Fiction Reviews

War of the Worlds

(1898/2012) H. G. Wells, Gollancz, hrdbk, £8.99, xv + 185pp, ISBN 978-0-575-11535-4

(1898/2013) H. G. Wells, Flame Tree Press, £6.99, 192pp, ISBN 978-0-857-75420-2

(1898/2017) H. G. Wells, Gollancz, pbk, £8.99, xv + 185pp, ISBN 978-1-473-21802-4

(1898/2017) H. G. Wells, Macmillan, pbk, £9.99, 240pp, ISBN 978-1-909-62154-1

(1898/2017) H. G. Wells, Vintage Classics, pbk, £5.99, 240pp, ISBN 978-1-784-87208-3

(1898/2017) H. G. Wells, Oxford University Press, pbk, £6.99, xxxviii + 182pp, ISBN 978-0-198-70264-1


Come the end of 2017 we have a number of editions of H. G. Wells seminal SF classic from 1898: two from Gollancz, one of the mainstays of British SF publication, and one each from the Macmillan Collectors' Library, Vintage Classics and Oxford University Press.  That's a lot, so bear with me. Indeed, this novel is so famous that it barely warrants a review and yet there are always newcomers to the genre and, as I will point out, each edition has its pros and cons, though the 2012 Gollancz hardback edition perhaps deserves special attention (if that is you can still get it) as does the 2017 Oxford University Press paperback.

Written at the tail end of the nineteenth century, the story concerns a Victorian Englishman who gets caught up in, of all things, an invasion of Earth by Martians! And so we have the title War of the Worlds with the 'worlds' being Mars and Earth. All the action, and there is action, takes place on Earth with much of it centred on London and the Home Counties especially Surrey. The first signs of the invasion are noted by the book's protagonist narrator as an astronomical curiosity in flashes observed on the surface of distant Mars. Little did the narrator at the time know that these represented the launch of the Martian invasion fleet. Yet all too soon (chapter 2 no less) strange cylinders had landed and our narrator recounts one in a crater outside of Woking. These artefacts at first generate curiosity in of what passes for the media newspapers in Victorian England, but inquisitiveness soon turns to horror as strange machines rise from the cylinders' impact craters. These machines stand on three leg-like structures and the tripods set off to roam the land wielding a heat ray (reminiscent of what today we might consider lasers).

Britain's civilian population retreats from the advancing tripods with the army attempting to counter attack with little, if any, affect. Britain, the motherland of the then great British Empire, was being ravished…

H. G. Wells, it is said, wrote the novel following a conversation in which it was put to him that no army could ever invade Victorian Britain and so H. G. Wells provided in fiction a force that could do just that. It is also noted in an interesting introduction to the Gollancz editions (by Adam Roberts), and the Oxford University Press edition by Darryl Jones, notes that an earlier near-future short story by George T. Chesney, 'The Battle of Dorking' (1871) had been a big commercial hit and touched a national nerve. This story saw a complacent England being invaded by an efficient Prussian force. Wells was undoubtedly was influenced by this. The bottom line is that The War of the Worlds not only is a great work of SF but has (as indeed have a number of SF classics) a sociological dimension that cannot be ignored.

How the novel proceeds – and here there are scenes worthy of gruesome horror novels – and concludes I leave for the reader to find out, assuming that is you have yet to read this classic masterpiece. And yes, here I repeat my earlier point, that each generation sees those who come to the story for the first time and so it is the duty of the reviewer not to give away plot spoilers. So I must warn readers who come to The War of the Worlds for the first time to skip some of these editions' -- notably the Gollancz and Oxford University Press editions' -- introductions to the book and dive straight into the novel: these introductions come perilously close to, if not actually contains, plot spoilers. So I must remind those who do write reviews and book introductions, as well as those who commission them (and those who provide back cover blurbs) not to ruin any surprises authors provide their readers in their carefully crafted plots. (This sin is rare but is still all too common for my liking. Indeed one famous contemporary SF critic does this so often that I no longer read his reviews if I have not already read the novel in question. This person gets around this by saying he is writing critiques of books not reviews, in which case I wonder why he often writes 'critiques' within days of a book being published?) In short, the 'introductions' to the book would actually be better placed at the novel's end as an afterward, and Gollancz may wish to seriously consider this point when commissioning future accompanying articles to their books: fortunately, the Oxford University Press introduction is helpfully subtitled with a line in italics advising that some readers new to the novel might like to consider it as an 'Afterword'.

