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Category Archives: H G Wells

” intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic”: The War of the Worlds by H G Wells (1898)

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No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. .. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.

So begins H G  Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds, a book which,   perhaps  more than  other of his works,   created the genre  we now call science fiction.  When Wells  wrote his tale of the  invasion of southern  England  by an expedition of  Martians, Great Britain was the most powerful  and wealthiest nation on the planet with colonies in India and Africa and elsewhere, its power  buttressed  by its army and navy, confident in its God-given  destiny to rule over other races. In his introduction Wells makes an explicit political  point about how this confidence was punctured by the arrival of the Martians:

… we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?

The story is told through the eyes of unnamed  narrator, a writer on philosophy,  who is taken by an astronomer friend to watch unexplained eruptions of gas on Mars over ten nights, the launching, we soon realise, of   projectiles towards the unsuspecting Earth;

One night (the first missile then could scarcely have been 10,000,000 miles away) I went for a walk with my wife. It was starlight and I explained the Signs of the Zodiac to her, and pointed out Mars, a bright dot of light creeping zenithward, towards which so many telescopes were pointed. It was a warm night. Coming home, a party of excursionists from Chertsey or Isleworth passed us singing and playing music. There were lights in the upper windows of the houses as the people went to bed. From the railway station in the distance came the sound of shunting trains, ringing and rumbling, softened almost into melody by the distance. My wife pointed out to me the brightness of the red, green, and yellow signal lights hanging in a framework against the sky. It seemed so safe and tranquil.

The first projectile falls to Earth on Horsell Common in Surrey. When it unscrews it reveals a Martian whom Wells   chooses to make  physically repulsive to Earth eyes:

Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of its appearance. The peculiar V-shaped mouth with its pointed upper lip, the absence of brow ridges, the absence of a chin beneath the wedgelike lower lip, the incessant quivering of this mouth, the Gorgon groups of tentacles, the tumultuous breathing of the lungs in a strange atmosphere, the evident heaviness and painfulness of movement due to the greater gravitational energy of the earth–above all, the extraordinary intensity of the immense eyes–were at once vital, intense, inhuman, crippled and monstrous. There was something fungoid in the oily brown skin, something in the clumsy deliberation of the tedious movements unspeakably nasty. Even at this first encounter, this first glimpse, I was overcome with disgust and dread.

The Martians never attempt to communicate with humans, they simply see them as an obstacle to their posession of a new world,  mirroring the countless massacres inflicted by Europeans  in America, Africa, Australia  and many other parts of the world.  When a welcoming party approaches the cylinder the Martians kill them all with a heat ray:  they then construct metal fighting machines  which lay waste to the countryside. The narrator  describes his first encounter:

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And this Thing I saw! How can I describe it? A monstrous tripod, higher than many houses, striding over the young pine trees, and smashing them aside in its career; a walking engine of glittering metal, striding now across the heather; articulate ropes of steel dangling from it, and the clattering tumult of its passage mingling with the riot of the thunder. A flash, and it came out vividly, heeling over one way with two feet in the air, to vanish and reappear almost instantly as it seemed, with the next flash, a hundred yards nearer. Can you imagine a milking stool tilted and bowled violently along the ground? That was the impression those instant flashes gave. But instead of a milking stool imagine it a great body of machinery on a tripod stand.

The army tries to stop them with artillery,  but the guns and the soldiers are burned and destroyed. By chance one shell does damage a fighting machine,  so the Martians respond by using a black poison gas to quell all opposition as though they were gassing an ants’ nest

an enormous volume of heavy, inky vapour, coiling and pouring upward in a huge and ebony cumulus cloud, a gaseous hill that sank and spread itself slowly over the surrounding country. And the touch of that vapour, the inhaling of its pungent wisps, was death to all that breathe.

The Martians appear unstoppable as more cylinders fall to Earth. They  add to their armaments with a flying machine:

Something rushed up into the sky out of the greyness–rushed slantingly upward and very swiftly into the luminous clearness above the clouds in the western sky; something flat and broad, and very large, that swept round in a vast curve, grew smaller, sank slowly, and vanished again into the grey mystery of the night. And as it flew it rained down darkness upon the land.

