- Narrated by David Harewood
- A Standalone Novel
- First published 1897
- This edition published by Penguin
- 8hrs 12 minutes runtime
The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one, they say. But they are wrong. The serenity of the English countryside is shattered by the arrival of Martian invaders, and humanity is soon faced with the possibility of total annihilation . . .
I can’t think of a book I’ve experienced in more different mediums than The War of the Worlds. I genuinely can’t remember a time before I knew the story, but the earliest version I read was a simplified version for children, with the chapters each reduced to a handful of paragraphs, and plenty of illustrations. Since then I’ve also read the full Scholastic version, the Penguin Classics version with footnotes, and the edition currently on my shelf is part of an H. G. Wells ‘Classics Collection’ omnibus, published by Gollancz. On screen I’ve seen the 1953 film adaptation, the 2005 Spielberg blockbuster with Tom Cruise, a rather shaky 70s TV series, and a bafflingly altered BBC adaptation from a few years ago. I’ve listened to both full cast recordings of Jeff Wayne’s musical version, and a few months ago watched a televised version of the same. This is a story I know inside and out, in so many of its incarnations, and yet it’s one I’ve never grown bored of. I planned to reread it this year, but in the end I decided to go for another new experience, and listen to the full audiobook. There are multiple versions to choose from, and ultimately I decided to go for the Penguin Classics edition once again, this time narrated by David Harewood. And right from those opening lines, the magic was back.
The new angle here is of course the narration, and David Harewood is excellent. The triumphant cry of ‘Ulla!’ from Jeff Wayne’s musical version will forever be stuck in my mind, but now it is joined by Harewood’s mournful dirge of ‘Aloo. Aloo.’ Harewood’s deep voice and calm delivery fits the novel perfectly, bringing out the more sombre elements in ways other casting choices have not. Like the book itself, Harewood’s narration is simultaneously rich and dramatic, while also incredibly soothing. This is not an action-per-second story after all, but a more tempered meditation on mankind’s inability to fight against the inevitable conquest of the Martians.
When we talk about works of science fiction from the past, it’s tempting to point out the glaring flaws alongside the prophetic notions. No, Mars is not as habitable as Wells makes out in the opening chapter, and yes, the dreadful heat ray is rather close to a modern laser, just as the black smoke is a literary precursor to the lethal gaseous weapons that would see use just twenty years after the book was written. If I allow myself to be tempted, I might point out one early aside, in which the nameless narrator remarks that perhaps the Martian cylinder contains currency and models by which to describe Martian civilisation. Personally, I can’t think of any other book that has come so close to matching the contents of humanity’s own spacefaring probes. And to think that this is captured in so quiet a moment, as if it were an idea of little consequence, simply boggles my mind.
Yet to analyse the story in such depth is unnecessary, and even a disservice. This is a book that will soon celebrate it’s one hundred and twenty-sixth birthday, yet still feels incredibly fresh. The language has dated not at all, the character work is as good as anything you’ll find in modern works. The cynicism of Wells’ depictions of the Artilleryman and the Curate is tempered by the optimism inherent in mankind’s survival. Time and again we see people helping one another, often at great peril to themselves. The chapters dedicated to the narrator’s brother are the best example of this, while also showcasing more developed female characters than many science fiction readers would come across for decades afterwards.
The War of the Worlds is one of the foundations upon which science fiction is built. The grandfather of alien invasion stories, and a masterful joining of personal stakes and sweeping social examination, it is a classic for a reason. In all its many forms, it has something to show us, and few forms are better than Wells’ own words.
More Books by H. G. Wells
The War in the Air
Deeper Dive: Favourite Novels
Favourite novels are a tricky thing. If you asked me right now, I couldn’t give you my personal top ten. Many favourites are those that define our childhoods, or our earliest days as readers. That’s perfectly natural. After all, these are the books that have gestated in our minds for the longest time. We have had time to ruminate on their deeper meanings, and to pick at their many mysteries.
And then there is recency bias. Those books that are still fresh enough in our mind that we can quote them word for word. Among book bloggers this is even worse, as there is a tendency to champion every great book as a masterpiece, a modern classic, or a new favourite. Sometimes this is even true, but it serves only to muddy the already tumultuos waters. Striking a balance between the old and the new is difficult for anyone, let alone someone who spends their free time promoting books.
For the longest time I have cited Isaac Asimov’s Foundation as my all time favourite book. Certainly it remains the most formative in terms of how I view science fiction as a genre. But The War of the Worlds was always a close second. Having now re-experienced both classics in the past few years, I find myself re-evaluating. Foundation remains intellect-driven storytelling at its finest, but the genius of its ideas overcomes flaws in the narrative. Flaws that are not evident in The War of the Worlds. The War of the Worlds is a leaner, cleaner story. It has not so much dated as aged like a strong cheese. On every level it holds up, be it characters, theme, plot, or prose. I’ve barely finished, and although I must now move on to other things, part of me already wants to experience it all over again. From this there can be only one conclusion.
The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells is my favourite book of all time.