The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The War of the Worlds (1897)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The War of The Worlds was written by H.G. Wells and first appeared in Pearson’s Magazine (Apr-Dec 1897). Although Wells (1866-1946) is known today primarily for his science fiction, during his lifetime he was one of the most prolific, versatile, and popular writers in the English language. Most modern readers are at least marginally familiar with The War of The Worlds, either from the book or from various radio, movie, and comic book versions of it. But those who have not read the novel in some time are likely to be surprised by it.
In The War of The Worlds an enormous capsule, shot from Mars, lands in Woking, south of London, and after a short while it opens and Martians crawl out. Curious humans draw too close and are disintegrated by the Martians' Heat Ray. An invasion follows, with more cylinders landing, more Martians emerging, and then mass destruction ensuing. Martian-piloted Tripods roam about London and its outer boroughs, wiping out humans with Heat Rays and Black Smoke. Although the Tripods can be brought down by artillery, each cannon only gets off one shot before the Tripods target the guns and destroy them. Much of the south of England is evacuated. The novel's narrator wanders about the outskirts of London, witnessing the devastation and suffering starvation and mental difficulties. Eventually the Martians are killed by bacteria and humanity slowly recovers.
Returning to The War of The Worlds after many years away from it is a surprise, and a treat, because one's memories of the book do not do it justice. The War of The Worlds is an involving piece of late nineteenth century science fiction, but beyond that, it is one of the best, most extensive wide-screen summer-action-thriller-movie novels ever written. The Martians are suitably violent and bloodthirsty, the carnage and property destruction is impressive, and Wells plays out the consequences of the invasion to their logical conclusions, regardless of their cruelty. Wells chose a narrator who was “on the ground” during the invasion, and the narrator describes what he sees with the stark, vivid reality of a newsreel. While the alien aspect of the novel is, of necessity, fantastic, the portrayal of individual humans, including the narrator, and of humans en masse is accurate and recognizable. When the aliens attack people are stunned, panicked, and in denial, and later on act with bravery, cowardice, cunning and stupidity–in other words, they act as men and women usually act under pressure. Trains trying to get away from the Martians plow into crowds of people trying to get on the trains. Men fight over food. Grandiose and unrealistic schemes are discussed. The narrator, too, reacts as most people would, and his concerns--for his wife, for food, for his own safety--are understandable ones. The changes of pace in the novel, and its slower periods, only add to the impact of the later, action-heavy episodes. The War of The Worlds is exciting, and even adult readers can get carried away by what Wells does.
The sweep of the novel gets forgotten after years away from it. So, too, are a number of smaller, interesting details. The first is that The War of The Worlds is actually written looking back from the future, rather than as the Martian invasion takes place. The novel has any number of comments which show that the Martian invasion had a substantial effect on human society, from the narrator’s early statement that “early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment”1 to the description of Martian technology as having “given such an enormous impetus to terrestrial invention.”2
Another interesting detail is that the Earth is not the only planet on which the Martians have landed:
Lessing had advanced excellent reasons for supposing that the Martians have actually succeeded in effecting a landing on the planet Venus. Seven months ago now, Venus and Mars were in alignment with the sun; that is to say, Mars was in opposition from the point of view of an observer on Venus. Subsequently a peculiar luminous and sinuous marking appeared on the unillumined half of the inner planet, and almost simultaneously a faint dark mark of a similar sinuous character was detected upon a photograph of the Martian disc. One needs to see the drawings of these appearances in order to appreciate fully their resemblance in character.3
A third detail is that the death of the Martians comes not just from their susceptibility to Earthly bacteria but also because their culture is so advanced that they are free of such things:
The last salient point in which the systems of these creatures differed from ours was in what one might have thought a very trivial particular. Micro-organisms, which cause so much disease and pain on earth, have either never appeared upon Mars or Martian sanitary science eliminated them ages ago. A hundred diseases, all the fevers and contagions of human life, consumption, cancers, tumours and such morbidities, never enter the scheme of their life.4
A fourth detail is the novel’s antisemitism. It is not major element of the novel and is nowhere near as bad as in The Invisible Man, but there is an unpleasant moment of it in the novel. Many editions have excised this passage from the novel, but it appeared in the original British and American magazine appearances of the story and can be found in recent critical editions of the novel.
On the surface War of the Worlds is a shallow story of invasion and conflict. But the symbolism of the novel and its themes make it an involving piece of fin-de-siècle fretting. Many of the worries of the late Victorians are expressed through the invasion. The English worried that the supremacy of the Empire was coming to an end with the expansion of the Germans and the Americans into the race for colonies (see: Fin-de-Siècle Unease). Wells’ Martians attempt to expand into Great Britain. Although the English uttered many statements about military triumphs being the result of their pluck and English know-how, they were well aware that it was their superior military technology which had allowed them to beat their opponents–recall Hillaire Belloc’s “Whatever happens, we have got/The Maxim gun, and they have not.”5 Wells’ Martians use technology that easily destroys the English opposition. The English worried about cultural and physical effeminacy and a weakening of the national will. The Martian invasion panics the populace and the resistance is only fleeting.
