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 scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. .. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of 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.
So begins H G Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds, a book which, perhaps more than any other of his works, created the genre we now call science fiction. When Wells wrote his tale of the invasion of southern England by an expedition of Martians, Great Britain was the most powerful and wealthiest nation on the planet with colonies in India and Africa and elsewhere, its power buttressed by its army and navy, confident in its God-given destiny to rule over other races. In his introduction Wells makes an explicit political point about how this confidence was punctured by the arrival of the Martians:
… we must remember 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. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?
The story is told through the eyes of unnamed narrator, a writer on philosophy, who is taken by an astronomer friend to watch unexplained eruptions of gas on Mars over ten nights, the launching, we soon realise, of projectiles towards the unsuspecting Earth:
One night (the first missile then could scarcely have been 10,000,000 miles away) I went for a walk with my wife. It was starlight and I explained the Signs of the Zodiac to her, and pointed out Mars, a bright dot of light creeping zenithward, towards which so many telescopes were pointed. It was a warm night. Coming home, a party of excursionists from Chertsey or Isleworth passed us singing and playing music. There were lights in the upper windows of the houses as the people went to bed. From the railway station in the distance came the sound of shunting trains, ringing and rumbling, softened almost into melody by the distance. My wife pointed out to me the brightness of the red, green, and yellow signal lights hanging in a framework against the sky. It seemed so safe and tranquil.
The first projectile falls to Earth on Horsell Common in Surrey. When it unscrews it reveals a Martian whom Wells chooses to make physically repulsive to Earth eyes:
Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of its appearance. The peculiar V-shaped mouth with its pointed upper lip, the absence of brow ridges, the absence of a chin beneath the wedgelike lower lip, the incessant quivering of this mouth, the Gorgon groups of tentacles, the tumultuous breathing of the lungs in a strange atmosphere, the evident heaviness and painfulness of movement due to the greater gravitational energy of the earth–above all, the extraordinary intensity of the immense eyes–were at once vital, intense, inhuman, crippled and monstrous. There was something fungoid in the oily brown skin, something in the clumsy deliberation of the tedious movements unspeakably nasty. Even at this first encounter, this first glimpse, I was overcome with disgust and dread.
The Martians never attempt to communicate with humans, they simply see them as an obstacle to their posession of a new world, mirroring the countless massacres inflicted by Europeans in America, Africa, Australia and many other parts of the world. When a welcoming party approaches the cylinder the Martians kill them all with a heat ray and then construct metal fighting machines which lay waste to the countryside. The narrator describes his first encounter:
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. A flash, and it came out vividly, heeling over one way with two feet in the air, to vanish and reappear almost instantly as it seemed, with the next flash, a hundred yards nearer. Can you imagine a milking stool tilted and bowled violently along the ground? That was the impression those instant flashes gave. But instead of a milking stool imagine it a great body of machinery on a tripod stand.
The army tries to stop them with artillery, but the guns and the soldiers are burned and destroyed. By chance one shell does damage a fighting machine, so the Martians respond by using a black poison gas to quell all opposition as though they were gassing an ants’ nest:
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 breathe.
The Martians appear unstoppable as more cylinders fall to Earth. They add to their armaments with a flying machine:
Something rushed up into the sky out of the greyness–rushed slantingly upward and very swiftly into the luminous clearness above the clouds in the western sky; something flat and broad, and very large, that swept round in a vast curve, grew smaller, sank slowly, and vanished again into the grey mystery of the night. And as it flew it rained down darkness upon the land.
Wells creates a vivid and disturbing picture of millions of refugees fleeing i from London and other towns, turning on each other as they desperately seek some kind of safety. This is not a picture of heroic resistance, but of a society breaking down in fear and panic.
The narrator is trapped in a ruined house by the fifth cylinder crashing to earth. Hidden a few feet from the invaders, he discovers a dreadful secret, that the Martians are collecting humans in order to drink their blood for food. He sees this happen, but fortunately Wells spares us the details. Escaping from the house, the narrator makes his way to London, a city now almost empty of people.
…it was curiously like a Sunday in the City, with the closed shops, the houses locked up and the blinds drawn, the desertion, and the stillness. In some places plunderers had been at work, but rarely at other than the provision and wine shops. A jeweller’s window had been broken open in one place, but apparently the thief had been disturbed, and a number of gold chains and a watch lay scattered on the pavement. I did not trouble to touch them. Farther on was a tattered woman in a heap on a doorstep; the hand that hung over her knee was gashed and bled down her rusty brown dress, and a smashed magnum of champagne formed a pool across the pavement. She seemed asleep, but she was dead.
The farther I penetrated into London, the profounder grew the stillness. But it was not so much the stillness of death–it was the stillness of suspense, of expectation. At any time the destruction that had already singed the northwestern borders of the metropolis, and had annihilated Ealing and Kilburn, might strike among these houses and leave them smoking ruins. It was a city condemned and derelict. . . .
