War of the Worlds: The Novel (1898)

The War of the Worlds was first published in 1898, three years after Herbert George Wells wrote The Time Machine. In the same year that Wells’ novel was published, the astronomers Schiaparelli and Percival Lowell reported their observations of canals on the surface of Mars. This incredible discovery (later proven to be an optical illusion created by impact craters on the surface of the Red Planet) made the novel wildly popular.

The book is set “early in the twentieth century”, in and around the London, England. It tells the first-person account of a journalist/philosopher who witnesses how the normal activities of his countrymen are thrown into total chaos by an invasion of Martian beings. The first sign of trouble occurs when astronomers observe huge outbreaks of incandescent gas rising above the landscape of Mars. Days later, massive cylinders thirty yards across land in the countryside surrounding London. The journalist witnesses the opening of the first, which contains strange creatures the size of a bear, with two large, dark-coloured eyes and a peculiar, V-shaped mouth. The body, which glistens like wet leather is a gorgon group of tentacles. Rapidly, these creatures commence building machines, the first of which is a “Heat-Ray” that turns the crowd around the landed cylinder to flame.

The journalist returns home to evacuate his wife, but upon returning from where he left her with family, he encounters the next of the Martian machines, a monstrous tripod, higher than many houses. It was a walking engine of glittering metal with articulate ropes dangling from it. It passed with the riot of the thunder. In its wake, the journalist encounters an artilleryman, the sole survivor of a military cordon established to stop this “Fighting Machine”. The two resolve to head for London but are separated when more Fighting Machines attack the towns of Weybridge and Shepparton, destroying them and the batteries of guns deployed to protect them. In this engagement, the humans score their first victory, taking down a walking machine with a well placed artillery shell before being incinerated by the heat ray.

At this point in the book, the journalist relates his brother’s experience with the Martians’ advance on London itself. He details how a sedentary London is roused on morning Monday by the report of a new Martian advance and a new weapon, the Black Smoke, which causes death to all who breath it. The journalist’s brother joins the torrent of pathetic and desperate refugees that depart London in the hope of finding a boat out of the country. Two days later, he reaches the coast with a party of refugees, procuring passage to France aboard a steamer. As they depart, the Martians attack, blocking the passage of the outbound shipping. The naval ironclad, Thunder Child, rushes to their defence, and slays two Fighting Machines before being destroyed herself when the surviving Martians turn the Heat-Ray upon her hull. The Thunder Child’s sacrifice allows the refugees’ steamer to escape. It moves past the Martians and sails to safety.

The journalist has joined with a curate, whose sanity has been badly challenged by the strange events. They come to Mortlake where they make camp in an empty house as a fifth cylinder from Mars lands. It smashes into the house, trapping them within. The Martians begin building yet another machine, a Handling Machine that is used to build other machines and process captured humans for food. The nigh-bodiless Martians survive by draining the blood of other life forms and injecting it directly into themselves.

One the sixth day, the curate finally snaps. He rants and screams. The journalist knocks him out but not before the curate’s cries bring on the nearby Martians who take away his unconscious body. The journalist narrowly avoids capture by hiding in the rubble for five days. When he emerges, he finds only an empty pit.

Journeying on to Putney Hill, the journalist is reunited with the artilleryman, who has developed a grand plan. According to the artilleryman, Humans are beaten and done for. Consequently, the only way to survive is to start again, under the Martians’ very feet, in the drain systems beneath London. He has made a modest start on a tunnel in a deserted house. The journalist examines the work and realizes that he could have completed the same task in a fraction of the time. He quickly realizes that the artilleryman is too lazy to execute his plans properly or examine them for flaws, instead taking frequent breaks to stroll or drink champagne. The journalist leaves him to his own efforts.

Wandering listless into the empty London, the journalist falls to severe depression and exhaustion. When he stumbles across a Fighting Machine, still and motionless. He discovers that the Martian controlling it is dead. The journalist continues onto the Martians’ main encampment. Not one of the Martians remains alive. They have been slain by the bacteria of Earth, a menace against which their systems were completely unprepared. After all men’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in His wisdom, has put upon the Earth saved mankind from total devastation.

The War of the Worlds is a good example of the predictive capabilities of science fiction. Based on theories of life on Mars that were ultimately proven to be flawed, the alien technology and Martians themselves were logically explained throughout the text. The basics of the Martian Heat-Ray and principles on which it worked are concurrent with the real-life mechanics of modern lasers. The mysterious Black Smoke has parallels with the early nerve gases and agents used less than two decades later, during World War I.

Wells also extends a great focus on the reactions of Humanity in the face of an overwhelming crisis. The text indicates that Wells was something of a fatalist when it came to human nature. As Man’s institutions and capacities fail before the Martian invasion, specific characters fail as well; the curate’s faith cannot sustain his sanity when the works of Man crumble about him and the military man who appears resourceful and adaptable when first encountered at the journalist’s house but who is revealed to be indolent, a talker rather than a doer, when the journalist meets him again at Putney Hill. Even the journalist, the protagonist of the tale, is content simply with survival and observation. Rather than attempt to follow through on the artilleryman’s idea or even prod the man into making more progress, he wanders on and succumbs to his own depression.

The great exodus from London, the heart of the continent-spanning British Empire, shows a proud population in panic. The heart of one of the great powers of the world is shattered in less than twenty-four hours. The axiom of “women and children first” is ignored as everyone who can rushes for any means of escape from the incoming Martians.

In the end, neither Man, nor any of his creations, defeats the Martians. The Martians are responsible for their own downfall. They overlooked the possibility of infection from Earth bacteria and disease.

Like his previous novel, The Time Machine, H.G. Wells meant The War of the Worlds to be a commentary of society in his own time, with a hope for a better social order in the future. He describes his real intend at the beginning of the book when the journalist writes:

– written by Rob Farquhar