Monday, September 19, 2005

A Book Club Kinda Thingie (Conclusion)

Sorry, I meant to post this last week but got tangled up in an all-consuming deadline at work. Previous thread

I presume by this time that you all have either given up or finished reading H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds, so let's have a show of hands: who actually read the entire thing online? Who printed out the manuscript file to read it off paper? Who gave up on the Project Gutenberg version entirely and went out and found it in book format?

Do you find that typography and printing still matter?

As for the story itself: as I stated at the outset, Wells breaks the rules all over the place, most egregiously in the area of point of view. The common writer's dicta is "show, not tell," but Wells ignores that routinely and most definitely "tells" the tale, in a combination of historian's and eyewitness reporter's style. He relates things he saw in the distance; things he heard about from other characters; things he read about years later in the London Times. Wells's viewpoint character (does he even have a name?) almost never participates in events that advance the plot: he's always either standing on the edge of the scene, running into people escaping from the scene, or stumbling across the tableau of carnage later. Yet, somehow, the story is more compelling than if his character were in the midst of the action or if he'd written it from the point of view of, say, the captain of the Horse Artillery. Any theories as to why?

Speaking of point of view, most of the time Wells sticks to first person limited, with occasional excursions into omniscience or at least inconsistency as he tells us things the first-person narrator could not possibly have seen, but then there's that long stretch of third-person as he tells the tale of his brother's escape from London. The argument that an accomplished master may break the rules when he pleases doesn't hold, as Wells wrote this book when he was in his late 20's and it's outlasted all his later and presumably more polished work. Might a better argument be that "the rules" are the sorts of things that are invented after the fact by creative writing teachers, so that they can write lesson plans and have objective criteria for critiquing and grading student work? If Wells had obeyed "the rules" on point of view and stuck to strictly first- or third-person, would it have helped or hurt this book?

In the end, of course, we get to the end, which is pure deus ex machina. The narrator not only does not participate in any action that leads to the end of the invasion, he is literally in the dark through the last 15 days of the war, and emerges only after it's all over, to go wandering through the post-Apocalyptic landscape, tripping over skeletons. Few modern editors would put up with such an ending: they would demand that the narrator find at least one still-living Martian and defeat it in bloody hand-to-tentacle combat. Yet Wells's ending works far better than something out of the Steven Seagal school; again, any theories as to why?

The last questions I want to toss out concern tone and subtext. Did anyone else notice that Wells's Martians bear a more-than-passing resemblance to Lovecraft's Elder Gods, or that the Martian war machines have a pronounced giant spider quality? Everyone remembers the heat ray, which in 1897 had to be quite otherworldly and terrifying, but almost no one remembers that the Martians did most of their slaughter using poison gas, which in 1897 was less than 20 years away from being used in plain old humans-only war. Wells's narrator certainly seems to spend a lot of time describing desolation, ruins, and corpses.

Is the truth of the matter that this story has remained popular for more than a century because it's actually a horror novel, sans supernatural elements and drawn on a huge scale, and that what Wells has really succeeded in doing here is delivering a deity-free Apocalypse, with plenty of carnage, but in the end one that offers a slim hope for human survival?

Your comments, s'il vous plait.