Wells creates a vivid  and disturbing picture of  millions of refugees fleeing  in panic from London and other towns, turning on each other as they  desperately seek some kind of safety. This is not a picture of heroic resistance, but of a society breaking down.

The narrator is trapped in a ruined  house by the  fifth  cylinder crashing to earth.  Hidden a few feet from the invaders, he discovers a dreadful secret, that the Martians  are collecting humans in order to drink their blood for food. He sees this happen,  but fortunately Wells spares us the details. Escaping from the house, the narrator makes his way to  London, a city now almost empty of people.

…it was curiously like a Sunday in the City, with the closed shops, the houses locked up and the blinds drawn, the desertion, and the stillness. In some places plunderers had been at work, but rarely at other than the provision and wine shops. A jeweller’s window had been broken open in one place, but apparently the thief had been disturbed, and a number of gold chains and a watch lay scattered on the pavement. I did not trouble to touch them. Farther on was a tattered woman in a heap on a doorstep; the hand that hung over her knee was gashed and bled down her rusty brown dress, and a smashed magnum of champagne formed a pool across the pavement. She seemed asleep, but she was dead.

The farther I penetrated into London, the profounder grew the stillness. But it was not so much the stillness of death–it was the stillness of suspense, of expectation. At any time the destruction that had already singed the northwestern borders of the metropolis, and had annihilated Ealing and Kilburn, might strike among these houses and leave them smoking ruins. It was a city condemned and derelict. . . .

He now hears  a strange cry from a Martian fighting machine  endlessly repeated:

Ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla,” cried the voice, coming, as it seemed to me, from the district about Regent’s Park. The desolating cry worked upon my mind. The mood that had sustained me passed. The wailing took possession of me. I found I was intensely weary, footsore, and now again hungry and thirsty….As I crossed the bridge, the sound of “Ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla,” ceased. It was, as it were, cut off. The silence came like a thunderclap.

The narrator finds the  fighting machines standing motionless,  and discovers that the Martians are all dead, killed,  it transpires,  by Earth’s  bacteria:

In another moment I had scrambled up the earthen rampart and stood upon its crest, and the interior of the redoubt was below me. A mighty space it was, with gigantic machines here and there within it, huge mounds of material and strange shelter places. And scattered about it, some in their overturned war-machines, some in the now rigid handling-machines, and a dozen of them stark and silent and laid in a row, were the Martians–dead!–slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared; slain as the red weed was being slain; slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.

In the final chaper the narrator brings the story up to date with the Martians,  it seems from observations,  now  having  invaded Venus. But he is not confident  that the threat has gone for ever,  and the ending of the novel  is melancholic:

It may be, on the other hand, that the destruction of the Martians is only a reprieve. To them, and not to us, perhaps, is the future ordained.

I must confess the stress and danger of the time have left an abiding sense of doubt and insecurity in my mind. I sit in my study writing by lamplight, and suddenly I see again the healing valley below set with writhing flames, and feel the house behind and about me empty and desolate. I go out into the Byfleet Road, and vehicles pass me, a butcher boy in a cart, a cabful of visitors, a workman on a bicycle, children going to school, and suddenly they become vague and unreal, and I hurry again with the artilleryman through the hot, brooding silence. Of a night I see the black powder darkening the silent streets, and the contorted bodies shrouded in that layer; they rise upon me tattered and dog-bitten. They gibber and grow fiercer, paler, uglier, mad distortions of humanity at last, and I wake, cold and wretched, in the darkness of the night.

