Book Review: The Time Machine & The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

The Time Machine & The War of the WorldsThe Time Machine & The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read a combined edition of these two books for the SF Masterworks Reading Challenge and the Science Fiction Masterworks Book Club here on Goodreads.

The Time Machine

Read for the Need to Reread Challenge.

I have, of course, read most of H.G. Wells before. He was one of my early introductions to science fiction. After we did the radio play The Invisible Man in school (I was eight or nine) I asked my school librarian about that novel. We didn’t have The Invisible Man, but we did have The Time Machine, and he was only too happy to point me that way. And I, of course, devoured it.

From a retrospective, the Time Machine suffers from many of the problems that 19th century novels often do. The art form was new then, so no one really had an idea of how to do it, and thus, things that we would consider signs of poor writing now were a part of the landscape then. In particular, Wells uses long words and paragraphs when short ones would do, and he does not fully develop his one female character as anything more than a childlike figure that he must take care of. However, the book is action-packed and powerful, and it keeps you turning pages.

And obviously its images stay with you a long time. I remembered the Eloi and the Morlocks vividly (though I still have no idea where the Time Traveler learned their names). Strangely, I did not remember his brief sojourn to the end of the Earth at all. Perhaps that was just too big for me to grasp at such a young age. As an adult, it was both moving and terrifying. I see now that this book is, in part, an extended meditation on the futility of civilization and our efforts to immortalize ourselves. There was an extended scene in a museum that had gone to seed in the world of the Eloi that also drove home this message. Powerful stuff, and of course, a must read for every fan of science fiction, if not everyone in our culture, period.

The War of the Worlds

Read for the Need to Reread Challenge.

I’ve read this before, of course. It was one of my first introductions to the magical world of science fiction, and it helped to make me a lifelong convert. A lot of its images stayed in my mind, reinforced by the numerous adaptations in film and stage.

Rereading this as an adult was an experience I highly recommend for so many reasons!

First, it’s just damn good writing. I had forgotten (or maybe never appreciated, when I was about nine or so) what a masterful writer Wells was. I noticed vast improvements even between War of the Worlds (1898) and The Time Machine (1895). In those three years he managed to abandon a lot of the conventions of early novels that modern readers find bothersome and regard as bad writing. His sense of dramatic timing is outstanding. He gives us cutaways, leaving us in suspense about the fate of his protagonist while describing what his protagonist’s brother is experiencing in London. His pacing relaxes not in the least; it’s an excellent action piece, even by a modern standard! He writes the first real example that I know about of great disaster fiction. His imagining of the disaster of the Martian invasion is reminiscent of World War I, which, as you will recall, is still almost twenty years away.

Which is also interesting. His “Black Smoke” looks a lot like mustard gas in its effect, the difference being that the Black Smoke of the Martians was black, while mustard gas is a sickly puke yellow. I understand that mustard gas had indeed been used in a few small conflicts at this point, and he must have been one of the first to visualize its deadly and horrific effects when used on a civilian population.

And his turns of phrase and choice of words are truly outstanding. I was struck in particular by this example. He described how “the stars mustered” at twilight, which directly preceded the first Martian attack. It was an elegantly chosen phrase for its subtle foreshadowing. That’s good writing.

Finally, I know this line of critique has been advanced, and challenged, before, but it seems clear to me that Wells was doing what a good science fiction writer is supposed to do. He was looking at an aspect of technology, and another of sociology, that others may not have considered, and examining it in metaphor to a logical, if extreme, conclusion; asking us to confront “what if?” And one of the “what if’s?” I think he was asking was “what if England were on the receiving end of colonial warfare? How do you think we’d like it?”

I think it stands up pretty well to the test of time. There were only a couple of things that might create issues for the modern reader. Aside from the obvious anachronism of the idea of life on Mars, one more stood out to me. That was that the description of the Earth from a distance as “green and grey.” It struck me, because of course, no one would ever describe Earth that way, now that we’ve seen it as the “pale blue dot.”

And I have to ask: why do we have yet to experience a screen adaptation of this story that actually sets it in the original time period? Because, seriously, the idea of fighting an advanced technological alien civilization with horse-drawn cannons is just frickken cool.

I think it’s important that everyone read this book just because of the cultural influence that it’s had on us. For instance, it’s remarkable to me that Wells has the Martians land in an English village, and it’s largely ignored by the military for a whole day. We’ve all seen enough movies now, probably sparked by the famous radio play of this story in the thirties that caused such a panic, that if something like that happened in the modern world, the local National Guard or other militia force would have it surrounded, and, hopefully, contained, within thirty minutes. We’ve all taken note of this cautionary tale. And as Stephen King observed in Danse Macabre, the many movies on the theme that were used to encourage anti-Communist propaganda in the Cold War, have reinforced it.

But, read it just because it’s a a damn good book too.

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