The last book group meeting -- August 9, 2005 -- discussed The War of the Worlds, by H. G. Wells. Although several of our regulars were regrettably (and we assume regretfully) unable to attend, it was a lively and reasonably crowded evening nonetheless.
The Great Brownie Taste Test conducted that evening turned out to be, as far as I'm concerned, a dud. What happened was, I found a recipe for something called Truffle Brownies in a glossy, seductive chocolate cookbook, and decided that with a name like that, they couldn't not have a place in my kitchen. They might not replace my regular brownies, but they might give them a run for their money. A single pan of them called for half a dozen eggs and two bars of butter, for heaven's sake. You had to chop your own chocolate -- eight ounces of bittersweet, two of unsweetened. And the baker who wrote the cookbook swore that they were a cross between a brownie and a truffle. Hence the name.
I guess they have pretty tame truffles where she's from. These brownies were so gentle that after eating one, I had to scald my tongue with too-hot coffee just so it would know something had happened. The satiny-smooth texture that might have been exciting in a chocolate environment worthy of it only added unnecessary force to the ho-hum-time-for-bed feeling these listless cakes introduced to the evening. Dutifully chewing one, I felt like old Mr. Woodhouse in the corner with his bowl of gruel while everyone else at the party is living it up with wine and delicacies. (Another unlooked-for side effect of these little sedatives is a sudden urge to make gratuitous Jane Austen references.)
At least there was one pan of the traditional brownie fare, and a good-sized batch of shortbread. So we all managed to perk up enough to actually discuss the book in question.
While it's enjoyable to sit and lovingly vivisect a book we all ended up loathing, and very agreeable to bicker back and forth between an equal number of lovers and haters, this night was refreshing and unusual in that pretty much everyone who read the book enjoyed it.
P.B. had some reservations about the writing itself -- she thought that Wells' journalistically distant voice had gone overboard, especially since he went so far as to insist that none of the main characters' names were ever revealed. (Although one of the members thought that it came across as rather sexist for the wife of the main character to be referred to constantly as "my wife," as if she had no other identity in life, it was pointed out that the narrator's brother was merely "my brother," so surely even a rabid feminist such as yours truly couldn't be much offended by the namelessness of the wife.) P.B. said that between the characters having no names and no deeply developed personalities, she found it very difficult to get engaged by the story, and in fact would often find herself having to go back and reread a page or two here and there, since they'd made little impression on her.
A newcomer to the meetings pointed out vigorously that Wells had pulled the "look, Ma, no names!" gimmick in order to highlight the journalistic tone of the book and throw the horror of the events narrated into greater relief. Which is true; but I think that P.B.'s complaint is a valid one. Wells, after all, was able to exercise an effective journalistic tone in The Invisible Man while developing some of his most memorable and often deeply entertaining characters. WotW has an excellent premise, and of course that classic "this is the way the world ends -- not with a bang but a whimper" surprise ending, but if the narrator hadn't drawn quite so far away from his own story, it might have packed more of a wallop.
Mercedes Lackey, in her excellent essay "In Woking's Image," points out that Wells might have worried about giving his narrator more personality and strength, not to mention a more active role, because the narrator was so obviously merely a thinly disguised H. G. Wells. To have made him a paragon would have meant making a very common amateur writer's mistake: giving in to the admittedly huge temptation to draw oneself as the all-conquering hero. So common (and so annoying to everyone but the writer himself) is this failing that many editors specify in their calls for manuscripts that they will not accept writing that falls into this category. "No Sally Sues, please," they say wearily, in the same list of such fiction no-no's as vampires with AIDS and stories that end with "and he realized that it had all been just a dream." Wells was too good a writer to need such a warning (about having a Sally Sue narrator, that is), at least in his speculative fiction. In his stabs at mainstream literary novels, he seems to have been unable to do anything but write about himself. But more about that later.
Regardless of whether he intended the narrator to be interchangeable with his real self, though, Wells gives the main character a sentence that might very well be attributed to the author. Early on in the story, when the narrator has just had his first glimpses of what exactly has landed on our planet (and he is among the first to see the destructive force of the invading race), he staggers back to his home feeling bizarrely blank. "Perhaps I am a man of exceptional moods," he confides in the reader.