I go to London and see the busy multitudes in Fleet Street and the Strand, and it comes across my mind that they are but the ghosts of the past, haunting the streets that I have seen silent and wretched, going to and fro, phantasms in a dead city, the mockery of life in a galvanised body. And strange, too, it is to stand on Primrose Hill, as I did but a day before writing this last chapter, to see the great province of houses, dim and blue through the haze of the smoke and mist, vanishing at last into the vague lower sky, to see the people walking to and fro among the flower beds on the hill, to see the sight-seers about the Martian machine that stands there still, to hear the tumult of playing children, and to recall the time when I saw it all bright and clear-cut, hard and silent, under the dawn of that last great day. . . .

woking-martianThis is still a very readable  novel, dazzling in its invention,  but also  prescient in its description of  the behaviour of populations and people under attack. A century after Wells wrote we are sadly all too familar with the scenes he imagined…

It is a story above all  told from the viewpoint of ordinary civilians,  caught up in terrifying events:  there are no scenes set  amongst  government ministers, scientists or the military hierarchy.

The influence of The Wars of the Worlds can be seen  in science  fiction  writing up to and including Doctor Who: pitiless repulsive creatures, encased in a metallic machine,   and armed with a death ray, now who  does that remind  you of?

Wells’ birthplace Woking has its own Martian fighting machine as seen above.

You can read the novel online here.

Review in The Observer, 27 March 1898.

“Freshness and originality are distinguishing features in Mr Wells’ compostions, and his latest work will in no sense  disappoint his readers. It is fact extremely clever. Mr Wells depicts  the attack on England of a number of the inhabitants  of Mars, and he contrats  their highly-trained scientific methods of warfare  with our puny efforts of resistance. The moral too is admirable. We had become “soft” and “effete” and some extra mundane agency was necccessary to restore vigour to national life. ..We are assured by highly competent  critics that Mr Wells owes his inspiration to Defoe, to Swift, to Edgar Poe, and even to Jules Verne. In The War of the Worlds we can trace none of these sources of inspiration. The aspect of his work is purely native – autochthonous, as the late Professor E A Freeman might have said…The literary technique is excellent, and it is in this respect that Mr Wells gains his great superiority over the mere sensation-mongers of the day. We have enoyed reading his book. It is not a novel, but it  is good fiction.”

Productions

Orson Welles  broadcast a live production on 30th October 1938,  in which  the story was transplanted to Amercica and which caused panic in some places with its  vivid descriptions of an invasion.  You can listen to this broadcast  here, The story of the broadcast was made into a tv film in 1975, The Night that Panicked America, which  you can watch here.

The BBC broadcast a radio dramatisation in six parts  in  May – July   1950, adapted by Jon Manchip White, who had just joined the BBC Drama Script Unit as an editor.   He kept the Victorian setting  and much of Wells’ dialogue. It had  Anthony Hawtrey in the main role, with Peter Cokea s Gilvy and Derek Guyler as Stent.  The producer was David H Godfrey. This production  has not survived in the archives.  There is more information about it here.

The first film version was  made in 1953 by Paramount, starring  Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, with the  story updated and moved to the USA, and bearing scant resemblace to the original novel.  It was produced by George  Pal and directed by Byron Haskin. A  sequel was later made  for television that ran for two seasons from  1988 to 1990.

The BBC broadcast another  radio dramatisation in six parts  in June and July 1967, again  using the adaptation  by Jon Manchip White,  although he says he had nothing to do with it. And yet  someone uncredited has updated it to the present day.  It had  Paul Daneman as Professor John Nicholson, , Isabel Rennie as Dora Nicholson,  Martin Jarvis as Ogilvy and Peter Sallis as the Parson.  The sound score was  by David Cain of the  BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The producer was   John Powell. (I can vividly remember listening to this). You can find out more about this production  here.   This production  has survived and  has been released on CD by the BBC.  It’s also available on Audible. You can listen to a clip here. 

In 1978 Jeff Wayne released an LP,   The War of the Worlds, which told the story through words and music, and  sold by the million. It was later turned into a  stage musical.  You can watch it here.

Another film version directed  by Steven Spielberg was released in 2005,  which I like even less than the 1953 version…

The Man Who Owned the World: The Sleeper Awakes by H G Wells (1898) and (1910)

The_Sleeper_Awakes

Graham became aware that his eyes were open and regarding some unfamiliar thing…how long had he slept?   What  was that sound of pattering feet? And that rise and fall, like the murmur of breakers on pebbles? He put out a languid hand to reach his watch from the chair whereon it was his habit to place it, and touchesd some smooth hard surface like glass. This was so unexpected that it startled  him extremely. Quite suddenly he rolled over, stared for moment , and struggled into a sitting position.  The effort was unexpectedly difficult, and it left him giddy and weak  – and amazed.

