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By Lim Shi Hern
The War of the Worlds is undoubtedly a literature classic, yet is it an enjoyable book to read? I do not think so. Published in 1898 and set in Victorian England, the science fiction novel is a first-person depiction of a war between humanity and aliens from Mars. In the book, Martians have decided to start a war with Earth, and sent capsules containing personnel, weapons and machinery to England. Humanity, with its simple artillery and battleships of that time, was easily beaten back by the Martians, who possessed poison gas and heat rays. People start evacuating from the island, with masses of people running to the coast in a desperate attempt to get on a ship and escape. With such a formidable enemy, how could humanity possibly win?
While the book may seem like a simple science-fiction novel about extra-terrestrial invasion, it also covers some social topics of that time, such as imperialism and challenges humanity’s view of its own greatness. The book was set in Victorian England during the time of the British Empire. It compares the Martian invasion of Earth to British imperialism. Just as how the English felt that they did not deserve to be invaded by the Martians, the native people of British colonies also felt the same way. The Martians were portrayed as imperial conquerors, while the English were portrayed as simple, helpless natives who kept lamenting that they had done nothing wrong, and did not deserve to be invaded by the Martians.
The book also follows the idea of evolution, believing that Martians evolved in similar ways to humans, but are more advanced than humans due to Mar’s conditions accelerating evolution and development. On multiple occasions, the book explicitly compared people’s’ behavior to that of animals, making us seem like animals under the greater Martians. The Martians are said to have large heads and no digestive system, as they evolved to become more intelligent and got rid of the inefficiencies of eating, but that they were once similar to humans. While this may seem to be a weird idea of what humans could evolve into, it was what Wells thought at that time, and demonstrates scientific understanding and thinking of that era. In the book, the Martians, unlike humans, did not use explosive or kinetic projectiles as their main weapons, but rather used poison gas and what Wells termed to be “heat rays”. Heat rays were supposedly directed energy weapons that could cause things to light on fire from a distance. Wells may well have predicted the future, as poison gas was used in WWI and energy weapons are being developed in the modern day. He was clearly thinking ahead of his time with regard to weapons.
Yet, despite the premise of this book being war with aliens, it took me a relatively long time to finish reading it despite it being a rather short book. Wells mentioned the names of places in England too often with little description given to the setting and places, forcing those unfamiliar with the places to imagine where they were or what they looked like. There was too much focus on action and movement, which may seem appropriate for such a book, but only served to make it difficult for me to figure out what was happening. I could not place myself in the story or setting. There was also too much quick jumping from one location to another, making keeping up with the location a chore. Additionally, the fight scenes were difficult to follow, and I could only figure out what had happened after the fight was over.