Monday, April 10, 2006

The War Of The Worlds, H. G. Wells

Title: The War Of The Worlds
Author: H. G. Wells
Rating: Good

The War Of The Worlds is the next book in my H. G. Wells SF collection. As you are no doubt aware, this story has penetrated modern culture to a degree that is hard to fathom. The Wikipedia entry on this story book lists at least 4 movie adaptations, and other related works.

The book, however, hasn't held up as well as I thought. I am coming to the conclusion that Wells didn't really know how to write about people, and that his understanding of science - at least in some areas - was pretty weak.

About people, Wells seems to have an aversion to letting us know who his characters actually are. Most have no names at all as far as we are told, and what passes for character development is not particularly believable. His characters are flat and their motivations are weak or missing entirely. My own expectations of behavior are different, of course, after over 100 years of cultural change. However, it should be possible to make me suspend my disbelief in what they are doing, and he has a tough time achieving that result.

On science, Wells does get some interesting things right. Yes, it is possible to send vehicles between the planets. But to do it with a huge gun is simply ludicrous. The acceleration needed to get a craft from Mars to Earth would turn any creatures inside the projectile into a very thin film instantly. And he describes in some detail how the "cylinders" crash into the countryside near London, which means, of course, that if the Martians weren't turned to jelly when they departed, they would be when they "landed". What really bothers me about this is that nothing in that was outside of his (possible) knowledge when he wrote the volume in 1898. The calculations for acceleration - needed to shoot artillery shells from cannons - hand been known for a long time. Even if Wells himself couldn't do the math, he could have found someone who could, and who could have told him that his Martians would be dead before their spacecraft exited the barrel of the muzzle of their gun.

Ah well. If you set aside the more spectacular scientific blunders - some of which Wells cannot be held responsible for anyway - and ignore the sometimes improbable behavior of the main character, the story is still a good adventure tale. It reads reasonably well on that level even now, 108 years after it was originally published. In that light it is a classic, and recommended reading.