To celebrate Penguin Books' 75th anniversary, the London Times asked writers to name their favorite Penguin book. Novelist Will Self writes an eloquent tribute to The War Of The Worlds as the ultimate modern book, proof that we can still create enduring myths in the modern era, and a token of H.G. Wells' genius in crafting a new type of invasion narrative. Writes Self:
For a modern reader the initial impact of the story is lessened by a sense of scientific anachronism. Unlike Wells, we can't give any significance to the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli's observation of canali on the Martian surface (famously mistranslated as "canals", though he meant "channels"). Certainly, we know - or think we know - that Mars cannot support sentient life. In fact, if there is any life on Mars, it's more likely to be the kind of microscopic bacteria that in Wells's book eventually eliminate the invading Martians, despite the vast technological superiority of their teetering tripods, their death rays, their poison gases and their form of biological warfare - the invasive "red weed".
Yet such is the genius of Wells's storytelling that it doesn't take much suspension of disbelief before you do begin finding The War of the Worlds horribly credible. Wells knew how to ground the fantastic in the mundane - and what can be more mundane than the late-Victorian Surrey commuter belt? His descriptive skill lay in juxtaposing death rays with dahlias, and milk churns with the aliens' giant spaceships. As the Martians proceed to lay waste to London and its environs, Wells seems to take a positive glee in this privet-lined Armageddon.