H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds is an early classic science fiction tale that has been imitated and retold in countless ways, and it’s always been a favorite of mine. Robert Reginald has taken Wells’ basic idea – a surprise, devastating attack by Martians that is only barely stopped, and even then not because of any human action – and expanded it to three novels, setting it in modern-day America. The trilogy was originally published in one great big fat trade paperback by Underwood Books in 2007 (with very nice cover art and interior black and white illustrations by Choi Tae-Young), but didn’t make the popular splash that it deserved, and I’ve only just recently even learned of its existence. I’ve heard from a little bird that the three works that constitute the series thus far will be reprinted as individual books by Wildside Books soon. I hope that a fourth volume continuing the series will soon follow.

Some mild plot spoilers follow.

The first book in the series (War of Two Worlds) is essentially a retelling of the classic Wells story, following the experiences of everyman academic Alex Smith in modern-day California. Smith is a college professor and travels around California witnessing and participating in the violence and devastation that accompanies the Martian invasion. California is an area the author knows intimately, and this certainly comes across as the places the protagonist travels through have a real presence in the story. This first book follows the same essential plot as the original, with Wells’ key events also present here, in modernized format.

The middle and final volumes of the trilogy (Operation Crimson Storm and The Martians Strike Back!, respectively) are entirely new and pick up some years after the initial Martian invasion. Earth has mostly recovered from the onslaught, reengineered some of the Martians’ technology, and built a massive spacefleet in an attempt to bring the war to the Martians’ homeland. Earth is getting pummeled by asteroids the Martians send crashing into Earth (shades of Starship Troopers) and they pretty much have no choice if human civilization is to survive. They land on Mars, set up a couple bases, and start fighting back. Along the way, Alex Smith and his family gain new insights into the truly alien culture (and ecosystem) of the Martians in an effort to learn why the Martians attacked and how the conflict may be stopped. The Martians were very well-crafted – these are not simply Star Trek-style aliens who are essentially humans with antennae – and the trilogy sets up some additional mysteries that I’d love to see resolved in a fourth volume.

As much as I enjoy and respect H. G. Wells’ work, he was a product of the literary and genre conventions of the day, and his style didn’t permit deep characterization or exploration of human psychology. Reginald’s retelling allows him to explore both characterization of individuals and human society much more extensively than the original did, and that’s all to the good. Clearly, one of the themes of the trilogy (and this is present in Reginald’s novel Knack’ Attack as well) is the conflict that can arise from a lack of communication and cultural affinity between societies. That’s a theme that’s well-taken, and adds some additional richness to the novels, making them more than simple military SF tales. At times, Reginald seems a little conflicted though: are the humans making a dumb decision attacking the Martians, succumbing to militaristic impulses, or are they justified in what they’re doing since Mars attacked Earth with very little provocation, killing probably tens of millions of people and wreaking catastrophic damage? It’s hard not to be at least a little sympathetic with even the most militaristic humans in the novels, seeing as how we didn’t start the war, though the Martians (at least some of them) don’t quite see it that way.

I give this one 4.5 stars out of 5. I enjoyed this trilogy immensely and highly recommend it for fans of the original War of the Worlds as well as military science fiction/adventure fans who are looking for more than a simple shoot-‘em-up.

Review copyright 2011 J. Andrew Byers