Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The War of the Worlds

Not the movie, but the H.G Wells novel. I thought I’d brush up on the original before I saw the Spielberg movie. The only other novel I’ve read by Wells is the Time Machine, when I was a teenager.

Written in 1898 when the author was about 32, H.G Wells single handedly created the science fiction genre. If you hate science fiction (as film maker John Waters claims to), then here is a good target for your grievances. What cannot be denied is that the man is, literally, a genius.

Reading War of the Worlds, you are struck by how it is a template for every disaster movie that was ever made. The novel is low on characterisation, is not exactly written in a ‘literary’ fashion, and has for its main character a bunch of Martians hell bent on subjugating the earth to its whims.

Like the disaster films of today (when I was reading it I couldn’t help but think of the hugely successful nineties film Independence Day), it has huge passages merely describing a once cosy existence being violently ripped to shreds. In the early pages of the novel, Wells describes his protagonist having a wonderfully genteel dinner with his wife, who remarks that this would be the last such dinner he would have for quite a while. This image of orderliness stayed with me right through the novel, as that perfect, enlightened world of industrial England was blown to bits.

As I mentioned before, there is very little characterisation in the novel. The main star is really the idea, around which all the writing is made to serve. Although the depiction of the curate is very interesting. As an overtly religious man – too religious in fact, he can’t understand that nature can produce such violent aggression in the guise of the Martians, despite the supposed fact of a benevolent god – he is treated with the most contempt in the novel. The protagonist, after being stuck in a house with the curate for a number of days, eventually loses patience with the cowardly curate, and confesses to hating him. No matter, the cowardly and pathetic get their come uppance in Wells’ world: a Martian kills him. (How many times in disaster flicks do we see the cowardly, the conniving and those overtly interested in self preservation dealt with in a similar manner?)

What I also found of interest in this novel were similarities to today's political situation. For example, why did Wells imagine such disasters happening to England when it was a leading imperial power, at the technological forefront? What is it in the character of the citizens of ultra developed and imperial countries that they like to fantasise about such evil things happening to them? The United States has been doing the same thing in its film culture for years, yet it has the greatest military capacity of all time. Why do its citizens morbidly fantasise about being beaten about the head by foreigners? (Well, maybe with September 11 they were actually looking into the future.)

I’m not sure if I’m for H.G Wells or not. Some parts – the long descriptive passages – I found a tad dull. The technological sections I enjoyed. But I’ve never really been a reader of science fiction. I’m looking forward to the movie though.

No comments: