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Isaac Hellemn

Isaac Hellemn

Science fiction is a paradox, a genre that enjoys almost universal popular appeal concurrently with universal critical disdain. This genre is not "literature" say the critics, but rather a cheap and easy substitute, an unfortunate corollary of omnipotent mass production and consumerism. And at first, Wells's The War of the Worlds seems to waltz right into the hands of its detractors. There is no intricate characterization here, nor any strong interpersonal relationships; in fact we never even learn the protagonist's name. Instead, Wells's enduring novel seems to play out as an off-color public service message, or worse, as an exploitative morality tale about the progress of imperialism. How can we consider this work great literature? How has it retained such popularity?

Because, in the words of literary scholar Karl Kroeber, "The art of science fiction is…the establishment of new, unanticipated possibilities," (Kroeber, xiii). This is the secret to the success of Wells's novel, and to the success of the science fiction form in general. Rather than tell a complex narrative, or even a vivid one, The War of the Worlds serves as an easy vehicle for the presentation of new ideas. Wells has chosen to compose not a symphony but an uncomplicated instrumental solo, and there is something quietly enticing in such simplicity. And so Wells's work is devoid of those features that could transport the reader to his world because he does not wish for us to move anywhere. Wells's goal is for us to apply his "unanticipated possibilities" to each of our respective circumstances, so that Wells's imagination can briefly become our own.

Key to the success of Wells's revolutionary approach is a style of writing that is at times more cinematic than literary. Of course Wells's work predates film by some decades, but there are unmistakable echoes of the theatrical in passages like "Then a hoarse murmur and a movement of feet—a splashing from the water" (Wells, 69) or "amid the various cries one heard disputes, reproaches, groans of weariness and fatigue," (109). This brisk and businesslike approach to conveying action serves a dual purpose: to establish a mood of perpetual urgency and to recount unfolding events in terms of imagery rather than language. An indication of this latter purpose is Wells's reluctance to use similes where they are appropriate such as in "A little further on, the dry reeds up the bank were smoking and glowing, and a line of fire inland was marching steadily across a late field of hay," (76). Although the power of this image would lend itself superbly to a simile, Wells intends for us to create associations of our own from the description; this self-directed lyricism is central to an honest presentation of "new possibilities". One might likewise expect Wells to link his description of the fifth cylinder's crash, "a thud behind me, a clash of glass, a crash and rattle of falling masonry all about us" (132), to some more familiar experience like the wrecking of a train. But Wells does not really want to tell us what the crash was like; he prefers to provide simple guidance that can direct us to conclusions of our own. And so the abrupt, imagist quality of The War of the Worlds is not accidental or even a desperate stab at originality, but rather essential to an understanding of Wells's novel as an easy conveyor of ideas.

Unfortunately, Wells's brisk and accurate descriptions are easy to misinterpret. Some consider his writing overly-dramatic and sensational, a writing style that was intended to "overcome the indifference" of his readers towards the sciences. A sort of elite scorn seems to appear in phrases like "Few of the common people in England had anything but the vaguest astronomical ideas in those days," (17) or the even more indicting "Yet so vain is man, and so blinded by his vanity, that no writer…expressed any idea that intelligent life might have developed [on Mars]," (6). But it is not Wells's intention to disdain us; he only seeks to prod his readers in the direction of imagination and inspired action. Wells does this through the character of the curate, a figure who, despite his zealous disposition, is intended to closely resemble the common man. As Wells's protagonist chastises the panicked curate to "Be a man! You are scared out of your wits!" (78), he is actually speaking directly to the reader, instructing us to look past the tragedy and horror to the real message of the work. And when the curate exclaims that "I have been still too long, and now I must bear my witness," (153), it is a reminder that the true purpose of Wells's novel is to electrify us into thought and action. Wells does not fault us for failing to prepare for a Martian invasion, but rather for failing to imagine that such a thing could come to pass.

In many ways, Wells's The War of the Worlds is a fairy tale, a testament not to the author's command of language but rather to the power of his imagination. Wells's protagonist writes that "I go to London and see the busy multitudes in Fleet Street and the Strand, and it comes across my mind that they are but the ghosts of the past, haunting the streets that I have seen silent and wretched," (197), and hidden there is a suggestion that we all picture our world ruined and destroyed, so that we can fully appreciate its functioning glory. "Dim and wonderful is the vision I have conjured up in my mind of life spreading slowly…throughout the inanimate vastness of sidereal space," (196-197) Wells writes, and why should we not share in imagining this magnificent possibility? The War of the Worlds may be no great literary triumph, but in sharing the visions of its extraordinary author, and in sharing them so vividly, Wells's novel succeeds in a way that even present-day readers can appreciate. This is truly a novel that establishes "new, unanticipated possibilities," a novel that is, in Wells's own words, a "grotesque gleam of a time no history will ever fully describe!" (176).

 

Work Cited
Wells, Herbert. The War of the Worlds. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2007. Print.

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