Monday, August 26, 2013

'War of the Worlds' Revisited

The War of the Worlds
by H.G. Wells
(Multiple editions)

The Martian War
by Kevin G. Anderson
(Titan Books)

     I recently purchased a book, The Martian War by Kevin J. Anderson, that retells H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds (1898), adding real historical figures such as T.H. Huxley and Wells himself as characters, as well as other of Wells' fictional characters such as Griffin (The Invisible Man) and Dr. Moreau. (I thought it was a new title, but it's really a reissue from 2005, originally as by Gabriel Mesta).
     From the description, it sounded like a steampunk variation on the tale, and I was curious to see what and how it was done. Before reading it, however, I realized I had never actually read Wells' original.  I've read other books by Wells, including The Time MachineThe Invisible ManThe Island of Dr. Moreau and The First Men in the Moon, but for some reason I've always ignored WotW. I knew the general story from various sources -- a Classic Comics adaptation, Orson Welles' radio dramatization, Jeff Wayne's rock concept album (with narration by Richard Burton), Manly Wade Wellman and Wade Wellman's Sherlock Holmes: War of the Worlds pastiche and Alan Moore's and Kevin O'Neill's second volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novel series (which  centered around the Martian invasion, also adding Griffin and Moreau, as well as Capt. Nemo, Mina Harker, Alan Quatermain and Mycroft Holmes) -- but not the original book itself (or, curiously, any of the film versions).
     Now I realize why: it's deathly dull, and I must have instinctively knew it.
     The plot is fairly simple: explosions are observed on the surface of Mars, followed by a capsule landing in England, from which emerge tentacled, big-brained Martians. They are equipped with heat rays, giant tripod siege engines, a deadly black dust and river-blocking red weed. Then, just when it seems they are unstoppable, they perish due to their immune systems being unaccustomed to Earth bacteria (or perhaps any bacteria). The end.
     There is little dialogue, because the narrator spends most of the book alone, observing the Martians. Since there is no omniscient narrator, we only know and experience what he knows and experiences, and he is more a plot device than a character.
     Orson Welles overcame this problem in the first half of his radio drama by the device of making it a live newscast of the events of the Martians' arrival, and in the second half by using the one scene with appreciable quantity of dialogue as the centerpiece. While other Mercury Theater of the Air adaptations seem rushed by this process (such as its version of Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days), here Welles makes a virtue of brevity by conflating the boring narrative.
     I've always been amazed that radio listeners were fooled by Orson Welles' radio play of the story because I thought it was extremely well-known. Then I stumbled across a quote on Wikipedia where Wells said something like he ought to thank Welles for drawing attention to one of his "more obscure titles" (though maybe Wells was being ironic himself when he claimed that). Now, having attempted to read the (relatively) short work, I can understand that obscurity.
     Apart from the notoriety occasioned by the radio broadcast (which many ignorantly still call a deliberate hoax), the main attraction of the story is the Martians' arrival, their appearance and especially the tripods. The actual details of their invasion are rather boring. The fact that they drink human blood seems rather silly. Their method of launching their capsules into space seems to be by giant cannon, as depicted earlier in Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon (1865), and seems no more likely in Wells' time than it did in Verne's. Then the Martians are defeated by the deus ex machina of germs, which is nicely ironic but falls a little flat.
     Of the different versions and interpolations of the book that I've read, seen or heard, Welles is pretty good, Wayne has its good points (though the songs aren't all that engaging, Burton's narration is wonderful) and Moore has fun with the metafictional aspects (which I think directly influenced Anderson; he even gives Griffin's first name as Hawley, which appears nowhere in the Wells original).  The Wellmans, alas, mostly just replace Wells' narrator with Holmes and Watson so we have two characters basically just watching the events and telling us about them (though they do add the Crystal Egg from another Wells story).
     I've yet to read Lavie Tidhar's The Great Game, which seems to be a steampunk metafictional riff on the War of the Worlds (incorporating Lucy Westenra from Bram Stoker's Dracula, Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes, Harry Houdini and airships), but it's on my list. It's part of Tidhar's Bookman Histories.
     I passed on Zdenko Basic's Steampunk H.G. Wells, his third steampunk illustrated classic collection, in part because I don't care for the interpretation of Wells' tripods featured on the cover. The volume also includes The Invisible Man and the short story The Country of the Blind.
     Anderson also edited an anthology, War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches (1996), which explores how humans from other parts of the world fared during the Martian invasion; it will be reissued in September by Titan Books.
     (Two other "sequels" which I've never seen but probably should mention are the Marvel Comics series Killraven: The War of the Worlds -- which has a future Earth overrun by a second Martian invasion, with the titular hero leading the resistance movement -- and the syndicated TV series The War of the Worlds, in which the stored bodies of the Martians are revived, whereupon they possess humans to gain immunity to Earth's bacteria.)
     Even if the book was "obscure," it must have been popular at one time. Only weeks after the original novel was serialized, an unauthorized sequel had Thomas Edison leading a retaliatory counter-invasion of Mars. Now there's a film I  might watch.


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