Fiction Reviews


War of the Worlds

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

 

This is the 2012 edition of H. G. Wells seminal SF classic from 1898. It is so famous that it barely warrants a review and yet there are always newcomers to the genre and, as I will point out, this particular edition deserves special attention.

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 this edition (by Adam Roberts) 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. 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 Roberts' introduction to the book and dive straight into the novel: this introduction comes perilously close to, if not actually contains, a plot spoiler. 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, this 'introduction' 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 the wonderfully worthy SF Masterwork series.

This brings me onto this particular 2012 edition of War of the Worlds. It is, as said, part of the marvellous SF Masterwork series from Gollancz but more than that the recent hardback version of the Masterworks with a full colour cover printed directly on, as part of, the hardback (as opposed to a separate dust jacket). I have to say that I really like this particular hardback format of the Masterworks series. 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 as little as a paperback! (This may well be because Gollancz already has the editing paid for, the typeset and cover illustration done, as well as probably 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 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 this new 2012 edition Gollancz SF Masterwork is 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.

For completeness' sake it should be noted that The War of the Worlds has also been a film at least twice. First directed by. George (The Time Machine) Pal (1953), starring Gene Barry, which won an Oscar for Special Effects courtesy of Gordon Jennings, and second directed by Steven Spielberg (2005) and starring Tom Cruise. The George Pal 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). It 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 the 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.

And so there you have it: a strong recommendation for both Wells' story and this particular edition of The War of the Worlds. A 'must buy' for any SF collector whose copy is battered and a great birthday/Christmas gift for tempting teenagers to dip a toe into SF.

Jonathan Cowie


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