03 November 2014: Wowed by Wells

WotWIt was 1968 and I was eleven or twelve years old when I bought my first book with my own money. This is a pic of the cover of the very edition I bought. Not only do I still own it, it’s in pretty good nick for a book that’s 47 years old (this edition was published by Penguin in 1967). I love the cover; it reminds me of the pseudo-Edwardian craze that briefly inhabited British art at the end of the 60s, reflected in everything from men’s fashion to the design of the Wild Woodbine cigarette pack.

I knew of H.G. Wells, but had never read any of his work. I also knew about The War of the Worlds, mainly because I’d seen and loved the 1953 George Pal film on television the year before (tragically, in b&w). I was reading every science fiction book I could lay my hands on, and I was curious to see how it would read. I think it cost me all of 60 cents.

I was sucked in from the moment I read the first paragraph: “No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that human affairs were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own … intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic … ”

Thanks to Spielberg’s 2015 version, whenever I read those words now I hear Morgan Freeman’s baritone in my ears. To be fair, before Freeman it was Richard Burton’s voice I heard in my head, thanks to Jeff Wayne’s 1978 concept album. But whatever voice delivers the words, it is the writing – the phrasing, especially – that makes it ring.

The first section of the book, dealing with the invasion and its immediate aftermath, is still something I reread every year or so. And to this day I have not read or seen anything that imparts the same level of dread at the first appearance of a malevolent alien than the glistening, bear-sized mass that slithers from the Martian cylinder on Horsell Common. The only experience that comes close is the first glimpse of the creature in the Ridley Scott’s Alien, but that monster is clean-limbed and somehow thoroughly modern and mechanical, whereas Wells’ Martians are obscenely chthonic and organic.

The story’s influence on science fiction is probably immeasurable. Every alien invasion story owes something to Wells’ original.

For a long time I’d wanted to write something set in the same universe, or at least the same milieu. I’ve always admired Brian Aldiss’s homage “The Saliva Tree”, actually written to celebrate the centenary of Wells’ birth in 1866, and hankered to do something similar. In the end, my story “The Empire” unmistakably used The War of the Worlds as its spine, even if it mixes in rather a lot from the period, including music hall and Gilbert & Sullivan.

The film I would like to see almost more than any other, would be a version of The War of the Words that places the story in the period Wells himself placed it. Surely such a film would be the perfect vanguard for an effective steampunk invasion of the big screen?

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