He rubbed his eyes. The riddle of his surroundings  was confusing but his mind was clear – evidently his sleep had benefited him. He was not in a bed at all  as he understood the word, but lying naked on a very soft and yielding mattrress in a trough of dark glass.

So Graham wakes up after being asleep for 203 years, having fallen into a coma at the end of the C19th.  Wells never explains why this happened, but actually it doesn’t matter, it’s  merely a plot device to project Graham into the  future and  to  show us what it is like through the eyes of a late Victorian man.

Whilst asleep Graham  has not only became a symbol  of  hope for the common people, but  also, because of the investments  made in his name by his friends two centuries before,  which have grown  enormously , he is actually the Owner, the Master of the world.  As soon as he comes back to life he is plunged into the midst of a revolution as the people,  led by Boss Ostrog,  battle and defeat  the oppressive  White Council, which  was ruling the world  in his name.

Metropolis 2

The London  that Graham knew has vanished. The London of the future, with a population of 33 million,  is a vast, claustrophic  metropolis with  countless levels connected by walkways.  It has wind-wheels on the roof;   huge flying  stages for the aircraft of the future;  while kinetelephotographs allow  words and pictures to be projected around the world. The countryside is empty: the small, historic  towns of Graham’s  era have vanished as the cities took over the world.  The railways have gone;  instead there are  roads, a hundred yards wide, made of toughened glass called Eadhamite,  along which vehicles on rubber wheels sweep along at high speed.

The Revolution over, Graham strives to make sense of this  new world. He sees that men and women are different:

To Graham, a typically stiff man from a typically stiff period, not only did these men seem altogether too graceful in person, but altogether too expressive in their vividly expressive faces. They gesticulated, they expressed surprise, interest, amusement,  above all they expressed the emotions excited in their minds by the ladies about them with astonishing frankness…The ladies in the company  of these gentlemen displayed in dress, bearing and manmer alike, less emphasis and more intricacy. Some affected a classical simplicty of robing  and sublety of fold…Others had closely-fitting  dresses without seam or belt at the waist, sometimes with long folds falling from the shoulders…Every one’s movements seemed graceful

He discovers the joys of flying,  and insists on being taught how to fly a small aircraft. Meanwhile Ostrog gets on with the job of ruling in Graham’s name with minimal interference.  However Graham is given a  sharp lesson in reality by Ostrog’s niece, Helen Wotton. She tells him that many  of the people who defeated the White Council in his name are virtually serfs to the Labour Department:

Your days were the  days of freedom…This city – is a prison. Every city is now a prison. Mammon grips the key in his hand. Myriads, countless myriads, toil from the cradle to the grave. …All the shallow delight of such life as you find  about you, is separated by just a little  from a life of wretchedness beyond any telling.  Yes, the poor know it – they know they suffer.  These countless multitudes who faced death for you two nights since – ! You owe your life to them….Nowadays there are no workhouses, no refuges and charities, nothing but that Department. Its offices are everywhere. That  blue is is its colour. And any man, woman or child who comes to be hungry and weary and with neither  home nor friend nor resort, must go to the Department in the end – or seek some way of death.

Helen also  tells Graham that he is not being told what is happening by Ostrog:”The people will not go back to their drudgery – they refuse to be disarmed…give them only a leader to speak the desire of their hearts.” Armed with this knowledge Graham confronts Ostrog who confirms that there is indeed unrest: “Multitudes will not go back to work. There is a general strike…They are talking of a Commune.

