The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells

I shall whisper
Heavenly labials in a world of gutturals.
It will undo him.
-Stevens, “The Plot Against the Giant”

The first lines can’t be read without hearing that other Well(e)s: “No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.” There are few greater openings; perhaps only Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness can compare:

  I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why. It is altogether against my will that I tell the reasons for opposing this contemplated invasion of the antarctic — with its vast fossil hunt and its wholesale boring and melting of the ancient ice caps. And I am the more reluctant because my warning may be in vain. . . .

The novel (let’s call it that) is remarkable for its local detail and achieves much of its terrible effect through the accumulation of place and road names — Horsell, Maybury, Chobham, Woking, Ottershaw, Weybridge and Shepperton, the Byfleet Station. As though writing for a friend in the next village, the narrator describes without elucidation the burning of trees by the Oriental College and the disappearance of the “pinnacle of the mosque.” (The Shah Jahan Mosque was built in Woking in 1889.) This is Joycean naturalism avant la lettre.

The last four chapters of the First Book shift the narrative perspective to the narrator’s unnamed brother, who is caught up in the attacks in London and witnesses a naval battle with the tripods. The skills that Wells brought to this early science-fiction work did not include a Conradian facility with shifting perspectives. Even the narrator admits at the beginning of the Second Book that he has left his own story suspended for four chapters while he put his brother’s experiences at the forefront. This is only the slightest of blemishes on the face of the book — the kind that could be painlessly excised with a heat-ray.

Man with a Conley Folding Camera, from

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