An introduction to The War of the Worlds

Writer Iain Sinclair discusses how H G Wells’s The War of the Worlds disturbed the public by combining journalistic sensationalism, scientific fantasy, suburban mundanity and fears of invasion.
The attitude towards science among the 19th-century intellectual elite was one of amusement. The subject was believed to be slightly remote – as vulgar and inessential as the technology of underground trains, telephones and internal-combustion engines. There was always a little man for such things, an oily-fingered mechanic. ‘In those days,’ wrote Ford Madox Ford in 1909, ‘no one bothered his head about Science. It seemed to be an agreeable parlour-game – like stamp-collecting'.

Herbert George Wells astonished this elite, the weavers of labyrinthine paragraphs, with his boisterous energy, his ability to understand, explain and exploit the substance of the contemporary world. He had emerged from nowhere, the suburbs, without family, a failed shopboy, pupil and later teacher at Midhurst Grammar School, sickly student (on a scholarship) at the Normal School of Science, a disciple of T H Huxley, a jobbing scientific journalist.

Then, in that miraculous period between the publication of The Time Machine (1895) and The First Men on the Moon (1901), he produced the stories, novels, conjectures, that laid out the emerging field of science fiction: interplanetary adventure, time travel, genetic engineering. The ‘scientific romance’ had evolved from the affordable pulp-fiction shilling-shocker, the masculine equivalent of housemaid fiction, to claim its place on the station bookstalls of captured railway suburbs such as Woking.

Suburban realism

H G Wells, populist, fits neatly alongside his anonymous, fictional narrator in The War of the Worlds: substance and shadow. They both live in Woking. They keep up with current events. It’s a break in the day’s labour to push back the desk and stroll down to the station for the evening newspaper – with its litany of invasions, colonial wars, exhibitions, reviews. Like his narrator, Wells works long, regular hours. He’s successful.

The impact of this 1898 novel lies in its realism, its forensic examination of the comfortably mundane, the complacency of Surrey suburbia, railway towns surrounded by golf links, tame heathland, somewhere to walk a dog. With his brother Frank, so science-fiction anthologist Mike Ashley tells us, Wells explored the lanes and pilgrim paths of Surrey and Kent, debating and discussing. ‘Suppose,’ Frank remarked, ‘some beings from another planet were to drop out of the sky suddenly, and began laying about them here?’

The War of the Worlds illustrated by Henrique Alvim-Corrêa

Illustration of the Martian cylinders attacking houses in a suburban street, by Henrique Alvim-Corrêa, 1906.

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Reportage, tabloid speed and the language of the commonplace

The War of the Worlds is told with tabloid speed and the lovely poetry of the commonplace. The mood of The Time Machine, Wells’s first novel, published in 1895, is much more leisurely, post-prandial; a pre-Raphaelite fable with sinister shadows. Episodes unfold at their own pace, allowing space for lengthy digressions. The War of the Worlds happens in the world of fast news, telegrams, electricity. The false dynamic – of stock-market reports, global investments – is superimposed on slow-moving village life (pubs, horses, hedgerows). Railways are now more significant features than rivers (which prove no barrier to the advance of the Martian tripods).

Terse reportage works like radio before its time. Cutting is rapid. Suspension of disbelief is immediate. The model is immaculate and can be adapted to any period at any time. Byron Haskin's 1953 film shifts the invasion to California, where the lumbering tripods becoming the flying saucers of cold war paranoia.

The narrator of The War of the Worlds is drawn, by the instincts of a good journalist, towards the curious incident of the cylinder in the pit. Squid-like entities have been delivered by interplanetary torpedo to Horsell Common, outside Woking. This target has been carefully selected by an author who, having lived there, has a casual intimacy with the district.

The book foresees a future of escalating outrage, against which a numbed population is helpless. Cutting the narrator free from his safe haven, his cloying domesticity, Wells outlines a Pilgrim’s Progress for his own times. A road novel with a respectable citizen, unhoused, walking towards London, paddling along the Thames, squatting in an abandoned suburban villa. War fever brought home. It could happen here.

