“It was the beginning of the rout of civilization, of the massacre of mankind.”
H.G. Wells’ earliest novels had a major impact on science fiction. The War of the Worlds, first serialized in Pearson’s Magazine in 1897 and published in novel form in 1898, is one of our earliest examples of the First Contact theme. In Wells’ story several spaceships from Mars land in England, creating vast craters. At first the English are either amused or indifferent until Martians pop out and start terrorizing them with heat rays, “fighting machines,” “black smoke” and a Martian plant that begins spreading across England. The English are not prepared to fight this kind of war and, because it’s the late nineteenth century, are unable to communicate their situation quickly enough to the outside world. By the time the Martians make their way to London, it looks like the entire human race is doomed.
The story is related in the first person by an unnamed narrator, a writer who lives in Surrey and observes the landing of one of the Martian ships, the building of their fighting machines, and the mass slaughter of his countrymen. He has a wife who he sends to a relative’s house, though it isn’t long before he realizes that she’s probably not safe there either. We also hear from our narrator’s brother and another character who let us know what’s going on in other parts of England where the Martians have landed. At one point our narrator and another man are trapped together in a partly destroyed house at the edge of one of the craters. For two weeks they must try to get along with each other, sharing very little food and water. During this time they are able to observe the Martians’ activity, which is horrifying, but they must stay hidden and silent so the Martians don’t notice them. This is not a favorable situation for maintaining one’s sanity.
The plot of The War of the Worlds is exciting but the best part of the novel is its imagery and language. The tall fighting machines which walk on long jointed legs and have tentacles that grab people are horrifying, as is the image of the craters and the intrusive red weed that grows wild and threatens to overrun our planet. Even the domestic scene at the beginning of the story is eerie and foreboding:
… I remember that dinner table with extraordinary vividness even now. My dear wife’s sweet anxious face peering at me from under the pink lamp shade, the white cloth with its silver and glass table furniture — for in those days even philosophical writers had many little luxuries — the crimson-purple wine in my glass, are photographically distinct. At the end of it I sat, tempering nuts with a cigarette, regretting Ogilvy’s rashness, and denouncing the shortsighted timidity of the Martians.
So some respectable dodo in the Mauritius might have lorded it in his nest, and discussed the arrival of that shipful of pitiless sailors in want of animal food. “We will peck them to death tomorrow, my dear.” I did not know it, but that was the last civilized dinner I was to eat for very many strange and terrible days.
Or this one in which he vividly contrasts the glory and the humility of man:
Since the night of my return from Leatherhead I had not prayed. I had uttered prayers, fetish prayers, had prayed as heathens mutter charms when I was in extremity; but now I prayed indeed, pleading steadfastly and sanely, face to face with the darkness of God. Strange night! Strangest in this, that so soon as dawn had come, I, who had talked with God, crept out of the house like a rat leaving its hiding place — a creature scarcely larger, an inferior animal, a thing that for any passing whim of our masters might be hunted and killed. Perhaps they also prayed confidently to God. Surely, if we have learned nothing else, this war has taught us pity — pity for those witless souls that suffer our dominion.
H.G. Wells’ interest in Darwin’s ideas about natural selection are obvious and he seemed particularly interested in the evolution of intelligence (this was also a major theme in his novel The Time Machine).
Wells also doesn’t miss opportunities to mock the personalities and social customs of some of his fellow Englishmen. There is some of this when he’s trapped with the man in the house, but my favorite example is when he meets a man who has grandiose plans for kicking the Martians off Earth and recruits our narrator to join up. This part is just funny.
There’s so much for the modern science fiction reader to enjoy in The War of the Worlds. It’s a classic which has never been out of print and its story has inspired not only sequels and pastiches but also movies, dramatizations, music, and comics. If you’re only familiar with it from one of those secondary sources, I highly recommend reading Wells’ original. It’s in the public domain so it’s easily found for free, but I recommend the audio version narrated by Simon Vance who is one of the top narrators in the business. You can get this superb version for only 99¢ if you use the Wispersync deal from Amazon and Audible. (Purchase the Kindle version for free and then purchase the audio version (by Simon Vance!) for 99¢.)