I do not know how far my experience is common. At times I suffer from the strangest sense of detachment from myself and the world about me; I seem to watch it all from the outside, from somewhere inconceivably remote, out of time, out of space, out of the stress and tragedy of it all. This feeling was very strong upon me that night.
Interestingly, Wells attributes a certain similar blankness to the majority of the population surrounding the landing site of the first Martian ship. His description of the overall impression is worth quoting in full:
Even within the five-mile circle the great majority of people were inert....All over the district people were dining and supping; working men were gardening after the labours of the day, children were being put to bed, young people were wandering through the lanes love-making [book lady's footnote: this phrase used to describe a far more harmless and innocent activity than what we all think of now on hearing it; one could make love to someone across the room, or, as here, in a perfectly public place, since it was an entirely verbal activity], students sat over their books.
Maybe there was a murmur in the village streets, a novel and dominant topic in the public houses, and here and there a messenger, or even an eye-witness of the later occurrences, caused a whirl of excitement, a shouting, and a running to and fro; but for the most part the daily routine of working, eating, drinking, sleeping, went on as it had done for countless years -- as though no planet Mars existed in the sky.
The last time I read WotW, years ago, I found this to be one of the few false notes it struck. I felt that Wells was making an artificial point, simply because he liked the idea of it. He was commenting on either small-town people and their small-town minds, or the English and their famously brisk let's-not-make-a-fuss attitude, or perhaps humanity as a whole and its willful blindness to the vitally important until it's too late.
Reading it now, post-September 11, I have a different point of view.
I think the majority of American people responded to that catastrophe as I did -- with stunned horror, a violent need to be home and a great reluctance to go out, an impulse to watch the news for the first time in years. But there were some who seemed blithely unaware that anything of howling significance had occurred. I managed to take my son to his toddler class, my only stab at normality for the day, and almost screamed when I heard one of the other mothers in the class grating on and on about her allergy doctor, while another greeted me with her usual brightness and asked what had made me so late that day.
I've been told that I ought to be more charitable; these people might have been in shock, and taking refuge in the mundane is perhaps not an unreasonable response to the unthinkable. I'm not convinced. I know someone who was out of town during the disaster, on vacation. She's an avid birdwatcher and nature-lover, and she was in Oregon, just about to leave on a scenic bus tour, when the news broke. Like every other passenger present, she got on that bus. The driver asked that the passengers please not discuss "current events," as he described them, while he was giving the tour. It was too distracting. There had been one tour he had given when some other noteworthy news event had been in the air, and it had ruined the entire drive when everyone kept talking about it. He couldn't do his job with that kind of thing.
And so everyone obediently sat quiet and let him do his job. This was a group tour. They were all here together, and all of them knew each other fairly well by now. They were all, the woman told me later, most impressed by the tour. The driver could single out a bird call even with the engine on and bring it to everyone's attention, identify the singer. It was a beautiful drive.
I find this unspeakable. This woman has always been afraid of being afraid, and so she turned away from the terror because she could. She's always hesitated to make any kind of a scene or a fuss, and so she didn't scream when the time came for screaming. Wells called it spot on. There is something really terrifying about the lengths to which people are willing to go to avoid thinking about anything that might change their world-view too much. The woman I've described didn't participate much in conversations about the event. She said herself that it didn't feel real to her, it felt as if everyone was talking about a movie, one that she hadn't seen. Much like Wells' town folk -- many of whom "had heard of the cylinder, and talked about it in their leisure, but it certainly did not make the sensation that an ultimatum to Germany would have done." Or, perhaps, an exceptionally beautiful nature drive.
