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For those who are only aware of Jeff Wayne or Steven Spielberg, this slim but eerie volume of late Victorian prose may come as a surprise. Just over 200 pages long (and originally serialised in "Pearons Magazine" in 1897), 1898's "The War of the Worlds" by HG Wells is effectively the great-granddaddy of every alien invasion story. And it reads like Thomas Hardy.
The unrelenting reality strikes the reader from the very beginning, with that portentuous and famous "no one would have believed ... " first chapter. "War of the Worlds" was a novel written for various reasons, but perhaps most importantly it was a parody. In the previous twenty years or so, "invasion novels", fantasies of England being invaded by other European powers, had become a popular if very-badly-written branch of literature. By taking his brother Frank's original idea (what if aliens invaded and behaved to the British the way the British had behaved to other countries in their Empire) and melding it to the structure of these xenophobic penny dreadfuls, HG Wells came up a very memorable and novel idea. Despite the tremendous suspension of disbelief required to envisage creatures from Mars invading in giant armoured tripods, Wells makes this a lot easier for the reader by setting his invasion in a "true" setting - certainly, far more realistic than many of the settings of the other, more-earth-bound invasion fantasies of the time. Wells places his invasion firmly in the Home Counties.
Armed with an Ordnance Survey map of Woking, and his newly learned skill of cycling, Wells began writing the Martian's advance through his home town (Wells lived in Woking for eighteen months in the mid-1890s) and along the Thames valley to London. Every house, every pub, every street, appears to be accurate, and many of the buildings earmarked for Heat Ray destruction in Woking (sometimes due to a perceived slight Wells had received from the owner) can still be seen on the streets mentioned in the novel. There is something endearingly adolescent about the way Wells settles scores in his imagination, on paper - he corresponded with several people saying he was taking particular delight in destroying South Kensington in the final London scenes (an area he had known well as a student).
Almost incidentally, the Martian invasion takes place against some amazingly evocative scenes of a late Victorian high summer spent amongst the dormitory towns and golf links of Surrey. This is the sleeping heart of empire - and one which is ripped apart by a foe that appears in the landscape as naturally as a skylark or a light breeze. With this, Wells set in motion one of the great archetypes of British science fiction: the Apocalypse always seems to go to the Home Counties first. John Wyndham, Terry Nation, John Christopher, Alex Garland, J G Ballard, even the Surrey-obsessed Douglas Adams, all in some way adhere to this rule.
It could be argued that without this couching of suburban pastoralism, the actual plot of "War of the Worlds" would be exposed as being over-slight. Certainly, compared to his 1902 work "The First Men on the Moon", this is not a story that could have been easily adapted into a Saturday matinee serial, or a Peter Cushing "Doctor Who" movie ("The First Men on the Moon" was first adapted for film in the same year as publication; "The War of the Worlds" waited five and a half decades). However, it is no more slight or paceless than Wells' previous novels "The Time Machine" and "The Invisible Man", both of which are effectively one idea stretched out over several chapters. With "The War of the Worlds", Wells' writing reached a new maturity which would tumble out further in his socio-realistic novels of the Edwardian era ("Kipps", "Love and Mr Lewisham" and "Tono-Bungay").
The plot itself is (of course) old and well-known: but if you don't know it yet, then I amn't going to be the one to divulge it. And even if you do, there is still enough unique moments in the book, as opposed to the three (four?) movies, the TV series, the various radio adaptations, steam-punk comic books, and the prog-rock musical, that even if you have devoured all subsequent incarnations and adaptation and have yet to read the original, there is still pages and pages of the novel which reveal fresh delights that all subsquent versions either ignore or fail to make as good.
This review has also appeared on dooyoo and on glasgowwho.co.uk soon.