The more of these essential books I read, the more unworthy I feel as a writer. It is not just the story ideas, or the word selection, or even tone and subtext. It is everything, all together, creating something greater. I know, you are guessing I read another one I liked, and you are correct. Time to skip this and get to the good part.
The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
Where did I get the book and how many pages?
This is another book from that iPad app I cannot seem to find. Seriously, just look it up in the app store, it is called Free Books and has a picture of a few cartoony books as the icon. I’m pretty sure it was free and it has thousands of books that I think must all fall under public domain in the copyright law, but I’m not positive. Either way, there were 214 pages.
Have I read this book before?
No, I have not read this book. This is one of the books I thought I might have, simply because I had heard so much about it. It wasn’t more than a couple pages before I realized I could not have read this book before because I remembered nothing.
What do I already know?
The aliens come from Mars and run around in large three legged machines. In the 1930s(ish?) there was a radio broadcast of this story that caused panic as listeners did not realize it was just a show. There was recently (ish?) a movie made staring Tom Cruise, but I never saw it.
What do I think now?
Wow. This is both the beauty of science fiction (which I do love) and not science fiction at all. This book highlights what is wrong with writing today, why there are less truly good books, and lots that are quick out. Let’s break this down a little. As a science fiction, this is amazing. There is aliens, coming to take over the planet. There is scientific reasoning for actions, such as the quick adaptations of the aliens to any trouble that is encountered. It discusses the biological makeup of the aliens, why the aliens move the way they do, and gives logical reasoning for everything that at least sounds like it could be scientifically possible. It doesn’t totally matter if it is not all accurate, because the effort is put in to make it sound good. I’m honestly not sure what a real scientist would think, but hey, this is science fiction, not science fact a few liberties can be made. The point is, H.G. Wells did not neglect the science, he brought it out into the forefront of the story. Now, I just told you why it was amazing science fiction.
How am I going to follow that with the telling of how it is horrible science fiction? Bare with me, please. The War of the Worlds is about an alien invasion, but it is not told in the way that most modern science fiction is told. This is not about the epic battle with the aliens, or creating a hero. This story focuses on the humans, not the aliens. I would estimate about half of the book or more has no actual martians running amuck in the scene. When it comes right down to it, this is not about the alien invasion, it is about the human reactions to the aliens. You hear about the crowds gathering around the pit where they landed. You hear about the mass exodus from the areas where people are dying. You hear about the emotional and mental breakdown of the people who can’t quite handle what is happening. The heroes are not the people fighting the aliens, they are the people who are helping others in a time of need. This is not a story about humans fighting aliens as one would expect from science fiction. This is a story about humans that happens to also be about aliens. Books today are all about the special effects. It is not enough to write a good story, it needs to also be a story that can turn into big screen adaptation and bring in lots of money. The War of the Worlds was written in 1897, long before movies were a regular and accepted part of life. It was written to be exactly what it is, not something that might be able to turn into something else. I know it has been turned into a movie, but in order to do that there had to be some changes to make it visually interesting.
It reminds me of a story I had heard about a book series and author I enjoy. When writing the first book, the author chose to make a car explode. When asked about it later, the author was reported to have said, she was hoping to one day be able to to sell it as a movie, and it would sell better if there were a few explosions. The book was great, the movie was okay (much better if you liked the books I think) but the motivation to make that writing change bothers me. When the book is written just to be a great book it can be a classic; I’m sure you can guess if this other book is on this list. (It has not.)
Should you read this book before you die?
Absolutely. It is short, but incredibly engaging. Much like Frankenstein, this is a story that has a different perception from those who have not read the book. Going in you might be thinking ‘science fiction and explosions’ when instead you should be thinking about what makes humans who they are.
Time to head into a long one, the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. Since it is three books for the list price of one, it might take just a little bit. Be prepared to dig in if you are reading along! Right after this, I will head back to the classics a bit for Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.