Sorry to digress, but it is impossible to read or talk about WotW without thinking about 9/11. Wells wanted to propose the most terrifying "what if?" that could be imagined: the world, and especially England, being invaded by absolutely undefeatable enemies from beyond. Even after they've been driven off by the aid of "the tiniest assassins," as one essayist put it, they have changed humanity's outlook forever:
Whether we expect another invasion or not, our views of the human future must be greatly modified by these events. We have learned now that we cannot regard this planet as being fenced in and a secure abiding place for Man; we can never anticipate the unseen good or evil that may come upon us suddenly out of space. It may be that in the larger design of the universe this invasion from Mars is not without its ultimate benefit for men; it has robbed us of that serene confidence of the future which is the most fruitful source of decadence...
Leave out the words "Mars" and "out of space" and I could be quoting a speech George W. Bush might have made right after the disaster. Wells' Britain was much like our America: it was unthinkable that it could be even harmed, much less conquered, by any earthly nation. And so Wells had to reach outside our world to find a believable invading force.
And then he had to show the danger of the British absent-minded belief in its own invulnerability (a theme he had earlier developed in The Time Machine, though in this novel the destructive threat to the order would come from within rather than without). The passivity of the nameless narrator does, as P.B. pointed out, make it difficult for the reader (especially the modern-day reader) to engage or empathize with him; but it is necessary. This man isn't just someone; he's Everyman, every British citizen who sees a hideous disaster but tells only his wife for fear of seeming to make too big a fuss over nothing when after all the army is coming and everything will be all right in the morning. And he really believes it.
"A shell in the pit," said I, "if the worst comes to the worst, will kill them all."...So some respectable dodo in the Mauritius might have lorded it in his nest, and discussed the arrival of that ship of pitiless sailors in want of animal food. "We will peck them to death tomorrow, my dear."
To me the lines that immediately precede these are more chilling, though, in light of the American response to the 11th. The narrator is speculating on the heat-ray attack that the first Martians have leveled on the curious onlookers who have come to see the "meteorite" that has landed near their town. The murderous force of it has killed a few people, terrified others. But after all, the Martians (first glimpsed in this chapter) are ungainly, almost inert -- dragged down by a gravity far greater than that of their home world. How can they pose a threat? It doesn't occur to anyone to consider the possible ramifications of the intelligence and technology that enabled these aliens to come to Earth in the first place. Instead, they are almost pitied by our narrator:
"They have done a foolish thing," said I, fingering my wineglass. "They are dangerous because, no doubt, they are mad with terror. Perhaps they expected to find no living things -- certainly no intelligent living things."
And the terrorists are just jealous of us, and always underestimate American strength and ingenuity, and Osama can't hide forever. Climb back on the bus and let's hear the birds sing some more.
H. G. Wells was often referred to as a prophet, in terms of the predictions he made about scientific and technological advances; but I think his greatest "predictions" were simply his insights and observations about human beings, especially in times of extremity. The evacuation of the town is a masterpiece of portraits in miniature adding up to the picture of a people:
The respectable inhabitants of the place, men in golf and boating costumes, wives prettily dressed, were packing, river-side loafers energetically helping, children excited, and, for the most part, highly delighted at this astonishing variation of their Sunday experiences. In the midst of it all the worthy vicar was very pluckily holding an early celebration, and his bell was jangling out above the excitement.
...Farther on towards Weybridge, just over the bridge, there were a number of men in white fatigue jackets throwing up a long rampart, and more guns behind.
"It's bows and arrows against the lightning, anyhow," said the artilleryman. "They 'aven't seen that fire-beam yet."
...Byfleet was in a tumult; people packing, and a score of hussars, some of them dismounted, some on horseback, were hunting them about....There were scores of people, most of them sufficiently sabbatical to have assumed their best clothes. The soldiers were having the greatest difficulty in making them realise the gravity of their position. We saw one shrivelled old fellow with a huge box and a score or more of flower pots containing orchids, angrily expostulating with the corporal who would leave them behind. I stopped and gripped his arm.
"Do you know what's over there?" I said, pointing at the pine tops that hid the Martians.
"Eh?" said he, turning. "I was explainin' these is vallyble."
"Death!" I shouted. "Death is coming! Death!" and leaving him to digest that if he could, I hurried on after the artilleryman. At the corner I looked back. The soldier had left him, and he was still standing by his box, with the pots of orchids on the lid of it, and staring vaguely over the trees.
