The list of classic science fiction which I've never read is about as long as your arm. Among those lacunae is the original War of the Worlds, although I seem to have some childhood memory of reading a kidification of it once, or possibly just fragments which I was too young to really retain at the time, like those copies of Gulliver's Travels and the Travels of Marco Polo which I stumbled through uncomprehending at too young an age while staying at my grandparents' farmhouse for the Christmas season.
Anyways, a friend surprised me with the gift of a collection of H.G. Wells stories "as originally published", so I cracked it open & read the War of the Worlds in between doing my mid-week laundry. It's much better-written than I really expected of H.G. Wells, whom I mostly knew from his technocratic enthusiasms, weak-minded secular socialism, and credulous fellow-traveling endorsement of the Bolsheviks. The story is full of atmospheric detail, never treats the human interest as wall-paper or a distraction, and is strikingly well-paced and active for what, in my ignorance, I had thought of as a "literary" book. The ending was surprisingly affecting, and aside from some rhetorical and structural details which betray the book's pre-modernist origins, it holds up remarkably well for a book which is well into its second century. It's by far a better story than any of the cinematic or radio adaptations made of it over the years. Although the latest Spielberg version was as close an adaptation as I had been told it had been, the original novel was still much better-paced, less sentimental, and more honest in its plotting and action.
The one glaring fault of the book is something that I suspect gets regularly purged from more modern versions of the novel, part of that whole "as originally published" deal, I suppose. There's a nasty and harsh episode of anti-Semitism square in the middle of the book, as we join a small group of refugees attempting to cross the North Road in full London-evacuation-panic, and the protagonist's brother attempts to save a "Jew" from being crushed under the wheels of what seems like a half-dozen carts across the course of three pages. The "wretch" in question is depicted as a wild animal, crazed and grasping after his gold even after his back is broken & he lies dying in the panicked highway, and bites the hand of his would-be saviour. I mean, this is some of the rawest prejudicial bigotry you can get without descending into actual hate. The book was published at the height of the Dreyfus Affair, and I can't help but wonder what the politics are of such a leftist as Wells indulging in this sort of rank Jew-baiting at the very moment when Western political anti-Semitism was at its peak on the Right.
Pretty good essay on the book here, btw. Says a lot about Wells' use of geography and rhetoric to slowly build an effect which multiplies the impact of the action of the story, better than I could explain it, I think.
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