And at this point we encounter the  worm at the heart of the novel: namely,  racism. Ostrog is planning to bring the black police from Africa  whom he describes as “fine loyal brutes, with no wash of ideas in their head  – such as our rabble has.” But  Graham orders him not to do so: “I do not want any negroes brought to London.  It is an archaic prejudice perhaps, but  I have peculiar  feelings about Europeans and the subject races…”

Whilst it might be argued that Wells is showing us that the racial prejudices of his era had survived the centuries, unchallenged  and intact, I think that Wells, despite being  a member of the socialist Fabian Society, shared them. For this is by no means the only time in his  work that he  wrote in an openly racist manner.  In his short  story The Lord of Dynamos (1894), set in a electric power room, a   black man Azumi-zi, bullied by the racist and violent overseer, Holroyd,  is shown as coming to worship the largest dynamo to extent of sacrificing Holroyd on the machine, before killing himself in the same way. In another short story, Jimmy Goggles the God (1900),   Goggles, a deep-sea diver  survives an attack on the ship’s crew by local islanders in the Pacific, and emerging from the ocean still clad in his suit, is then  venerated by them as a deity until he is rescued.

Graham decides to explore the city for himself, a city still in ferment with processions of revolutionary banners. He runs across the  Babble Machines on street corners which blair out  constant propaganda: “The Master is sleeping peacefully..He puts great trust in Boss Ostrog” and so on.

Metropolis

And so they went  through these  factories and places of toil, seeing many painful  and grim things. That walk left  on Graham’s  mind a maze of  of memories, fluctuating pictures of swathed halls and crowded vaults, seen through clouds of dust, of intricate machines, the racing threads of looms, the  heavy beat of stamping machinery, the roar and rattle of belt and armature, of ill-let subteranean aisles  of sleeping places , illimitable  vistas of  pin-point  lights. Here was the  smell of tanning, and here  the reek of a brewery, and here unprecedented reeks. Everywhere were pillars and cross  archings of  such,a massiveness  as Graham had never before seen, thick Titans of  greasy, shining   brickwork crushed beneath the weight of that vast city world, even as these anaemic millions were  were crushed by its complexity.

Learning that the black police have massacred people in Paris,   and are now  on  their  way to London, Graham returns to the surface and is nearly captured by Ostrog, but is freed by his supporters amongst the workers.  A second Revolution  breaks out,  this  time against Ostrog, and   there is a  fierce battle for possession of  the great landing stages. At last, as Ostrog’s airfleet nears, Graham decides that he himself  will take off and do his best to stop them. On his way to his aircraft he is glimpsed by a young air mechanic:  “A tall dark man in a flowing black robe he was, with a white, resolute face,  and eyes steadfastly before him.”

In the air Graham successfuly attacks and scatters the fleet,  but is caught in an explosion at one of the landing stages, and, clinging to his craft, begins to fall:

He found himself recapitulating with incredible swiftness all that had happened since his awakening, the days of doubt,  the days of Empire, and at last the tumultuous discovery of Ostrog’s calculated treachery.  The vision  had a quality of utter unreality. Who was he? Why was he holding so tightly with his hands? Why could he not let go? In such a fall as this countless dreams have ended. But in a moment he would wake…. His thoughts ran swifter and swifter. He wondered if he should see Helen again. It seemed so unreasonable that he should not see her again. Although he could not look at it, he was suddenly aware that the  whirling earth  below him was very near. Came a shock and a great crackling and popping of bars and stays.

This novel is a typical Wellsian mixture of  imaginative scientific speculation, social   comment and  plain adventure.  As a modern reader I can  enjoy  these, accepting the era in which he wrote, but I cannot excuse the racism which  is the hinge on which the plot  turns.  As a dystopian vision of the future, you can see  influence of this novel  in Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1927) (from which the stills above are taken), in  Orwell’s 1984 (1948), and even in Woody Allen’s film Sleeper (1973).

In his introduction to an edition of this work published by   Oldhams Press in 1921,  Wells wrote that when he penned  the novel  he had considerable belief in its possibility,  but now he doubts it: “Much evil may be in store for makind, but to this immense, grim  organisation of  servitude, our race will never come.” A century  later, in an era of rampant globalisation, massive urbanisation  and growing  economic inequality, I wonder if we are so confident.

Originally called When the Sleeper Wakes on its  publication  in 1898,  Wells rewrote  the novel in 1910 as The Sleeper Awakes,  which is  the version from which  the quotes above are taken.  You can read the original  version here.

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