So-Called “Greats”: War of the Worlds

A “Great” Made More Impactful Today from its Origins Than Its Setting

There have been some to consider H.G. Wells alongside Jules Verne as the “fathers of modern science fiction”. This is a misconception, as Mary Shelley is the true origin of modern science fiction. Yet, there’s a reason why many consider Wells especially in this regard. He has produced some of the most well-known works of early science fiction, including The Time Machine, The Invisible Man and The First Men in the Moon.

Yet, of all his works, in my opinion, none are more highly regarded as his 1898 novel The War of the Worlds. This novel is one of the few early works of science fiction that holds up well to this day and is one of the “greats” of the alien invasion sub-genre.

One of the many various editions of The War of the Worlds that I found at my local bookstore.

Tragedy Concealed as Invaders from Mars

War of the Worlds is the classic alien invasion story. Invaders from Mars have landed in southern England and are determined to turn the land into their own. The unnamed protagonist tells of the horror of these Martians and how they feel insignificant in the face of these invaders. It’s a plotline many alien invasion stories have taken inspiration from; Independence Day (1996) and the Resistance game series to name two.

Yet, the most interesting aspect of this book is its supposed inspiration. After reading the essay ‘The War of the Worlds’ by Australian author Noel Pearson, I was shocked and to know it was said to have been inspired by the British colonisation of Tasmania in the early 19th century. In this essay, Pearson says how the extermination of the Tasmanian Aboriginal population was a known and much discussed topic in Victorian Britain. Wells later envisioned it as the British being these Martians and the Tasmanian Aboriginal population being Earthlings.

Picturesque Tasmania, Australia. The place in the world where the origins of H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds can be traced back to. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Learning this fact, in my opinion, has helped make The War of the Worlds stand up well to this day. It’s all a real-life tragedy told in an alien invasion story. Especially for me, being Australian, it’s both tragic and awe-inspiring to know that such a significant entry of classic speculative fiction was inspired by something happening in my home country. I highly recommend Pearson’s essay on this topic, be you interested in this book’s origins or if you want to find out more about the history of the First Peoples of Australia.

A Classic Dampened by Scientific Advancement

Although still an engaging read, there’s something that unfortunately holds The War of the Worlds back. This is due to scientific advancement. Much like a lot of other works of early science fiction depicting Mars, the idea of Martian canals was still present. This was a book long written before Mariner 4 reaching the red planet in 1965, which unfortunately takes some of its believability away.

This change is very obvious in the adaptations of this book. The 1938 Orson Welles radio drama and 1953 film adaptation (both amazing by the way) depict the invaders being from Mars. Yet, the 2005 Steven Spielberg film adaptation of the same name (just as good), claims they’re from across the gulf of space from an unknown place.

While the 2005 film fixes this glaring issue, it does take away from the mystic of the book. Much like the other major adaptations, it changes to the then contemporary United States settings, rather than original Victorian Britain. It’s a shame, in my opinion, there’s very few well-known adaptations that go back to this original setting.

Is It a “Great”?

H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds continues to stand on its own as a classic of early science fiction. It’s still a highly readable story that is as fresh as it was in 1898, despite scientific advancements disproving the existence of current Martian intelligent life. Its tragic inspiration also continues to keep it a “great” of the speculative fiction genre. This inspiration has given it a renewed discussion which solidifies it as a “great”.

If you’re new to the genre and want to read a classic, I recommend you start with this story. It still stands incredible today and is widely available, due to being out of copyright.

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