Thursday, March 12, 2009

Reader's Diary #468- H.G. Wells- The War of The Worlds

The idea of "alternate reality" must be the single greatest contribution to sci-fi. No, Wells' The War of The Worlds didn't intend to be a book of alternate reality, but, as I'm sure many readers of dated sci-fi do, I used the idea of an alternate reality to help reconcile all the science that modern knowledge has revealed to be impossible or off-base. The whole premise of an intellectually superior life-form on Mars no longer holds up, but what if an alternative reality existed where such creatures did live on Mars? See? Everything's good again.

This helps illustrate a point about reading old sci-fi. It's like Prince's 1999. Remember when the song was a bleak prediction for the future, telling us to live life to the fullest?

Cuz they say two thousand zero zero party over,
Oops out of time
So tonight I'm gonna party like it's 1999

Now it's become more of an amusing nostalgia song. We remember the silly Y2K fears and the massive parties. Likewise, it's impossible not to read old sci-fi with an entirely different perspective than when it was first written.

So why do such books last? Is it merely a Nostradamus sort of fascination? Are we checking off things the author predicted right or wrong? Lasers? Check. Martian invasion? Wrong.

I think that's a part of the appeal, but I also think the best sci-fi has to have a good balance of imagined science with humanistic themes, because it's the themes that don't get old.

This is the strength of The War of The Worlds. I got bogged down early on with the heavy descriptors of the aliens and their fighting machines. However, when the entire population of London goes on the run, that's when I found things interesting. There's a great, albeit morbid, scene of a man being trampled by a carriage while reaching for a bag of money that has fallen to the ground. Even after his back has been broken and his legs have been rendered useless, he continues to clutch onto his money. That part is still believable. How can science can advance so rapidly, yet human beings so slowly? We're the ones behind the science.

The War of the Worlds is the story of a society coming to the realization that their way of life, their culture and even the simple remedial tasks that they've taken for granted, has the potential to come to an end. That's a fear as relevant today as in 1898, when this Wells classic was first published.

1 comment:

Loni said...

I read The War of the Worlds a few years ago and thought it was fantastic. Wells' fiction may have been futuristic, but (from what I've read) it reflected how he saw his society at the time. The Time Machine (an excellent book and terrible movie) is another example.