War of the Worlds

Right now, the entire population of the UK is glued to the television, watching BBC’s three-part War of the Worlds.

I want to watch it too, but there’s a problem, and it’s not iPlayer (which you can’t view legally in the U.S.). It’s that I haven’t read the book.

What? you say. How can you not have read War of the Worlds? It’s true. I am not actually a big science fiction fan. That’s not how I got into researching H. G. Wells, and my work mostly stops when he publishes The Time Machine in 1895. I have read that book, and The Invisible Man, and Ann Veronica, and some short stories (the latter mostly because I enjoyed both watching and criticizing the accuracy of The Infinite Worlds of H. G. Wells). I have meant for some time to purchase an old copy of War of the Worlds, but as soon as I enter a bookstore I forget my list.

So the closest I’ve gotten to the story is a 1975 TV movie about the making of Orson Welles’ 1938 radio program (wherein I learned that the sound of the Martian ship opening was created by a jar screwtop echoing in a toilet bowl). I confess that I haven’t even heard the radio program itself, although I make it available to my students.

I can tell you that the story of the radio program causing people to believe that the Martians were landing in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, is a hoax about a hoax. I believed the TV movie, and only found out later that it didn’t really happen. People (normal people, anyway) did not think the Martians were invading, even if they were primed to hear about what Hitler was going to do next in Europe. And people from New Jersey just aren’t that gullible. Orson Welles ended up owning the story, though, and he and H. G. Wells met up later, in 1940, to chat on radio. (People loved that, but I think it’s one of the most awkward conversations ever, those two enormous egos in the same room.)

So, I thought I’d better read the book before watching the BBC special. Yes, of course it’s online. That’s not how I want to read it, but I started it just to confirm that the language used at the beginning of the special (ok, I peeked for a minute) was Wells. I got as far as this passage about Mars:

During the opposition of 1894 a great light was seen on the illuminated part of the disk, first at the Lick Observatory, then by Perrotin of Nice, and then by other observers. English readers heard of it first in the issue of Nature dated August 2. I am inclined to think that this blaze may have been the casting of the huge gun. . .

Researcher googles on! Bring up MiraCosta College library databases. Find Nature. Hone to 1894. Order by date. And there it was: “A Strange Light on Mars”, Nature 50, no 1292, 2 August 1894. It’s not long.

As it happens, Wells was writing for Nature at this time; in fact, the following issue in September featured his article on “Popularising Science”. Could Wells have read this, and gotten inspired to write War of the Worlds three years later? Certainly.

Could he have written this column? Yes, it’s possible — he did write unattributed bits for money, like the Science Notes in the Journal of Education. I can’t prove it, of course, but it’s interesting, that bit at the end about the Martians seeing us. . .

Now off to the bookstore!




6 comments to War of the Worlds

  • jmm

    This post is a wonderful launch to the day, not least because it includes the word “gibbosity” as well as DIY instructions for convincing starship-door-opening noises.

    The movie “Buckaroo Banzai” (full title: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension) is premised on the idea that the Grover’s Mill landings happened, albeit not with Martians (Red Lectroids from Planet 10.) Still bent on world domination, though.

    I think it’s more likely than not that Wells wrote, or at very least edited, that bit for Nature. Why, otherwise, would he remember the publication date of a brief, obscure report that amounted to nothing?

  • Eric Kuniholm

    Much better to read The War of the Worlds as an adult I believe, when one can fully appreciate its nuances and ironies, in sum, the skill of Wells as a novelist. It’s easy to forget that before the ghettoization of science fiction as a genre, Wells was seriously considered as a candidate for the Nobel prize in literature.The novel is a commentary on the basest as well as the heroic impulses of mankind, skewering class as well as nationalist tropes.
    I’ll just append two passages to whet your appetite—

    “… before we judge of them too harshly 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?”

    “Then something—something struggling violently—was lifted high against the sky, a black, vague enigma against the starlight; and as this black object came down again, I saw by the green brightness that it was a man. For an instant he was clearly visible. He was a stout, ruddy, middle-aged man, well dressed; three days before, he must have been walking the world, a man of considerable consequence. I could see his staring eyes and gleams of light on his studs and watch chain. He vanished behind the mound, and for a moment there was silence. And then began a shrieking and a sustained and cheerful hooting from the Martians.”

  • I am among the masses that just assumed you had read War of the Worlds! I recently reread it before reading Stephen Baxter’s sequel, The Massacre of Mankind … which has a ton of references to the original story in new ways.