Tuesday, January 10, 2012

War of the Worlds 2: The War Begins

As last we saw, a large metallic cylinder has landed in the Common outside of the village of Horsell in southern England. The cylinder has come from the planet Mars and its passengers, inhuman tentacled horrors, are decidedly hostile. They are armed with a horrific weapon which fires a beam of intense heat which causes anything it touches to spontaneously combust. The Unnamed Narrator witnesses the incineration of a crowd of onlookers on the common and barely makes it home alive.

A second cylinder has now landed. The War is beginning.

Saturday morning begins with the rattle of the milkman's cart. Everything seems quite normal. The Narrator hears that troops have come to surround the pit where the Martians are holed up and his neighbors seem fairly confident that the army will soon have things well in hand. In fact, some seem worried that the Martians might be utterly destroyed. "It's a pity that they made themselves so unapproachable... It would be curious to know how they live on another planet; we might learn a thing or two."

The Narrator strikes up a conversation with some of the soldiers who have arrived at the village; he describes the Martians and the Heat Ray and the soldiers discuss tactics. But nothing else happens all morning. The soldiers stay camped in their positions, waiting for the heavy artillery to arrive, and the Martians remain in their pit. Noises and smokes from the pit suggest that they are working on something, but no one knows what.

Still, the Narrator is pretty excited about the whole business and confident that the army will take care of things. That is, until late that afternoon when he happens to notice that, since some of the larger buildings on the edge of the village have been destroyed, his own house is within line-of-sight of the Heat Ray.

He tells his Wife they have to leave. He remembers he has a cousin in the town of Leatherhead, about twelve miles away. He manages to borrow a dogcart, a light horse-drawn carriage, from the landlord of the nearby public house, promising to return it by midnight. By this time, soldiers are starting to go from door to door, telling people to evacuate the village. The Narrator and his Wife are getting out just in time.

They make it to Leatherhead safely, and with his Wife's misgivings, the narrator heads back to his village to return the cart. This is one thing about the book that annoys me. The Narrator's Wife is almost a complete nonentity. He alludes to conversations with her, but she seems to only exist as a plot device. Once in high school I tried drawing a cartoon adaptation of the book but I got hung up after a couple pages because of the wife. I couldn't picture what she was like or what she would say because the book doesn't give us any of that; and at the time I wasn't confident enough as a writer to make something up.

On the way back from Leatherhead, a thunderstorm gathers. The Narrator is within sight of his village when a streak of green in the sky heralds the landing of the Third Cylinder. The original flashes on the surface of Mars occurred once every twenty-four hours; and now the Cylinders that were fired are arriving, one at a time, every night. Frightened by the nearby landing, his horse bolts and about the same time the thunderstorm breaks. In the flashes of lightning, the Narrator sees glimpses of something huge moving up ahead of him. And then he gets a good look:

And the Thing I saw ! How can I describe it? A monstrous tripod, higher than many houses, striding over the young pine trees, and smashing them aside in its career; a walking engine of glittering metal, striding now across the heather; articulate ropes of steel dangling from it, and the clattering tumult of its passage mingling with the riot of the thunder.... Can you imagine a milking stool tilted and bowled violently along the ground? That was the impression those instant flashes gave. But instead of a milking stool imagine it a great body of machinery on a tripod stand.

A second machine appears directly in the Narrator's path, and in trying to control his already panicked horse, he runs off the road. The cart overturns and the horse falls, breaking its neck. Stranded in the middle of the downpour, the Narrator makes his way to the village back to his house. The village is largely deserted now. He stumbles across a dead body; it is the landlord of the pub, who won't be needing his dogcart any more.

As he waits in his house for morning, he spots another survivor; an Artilleryman who had been with the soldiers surrounding the pit earlier in the day. The Artilleryman tells the harrowing story of how the first Martian Fighting Machine had wiped out his unit and gone on to destroy the town of Woking.

The next day, Sunday morning, the two of them fill their pockets with provisions and head out together; the Artilleryman to rejoin his battery, and the Narrator to get back to his Wife in Leatherhead; making a wide detour around the Third Cylinder. They meet up with more soldiers setting up gun emplacements near the town of Weybridge and trying, with varying success, to urge the citizens to evacuate. And then the Martians come.