The Great War in England

The Great War in England [page: 308]

The Great War in England in 1897, by William Le Queux was written in 1894, and expressed the widespread fear of possible invasion, a fear largely based on the perceived undermanning of the army and navy.

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‘The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of 50 years’, writes Wells (Book 1, ch. 1). The colonialist parallel is made. The city-grubs, churchgoers, employers of domestic servants, settled around London’s ragged southern fringes, would themselves be attacked, exterminated, cannibalised by invaders from a wholly alien culture.

The Martian cylinders land in an immaculate triangulation around Woking: Horsell Common, Addlestone golf links, Pyrford. Synonyms for everything that is safe and benign and slightly boring. The heartland. The ancient dream of Englishness. Re-invaded for the first time since Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers occupied common land on St George’s Hill, near Weybridge, in the aftermath of the English civil war.

The first cylinder sits in its sandy pit like something outrageous, a stinking fish on an immaculate altar cloth. It draws a crowd of the curious: ‘a couple of cyclists, a jobbing gardener ... two or three loafers and golf caddies who were accustomed to hang about the railway stations’ (Book 1, ch. 3). This is the most desirable landscape in England, the best property – and it has become a war zone, the front line.

Disaster zone

Heat-Rays burning forests. ‘Black Smoke’ gassing civilians, drifting over Thames Valley settlements (Book 2, ch. 1). An enormous volume of heavy, inky vapour, coiling and pouring upward in a huge and ebony cumulus cloud, a gaseous hill that sank and spread itself slowly over the surrounding country. Wells anticipates the hopelessness of coming ecological disaster, rivers choked with red weed. ‘Charred and distorted bodies’ heaped at the roadside (Book 1, ch. 6). Shepperton destroyed by the ‘pitiless sword of heat’ (Book 1, ch. 7). And, curiously, one of the first architectural casualties is a place of worship. ‘The pinnacle of the mosque had vanished, and the roof-line of the college itself looked as if a hundred-ton gun had been at work upon it’ (Book 1, ch. 9). 

A mosque in 19th-century Woking? This is not some caprice; Wells knew the ground he was describing. Look at a street atlas and you'll find the Shah Jehan Mosque alongside the Maybury Road, right opposite the Moslem Burial Ground and the tumulus on Horsell Common, the site of the Martian landing. Wells achieves total conviction for his fantastic tale by using accurate local detail. And only then does he unleash imagery from the Book of Revelations.

Visions of the future

The page-turning impact of Wells’s narrative of invasion comes in short sharp bursts, breathless dispatches, as he lays bare the three strands of time: the now-submerged rustic past of captured agricultural land; the present of imperialism in its boastful pomp (trains that run on time, swift communication, a splendid capital city); and a vividly imagined future of endless wars, ever-improving weapons of destruction, incompetent and mendacious government and media hungry to report everything that isn’t happening. Lists of place-names become, for Wells as for William Blake, a litany of significance:

And all about him – in the rooms below, in the houses on each side and across the road, and behind in the Park Terraces and in the hundred other streets of that part of Marylebone, and the Westbourne Park district and St Pancras, and westward and northward in Kilburn and St John's Wood and Hampstead, and eastward in Shoreditch and Highbury and Haggerston and Hoxton, and, indeed, through all the vastness of London from Ealing to East Ham – people were rubbing their eyes ... and dressing hastily as the first breath of the coming storm of Fear blew through the Streets. It was the dawn of the great panic. (Book 1, ch.14)

Wells has received insufficient credit as a writer of rhythmic, incantatory prose, long-breath paragraphs to cut against his tight journalistic reportage. The War of the Worlds makes the journey from sensationalist incident to moral parable. Wells predicts an era when fiction and documentary will be inseparable.

This is an edited extract from the introduction to the Folio Society’s edition of The War of the Worlds, first published in 2004.

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An introduction to The War of the Worlds by Iain Sinclair ©Iain Sinclair. This item can be used for your own private study and research. You may not use this work for commercial purposes.

  • Iain Sinclair
  • Iain Sinclair is the highly acclaimed British author of many works of non-fiction, and some fiction. A number of his books focus on London, its history, spirit and surroundings. Iain’s work is widely regarded as foremost examples of psychogeography.

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