The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1898) 178 p.

I was sure I’d read The War of the Worlds, because it’s one of those really famous and perpetually-referenced works of fiction that eventually just seeps into your brain by osmosis. I’m pretty sure I did read an abridged version in primary school, and I’ve read the excellent 2006 graphic novel Dark Horse put out, and I’ve seen the (greatly underrated) 2005 Spielberg film, and I’ve read Christopher Priest’s bizarre mash-up of it in The Space Machine. I know the plot pretty much off by heart. So it was with surprise that I recently realised I’d never actually read the original, unabridged novel.

The Martians invade England, lay waste to the land with their tripod battle machines and deadly heat-ray, scatter the British military before them, and eventually die because of Terran bacteria. That’s the synopsis that everybody knows. But even if you think you know this story, it’s well worth reading, because unlike most 19th century classics it’s an absolute cracker of a book.

One of the things I was most impressed by was Wells’ ability to develop a dreadful suspense, even though I knew precisely what was coming – and, you know, I’m sure even the readers at the time figured it out from the title. The War of the Worlds begins on a beautiful midsummer night in the London commuter town of Woking, amidst the utterly ordinary environment of the Victorian suburbs. (Incidentally, I enjoyed how the summer itself seemed a visceral part of the events – what is it about apocalyptic stories and summer? The Stand and the TV series The Walking Dead come to mind.) Strange conflagrations are witnessed by astronomers on the surface of Mars, and shortly afterwards, a falling star lands on the common near Woking. This moment in time – the beautifully written warm twilight of a Friday evening – is merely the beginning of a terrible destruction that will be wrought upon southern England.

Alien invasion stories are a dime a dozen these days, but when Wells first wrote The War of the Worlds it was something completely new: one of the first hard science fiction novels, challenging notions about British (and indeed human) supremacy over the planet, and depicting the reactions of the characters to terrible events above and beyond them with stunning clarity. One the one hand, it’s fascinating to see how differently a apocalyptic event would have been a century ago, chiefly in how slowly the news travels – even the narrator remarks on how strange it is, a few hours after the first Martians incinerate dozens of people at the first landing site, for him to stumble terrified back into Woking and find that only a few miles away people are still going about their business. Likewise, the true gravity of the situation is slow to descend upon the citizens of the capital, chiefly because “the majority of people in London do not read Sunday papers.”

Yet on the other hand, when the reality of the danger does sink in, Wells’ description of the panicked evacuation of six million people from London – one of the finest scenes in the novel – is weirdly modern. One might have expected a Victorian writer to fill it with acts of bravery, chivalry and decorum, but instead we see an ugly mass of people trampling over each other in their haste to escape.

Had the Martians aimed only at destruction, they might on Monday have annihilated the entire population of London, as it spread itself slowly through the home counties. Not only along the road through Barnet, but also through Edgware and Waltham Abbey, and along the roads eastward to Southend and Shoeburyness, and south of the Thames to Deal and Broadstairs, poured the same frantic rout. If one could have hung that June morning in a balloon in the blazing blue above London every northward and eastward road running out of the tangled maze of streets would have seemed stippled black with the streaming fugitives, each dot a human agony of terror and physical distress. I have set forth at length in the last chapter my brother’s account of the road through Chipping Barnet, in order that my readers may realise how that swarming of black dots appeared to one of those concerned. Never before in the history of the world had such a mass of human beings moved and suffered together. The legendary hosts of Goths and Huns, the hugest armies Asia has ever seen, would have been but a drop in that current. And this was no disciplined march; it was a stampede–a stampede gigantic and terrible–without order and without a goal, six million people unarmed and unprovisioned, driving headlong. It was the beginning of the rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind.

The various acts of panicked violence which follow are, to use the word again, modern – a realistic point of view I would have expected from a mid-century writer, not a Victorian. It’s enthralling stuff.

It’s also an eerie book to read from a modern perspective, not least of all as we approach the centenary of World War I. That war was still sixteen years distant when The War of the Worlds was released, but it’s uncanny how many things Wells accurately predicted: the total warfare, the sacking of towns and cities, the armoured fighting machines, and – most disturbing of all – the indiscriminate use of chemical weapons. On the other hand, something a lot of people don’t know about The War of the Worlds is that in Wells’ fictional universe, there are actually humans living alongside the Martians on Mars, albeit as slaves and food sources. This is only mentioned once, and it’s hard to tell whether it’s poetic license on Wells’ part or whether he thought that might be a genuine scientific possibility. Either way, it seems odd compared to how prescient the rest of the book was.

It’s hard to overstate just how much of an impact this novel had on the rest of the century’s science fiction. Even the final chapters, as the narrator walks across a deserted London – a scene that feels almost cinematic in its use of noise and silence – no doubt influenced the opening of John Wyndham’s classic The Day of the Triffids, which in turn was the inspiration for the film 28 Days Later, and so on and so forth. And I can’t stress enough just how madly, horribly inventive and compelling every part of this book is: the crowd gathered around the first cylinder at sunset on a hot summer’s day, the image of a Martian tripod striding down the Thames past the Houses of Parliament, the panicked flight of millions of Londoners, the devastated countryside choked with alien red weed, the derelict tripod on Primrose Hill dripping with “lank shreds of brown.” The War of the Worlds is an absolute classic of literature, and if you think you know the story and don’t need to read the book, think again. And, of course, it’s in the public domain and you can read it for free, so there’s no excuse not to.