Wednesday, 21 June 2017

The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells book review

The War of the WorldsThe War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Read as part of The Infinite Variety Reading Challenge, based on the BBC's Big Read Poll of 2003.

The War of the Worlds goes beyond the of-the-time popular military invasion fiction, which took away the standard protagonist/antagonist arc of single characters and popped whole countries or tribes in their place, and brings down to Earth a whole new enemy at a time when science fiction did not exist and science itself was oft thought of as fiction.

In Surrey, a professor is caught up in the invasion of Martians as they sweep through London and its surrounding boroughs after witnessing several explosion on the planet Mars at the Ottershaw observatory. We follow the un-named professor and his brother in first-person narrative, seeing through their eyes this invasion and the destruction caused.

The air was full of sound, a deafening and confusing conflict of noises-the clangorous din of the Martians, the crash of falling houses, the thud of trees, fences, sheds flashing into flame, and the crackling and roaring of fire. Dense black smoke was leaping up to mingle with the steam from the river, and as the Heat-Ray went to and fro over Weybridge its impact was marked by flashes of incandescent white, that gave place at once to a smoky dance of lurid flames.

The first thing one needs to reference is the radio adaptation of 1938, which was narrated by Orson Welles and caused panic due to its news-bulletin style: those listening thought it was the truth. Whilst reading the novel, there is no doubt that the imagery, style and prose of H.G. Wells purported this panic. It is written with such imagination that it's difficult not to imagine oneself standing on the side of a crater as Martians crawl sluggishly out of their spaceships.

It is not often that I can forgive a book its downfalls due to the time of its writing. (It's all very well to accept that, for the most part, racism and sexism and things of that ilk were at many times in history acceptable behaviour, but enjoying a book from a period with those things in this day and age is a thing I find difficult to do.) However, in the case of The War of the Worlds I think it is vitally important to read the book with the exact time and place it was written in history to be lodged within your mind alongside every word you read.

We have a primitive form of speculative fiction, the very foundations of what we now call science fiction. At the time, H.G. Wells was writing fiction that had scientific and imaginative leanings, but no-one would dare think that perhaps the fiction was not quite fiction after all. There is little mention of the Martians weaponry or technology except when it is in use: any modern-day writer of sci-fi would absolutely be telling you all about the nuts and bolts of the piece. We have primitive science, because that is what they had at the time of writing. Whilst the future may have been thought of, the idea of futuristic technology was as alien to them as the Martians and their technology are in the book.

So, the excitement of the scientific exploration of futures is not to be found here. But the imagination of Wells is so beyond almost everything else that was around at the time and coupling it with popular militarist fiction means that this is an extremely important novel in the progression of English fiction. It is not surprising that Wells was, like Darwin himself, stuck inextricably between the truth of science and the tradition of religion.

The story itself, if put in perspective-removed from its time period and thought of solely as a novel-is nothing special. The narrator is disjointed with his surroundings, the story disappointing in the way it ends and less dramatic and climactic than it could have been. The style of prose is lacking, the dialogue just standard and the characters just slight breezes on a warm day. In that, it would require a mere two or three stars: enjoyable, if a little boring. But this is a novel that should be remembered for when it was written.

The imagination of a scientific man who is at odds with what is right and wrong. The spectacular birth of a new genre of, not only writing, but of thinking, too. The fact that even though my oestrogen levels were almost at zero, the reunion at the end made me cry my eyes out because it was written so perfectly, so unexpectedly.

Of course, that film with that actor was better. Of course it was. We have perspective and technology now that means the original The War of the Worlds is pretty pathetic. It cannot possibly compete with our high standards of today, unless you have half a brain and take this novel for what it truly represents. Unless.

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Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Forty Years On by Alan Bennett book review

Forty Years OnForty Years On by Alan Bennett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Country is park and shore is marina, spare time is leisure and more, year by year. We have become a battery people, a people of underprivileged hearts fed on pap in darkness, bred out of all taste and season to savour the shoddy splendours of the new civility. The hedges come down from the silent fields. The lease is out on the corner site. A butterfly is an event.

Forty Years On was Alan Bennett's very first West End Play, set in the fictional Public School Albion House. The school is putting on an end-of-year play for the parents, which brings forth the medium of having a play-within-a-play. The within-play sees three people living through the World War, whereas the without-play sees the Public School boys and masters try and enact this play, with many interruptions and discourses.

It also sees the old fashioned, last generation Headmaster make way for the new Headmaster who appears to have ways that break and denounce tradition, which reflects the transition of the old Empire Britain in to the new, World-Wars surviving Britain. A changed Britain: a modern Britain, but at what cost? And at what cost to education are new ideas and old traditions brought in and taken away?

You can tell this is one of Bennett's earlier plays because the humour isn't as sharp and quite often there are some very blunt moments, and the whole story itself seems to stutter ever so slightly. The play-within-the-play is a narration of Great Britain as it goes through the changes of coming out of being an excellent empire, through two world wars and falling in a heap out of the other side.

We have Bennett's natural talent speaking for itself, for the most part. There are some very obvious jokes and some you must roll your eyes at, but the humour is both English and Bennett and nothing is better. I find it hard to rate plays, because they include none of the things I love about reading: description, character and world-building, and I need to see a play in order to really rate it, but Forty Years On spoke to me on a level that not many books can do.

"The Battle of Britain was 23 years ago and the world has forgotten it. Those young men, so many of whom I knew, flew up in to the air and died for us and all we believed in and all we believe in has so changed that they needn't have really died at all. It was all a nonsense." - Noël Coward

Great Britain has never known what to do with itself ever since the Empire was dissolved. How can a country even get over something like that, without having been defeated or invaded to the point of changing its identity completely?

This is what Alan Bennett is saying, though being a young playwright he only scratches the surface of it. Forty Years after the war-any war-and it seems as if it mightn't have happened at all, for all the good it seems to have done us. Time moves on a things that happen were only things that happened: things to be discussed.

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