--GFT ( Reviewer)--
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42 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on December 10, 1999
Many people who have heard of "The War of the Worlds" may have seen the movie without reading the book. The movie was set in Cold War America, with martians that flew in what looked like greenish manta rays. The book was set in Victorian England, and the martians looked like towering tripods. In both versions however the premise is the same: Earth invaded by a superior alien intelligence. HG Wells wrote about humanity's ego and complacency being crushed by a highly developed lifeform.
"The War of the Worlds" has been interpreted as an allegory of imperialism. Just as the British took over other countries to make them part of the Empire, so too is the Earth being taken over by the Martians. They even bring their own plant life with them, the "Red Weed". The Martians see us as vermin, trying to wipe us out with heat rays and poisonous black gas. Thats's what makes the story so much fun. It is frightening in a cosy sort of way. We read the story in a safe, comfortable room, while the narrator talks of all the death and destruction he sees.
An interesting point that Issac Asimov once brought up was that if alien intelligence did exist, their advanced evolution would also mean they would be emotionally superior to us. They would not act like barbarians, as war is a primitive thing. When people write alien invasion stories, they are really saying something about us. We are destructive and aggressive by nature. Our history has been one long story of conquest, slavery and even genocide. So HG Wells has put a little bit of us into his Martians. Both metaphorically (as imperialists), and literally (as food).
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon January 29, 2010
Still Well's greatest literary achievement, it tells a story that's gripping, human, and powerful. Imitated a zillion different times in a zillion different ways, there's still something primal and evocative about this story.

Probably the most impressive thing about it is that it reads like historical fiction written today, not science fiction written a hundred years ago -- to a modern reader, the heat rays and gas weapons of the Martians seem more "real" than the oddly bucolic Victorian setting that they shatter.

The most interesting detail about this story, and one that many readers may miss (I certainly did until it was pointed out to me) is that Wells intended this work as a satire (not a funny satire, but a biting one) of British imperialism. The story was inspired by a conversation with his brother, discussing the eradication of the Tasmanian islanders by the British. His brother wondered what would happen if an alien race dropped from the sky and did the same to England; Wells wrote the book in response (and there is a brief mention of the Tasmanians in the novel).
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on May 9, 2005
As the percentage of the population that reads quality fiction declines, foundational literature like H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds is read less often. This is partly because whatever it has to offer is assumed to be easy enough to find in the movie - a regrettable error. In anticipation of the Speilberg/Cruise version, I recently returned to the book after more than thirty years, having read it first as an impressionable ten year old. What I found was much more than the story of a Martian invasion. The book resonates with profound observations about society and technology that are as far ahead of their time as the towering, metallic Martian invasion machines were to the horse and buggy world of Well's original setting.

The movie and radio versions always want to update it, but this saps the power of the original novel. If it is terrifying to be invaded by a superior intelligence, it is all the more terrifying if the technological contrast between you and them is staggering, as Wells intended it. The power of Well's imagination is impressive when you consider that he was conceiving heat rays, enormous tentacle-endowed grappling machines and poisonous gas at a time before automobiles and airplanes appeared and when people still heated their homes with coal stoves.

I can virtually guarantee you, Speilberg won't go there. Nobody today wants a movie about the late nineteenth century that doesn't involve lots of fancy costumes and an attractive young British woman deflecting the romantic attentions of some handsome hunk. Spielberg will update it.

Interestingly, there is no romance in Well's book, and virtually no sentimentality, save a surrender to convention at the end which, by today's lights, will neither uplift nor terribly disappoint. Well's book is about something else. It's about one man's coming to terms with humanity, as much as he's coming to terms with the Martians. It's a theme worth exploring today.

Some will argue that lots of science fiction is about humanity, but let's not lose sight of the fact that Well's was first. Along with Jules Vernes and a few other 19th Century pioneers he was inventing the genre. As is often the case with the foundational classics, from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to Edgar Allen Poe's Murders at the Rue Morgue these newly forged nuggets of genre fiction may be considered quaint today, but their authors created the maps that every other writer followed, and what's revealed, if you care to read them, is that they are always about something else, the human experience, during the time they were written in, and for all time. They are universal, which explains their longevity. They are about the condition of being human, in profound ways, which popular movies almost never want to explore for fear of losing box office.