I can't read those last few paragraphs without a real wrench. As angry as I can wax about those who won't see or, seeing, acknowledge disaster even when it's thrown in their faces; as completely as I understand that Wells was arguing that this old man and others like him would be the stubbornly innocent instruments of destruction of themselves and their country; still I feel a stab of real pity for the elderly crank who doesn't want to leave his orchids behind.
There aren't many deeply developed characters in WotW, but the few there are ring true. Our reading group was especially struck by the man on Putney Hill, in the chapter by that name. The main character has just spent several days trapped in a house, hiding from the Martians that have made a camp nearby. Unable to make a noise for fear of being noticed by the invaders, forced to partake of the little food in the house without any idea of where he will get more once this is all gone, perhaps the narrator's greatest trial is the company he keeps -- another developed character worth mentioning. This is a curate, who has fallen into near-madness from his terror at the invasion. His fear is exacerbated, rather than eased, by his religious faith, which has in fact catapulted him into despair:
"Why are these things permitted? What sins have we done? The morning service was over, I was walking through the roads to clear my brain for the afternoon, and then -- fire, earthquake, death! As if it were Sodom and Gomorrah! All our work undone, all the work --- What are these Martians?"
"What are we?" I answered, clearing my throat.
This is perhaps the only part of the book in which Wells allows himself a brief spate of Sally Sue-ing. Wells was not an atheist, but he quarreled bitterly with organized religion and what he perceived as its unthinking dogma. This curate, while being a perfectly believable character (all too much so, as many of us could hardly stand to be in the same room with him for more than a page or two at a time -- K. in particular gave voice to a wish to slap him around a bit), was representative to Wells of all the worst qualities of religious thought. The curate whines about the destruction of the church and the Sunday schools while the world is ending around him. He alternates quoting fire and brimstone passages from Revelation with whimpered wonderings about what the good people of the town have done to deserve such treatment at the hands of the Lord, until at last the narrator gives vent to perhaps his most active and angry speech in the book:
"Be a man!" said I. "You are scared out of your wits! What good is religion if it collapses under calamity? Think of what earthquakes and floods, wars and volcanoes, have done before to men! Did you think God had exempted Weybridge? He is not an insurance agent."
This brought home to me one of my pet peeves about humanity, by the way. In an outstanding book -- I hate to call it a children's book and perhaps discourage grownup readers from taking it up, though it is aimed at the young -- called Do You Remember the Color Blue?, the author talks about how her life changed after losing her sight in her mid-twenties. She mentions that several of her relatives, including her parents, lost their religious faith after this. They felt betrayed by their God.
This is the kind of thing that gets perfectly innocent books thrown at walls in my house. It also puts my husband in the way of some first-rate rants, to which he has learned to endure with every expression of deepest attention and sympathy while amusing himself with his own thoughts.
"Let's see!" I fumed, as if he'd been one of the offending relations in question. "They learned about Pompeii in history class, and all the people -- men, women, and children, a whole city's worth -- who were smothered by ash; I'm sure they know that for the largest part of human history, most babies born have had at best an even chance of making it to the age of five, much less pulling into old age; I'm pretty sure they've heard of a little something called the Holocaust; but their daughter loses her sight and that makes God a big fat meanie that they're just never going to talk to again?" (I've heard that I have a tendency to get sarcastic in times of stress, or just for the sheer fun of it. I've never seen it myself.)
The curate represents the worst aspects of this kind of religioning. Rather than opening his soul to a deeper compassion and sense of duty to humankind, and giving him a firm anchor in times of trial, instead his beliefs have shriveled and shrunk what little strength of mind and spirit the feeble man might once have possessed. By the end of our narrator's time with him, the man has lost his wits and nearly gotten the narrator killed by the Martians with his sudden, screamingly audible ranting and raving. Through this, Wells makes another uncomfortably true point: much as we would like to believe to the contrary, adversity does not always bring out the best in people. Frequently it does just the opposite. Survivors of the Holocaust often say that their most painful memories are those involving not the wrongs perpetrated on them, but the desperate, sometimes ugly actions to which they themselves had been driven by the extremity of their circumstances. Wells speaks of this with disquieting prescience:
Those who have escaped the dark and terrible aspects of life will find my brutality, my flash of rage in our final tragedy, easy enough to blame; for they know what is wrong as well as any, but not what is possible to tortured men. But those who have gone down at last to elemental things, will have a wider charity.
