Classic SciFi reviews: War of the Worlds by HG Wells

Here at, I review thrillers (fiction and occasionally nonfiction) with science or medicine in them.  Previously, I’ve discussed how SciThri is different from SciFi (read post What is a Science Thriller?). But it’s my website and I make the rules, and I’m periodically posting reviews of classic SciFi works. {First such review: Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein}

War of the Worlds coverThe War of the Worlds by Herbert George (H.G.) Wells was first published in 1898. It’s now part of the public domain, so you can get an ebook version for free (for example, from amazon by clicking the cover at left).

The premise: Mars launches a series of rockets at the Earth. One by one they land in the countryside around London. Curious onlookers gather. The cylinders open, alien blobby things spill out.

“heaviness and painfulness of movement due to the greater gravitational energy of the Earth”

The Martians aren’t as helpless as they look, and they’re not here to make friends. Death, mayhem, and a quest for world domination ensue while our narrator watches from a series of prime vantage points. For a substantial part of the book, Wells uses the device of telling what the narrator’s relative witnessed in the city of London to give the reader a complete picture of events.

Review: This book came out in 1898, which puts some necessary perspective on it. If the ideas seem derivative, it’s because SF writers and thriller movie makers have copied Wells’ basic ideas time and again. But Wells was one of the first to give us heat rays of death, mechanical robot bodies for waging war, urban mass hysteria and flight, chemical warfare, really nasty flesh-sucking behavior, and of course, marauding Martians.

Wells includes some wonderfully insightful bits of science: that the Martians would launch their attack when the planet was in opposition; that coming from a low-gravity,  thin atmosphere world would affect the Martians’ body type and impact their ability to function on Earth; the rapid growth of a Martian invasive plant species.

**SPOILER ALERT** The best scientific part of this story is the punch line for both invading Martian plant and animal that while human implements of war are helpless to stop them, they succumb to lowly earth microbes. Wells touches on a fundamental and often overlooked aspect of the co-evolution of microorganisms and all other life forms on this planet, that they have adapted to live largely in harmony with one another.  (Contrary to popular perception, disease caused by microorganisms is the rare exception rather than the rule for microbe-host interactions.)

Wells also puts a bit of philosophy in the mix, forgiving the Martians for their violence as similar to a human’s actions toward ants.  He also uses minor characters to posit how different people would react to a post-human apocalypse, asking whether it would be worth living, and what would be worth saving.

BUT, although in outline form this story is the basis for a great SciFi thriller screenplay, it actually is a snore to read. Partly this is because 19th century prose style doesn’t fit our contemporary sense of how a page-turning thriller should read. Partly it’s because the book could use a good edit. It’s not a long book, but it’s too long for the content. Scenes that should be absolutely brimming with tension simply aren’t. And if Wells used the word “tumult” or “tumultuous” one more time, I thought I’d scream.

Overall: worth getting a free copy and skimming through. Full of seminal SF concepts but nowhere near as compelling a book as some other HG Wells works, such as The Time Machine.


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