Spielberg will give us a pseudo-family, thrown together by circumstance and menaced by something that wants to destroy them. Most popular American movies today are about the same thing. It's simple. It's why Fox News is so widely watched and why people vote for "moral values" with a picture in their minds not unlike the sanitized version of family that comes in the packaging for desk top frames. And it's why Spielberg's movie will make millions. But Wells is about something far more interesting morally - and far more complex.

His main character contends with reckless fascination, suicidal skepticism, ugly greed, deadly self-interest, everyday meanness, as well as the cowardly smallness of theatrical religiosity and the self-absorbed laziness of loud-mouth intellectualism. Given the inadequacy of humans, the question arises, how can they possibly survive against their intellectually advanced foes? This is the true question of the book - which Spielberg is sure to brush aside in favor of lots of cool special effects and the pretty faces of the actors trying to save their "family".

But Well's answer to the question is sheer genius. If you don't already know it, hold off on seeing the movie until you've read the book, because this is something Spielberg will include.

Movies use art to generate commerce. Literature uses commerce to advance art. Two different purposes, two different results. Spielberg's movie will be great. I'm looking forward to it. But it's no substitute for the book. And if you're a Science Fiction fan and you've never read The War of the Worlds you owe it to yourself to see where it all came from, sans the Hollywoodization. It's all about being human, and that's something worth exploring deeply. And something worth fighting for, whether it be against Martians, or more human adversaries.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on April 4, 2005
Basically, it is a good, fast moving story. It keeps you glued to your chair both by its plot, but also by its writing. This is not fast food writing. This is not the kind of writing that you consume like french fries, enjoy and forget instantly. The prose is beautiful, every word seemingly chosen with care to build up a scene or create a mood. The quote that began this review is one example. Here is another to describe the collapse of the government and the end of law and order, "All organizations were losing coherency, losing shape and efficiency, guttering, softening, running at last in that swift liquefaction of the social body."

Right from the start, the reader is given a growing sense of danger, dread and horror. The narrator (who seems to be Wells, himself) describes the ancient, doomed civilization of Mars. It is doomed because Mars itself is a dying planet and the Martians must look elsewhere if they are to survive. They look to the earth and they have a technology so advanced and a moral sense so non-existent, that people do not exist for them except as a nuisance to be gotten rid of.

Having given the reader that background information, Wells describes the landing of a mysterious object near the small English town where he is living happily with his wife. The object is regarded at first as a meteorite, then as a curiosity and then as an enigma as it slowly opens. No one sees it as dangerous until it lashes out with a deadly heat ray, killing people. (Clearly Wells anticipated the invention of the laser!) When these first deaths occur, the narrator hastily sends his wife to stay with relatives a few miles away, not anticipating any real danger, but just being sensibly cautious. He himself quite matter of factly returns home and is suddenly plunged into the midst of chaos and danger. The Martians are on the move. More and more of the strange objects are landing. The Martians ignore all efforts to communicate and contemptuously destroy all human efforts at attack or defense. The Martians begin a sweep of the countryside, slaughtering everyone in their path.

So everyone expects that the moment the British army goes into action against the Martians, the Martians will be doomed. Instead, the Martians simply annihilate the British army. The highest technology known to man is slapped aside like the stinging of mosquitoes. That is all man is to the invader, a pesky insect. Or, as a soldier who is the sole survivor of his unit tells the narrator, their best efforts were: "It's bows and arrows against the lightning." I doubt that we, reading it today, can fully grasp how shocking that must have sounded to the average Victorian reader.

That was Well's intention -- to shock the reader. It's no accident that he used the simile of bows and arrows against the lightning. Great Britain (along with the other Western powers) had been able to conquer "savages" around the world because the British had the lightning (guns) and the "savages" had only bows and arrows. Out of those victories came a sense of moral superiority the concept that Western civilization was superior instead of admitting that it was only Western technology that was momentarily superior. Wells was a writer on social issues and he used science fiction to show what would happen if the British Empire came up against aliens who were as far beyond them as they were beyond the "savages" they had conquered and who treated them as they did the "savages." In War of the Worlds, it is made very clear that the Martians really don't behave any worse towards humans than humans behave towards each other. In fact, he comments early in his story, "Before we judge of them (the Martians) too harshly, we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought...Are we such Apostles of Mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?"

