If you’ve somehow made it this far in life without at least hearing of this book, you are both a marvel and curiosity. To give you a basic run down of the plot: the world is invaded by Martians around the turn of the previous century, and humanity is woefully ill-equipped to fend off the invaders.
In other words, have you ever seen a movie or read a book or heard someone tell a story in which aliens invade earth? It no doubt owes at least part of its existence to this book. Just as H.G. Wells practically invented the idea of traveling through time via a man made contraption in….that book with the title that eludes my memory, he took the already extant genre of “invasion literature” popularized by George Tomkyns Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking and broadened its scope. In so doing, Wells revolutionized the genre and made profound what had previously been prosaic.
Published in 1895, the British Empire spanned the globe and held dominion over nearly half a billion people (approximately one-third of all human life). It was the world’s most dominant force, and London was it’s epicenter. As typically (melodramatically) happens at the twilight of an era, people begin contemplating the end of all things. Add to this a latent cultural fear that the increasing global tension over the imperialist ambitions of England’s neighbors, and the idea that the heart of the British Empire could become a target to an indomitable and alien foe struck a chord with Wells’ audience. Hell, it continues to strike that chord today, as much of our entertainment is centered around the idea that our society is under threat.
None of which is to say that War of the Worlds is the origin of this brand of entertainment, but it is certainly an important early example.
And it stands the test of time. Don’t get me wrong, some of the science is absurd at this point: Wells based the idea of Martians on some fairly problematic ideas (the mistranslation of Giovanni Schiaparelli’s use of “canali” to describe observed geological features is the famous example), but this is a generally thoughtful exploration of how a superior invasion force could utterly devastate the most powerful nation on earth and be brought down not by humanity’s ingenuity (or spectacular use of an early Apple laptop, *cough*Jeff Goldblum*cough*), but hubris and ignorance.
I think no further evidence of its impact is needed than to say Robert Goddard, the guy who invented the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket, cited an early inspiration for his future career as reading War of the Worlds.
So if you, like me, found yourself watching Steven Spielberg’s movie 10 years ago and thinking, “this would be pretty good if it weren’t for the terrible kids”, go pick up a copy of the book. There wasn’t a screaming child to be found. And if the lack of screaming children isn’t a selling point for you, I don’t really know what else can be said.