Wednesday, January 18, 2006

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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