Wells wanted his readers to think and feel what it means to be a conquered people who are conquered and destroyed not through lack of courage or effort but simply because the enemy's technology is superior. I have no idea how many readers of the day understood the message and learned humility from it. War of the Worlds began that popular part of science fiction that imagines invasions from outer space, the most recent being the blockbuster Independence Day. Here the message is, unfortunately, that even though alien technology is superior, humans are able to cleverly find a way to defeat the enemy. That makes for a good, exciting story, but it is not the message Wells was giving.

War of the Worlds does have a happy ending. The aliens are defeated, but not by the cleverness and resourcefulness of man. Something else defeats them and saves the human race. The message of War of the Worlds then is as timely today as it was in 1898. Man is not the master of the earth, much less the universe. Man needs to learn to walk humbly upon the earth and value what he has before it all is lost.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon June 8, 2005
Nearly fifty years ago the Looking Glass Library published an edition of HG Wells's WAR OF THE WORLDS with some very creepy black and white illustrations by Edward Gorey; for the first time, this edition has been re-issued by NYRB. It's hard to think of another artist who could have extracted the same bleak sense of horror out of Wells's 1898 novel as Gorey did: he beautifully captures the Martians's loathesomeness and their cruelty. Wells's novel always deserves another look--it is much more horrific than people tend to remember: his Martians casually fish for the humans in their giant tripod machines so as to suck their blood from them later. Its Anglocentric vision (the Martians only land around London, which for Wells is basically the whole of the world) shows the egocentrism of the most powerful nation on Earth at the Victorian fin de siecle, and the odd speech the man from Putney Hill makes to the novel's narrator late in the book exactly captures exactly what Wells believed might have to be done to combat the lassitude and decadence his overextended empire suffered from.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on August 21, 2006
H.G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds as a warning to the complacent, world-dominating British citizens of his era to not take the status quo for granted. The arrogance of some British politicians in particular rubbed Wells entirely the wrong way, particularly their sentiment that the British had an 'obligation' to 'civilize' the world (read: colonize) for its own good. Well's book was a rock thrown at that attitude-on-a-pedestal, and although he didn't knock it down, he made his point- and in spectacular fashion. In one way, the Martians *were* the conquering British, with their superior weapons and baffling ways that must have seemed incomprehensible to the natives of Africa and other areas colonized by force. Wells' dark tale was also a warning that even the British- despite their firm belief in their world destiny- could be squashed like so many bugs by an indifferent cosmos that didn't give one whit about the British (or anyone else's) false boast of superiority. In the end, though, it's a hopeful book- just as the Martians died off because they weren't biologically suited to live in this world, Wells also foretells the end of the British Empire because the British (alien) way was not the native way of life in the colonies, suggesting that the British wouldn't survive there long; the natives would eventually prevail. And they did. On top of all that, it's rousing entertainment that can be read just for its drama and suspense.

And that's why it's still in print a hundred years later.

-Mark Wakely, author of An Audience for Einstein
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on July 7, 2005
H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds" is a straightforward, tightly-written, and innovative little novel (barely 200 pages of actual author text in most editions) that helped define Science Fiction as a genre. It also inspired a slew of imitators and is the subject of countless adaptations (with no fewer than three film versions in 2005 alone) Its standard-setting plot of alien invasion and conquest continues to drive its diverse progeny in their many forms. Nevertheless, the basic story at the heart of this multimedia frenzy remains fresh, exciting, relevant, and (for the most part) has barely aged a day since its original publication in 1898.

The 2005 Penguin Classics edition is a great way to experience Wells' original work first-hand. Between its elegantly designed covers, this edition includes two insightful -- and somewhat overlapping -- introductions from Patrick Parrinder and Brian Aldiss, generous annotations, and (most helpfully) a map with notes detailing the narrator's journey throughout the story. All of these features are immensely helpful to readers unfamiliar with the history of the novel, Wells, or the Victorian London portrayed in the story. Even long-time fans of the novel are likely to find some extra little detail that will broaden their appreciation for what Wells achieved with this early effort.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
This is an edition to savor as Gorey's black and white illustrations really add to the creepiness and horror of the Martian invasion as only Gorey's illustrations could do.

