Peter Beck reflects on points raised by his recently published book The War of the Worlds: from H.G. Wells to Orson Welles, Jeff Wayne, Steven Spielberg and beyond:
In The War of the Worlds: from H.G. Wells to Orson Welles, Jeff Wayne, Steven Spielberg and beyond (Bloomsbury: 2016), you state that H.G. Wells’s book, though published in 1898, still sells well today.
The book remains in print, and is widely available online and in translation. We can expect more editions next year with the expiration of copyright. For most readers, the story about a Martian invasion of Britain proves an excellent read, an exciting sci-fi page-turner raising such fantasy counterfactuals as ‘Is there life on Mars?’ and if so ‘What if the Martians invaded earth?’. It sells also as a tie-in book to such adaptations as the Steven Spielberg/Tom Cruise film and Jeff Wayne’s music stage show.
Does The War of the Worlds possess any contemporary resonance?
The story’s enduring appeal derives in part from its timeless focus upon such questions about life on Mars and national security. For Jeff Wayne, Wells’s storyline ‘resonates today’, and still talks to the present-day world. Stephen Baxter, the bestselling sci-fi writer, and Niall Ferguson, the historian, are among those giving Wells high praise for his prescience.
What does The War of the Worlds tell us about Wells as a writer?
The War of the Worlds highlights Wells’s skills as a writer of what he called scientific romances, a magician who encouraged readers to suspend their disbelief by mixing doses of fantasy with substantial portions of real life. The War of the Worlds shows how Wells’s writing drew upon his personal experience, strong sense of time and place, scientific knowledge, creative imaginative skills, and informed vision of the time to come.
How did the book’s success impact upon Wells’s reputation?
The War of the Worlds was instrumental in enabling Wells, who began writing the story when he was only 29 years old, to make his mark in the challenging literary world. In turn today he is represented as one of the founders of science fiction, indeed – to quote Brian Aldiss – ‘the Shakespeare of science fiction’. Just as Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) inspired television’s Doctor Who, so The War of the Worlds pioneered alien invasion stories.
How far have adaptations become people’s initial point of contact with The War of the Worlds?
The story has proved highly adaptable. Frequently reimagined and retold over time, The War of the Worlds has been taken repeatedly to new and diverse audiences through a wide range of multimedia formats setting the story in different locations and time periods. Thus, for many people today The War of the Worlds has come to mean, say, a film, a music show or a radio drama.
How would you describe your new book?
Apart from telling readers a lot about Wells as a writer, especially his rapid emergence as a new young writer and present-day cultural significance, my book is best represented as a biography of The War of the Worlds. In brief, it analyses critically Wells’s book – its inspiration, research, writing, reception and impact – as well as the story’s active and successful multimedia afterlife, with special emphasis placed upon adaptations by Orson Welles, Steven Spielberg and Jeff Wayne. There is also a substantial focus upon the Wellsian literary heritage.
Finally, your book can be seen also as marking two important Wellsian anniversaries.
Yes – My book’s publication date was targeted towards these anniversaries. 2016 marks the 150th anniversary of Wells’s birth (21 September) and the 70th anniversary of his death (13 August).
Peter J. Beck is Emeritus Professor of History at Kingston University. His previous books include Presenting History: Past and Present (2012) and Using History, making British Policy: the Treasury and the Foreign Office 1950-76 (2006).