Unlike many of his contemporaries in the realm of science fiction writing, H.G. Wells understood how to tell a story to an audience. Whereas many of the other writers of the era were fascinated by the many technological advances available to them and the implications of these advances, Wells used those advances to set up a story that would come to resonate in American culture for years to come.
Indeed, to this day, the trope of an “alien” is consistent with Wells’ original description of the Martians, which speaks to the timelessness of the novel that he created. One of the reasons for Wells’ literary success is his ability to use realism and suspense to make the story believable to his readers. Without this realism and suspense, readers would be uninvolved in the story and engage less fully with the protagonist and the periphery characters.
The entire novel is told from the point of view of a first-person narrator who remains unnamed through the entire novel. The purpose for the narrator remaining unnamed serves two purposes: first, it allows the reader to insert him or herself into the place of the narrator and experience everything as though it is happening to the reader him or herself. Second, the narrator remains unnamed as to remain seemingly aloof from the action; this, along with the diction used in the novel, gives the tone of the work a decidedly scientific feel (Wells). The reader has no reason to doubt the veracity of the narrator’s statements, because he never seems to become emotional until the turning point of the novel (Wells).
Wells goes far to ensure that the reader trusts the narrator, and believes in the reality that the narrator is creating. The narrator states, at one point in the novel, “‘I do not know how far my experience is common. At times I suffer from the strangest sense of detachment from myself and the world about me; I seem to watch it all from the outside, from somewhere inconceivably remote, out of time, out of space, out of the stress and tragedy of it all. This feeling was very strong upon me that night’” (Wells). The reader feels drawn to this character, and trusts him implicitly; this allows Wells to weave the fantastical with details of reality to create a believable novel.
The narrator cannot, however, resist telling a story to the reader, complete with suspense. He writes, “Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us” (Wells). The reader is yearning, at this point, to know more about these intelligent beings; perhaps he or she has a sense that they will not remain far for long, or perhaps he or she feels a thrill of fear at the description of the beings. Wells’ refusal to describe the beings before the narrator meets them in reality adds to the suspense of the novel, and also contributes to the reality of the narrator’s reaction when he finally does come across the beings for the first time.
Perhaps the most effective aspect of Wells’ storytelling is his use of clear, scientific diction when describing the fantastical. The contrast between the diction that Wells chooses and the scene that he is describing takes the scene from unbelieveable to terrifyingly real. The narrator’s description of his first sight of the Martians demise is an excellent example of Wells’ realism mixed with science fiction: “In another moment,” the narrator says, “I had scrambled up the earthen rampart and stood upon its crest A mighty space it was, with gigantic machines here and there within it, huge mounds of material and strange shelter places. And scattered about it, some in their overturned war-machines and a dozen of them stark and silent and laid in a row, were the Martians—dead!—slain by bacteria against which their systems were unprepared” (Wells). The reader can almost feel him or herself standing on the crest of the hill, looking down upon the strange sight below, feeling flooded with relief at the demise of the Martians.
The fact that bacteria were the cause of the death of the Martians is another realistic detail that would have rang true to the people reading Wells’ story as it was first published: germ theory was a relatively new field of study, one which the average person did not understand. It was entirely possible, to most people, that the Martians could not handle the bacteria on Earth.
The overwhelming sense of hopelessness that the narrator and the other characters in the novel feel when they are technologically outmatched speaks to fears that every human being carries within them. One character, a military man, says to the narrator: “‘This isn't a war It never was a war, any more than there's war between man and ants’” (Wells). There is a common human fear that Wells tapped into with his novel: the fear of being outmatched, of being unsafe and unable to protect oneself. It is a primal fear, and Wells’ ability to elicit that in his readers is, perhaps, one of the reasons that his novel has withstood the test of time so well.
Wells uses suspense and realism very effectively throughout his novel, but what truly makes these literary devices so effective is the fact that he uses realism to flesh out a fantasy that would be unbelievable otherwise. When the narrator speaks, the reader listens and believes him, regardless of how unbelieveable or strange the situation may seem-- after all, the narrator is a man of science, and this helps to make everything he says believeable to the reader.
McConnell, Frank D. The Science Fiction of H. G. Wells. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981. Internet Resource.
Transparencynow.com. "War of the Worlds: How Orson Welles Drew the Nation into a Shared Illusion." 2007. Web. 13 Apr 2013.
Urbanski, Heather. Plagues, Apocalypses and Bug-Eyed Monsters: How Speculative Fiction Shows Us Our Nightmares. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Co, 2007. Internet resource.
Wells, H G. The War of the Worlds. Raleigh, N.C: Alex Catalogue, 1990. Internet resource.