Having at last rid himself of the curate, and having also managed to escape the house which has been at once haven and trap, the narrator makes his way to London. It has been only a few weeks since the first Martian cylinder has come to Earth, but in that time the invasion has proved a complete rout. Mankind has been utterly taken by surprise, and its greatest weapons have been dispatched with humiliating effortlessness by the Martians. The title of the book, as the narrator himself points out, is a misnomer: there has been no war here. As well speak of a war between man and ants. (With, of course, the horrible difference that men are, to these invaders, eatable ants. One of our members was disappointed with the lack of detail with which the Martians' vampiric feeding habits are discussed; but the concept was so grotesque and disturbing, especially for the time, that perhaps Wells feared to go too far in describing it. Or perhaps he thought that the bare mention of it would suffice to horrify.)
Our narrator meets no one as he makes his stumbling way across a countryside transformed by the aliens. They have brought a reddish species of plant life with them, and it has gone wild. (Another prescient point: we have learned now too well how destructive and mercilessly prolific an "alien" species can be when brought into an ecosystem in which it didn't originally evolve. Look at kudzu, or the rabbits in Australia.)
At last he meets a man with whom he spends some time talking. This man is an eloquent speaker. He gets off some wonderful asides, even before hitting his best-known speech. He's met the narrator once before, briefly, near the beginning of the book. "It's not sixteen days altogether -- and your hair is grey," he says. Then, looking over his shoulder suddenly (they are standing in the open), "Only a rook," he says. "One gets to know that birds have shadows these days." (Which, going back to 9/11 for a moment, reminded me eerily of how I hunched my shoulders for weeks after the disaster every time a plane went overhead.)
But his most persuasive powers of speech come into play after he's persuaded the narrator that it's all over as far as humanity is concerned. At which point our main character is ready to stop fighting and go even more passive than he already is. "But if that is so, what is there to live for?" he asks plaintively. The artilleryman's answer is sharp and invigorating:
"There won't be any more blessed concerts for a million years or so; there won't be any Royal Academy of Arts, and no nice little feeds at restaurants. If it's amusement you're after, I reckon the game is up. If you've got any drawing-room manners or a dislike to eating peas with a knife or dropping aitches, you'd better chuck 'em away. They ain't no further use."
"You mean -- "
"I mean that men like me are going on living -- for the sake of the breed. I tell you, I'm grim set on living. And if I'm not mistaken, you'll show what insides you've got, too, before long. We aren't going to be exterminated. And I don't want to be caught either, and tamed and fattened and bred like a thundering ox. Ugh!"
"You don't mean to say -- "
"I do. I'm going on. Under their feet. I've got it planned; I've thought it out. We men are beat. We don't know enough. We've got to learn before we've got a chance. And we've got to live and keep independent while we learn. See! That's what has to be done."
I stared, astonished, and stirred profoundly by the man's resolution.
"Great God!" cried I. "But you are a man indeed!"
It is a wonderful moment, and it gets stronger still as the man goes on talking. He describes the bulk of the human population in scathing terms -- the ordinary, passive people who will, after a time, look on captivity under the Martians as a godsend. "Nice roomy cages, fattening food, careful breeding, no worry....They'll wonder what people did before there were Martians to take care of them." Then he describes the alternative: the people who will live on, working and planning toward the eventual reclaiming of their own world. Only the strong in mind and body will endure the harsh conditions of freedom. They must build and learn and study their enemy. Some day, they will use the technology of the Martians against them and drive them off the planet.