This brings me onto the 2012 Gollancz edition of War of the Worlds. It is, as said, part of the marvellous SF Masterwork series from that publisher but, more than that, this edition is a hardback version of the Masterworks with a full colour cover printed directly on, as part of, the hardback board itself (as opposed to a separate dust jacket). I have to say that I really like this particular hardback format the Masterworks series occasionally employs. Not only do I like the format (though a laminate for protection would be a utilitarian cherry on the icing) but it is a very reasonably priced hardback costing almost as little as a paperback! (This may well be because Gollancz already has the editing paid for, the typeset and cover illustration done, and having the story be copyright free as it is so old.   This edition's cover illustration is (a slight colour variation on) one by Chris Moore which Orion (the publishing group to which the Gollancz imprint belongs) has used before in the '90s, and indeed did with its Millennium SF Masterwork volume number 24 in 1999; that volume contained both The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine. Also, fortunately the 2012 and 2017 editions of the Gollancz SF Masterworks of this novel are unnumbered (hooray). 'Fortunately' because the previous SF Masterworks numbering was very confusing with different numbers being attributed to the same novel but varying due to exactly which Masterwork run. (This is something about which I used to complain: see my review of Ringworld and A Maze of Death.)  So I am glad Gollancz made this change dropping the numbering.   Finally, the top half of this book's spine is yellow. This is an historic reference to Orion's SF hardbacks of the 1960s and 1970s that had yellow dust jackets. Those of us who grew up as teenagers in this time (who are now (2013) in their late 50s or 60s) may fondly remember that some of our early forays into SF came via these yellow hardbacks: Orion (Gollancz) has a solid SFnal heritage.

2016 saw the 70th anniversary of H. G. Wells' death. This means that 2017 sees his works become copyright free and so not surprisingly there have been a slew of new editions from a number of publishers. The 2017 Gollancz edition has the same cover picture, but this edition is a mass market paperback which is a quid cheaper than the Macmillan Collectors' Library edition. The latter also contains an introduction by author James P. Blaylock. The Vintage Classics edition sports a 3D cover and comes with glasses. Personally, I feel it is best not to judge a book by its cover: it's the content that counts. If I had to choose then I'd go for the Gollancz edition as Gollancz has stuck with us providing us with Wells' SF novels over the years.  The Oxford University Press edition scores as it features not just an introduction by Darryl (M. R. James: Collected Ghost Stories and Horror Stories Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson) Jones but also a couple of maps: one of SE England and the novel's narrator's journey and one of Greater London and the adjoining parts of the Home Counties. Both Gollancz's Adam Roberts' and Oxford U. Press' Darryl Jones' introductions largely cover similar ground, though Roberts' has perhaps a more SFnal perspective while Jones' leans a little more towards the socio-political climate of the time and Britain's anxiety over possible real-life invasion. Both make very useful points and those whose interest in SF is die-hard serious may like me be a little greedy and want both.

For completeness' sake it should be noted that The War of the Worlds has also been a film at least twice. First directed by Byron Haskin (1953), starring Gene Barry, which won an Oscar for Special Effects courtesy of Gordon Jennings, and the second directed by Steven Spielberg (2005) and starring Tom Cruise.  The Byron Haskin film is on the list of all time best attended of movies screened at the Festival of Fantastic Films, and it won a retro-Hugo (an unofficial Hugo voted on at the 2004 Worldcon 50 years on from the 1954 Worldcon which did present Hugos for SF in 2003).  Lesser known films include another 2005 version admirably set in Victorian times but filmed with such bloat that it drags terribly (and there are also historical errors). This version, directed by Timothy Hines and starring Anthony Piana, is so bad that one wonders whether it was rushed out to ride on the Spielberg/Cruise film's publicity?  In 2012, Timothy Hines re-packaged his 2005 effort as a quasi-documentary with some added material and voice-over but trimming the overall time so as to tighten matters. He called it War of the Worlds the True Story.  The result is an improvement which might be worth serious Wells' and War of the Worlds aficionados checking out but not perhaps your average SF fan.

The novel also inspired a short-lived but fondly remembered comics series (Killraven the Hunter, Marvel Comics by Don McGregor), a 'concept' album of songs and spoken-word featuring Richard Burton (Jeff Wayne, 1978), as well as a lacklustre sequel US TV series (1988-90) starring Jared Martin. Notwithstanding the afore, there are also mechanical tripods in John Christopher’s juvenile-SF tetralogy The Tripods which itself had a 1984 BBC series adaptation, and which could be said to have been inspired by Wells' three-legged Martian machines. Finally, there have been a number of other related graphic novels including: Superman: War of the Worlds (1999); the sequel murder mystery Scarlet Traces (2003); and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Vol II (2003).

And so there you have it: a strong recommendation for both Wells' story and particular the 2012 Gollancz hardback of The War of the Worlds, just pipping the Oxford University Press edition in terms of production values (hardback and slightly larger font), but the Oxford University Press for a more expansive introduction, page footnotes (compiled into an Appendix) and two maps.  Either of these are a 'must buy' for any SF collector whose copy may by now be battered and a great birthday/Christmas gift for tempting teenagers to dip a toe into SF.

Jonathan Cowie

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