Love letter to H.G. Wells

Getting this in early, before the movie covers the entire blogosphere in choking red weed. War of the Worlds, as you all should know, starts like this:

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.

I love that passage, especially the phrase "vast and cool and unsympathetic". That's right up there with "of the people, by the people, for the people" and "Nor wintry leaves nor vernal/ Nor days nor things diurnal" and all the other gems that make me glad to know English. But what makes "vast and cool and unsympathetic" so awesome?

First of all, you've got the downwards spiral of meaning. There are intellects other than man: they're vast (i.e. intimidating), cool (i.e. not warm, not prone to the feelings we pride ourselves on) and unsympathetic (i.e. not inclined to care about our feelings, either). By the end of that triplet, doom is hanging in the air.

At a lower level, the construction is brilliant: vast, a long one-syllable word that almost sounds like mimesis (dig that long low back vowel conveying the vastness!); cool, another long, almost mimetic syllable; and then the kicker, unsympathetic, a sudden register shift to Latinate, a focusing of the lens and a tightening of the screws just as the danger these intellects pose to humanity is fully revealed -- and note, too, that the word ends in a spindle of voiceless obstruents and tiny vowels. That just sounds nasty.

Popularity factor: 6


Ooh, cool. (It's a category at Crooked Timber, and I had no idea there was a source.)



Yeah, someone else who likes H.G. Wells. He was excellent, before he lost poor mind. My name is also Matt, I also live in Japan. Look me over some time.


You and I are in a state of occasional synchronicity lately....

Agree that, as opening paragraphs go, it is excellent, though don't have the tools / background to attempt your level of linguistic analysis. I wonder if we do so unconsciously in responding to the language - I guess the answer is yes of course - mind you, helps if read aloud by Richard Burton....


Are there any passages which aren't helped by being read aloud by Richard Burton?

I liked in your post the comment that "the seeds of ultimate martian destruction are there right from the start, in the opening paragraph". Absolutely true! Another reason why this is so brilliant.


I prefer tight, warm, and affectionate.


Beats "Vast Active Living Intelligent System".

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