A Perfect Fusion

As with all of Wells' science-fiction, the plot of The War of the Worlds acts very much as a frame within which the author explores his concerns of contemporary science, politics and society. The first chapter serves - explicitly and implicitly - as a manifesto of many of the ideas which Wells expands on throughout: the place of man in an evolutionary context, the arrogance of empire and science, mankind's perception of God, even an intimation of the final defeat of the Martians by bacteria, extra- terrestrial intelligence and the imperatives behind the evolution of intelligence itself. Indeed the very opening of the book contains many of these ideas: "No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable."

This is not to say that The War of the Worlds is solely a didactic exercise: it was received as - and remains - an excellent piece of dramatic writing. Aldous Huxley, the grandson of T.H. Huxley and whose work owes a dept to Wells (even if only at times as a reaction against Wells' more optimistic moments), once explained that his aim as a novelist was "to arrive, technically, at a perfect fusion of the novel and the essay." In many ways Wells had achieved this with his debut The Time Machine (1895), and by The War of the Worlds Wells' prose had developed into an expert synthesis of discussion and action. Wells often tried to pretend that he was not an artist, and stated that "There will come a time for every work of art when it will have served its purpose and be bereft of its last rag of significance", and yet despite over a century of unprecedented change having elapsed since the publication of The War of the Worlds, the art has survived, and the ideas have retained much of their significance. And yet, even in the novel itself, Wells hints at his scepticism towards fiction having an enduring importance. Following the alien apocalypse of London and the Home Counties, the Narrator, a writer on matters philosophical, and clearly something of an armchair scientist (a familiar Wellsian character), encounters an artillery-man who lays out his plans for survival under the alien tentacle. As well as forming a band of "able bodied, clean- minded" men and women, the soldier maintains that the "saving the race is nothing in itself... it's saving our knowledge and adding to it is the thing. There men like you come in. There's books, there's models. We must make great safe places down deep, and get all the books we can; not novels and poetry swipe, but ideas, science books... Especially we must keep up our science - learn more." And in later life, as Wells' all but abandoned fiction and became more and more preoccupied with public pronouncements on matters scientific, social and political, he got himself into the habit of denigrating the importance of his own early fiction works. Ironically, it was Wells the statesman that did the most to diminish his contemporary reputation. George Orwell, in his essay Wells, Hitler and the World State (Horizon, 1941), wrote that "The succession of... novels which are his greatest achievements stopped short of the other war and never really began again, and since 1920 he has squandered his talents in slaying paper dragons. But how much it is, after all, to have any talents to squander."

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