Our narrator is drawn to this definite purpose, and to his companion's "tone of assurance and courage." So is the reader. We're reminded of the ending of Fahrenheit 451 when the men who memorize books are talking about their work and how they are quietly saving humanity's treasures. After all the limping around, eating moldy food, peeking through cracks and trembling at the sight of the murderous invader, the thought of strong definite action is as welcome to us as it is to the main character. I remember thinking what a wonderful novel the artilleryman's post-Martian world would make.
Then -- this being a Wells novel, after all -- one question and the whole dazzling structure topples. Our narrator begins to recover from the first thrill of the artillerymman's words and takes a look about him. "When I saw the work he had spent a week upon...I had my first inkling of the gulf between his dreams and his powers. Such a hole I could have dug in a day."
My heart gave a distinct thunk when I first read this, and then I remember smiling the way one does after falling for a first-rate prank. You bastard, I thought. You had me going there. You really did.
The narrator is cooling some toward his companion, but not ready to throw him over yet. "I found a curious relief from the aching strangeness of the world in this steady labour. As we worked, I turned his project over in my mind, and presently objections and doubts began to arise; but I worked there all the morning, so glad was I to find myself with a purpose." To me, this sounded like more of the narrator as Everyman -- someone willing to be led by ringing speeches, and tamping down his own skepticism with the thought that, after all, it is such a relief to be led, after wandering alone and hopeless for so long. But at last, the main character can no longer hide from his own qualms.
Suddenly I was struck by a thought. I stopped [digging], and so did he at once.
"Why were you walking about the common," I said, "instead of being here?"
"Taking the air," he said. "I was coming back. It's safer by night."
"But the work?"
"Oh, one can't always work," he said, and in a flash I saw the man plain.
This whole passage, by the way, is my biggest argument against what several members of the group proposed, namely that the artilleryman is a mouthpiece for Wells' own ideas about an elite society -- a super race, let the strong pull ahead and the weak fall by the wayside. Regardless of what Wells' beliefs or theories may have been, especially later in his life, this is hardly the character one would choose to argue for one's own side.
Speaking of our readers: the day after the meeting, I ran into one woman who had been very keen to come and quite bitter about not making it. We talked about the book for a bit, sort of a mini-meeting to cheer her up (I even had brownies with me -- I'm the one you want to get stuck on an elevator with, never forget), and she mentioned that Wells had never been a favorite of hers.
"I know that what he wrote was very new and exciting at the time he wrote it," she said. "But now it seems almost a caricature of itself."
I could see her point, but I countered with the idea that although Wells' plot ideas no longer had that same sting of newness they held a hundred years ago, the prose itself has held up remarkably well. To prove it, I hauled out my copy of WotW (brownies and books -- all you need in life, really, except your car keys) and turned to a late chapter, "Dead London." It contains quite possibly the most brilliantly bleak writing in the English language. Wells' gift for understatement shines mercilessly in this section. One little passage was my favorite:
A jeweller's window had been broken open in one place, but apparently the thief had been disturbed, and a number of gold chains and a watch lay scattered on the pavement. I did not trouble to touch them. Farther on was a tattered woman in a heap on a doorstep; the hand that hung over her knee was gashed and bled down her rusty brown dress, and a smashed magnum of champagne formed a pool across the pavement. She seemed asleep, but she was dead.
My fellow member oohed appropriately over this, though that might have been the brownies talking. (Incidentally, this paragraph alone is a huge argument in favor of buying the Edward Gorey edition of WotW, since his illustration for it is perfection.)
Another member, K., mentioned at the meeting that her husband (who has fallen into the excellent habit of reading along with her, or, more touchingly but tiringly, insisting on her reading the book to him) had been struck by how different the lives of the people of England were at the time the novel was written. She came home from a meeting, she said, and instead of greeting her with something along the lines of "How did it go?" he said instead, with a look of wonder, "They didn't have electricity!" (The main characters, at least; as Lackey points out in the abovementioned essay, the larger cities did have electric power, both in houses and for street lights; but a town like Woking probably wouldn't for another twenty years or so.) Which makes an excellent point; the Martian invasion and technology would be infinitely more shocking contrasted to a population without phones, cars, or central heating.
