The Eve of the War

By skepticlawyer

Since everyone else has been doing Moon landing celebrations, I thought I’d accrete to myself the sort of celebration that makes most sense to someone who wasn’t even born (several years off, in point of fact, during the Apollo 11 mission). Unlike many X-ers and Y-ers, I’m not fazed by Boomers who wish to party like its 1969, but by the same token, I hope they’re not offended when I neglect to join in.

War of the Worlds — Wells’ one true dystopian vision — always did it for me. It’s remained the greatest work of dystopian fiction I’ve ever read, in part because its vision is grander than just a whinge about being conquered by people one happens not to like. 

I remember encountering Things Fall Apart and Heart of Darkness and sundry other colonial and postcolonial whinges about empire, and remember thinking that if the price of colonisation was sewage, running water, railways and vaccines, then the colonised needed to grab a nice hot cup of STFU, and fast.

War of the Worlds, however, remains the preeminent work of postcolonial literature, because it catches what colonialism looks like when running water, sewage, railways and vaccines are not on the agenda.

And Richard Burton still has the best voice in movies.

This is a live version of the opening to Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds. The dummy Burton they use is rather twee, but it’s still Burton of Under Milk Wood fame, and when the Martians land near London, it really is like the end of the world is coming.

If you’re Australian, it’s this par (from The Eve of the War) that resonates:

And before we judge them too harshly, we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished Bison and the Dodo, but upon its own inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit? 


  1. Rafe
    Posted July 21, 2009 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    Who cares about Tasmanians?

    Or who cares about the truth about Tasmanians?

    But it was disgraceful the way Homer Simpson shot the last two bison.

    I have to admit to being unmoved by the first moon landing because I thought that far more important things were happening on earth.

  2. Posted July 21, 2009 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    First read War of the Worlds as a kid. I must have been about eight years old so I don’t remember too much about it.. Wells always has a gripping style and somehow I read it quickly and easily despite the Victorian mannerisms, the elaborate and often complicated sentences and rhetorical flourishes that would have otherwise puzzled me. The book must have also encouraged in me an incipient interest in science fiction and fantasy (the other main work that did that was C S Lewis’s Narnia books).

    When I re-read it three years back, I was utterly riveted. I understood so much more than I would have as a kid, and it’s the first time that it really came home to me how important a work it was. It’s not just the imaginative brutalities that Wells’ wreaks upon the English countryside (the Martians’ death rays, the poisoned gas), it’s the complicated characters (the short dialogue with the man on the hill, for instance, and the complicated Christian argument maintained by the narrator throughout the novel).

    It really is one of the best dystopias ever written.

  3. MikeM
    Posted July 21, 2009 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    phased: organised in a concerted or progressive manner

    fased: caused to show discomposure

  4. Posted July 21, 2009 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    Mike, if you’re going to nitpick, at least get the nitpick right. The word we’re both looking for is ‘fazed’.

    TimT: Wells wrote much that was utopian, but it is this book that will stick around and which has got ‘greatness’ stamped all over it.

  5. conrad
    Posted July 21, 2009 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    It must be the close to the best soundtrack ever.

  6. Posted July 21, 2009 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    The dummy Burton they use is rather twee

    It’s eerie. The raised eyebrow thing looks pretty dumb. Don’t think he’d’ve ever done something so hammy.

    And Richard Burton still has the best voice in movies.

    It’s the Welsh lilt underneath the Old Vic plum. Which is equivalent to the fact that beneath the poetry lies a brilliant but wild animal. Why don’t actors get bone drunk and end up in Mexican jails like the used to?

    if the price of colonisation was sewage, running water, railways and vaccines, then the colonised needed to grab a nice hot cup of STFU, and fast.

    For the descendant of the colonized – maybe. For those to whom its actually happening it’s rape your daughters and cut off your hands time; nail the king to the city walls. And that’s the same species.

    I think Stephen Hawking was right when he said stuff like Voyager was a mistake. Contradicting the assertions that UFO sightings mean aliens have been making contact he said that actual contact was likely to be far more obvious and much less pleasant. We should stay out of sight. Too late.

    Personally I think that the most accurate depiction of the human race’s response to an outer space invasion is this.

  7. Posted July 21, 2009 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    That said landing on the Moon was cool.

  8. conrad
    Posted July 22, 2009 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    I have a version where the intro is spoken in German, which seems to make it even more appropriate.

  9. Posted July 22, 2009 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    From the affection for Jeff Wayne’s work, perhaps there’s hope of a resurgence of prog rock and/or the concept album (says me, eye on my Yes/Wakeman/ELP-type recordings).

    And while Wells’ fictional works are damn fine (much deeper than Verne, “Island of Dr Moreau” particularly), I’m a big fan of his “History of the World” (I only possess the “Short” version)- one of the most popular books of the day (even with the “quasi-lefty” take on things), because he published it as a periodical so even modest households could assemble a copy.

    Meanwhile, I’m STILL bitchin that my ex got the 10-inch recording of Orson Welles’ radio play – and didn’t have the decency to make me a copy.

  10. Posted July 22, 2009 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Adrien says:

    “That said landing on the Moon was cool.”

    Oh come on, don’t tell me you fell for the moon landing hoax.

  11. Posted July 22, 2009 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    Oh come on, don’t tell me you fell for the moon landing hoax.

    In the paper yesterday there’s a cartoon with Kubrick directing the moon landing. He says: Cut! Neil, you’re supposed to say ‘that’s one small step for a man’ not ‘ well folks it ain’t made of cheese’.

  12. Posted July 22, 2009 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    Mel & Adrien: take a bow. You damn near finished up owing me a keyboard.

    Computer, coffee, etc…

  13. Posted July 23, 2009 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    More Kubrick bloopers.

  14. Posted July 23, 2009 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    Sorry –

  15. Posted July 27, 2009 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    SL, what I find when dipping into some of the Wells’ utopias is that he never seems simply content to write about an imagined utopia – he always looks upon the prospect with a kind of longing which gradually turns into cynicism as his style develops. In ‘In the Days of the Comet’ nothing short of a heavenly event – supernatural intervention, basically – can bring about utopia. And in ‘The Time Machine’, the time traveller eventually looks back upon a wasted world that has been left behind by a previous utopian (or near-utopian) society. He’s a fascinating writer for a number of reasons, one of which is his development from a radical/communist to a moderate democrat – and how this development is prefigured and reflected in the development of his style.

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