Wars of invasion were very much upon the minds of people in Great Britain, and in other major nations of the world, during the late 19th century. Would Germany invade Belgium? Would the Austro-Hungarian Empire invade Serbia? But only the visionary mind of H.G. Wells was able to extrapolate from those fears of his time to imagine something even more seemingly unthinkable – an invasion of the Earth by hostile, technologically superior beings from another world – in a way that would capture the imaginations of countless thousands of readers, from Wells’s time to our own. Welcome to The War of the Worlds (1898).
In our time, Wells is best-known for his classic works of science fiction – works that, in his own time, would have been called “scientific romances”: The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The First Men in the Moon (1901), The Food of the Gods (1904), In the Days of the Comet (1906), and of course The War of the Worlds.
The basic principle in that time – as with many science-fiction works now – was to take what was known from the science of the time, extrapolate from that science, and use that imaginative leap as the basis for a suspenseful story. But because Wells was a thinker of such enormously wide interests, well-versed in history and philosophy as well as science, works like The War of the Worlds went far beyond the “scientific romances” of their time, and continue to thrill and fascinate the readers of today.
The narrator of The War of the Worlds is an unnamed writer of considerable accomplishment and wide-ranging interests – a man much like Wells, come to think – whose peaceful and contemplative life in a quiet corner of Surrey is forever changed when a cylinder, constructed by beings from another world, crashes in a nearby part of his home county, opening a crater where it fell. Wells’s narrator begins his story by recalling ruefully how ill-prepared the people of the Earth were for this event:
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 scrutinized and studied, almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize 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. (p. 1)
It is, or course, conscious and deliberate that Wells links arrogant humankind with the microscopic organisms that were relatively new objects of discovery and interest for the scientists of that time – elsewhere in The War of the Worlds, the narrator refers to these creatures as “the humblest things that God, in His wisdom, has put upon this Earth” (p. 103). The major nations of the world – then, as now – competed for power and influence; and meanwhile, “across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to 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” (p. 1)
The Martians emerge from the cylinder and quickly demonstrate their hostile intent, spreading death and destruction through the power of a Heat-Ray. A full 62 years before the construction of the first laser device, Wells posited the idea of a new kind of weapon – “A beam of heat is the essence of the matter. Heat, and invisible, instead of visible light. Whatever is combustible flashes into flame at its touch; lead runs like water; it softens iron, cracks and melts glass; and when it falls upon water, incontinently that explodes into steam” (p. 15). Generations of creators of “ray-gun” books and movies owe an incalculable debt to Wells.
It quickly becomes clear that the British armed forces – while well-prepared for a possible war against an earthly enemy like, say, the German Empire – are all but helpless before the Martians and their Heat-Ray. And the destruction that the Martians wreak with their Heat-Ray is increased exponentially, once the Martians in their craters have constructed their tripods – vast war machines with which the Martians can cover territory even more quickly than the tanks that would see action 20 years later in the Great War.
The narrator is utterly shocked by his first sighting of a Martian tripod:
And this Thing I saw! How can I describe it? A monstrous tripod, higher than many houses, striding over the young pine-trees, and smashing them aside in its career; a walking engine of glittering metal, striding now across the heather; articulate ropes of steel dangling from it, and the clattering tumult of its passage mingling with the riot of the thunder. (p. 27)
In narrative terms, The War of the Worlds goes back and forth between what the narrator witnessed in Surrey and what his brother saw happening in London. Both eyewitnesses would agree that “Never before in the history of warfare had destruction been so indiscriminate and so universal” (p. 32). Indeed, while the Great War was still twenty years away, a modern reader of The War of the Worlds, contemplating Wells’s description of the Martians’ indiscriminate killing of soldiers and civilians, of peaceful cities being made the targets of military violence, might well find his or her thoughts moving from Wells’s Martians to the guns of August 1914.