Wells goes into great detail describing each of the battles in the book. Although a pacifist, or perhaps because of it, he had a great interest in war. He enjoyed playing with toy soldiers and later wrote a book entitled "Little Wars" containing perhaps the first rules for strategic miniatures games. The Martian Fighting Machines advance on Weybridge, firing their Heat Ray at the visible gun emplacements. One hidden unit manages to hit one of he Fighting Machines right in the "face" where the controlling Martian sat, and the remaining Machines withdraw; but the victory is a Pyrrhic one. The Narrator narrowly escapes being boiled alive when the fallen Machine's Heat Ray projector falls into the river where he was taking refuge.

Fleeing from the battle, the Narrator falls in with a Curate, an assistant clergyman from the Weybridge church. The Curate has been shattered by the sudden destruction of his church. "What does it mean? What do these things mean? ...Why are these things permitted? What sins have we done?" He is convinced that they are now experiencing the End Times and that the Martians are God's Instruments of Destruction.

The Narrator becomes annoyed by the Curate's apocalyptic despair. "Be a man! ... "You are scared out of your wits! What good is religion if it collapses under calamity? Think of what earthquakes and floods, wars and volcanoes, have done before to men! Did you think God had exempted Weybridge? He is not an insurance agent." Considering how the Narrator's own mood has gone back and forth like a yo-yo, he's being a bit hard on the clueless cleric; but the Curate will become more grating as time goes on.

Here Wells jumps from the Narrator's account to his Brother, a medical student living in London. The Brother reads accounts of the Martian's arrival in the newspapers, but the early reports are confused. The early reports emphasize the Martian's sluggishness and their weakness in Earth's gravity. Because the Martians destroy the rail and telegraph lines, news of the invasion travels little faster than the Martians themselves. The panic does not hit until Monday morning, when news of terrible massacres in the Thames valley arrives. London is in immediate danger and people begin to flee.

What causes the panic is a dreadful battle in Surrey that the Narrator and the Curate are able to witness from a distance. The Army has learned from it's previous encounters and has positioned its artillery under cover so that they are sheltered from the Heat Ray. But the Martians have learned too. When the Army opens fire, the Martians respond by shooting canisters into the woods from which a dense, suffocating smoke emerges. The soldiers who flee from the Black Smoke become easy prey for the Heat Ray.

The scene shifts back to the Narrator's Brother who is now caught up in the mass of humanity fleeing London. When I first read the book as a kid, I found these London chapters boring; but now I can appreciate them more. This I think is what Wells enjoyed most: showing these glimpses of ordinary people reacting to the unbelievable. The Brother comes to the rescue of a couple ladies being accosted by robbers and joins up with them. Together they press on through the mass of refugees. It is here that we get the vignette one of the commenters referred to last week of the "bearded, eagle-faced man" clutching a valise full of gold, who is run down by a carriage when his bag spills open and he tries to recover his wealth.

The final chapter of this first part of the book is one of the most dramatic scenes in the novel. The Brother and his companions have reached the coast where a flotilla of ships, like a Dunkirk in reverse, are picking up refugees to carry them to safety. Among these ships is one naval vessel, a torpedo ram called the Thunder Child.

The torpedo ram was a small, low-profile ship built in the late 1800s. It originally used a "spar torpedo", an explosive device mounted at the end of a long pole that the vessel would drive into its target. It's low profile and high speed were intended for quick, hit and run missions. As modern self-propelled torpedoes became more common, the torpedo ram retained it's secondary function as a ram.

As the refugee ships are leaving the harbor, three Fighting Machines arrive and wade out into the water to stop them. The Thunder Child heads towards the Martians to intercept them, holding its own fire so as not to provoke the Martians into using the Heat Ray. The Thunder Child catches the Martians off-guard; it is fast enough to steam through the clouds of Black Smoke they launch at it before the vapors can kill its crew. By the time the Martians realize the danger, the Thunder Child has already rammed into one, wrecking it; and the ram able to get close enough to a second that when the Martians turn their Heat Ray on it causing it's boiler to explode, the Thunder Child takes the second Fighting Machine with it. The sacrifice of the torpedo ram not only destroys two Martian Machines, it gives the refugee ships time to safely escape.

NEXT WEEK: Earth Under the Martians! Martians up close! And The Death of the Curate!


alex-ness said...


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