On that subject, several members pointed out that one of the most anachronistic features of WotW is that the spread of information about the invasion is, by early twenty-first century standards, unthinkably slow. It is almost impossible to imagine living in a world where an event of such importance could happen and sit cold, as it were, for days before word got out to the population at large. Even fifty years ago, every newspaper would have had a decent story about the Martians by the next day at least; twenty years ago, we would be seeing something on the news that same evening. Now, of course, thanks to the Internet, we would have all manner of misinformation and urban legends half an hour after the landing.
Which sort of speculations prompted one member to point out that the reason it is really impossible to make a convincing dramatization of WotW, at least one set in our time, is that although humanity might well be conquered by a species possessed of superior technology, it would be a dirtier, more drawn-out defeat. Our technology has come so horribly far in one hundred years. To put it in some perspective, Wells described big guns being dragged to the landing site by horse and cart. We might be quite capable of inflicting a Pyrrhic victory on our foes, and losing the war in such a way as to ensure that our conquerors might stagger away feeling anything but victorious. Provided that our foes, like Wells' Martians, wanted Earth as a place to colonize and feed, we could at the very least ruin our environment to the point that they might simply leave in anger and disgust. What that would leave us with isn't pretty to contemplate, but then neither are the human breeding farms that the artilleryman described.
Talking of Wells' time reminded one member to ask how Wells' novels did at the time. Unlike so many writers and artists of note, Wells actually went ahead and enjoyed real commercial success almost from the very beginning with his writing. His books both sold and were reviewed well. At least his science fiction. He was bitter for some time about that, since he wanted badly to be considered a man of letters, and churned out many novels that tried very hard to be by Henry James instead of H. G. Wells.
But it just didn't work. Wells' writing, when not turned out to the great open universe of what if, tended to turn inward and circle around his own fantasies, failings, and pet peeves. Not to mention whoever he was sleeping with at the moment. The man seems never to have met a beautiful, fertile, and/or brilliant woman he didn't like, if one can stretch the definition of "like" to encompass "immediately want to sleep with." He had two children by his wife and at least two by other women. One of those illegitimates was with the writer Rebecca West, who first caught Wells' attention by tearing one of his wannabe-literary novels to shreds in a scathing review. Wells also had affairs with Margaret Sanger, the famous birth control advocate; Elizabeth von Armin, the novelist and playwright; and the teenage daughters of some of Wells' fellow Fabians. He has been described as being in favor of women's liberation, but he seems to have been most concerned that women be free to have sex with him.
Ahem. Getting back to the novel in question. Wells was inspired to write WotW by a casual throw-away line given to him by his brother Frank. The two were taking a peaceful country walk when his brother said, apropos of nothing, "Suppose some beings from another planet were to drop out of the sky suddenly, and begin laying about them here!" Wells thought this a marvelous idea. He wrote later that he began exploring the countryside with the idea of "marking down suitable places and people for destruction by my Martians." (Such a sweet guy. Oh, well. We've all been there, haven't we? Haven't we?) That attention to locale made the novel absolutely compelling to Wells' countrymen and perhaps not so compelling to modern American readers unacquainted with the English landscape, especially yours truly, the geographically illiterate, who has been known to get lost in her own house. Forty years later, in Orson Welles' radio adaptation, Welles employed the same idea (to brilliant effect) of using real places when "reporting" where the Martians had landed and started smashing things up.
Toward the end of our book evening, one of the members made a comment that I was at first moved to quarrel with, but was later brought round to seeing the larger point of. She claimed that science fiction is the perfect literary form, because only when characters are stripped of the trappings of the recognizable here-and-now and thrown into the coldness of what-if do we have the chance to see people as they truly are. How will they act and react in a situation entirely new? What happens to them when they are tossed thousands of years into the future, or when an entirely new kind of intelligent life form lands on the world they've considered their own for so long? Wells' genius was not in thinking up new premises and storylines (although the ending of WotW still has the ability to surprise, no mean feat after over a hundred years), but in drawing up and drawing out the human beings thrown into his terrifying worlds of possibility.
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