The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells

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The War of the Worlds may not be the greatest science fiction novel ever written, but it is possibly the purest.

Stately, economical prose, sometimes reaching delightful peaks of intensity and suspense. Grand, cleanly-thought-out ideas whose full expression produces in the reader a sense of wonder. A plot whose primary function is to showcase the grand ideas in a dramatic fashion. And passages on science that are short, speculative essays.

One chapter, “The Man on Putney Hill,” is the blue print for literally thousands of books and films, The Matrix among them.

And Wells is the archetypal master of that shift in perspective from quotidian to wondrous, totally backed up by rational scientific ideas, and buttressed by literary showmanship of the first order. That shift is the “sense of wonder” that the SF reader searches for. Wells also has that gift of insight which allowed him to anticipate the horrors of twentieth century warfare, more with the gift of prophecy than with pure extrapolation.

This book is not concerned with the episodic and immersive qualities of later pop SF writers, or with the stylish satires and dreamscapes of the “The New Wave” and beyond. His is a totally unironic, powerful, prophetic voice. His only direct successors are Asimov, Clarke, and Lem, and now that they are gone there may be no more.

This is also the single most influential work of science fiction in any language, hands down. Even though later writers avoid Wells intentionally, they are all deeply indebted to him. What Conan Doyle did for detective fiction, Wells, and chiefly in this one book, did for science fiction.

It’s still a masterpiece and a must read after a century.