Tuesday, February 22, 2011

removed his boot, shook out a pebble, and hobbled on again - England Invaded! Thousands Flee London!

More chronicling of what I didn’t know.  The War of the Worlds (1898) was not near the beginning of a genre, but merely earlyish, if the genre is not science fiction but English invasion literature, which was launched in 1871 by George Chesney, author of The Battle of Dorking.  Germans invade England; England resists; England triumphs - no, England is conquered!  I haven’t read it.  Sampling a page or two, it looks like a curiosity, literary wargaming.

Chesney is obviously responding directly to the Franco-Prussian War and the horrors of the Siege of Paris, fresh in the mind, or the newspapers, at the time.  Replacing the German or French army with Martians is not exactly a minor adaptation – the hundreds of subsequent stories of alien invasion could exist in ignorance of The Battle of Dorking, but not of Wells.  Sparkling Squirrel reminds me that one of the best, John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951), actually features invaders who are clever blends of the original Martians and the invasive weed they bring with them.

The strange experience, reading The War of the Worlds, was the feeling that I was reading a novel about World War I.  I’m thinking not so much of the poison gas attacks, although there are those, but of the extraordinary chapter I.16, “The Exodus from London,” which is almost generic, in the sense that it in no way requires invading Martians.  London will soon be attacked; an unprepared populace flees; the result is chaos and disaster.  I wonder if, sixteen or seventeen years later, Belgians fleeing Brussels, or refugees from any number of other cities in Europe, felt any déjà vu, if they thought “I’m living through that scene in War of the Worlds!”

They began to meet more people.  For the most part these were staring before them, murmuring indistinct questions, jaded, haggard, unclean.  One man in evening dress passed them on foot, his eyes on the ground.  They heard his voice, and, looking back at him, saw one hand clutched in his hair and the other beating invisible things.  His paroxysm of rage over, he went on his way without once looking back.

That’s pretty good.

A little old man, with a grey military moustache and a filthy black frock coat, limped out and sat down beside the trap, removed his boot - his sock was blood-stained - shook out a pebble, and hobbled on again; and then a little girl of eight or nine, all alone, threw herself under the hedge close by my brother, weeping.

Also pretty good.  I guess we are used to scenes like this now, from movies, movies about wars and perhaps even alien invasions.  And for all too many people, all over the world today, from experience.  My imagination fails.  Thus the usefulness of fiction, of H. G. Wells.


  1. I guess a good follow-up questions here would be is invasion literature a form of science fiction? It's still a popular trope, see Resistance by Owen Sheers in England or the enduring following movies like Red Dawn have in America.

    Once again you have me interested in something enough to consider reading it. H.G. Wells may be on my reading list post TBR Dare.

  2. Certainly a close cousin to science fiction, isn't it? A lot of what invasion fiction was doing has been completely absorbed by science fiction, minus, perhaps, the political nationalism - Beware the Perfidious Prussian!

    I'm reminded of that bonkers Harry Turtledove series, which I haven't read, where aliens invade just after World War II starts, so the Allies have to team up with Hitler and so on. I admire the complete lunacy of the concept.

    One thing about these best-known Wells novels - this is meant as an encouragement - they are short, short, short.

  3. In the book version of Triffids (unlike the movie and tv version, I am told) there are no Martians. The implication is that blinding comets and triffids are both the results of human folly, yet it does have an odd feel of invasion rather than nuclear holocaust. Should post about it soon.

    Will add War of the Worlds to my list.
    Any thoughts on H.G. Wells-- good short books leading to bad movies? (This from reputation only, but I know that my Mister ranks Island of Dr. Moreau as one of the very worst movies he's seen and I've not heard anything good about modern War of the World movies.)

  4. Oh, I just mean that the Triffids resemble the Martians - giant tripods with tentacles. But now they're plants!

    I don't think I've ever seen a Wells movie.

  5. The BBC made an enjoyable version of The First Men in the Moon recently, done very much in the style of a very British early sci-fi:


    I haven't read the book, but I'm sure it's more faithful than most.

    Whilst looking for that, I also discovered this archive of Wells' radio broadcasts on the BBC:


    The link at the bottom to other novelists "in their own words" is worth a visit too.

  6. Thanks so much for those links. The photo of the Edwardians on the moon is well worth a look - that's the spirit! What a mistake to take these novels entirely seriously.