It's a quirk of literary history that HG Wells's genre-defining tale of Martian invasion is probably more famous for its adaptations – the Orson Welles radio play that supposedly tricked America into believing they were genuinely under attack from Martians, the films, television series, even Jeff Wayne's double album and live tour – than the groundbreaking original, first published in serial format in Pearson's Magazine in 1897.
Perhaps that's because there's no hero character a la Dan Dare or Buck Rogers to grab the attention in Wells's battle of civilisations – barely anyone, indeed, has a name. There is no pulsating final battle, in which a winner is garlanded with the spoils of victory, because the defeated species falls via much more prosaic means. Even the language, at times, is remarkably matter of fact. One of the first observations the journalist narrator makes on encountering the creature that has emerged from the alien cylinder in, er, Surrey, is to note rather starchily "the absence of a chin".
Each generation has adapted The War of the Worlds to reflect its own concerns; the approaching conflict in Europe in the late 1930s, the cold war in George Pal's 1953 film, and Spielberg's post-9/11 take on the tale. But in doing so they habitually overlook the key to enjoying Wells's book. Very much a comment on the ethics of the seemingly advanced Victorian world, he continually compares the Martians' acts of destruction to our own obliteration of indigenous animal and human populations in the name of "progress". There is a creeping sense, throughout the book, that perhaps humanity deserves this invasion and shouldn't think of itself as all-powerful. All of which makes it far more satisfying than a straight, pulpy, alien invasion drama – a true classic that has pointed the way not just for science-fiction writers, but for how we as a civilisation might think of ourselves.
Thinking about an account of the discovery of Tasmania by Europeans, Wells’s brother suggested the idea for this story: What if other creatures, as superior to humans as Europeans were to Tasmanians, were observing us with plans of conquest?
From that germ came the idea for this, the fourth of a group of early novels that established Wells’s fame and popularity.
Soon after the observation of flashes of light on Mars, strange cylinders fall to earth around London. The spaceships and the small craft they send forth destroy Earth’s most modern armies with weapons beyond human science.
Told from the point of view of a man living near London, the story is in the form of an eyewitness account of the Martian landings and attacks. The scenes of devastated cities were to become real less than twenty years later in the wreckage of World War I. The heat ray of the Martians sweeps all before it.
Wells depended on the scientific theories of his day for his story: In keeping with the notion that Mars was an older planet than the Earth, the Martians have evolved further than humanity. Their bodies show the effects of this evolutionary specialization: They cannot even digest food but must drink the blood of other creatures. They have become, in a sense, prisoners of their machinery. Without their vehicles, they are nearly helpless in the Earth’s heavier gravity.
After human science fails to stop the invaders, the Martians’ own “progress” defeats them. Having no resistance to earthly bacteria, they succumb to disease. Since the appearance of this landmark novel, humans have gained a new view of the universe: The possibility of intelligent life in the depths of space becomes (and remains) a captivating idea.
Costa, Richard Hauer. H. G. Wells. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1985. Praises the novel’s vivid imagery, its superb characterizations, its antiutopian theme, Wells’s scientific knowledge of life on Mars, and his extraordinary sociological grasp of his own times.
Hammond, J. R. An H.G. Wells Companion: A Guide to the Novels, Romances, and Short Stories. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1979. Describes Wells’s ability to describe startling events happening to ordinary people, his remarkable anticipation of how crowds react to events of mass destruction, his superb evocation of actual settings, and his literary style. Includes a map showing the sites of the Martian invasion.
McConnell, Frank. The Science Fiction of H. G. Wells. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981. Compares the novel’s themes to Wells’s work as a scientific journalist. Discusses the narrative’s image patterns, contrasting the novel with other tales of invasion, the uniqueness of Wells’s description of the Martians, the role of the curate, and the relationship between realism and fantasy in Wells’s fiction.
Mackenzie, Norman, and Jeanne MacKenzie. The Life of H. G. Wells: The Time Traveller. Rev. ed. London: Hogarth Press, 1987. Compares the novel to scientific theories of catastrophe and stories of the apocalypse. Emphasizes the moral tone of the novel, written at a time when there was much discussion of a decadent England.
Smith, David C. H. G. Wells: Desperately Mortal. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986. Emphasizes that the novel was written at a time when Germany was challenging England as a world power and invasion was on peoples’ minds. Explains Wells’s scientific knowledge, the precision of the plotting of the Martian invasion and of Wells’s descriptions.