Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Novel: End of the World as We Know It

War of the Worlds: New Millennium By Douglas Niles, Tor Books, 2005

I don't normally review books written by friends. No, hang on, that's wrong - I regularly review books written by friends, when said books are in the process of creation, that morphic ur-state when the language can still be strengthened, the blocking altered, the dialogue sharpened and the furniture moved around the room. And such reviews generally consist of a face-to-face conversations, the criticisms cushioned by numerous pints of some local brew.

But this was one I was interested in, and a mutual friend sent me an advanced uncorrected proof. I've been a fan of the H.G. Wells original and loved both the Classic Illustrated comic book version with its bolts and rivets Martian tripods and the 1953 movie with its low-hovering melted jellybean ships. So this is a book I would have wanted to write.

And Doug has done SUCH a good job with it.

You know the basic (now public domain) plot. Mars invades Earth, sweeps aside the wonders of modern civilization, but in the end is defeated by a small thing they had not anticipated. That's where Doug starts, and builds anew, keeping much of what you expect and adding new twists of his own. If anything, Doug captures the extreme fragility of our early twenty-first century life, so tenuous that a good hard knock or three can push it over the edge. That fragility (along the hubris created by our advanced society) is one of Wells' original themes, and Doug expands upon it.

And Doug does more, bringing the basic plot up to 21st Century sensibilities as well as technology. Instead of the anonymous narrator of the original, Doug splits the tale between first person narration by Mark Devane, a former professor-turned-reclusive writer in the wilds of Wisconsin, and the third-person experiences of his daughter Alexandria, project manager of the Manned Mission to Mars project. Mark is gives the ground-level view of survival in a desperate, uninformed world, while Alexandria moves among the ranks of surviving terran power, aiding in the frustrating and futile attempts to repel the Martians. The plot moves elsewhere, with other characters and minor vignettes, but always returns to Mark and Alexandria.

This is a wedding of technothriller with classic science fiction. The understandable parts of the science and technology are there, right down to the reliability of old tech over new (one of the male heroes of the book flies an old A-10 Warthog, and ancient Harleys and classic cars survive the Martians' first assault). Yet overlapping this is the unexplainable nature of the Martian tech - we don't know how they do what they do, but believe that they are doing it. Wells' Martians were terrors of their age but look like quaint tripedal boilers today. Doug has brought back the terror they inspired.

Also, against the original text (and most technothrillers) there is a layer of character development and envolution, particularly in Mark's character. He flees society after an earlier nervous breakdown but with the Martian Invasion has to come to terms with his own need for society and his own role in the new world. This takes it the story above the level of your typical technothriller into a finer form of fiction.

A word of warning - I brought this book with me when we went on vacation. The worst place to read about the initial Martian attacks was while waiting on the tarmac in Vegas to take off. Let's just say that commercial aviation takes a shot to the heart.

More later,