The War of the Worlds: From H. G. Wells to Orson Welles to Jeff Wayne, Steven Spielberg and Beyond
by Peter J. Beck.

Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.
Paper, 408 pages, $30.

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same.

The portentous and startling sentences at the beginning of H. G. Wells’s great novel encapsulate both his immediate appeal to late Victorian readers and his enduring relevance to our present and future. Unlike his contemporaries in the literary world, Wells had a thorough grounding in science—especially in biology as taught by Darwin’s great popularizer, T. H. Huxley. Before he turned to writing Wells taught biology, and I hazard to speculate that his mention of “infusoria” in the opening of The War of the Worlds marked the term’s first appearance in British fiction.

Just as importantly, Wells started his writing career as a journalist, knowing not only the value of a good story, but also how to write a lead that gripped his readers. Perhaps more than any of his other scientific romances (as Wells liked to call them), The War of the Worlds, first serialized in the UK and the US in 1897, and then published in hardcover the following year, is a taut page-turner worthy of the cliché “You can’t put it down.” Wells’s account of the Martian invasion of London is relentless, never diverted from its course by a love story or other human-interest digressions. Wells meant something else by romance: an enchantment with the world of science that refuted the bromides of religion and the stultifying cant of society. He let his readers have it, easing up only when the Martians succumb not to human weaponry, but to the very bacteria the invaders had eliminated on their own dying planet. But this conquest came too late, resulting in the Martian blitzkrieg, the first stage in the aliens’ quest for lebensraum.

I use the terms associated with Hitler and the ruthless quest for habitable space to suggest just how prophetic Wells continues to be about quasi-scientific notions of what is natural and necessary. In a Great Britain then at the zenith of its powers, Wells predicted disaster. The colonial mentality, he implied, was doomed. Added to this political message was an all-out attack on the smug superiority humans displayed with regard to the world under its microscope. Think again, his story insinuates—as the extraterrestrial invaders take over. As the novel’s title announces, however, that attack is not just on greater London. And so the novel was serialized in American newspapers, which simply exchanged English locations for American ones, as have radio dramatists and movie makers from Orson Welles to Steven Spielberg.

Peter J. Beck provides an exhaustive survey of the novel’s inception—not only how Wells came to write it, but also how he used his residence in Woking, on the outskirts of London, to invest his account of the invasion with startling immediacy and specificity. His narrator is a reporter on the move, showing hour-by-hour how the Martians, advancing with their death rays, create a holocaust of fire and smoke. This fictitious holocaust, Beck reminds us, was a magnification of the sooty, polluted London that Wells, often in ill health, sought to escape in rural or at least garden habitats. Coming at the end of the nineteenth century, The War of the Worlds invoked the dread that simmered beneath late Victorian triumphalism, not so different from the angst and terror that made the television series 24, created in the wake of the US victory in the Cold War, such a riveting show until the antics of its superhero became tiresome. Unlike Jack Bauer, however, Wells never declares it is going to be okay.

Beck devotes chapters to Wells’s sense of place and time, and he dwells on the details of how the novel got published, its place in Wells’s growing reputation as a writer, its stages of composition, its multimedia afterlife (including a rock opera by Jeff Wayne, who has been one of Wells’s most scrupulous adapters), the way American publications promoted and changed the novel, and the novel’s enduring influence and appeal. Indeed,Beck includes all you need to know—and also what you don’t need to know and does not belong in this book. We are told too many times that no one reads Wells anymore except for his science fiction, and that he was a womanizer (to use a term not in play during his lifetime). Beck could easily have eliminated such well known material with no bearing on The War of the Worlds and cut, as well, those “conclusion” sections that rehearse what has already been reiterated in chapters that contain far too many cross references. Even the chapter on Orson Welles seems overdone. Perhaps only a reader who knows nothing about the celebrated radio adaptation needs quite so much commentary revealing that the panic over a Martian invasion among radio listeners was mainly a figment of the journalistic imagination.

Sometimes Beck hits on startling sentences that, like Wells’s, bring us up short in this age of climate change: “Painting terrifyingly dark images of the future, The War of the Worlds, the product of a pessimistic storyteller full of late Victorian anxieties, confronted contemporary attitudes with images suggesting a vision of the degeneration of the earth.” Too often, however, Beck’s sentences plod along like a information machine, prompting the plea, “Can you kick it up a notch!”: “The War of the Worlds was widely reviewed across both Britain and the USA. Generally speaking, the book was well received by reviewers, many of whom wrote anonymously in line with contemporary practice.” The passive voice, in combination with the appearance of “the fact that” thirty-four times, strike at the heart of Strunk and White.

Even so, this comprehensive tome (the cliché is irresistible), makes an excellent resource for checking facts, a means of gleaning fascinating data about late Victorian London and tracking how the world continues to reckon with Wells’s insights and predictions.  

Carl Rollyson is the author of Confessions of a Serial Biographer and of, with Lisa Paddock, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon, revised and updated, 2016.