Like the novel itself, Wells' Martians are more complicated than most readers will remember them being. Visually they have no bodies, but rather are heads on top of tentacles:
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. These bunches have since been named...the hands.6
Their purpose for invading Earth is not merely the conquest of the planet. It is to feed:
Strange as it may seem to a human being, all the complex apparatus of digestion, which makes up the bulk of our bodies, did not exist in the Martians. They were heads, merely heads. Entrails they had none. They did not eat, much less digest. Instead, they took the fresh living blood of other creatures, and injected it into their veins. I have myself seen this being done, as I shall mention in its place. But, squeamish as I may seem, I cannot bring myself to describe what I could not endure even to continue watching. Let it suffice, 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....7
The Martians have other abilities besides that of subsisting on human blood:
I assert that I watched them closely time after time, and that I have seen four, five, and (once) six of them sluggishly performing the most elaborately complicated operations together, without either sound or gesture. Their peculiar hooting invariably preceded feeding; it had no modulation, and was, I believe, in no sense a signal, but merely the expiration of air preparatory to the suctional operation. I have a certain claim to at least an elementary knowledge of psychology, and in this matter I am convinced--as firmly as I am convinced of anything--that the Martians interchanged thoughts without any physical intermediations.8
Nor did the Martians arrive alone:
Their undeniable preference for men as their source of nourishment is partly explained by the nature of the remains of the victims they had brought with them as provisions from Mars. These creatures, to judge from the shrivelled remains that have fallen into human hands, were bipeds, with flimsy siliceous skeletons (almost like those of the siliceous sponges) and feeble musculature, standing about six feet high, and having round erect heads, and large eyes in flinty sockets. Two or three of these seem to have been brought in each cylinder, and all were killed before earth was reached. It was just as well for them, for the mere attempt to stand upright upon our planet would have broken every bone in their body.9
In addition to their native food species, the Martians also brought Martian plant life:
At any rate, the seeds which the Martians (intentionally or accidentally) brought with them gave rise in all cases to red-coloured growths. Only that known popularly as the Red Weed, however, gained any footing in competition with terrestrial forms. The Red Creeper was quite a transitory growth, and few people have seen it growing. For a time, however, the Red Weed grew with astonishing vigour and luxuriance...I found it broadcast throughout the country, and especially wherever there was a stream of water.10
The Martians' technology is interestingly different from what is assumed or remember. Their science is more advanced than humanity’s, but they lack the wheel and “in their apparatus singularly little use is made of the fixed pivot.”11 Nor did the Martians arrive on Earth via rockets; they were shot here in giant cylinders by enormous guns. But the Martians also have the Heat Ray, the Tripods, robotic Handling Machines to make their Tripods for them, the deadly Black Smoke, “flying-machines,” and possibly something more sinister and science fictional:
They have become practically mere brains, wearing different bodies according to their needs, just as men wear suits of clothes, and take a bicycle in a hurry or an umbrella in the wet.12
The relationship between War of the Worlds and the Future War genre seems clear. War of the Worlds is part of the 1890s trend to fantasticate the Future War, as seen in Griffith’s Angel of the Revolution and Adams’ A Fortune From the Sky, among others. But the true link between Chesney’s “The Battle of Dorking” and War of the Worlds is, as Denis Gailor notes, Wells’ attitude toward the prospect of an invasion of England:
The attitude of the invasion story writer towards the invasion is very often one of more or less veiled satisfaction. He sees his own people as immoral and believes that their behaviour will be punished through an invasion. His condemnation of their behaviour and awareness of the probable consequences give him a sense of moral and intellectual superiority. The stance of the prophet endowed with moral superiority and enhanced awareness can be seen in The War of the Worlds. Chesney had questioned the wisdom of little Britain having a vast empire, but Wells gives a more explicit moral twist to the problem, expressing doubts about the rightness of having one. He reminds the reader 'what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races'. Could anyone complain, he asks, if the Martians came to wreak destruction on England? We see that Wells is explicitly concerned with the English, as the biggest imperialists of the day. He says, more or less openly, that they deserve to be punished for their arrogance. He is irritated by the smug and complacent attitude of the Victorians, their blind conviction that nothing can ever go wrong, their determination to live in a 'fool's paradise', with the 'infinite complacency' of men 'serene in their assurance of their empire over matter' (p. 9). We find ourselves on a terrain remarkably similar to that of Chesney warning his readers that Providence has no special mission for England, which sooner or later is likely to run into trouble. Wells, like writers of invasion stories proper, makes it clear that it will 'do the English good' to have undergone an invasion. In the Epilogue he writes: 'it has robbed us of that serene confidence in the future which is the most fruitful source of decadence.13
Wells' exhilarating penchant for property damage and his ruthlessness toward humanity, along with the journalistic quality of the narration, make The War of The Worlds one of the more enjoyable works of Victorian sf. But readers will find more to the novel than is remembered from childhood.
Print: H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds. New York: Penguin Books, 2018.
1 H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (Leipzig: B. Tauchnitz, 1898), 12.
2 Wells, War of the Worlds, 197.
3 Wells, War of the Worlds, 284.
4 Wells, War of the Worlds, 204.
5 Belloc, Modern Traveler, 41.
6 Wells, War of the Worlds, 199.
7 Wells, War of the Worlds, 201.
8 Wells, War of the Worlds, 206.
9 Wells, War of the Worlds, 201.
10 Wells, War of the Worlds, 205.
11 Wells, War of the Worlds, 207.
12 Wells, War of the Worlds, 207.
13 Denis Gailor, “‘Wells’ War of the Worlds’, the ‘Invasion Story’, and Victorian moralism,” Critical Survey 8, no. 3 (1996): 272.