As Gorey points out in the intro, at the dawn of the 20th century, no one would have believed in an alien invasion of earth by a superior intelligence. So one thing that distinguishes the novel is Wells's ability to decribe a realistic human response to an unrealistic event.

Some of that complacency is evident right from the start in the novel, as the humans are at first relunctant to admit the full extent of the danger, believing the authorities and the military have taken the necessary precautions and can contain any serious threats. This is despite the fact that several dozen people get incinerated by the heat ray in the initial attempt to communicate with the Martians.

Then there is a creeping sense of dread at the fragmentary but disturbing news from the front, but still the humans don't fully comprehend or are willing to accept the situation. When they finally do, an all out panic ensues, the chaos, desperation, hopelessness, and enormity of which Wells spends much of the novel describing as town after town is abandoned as the Martians advance, and the countryside is filled with literally millions of starving, thirsty, exhausted, and injured people. Many people are killed in the panic and stampede, rather than by the Martians. As Wells says, it is the rout of civilization and the massacre of the human race.

I had a few comments about the tripods and their weapons. In the book, the tripods have a heat ray with a rotating parabolic reflector to aim the beam, which is invisible since it is made up of heat waves. The second weapon is a missile containing a thick, heavy, oily, and poisonous black smoke and gas which hugs the ground and seeps into every nook and cranny, suffocating and poisoning anything that breathes it. The combination of the two weapons makes the tripods unbeatable and nothing can stop their deliberate and measured advance. The movies' versions are different obviously, but this is how it was in the original book.

There is also very little actual description of the tripods, except that they are described as being about 100 feet tall, cylindrical in shape with a rotating cowl on top, presumably for aiming the heat ray. I don't recall the color, but the metal cylinders they arrive in are a strange whitish- yellow color. Here Wells does something interesting as he says the metal gives off four lines in the blue region of the spectrum, indicating that he was familiar with the science of mass spectometry, something most people would never have heard of.

Also, contrary to the movie portrayals, there is only one Martian per tripod. Wells's view of the Martians is that they are mainly brains with vestigial bodies who occupy whatever machines they need to do their work.

Some of the astronomy is obsolete but necessary for the plot; for example, the Martians have come here because their planet condensed before the earth from the original primordial nebula and Mars is therefore much older than the earth and is cooling and dying a slow death. But this isn't really true.

One minor quip about the novel. One odd thing about Wells's account is that he is very fond of smoke and dust. There is dust and smoke everywhere, including green smoke, black smoke, and a ubiquitous fine, gray dust. London and its environs, it seems, are sort of like a Hoover vacuum bag turned inside-out. However, most of the time, one never sees the Martian tripods responsible for all of this smoke, except for one scene where the smoke carrying rockets are described. However, this is interesting in that Wells's description prefigures the phosgene gas weapons and attacks of WWI 17 years later.

Also, he often speaks of artillery guns and batteries going off in the distance although one rarely gets to see them in action. Usually Wells just says they could be heard (and there was also smoke visible), but that's it.

On a more positive note, his account of the Torpedo Ram boat, which brings down two of the Martian tripods that were wading in the harbor, is probably the most dramatic and interesting battle scene in the entire book. My sense is that Wells, being a former teacher, isn't that comfortable describing military actions and strategy and so the novel glosses over much of that.

Another curious aspect of the novel is if I remember right, one never learns the name of the narrator of the story or of his medical student brother. But it seems clear that the writer, who admits to being "speculative philosopher" and writer on morals, is Wells himself.

One final comment about the book. Although it's only about 200 pages long, few novels in the history of science fiction portray such a dire, dismal, hopeless, and pretty much depressing story throughout the entire novel as War of the Worlds does. In many ways, the sci-fi genre was a literature of optimism as it was still felt in the early years of the 20th century that science could solve all social problems and the future for humans and for society was bright. Wells's novel is almost unique in pointing out the risks of science and that the universe might be a bigger, more dangerous place than we had thought. Written at the end of the Gay Nineties, Wells's novel sounds an uncharacteristically cautious and sober note about mankind's possible future.

But despite the overall downer theme and message, it's still one of the greatest classics of science fiction, and as the archetypal alien invasion novel it has probably never been surpassed.
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