Those parallels with the First World War take on additional force when one reads about how another weapon in the Martians’ arsenal is poison gas. The Martian tripods, it turns out, carry canisters that deploy a chemical weapon that the narrator refers to simply as “the black smoke”:
These canisters smashed on striking the ground – they did not explode – and incontinently disengaged an enormous volume of heavy, inky vapour, coiling and pouring upward in a huge and ebony cumulus cloud, a gaseous hill that sank and spread itself slowly over the surrounding country. And the touch of that vapour, the inhaling of its pungent wisps, was death to all that breathes. (p. 54)
Part of what impressed me, on this re-reading of The War of the Worlds, was a renewed sense of the predictive power of the book. It is not just that Wells’s novel looks ahead to topics like poison gas, or the laser, or mobile war machines that prefigure the development of tanks. A 21st-century reader might be just as impressed by Wells’s description of how the Martians bring with them a “Red Weed” – a strange form of red vegetation that grows in profusion wherever there is a water supply, and that chokes out all the Earthly vegetation around it. The term “invasive species” may not have been much in use in Wells’s time, but this aspect of The War of the Worlds certainly looks ahead to the global problem of invasive species today.
People are undone by the invasion; the truths and philosophies that they have depended on all their lives can no longer sustain them. A curate, who takes shelter with the narrator in an abandoned home after the Martians have destroyed the town of Weybridge, moans with self-pity; in response, the narrator angrily calls upon the curate to “Be a man!” and adds that “You are scared out of your wits! What good is religion if it collapses under calamity? Think of what earthquakes and floods, wars and volcanoes, have done before to men! Did you think God had exempted Weybridge? He is not an insurance agent, man” (p. 43)
The house in which the narrator and the curate have sought shelter is later struck and destroyed by a Martian cylinder, trapping them, for a time, in the ruins. Before long, the narrator gets the chance to see a Martian for himself:
They were, I now saw, the most unearthly creatures it is possible to conceive. They were huge round bodies – or, rather, heads – about four feet in diameter, each body having in front of it a face. This face had no nostrils – indeed, the Martians do not seem to have had any sense of smell – but it had a pair of very large, dark-coloured eyes, and just beneath this a kind of fleshy beak. In the back of this head or body – I scarcely know how to speak of it – was the single tight tympanic surface, since known to be anatomically an ear, though it must have been almost useless in our denser air. In a group round the mouth were sixteen slender, almost whip-like tentacles, arranged in two bunches of eight each. (p. 77)
As if the description of the Martians was not chilling enough, what we subsequently learn of their eating habits is even worse. The narrator recalls how the Martians “took the fresh, living blood of other creatures, and injected it into their own veins” (p. 78). The narrator, who saw the Martians carrying out this process, insists that he can’t even bear to describe what he saw: “Let it suffice to say, blood obtained from a still living animal, in most cases from a human being, was run directly by means of a little pipette into the recipient canal…” (p. 78) It is details like these that make The War of the Worlds a truly disturbing novel – a classic of horror as well as science fiction.
On the chance that there is someone out there who doesn’t know how the novel ends, I will take care to avoid the need for a spoiler alert. I will say only that Wells adroitly scatters clues throughout the early parts of The War of the Worlds, preparing the reader for a resolution that affirms the narrator’s declaration at one point that “By the toll of a billion deaths, man has bought his birthright of the Earth, and it is his against all comers; it would still be his were the Martians ten times as mighty as they are. For neither do men live nor die in vain” (p. 103).
Throughout The War of the Worlds, Wells’s descriptions of the Martians’ literally bloodthirsty behaviour are meant to remind the reader of humankind’s distressingly regular demonstrations of a metaphorical thirst for blood. Near the book’s beginning, the narrator, looking back on the interplanetary war, writes that “before we judge of [the Martians] too harshly, we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought”, and “not only upon animals, such as the bison and the dodo”. Citing the killing of almost all of the Indigenous people of Tasmania, “in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years” – Wells’s narrator asks implacably: “Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?” (p. 1)
And near the conclusion of The War of the Worlds, the narrator writes, more hopefully, that “Surely, if we have learnt nothing else, this war has taught us pity – pity for those witless souls that suffer our dominion” (p. 92). If the world has not yet learned that lesson, or any sort of meaningful lesson about compassion – as the grim record of the twelve decades since the publication of Wells’s novel would seem to indicate – then the blame for that failure cannot be laid at Wells’s feet. Few writers, of any era, have been more prolific in their presentation of plans for social improvement and global peace.
The War of the Worlds is, purely and simply, one of the most influential novels ever written. Orson Welles’s panic-inducing 1938 radio-broadcast version of the novel is very fine, as are the film adaptations by George Pal (in 1953) and Steven Spielberg (in 2005); but there is no substitute for returning to this singularly powerful and disturbing short novel.