He now hears a strange cry from a Martian fighting machine endlessly repeated:
Ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla,” cried the voice, coming, as it seemed to me, from the district about Regent’s Park. The desolating cry worked upon my mind. The mood that had sustained me passed. The wailing took possession of me. I found I was intensely weary, footsore, and now again hungry and thirsty….As I crossed the bridge, the sound of “Ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla,” ceased. It was, as it were, cut off. The silence came like a thunderclap.
The narrator finds the fighting machines standing motionless, and discovers that the Martians are all dead, killed, it later transpires, by Earth’s bacteria:
In another moment I had scrambled up the earthen rampart and stood upon its crest, and the interior of the redoubt was below me. A mighty space it was, with gigantic machines here and there within it, huge mounds of material and strange shelter places. And scattered about it, some in their overturned war-machines, some in the now rigid handling-machines, and a dozen of them stark and silent and laid in a row, were the Martians–dead!–slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared; slain as the red weed was being slain; slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.
In the final chaper the narrator brings the story up to date with the Martians, it seems from observations, having invaded Venus. But he is not confident that the threat has gone for ever, and the ending of the novel is melancholic:
It may be, on the other hand, that the destruction of the Martians is only a reprieve. To them, and not to us, perhaps, is the future ordained.
I must confess the stress and danger of the time have left an abiding sense of doubt and insecurity in my mind. I sit in my study writing by lamplight, and suddenly I see again the healing valley below set with writhing flames, and feel the house behind and about me empty and desolate. I go out into the Byfleet Road, and vehicles pass me, a butcher boy in a cart, a cabful of visitors, a workman on a bicycle, children going to school, and suddenly they become vague and unreal, and I hurry again with the artilleryman through the hot, brooding silence. Of a night I see the black powder darkening the silent streets, and the contorted bodies shrouded in that layer; they rise upon me tattered and dog-bitten. They gibber and grow fiercer, paler, uglier, mad distortions of humanity at last, and I wake, cold and wretched, in the darkness of the night.
I go to London and see the busy multitudes in Fleet Street and the Strand, and it comes across my mind that they are but the ghosts of the past, haunting the streets that I have seen silent and wretched, going to and fro, phantasms in a dead city, the mockery of life in a galvanised body. And strange, too, it is to stand on Primrose Hill, as I did but a day before writing this last chapter, to see the great province of houses, dim and blue through the haze of the smoke and mist, vanishing at last into the vague lower sky, to see the people walking to and fro among the flower beds on the hill, to see the sight-seers about the Martian machine that stands there still, to hear the tumult of playing children, and to recall the time when I saw it all bright and clear-cut, hard and silent, under the dawn of that last great day. . . .
This is still a very readable novel, dazzling in its invention, but also prescient in its description of the behaviour of populations under attack by overwhelming force. A century after Wells wrote we are sadly all too familar with the scenes he imagined…
It is a story above all told from the viewpoint of ordinary civilians, caught up in terrifying events: there are no scenes set amongst government ministers, scientists or the military hierarchy.
The influence of The Wars of the Worlds can be seen in science fiction writing, up to and including Doctor Who: pitiless repulsive creatures, encased in a metallic machine, and armed with a death ray, now who does that remind you of?
Wells’ birthplace Woking has its own Martian fighting machine as seen above.
You can read the novel online here.
Review in The Observer, 27 March 1898.
“Freshness and originality are distinguishing features in Mr Wells’ compostions, and his latest work will in no sense disappoint his readers. It is fact extremely clever. Mr Wells depicts the attack on England of a number of the inhabitants of Mars, and he contrats their highly-trained scientific methods of warfare with our puny efforts of resistance. The moral too is admirable. We had become “soft” and “effete” and some extra mundane agency was necccessary to restore vigour to national life. ..We are assured by highly competent critics that Mr Wells owes his inspiration to Defoe, to Swift, to Edgar Poe, and even to Jules Verne. In The War of the Worlds we can trace none of these sources of inspiration. The aspect of his work is purely native – autochthonous, as the late Professor E A Freeman might have said…The literary technique is excellent, and it is in this respect that Mr Wells gains his great superiority over the mere sensation-mongers of the day. We have enoyed reading his book. It is not a novel, but it is good fiction.”
Orson Welles broadcast a live production on 30th October 1938, in which the story was transplanted to Amercica and which caused panic in some places with its vivid descriptions of an invasion. You can listen to this broadcast here, The story of the broadcast was made into a tv film in 1975, The Night that Panicked America, which you can watch here.
The BBC broadcast a radio dramatisation in six parts in May – July 1950, adapted by Jon Manchip White, who had just joined the BBC Drama Script Unit as an editor. He kept the Victorian setting and much of Wells’ dialogue. It had Anthony Hawtrey in the main role, with Peter Cokea s Gilvy and Derek Guyler as Stent. The producer was David H Godfrey. This production has not survived in the archives. There is more information about it here.
The first film version was made in 1953 by Paramount, starring Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, with the story updated and moved to the USA, and bearing scant resemblace to the original novel. It was produced by George Pal and directed by Byron Haskin. A sequel was later made for television that ran for two seasons from 1988 to 1990.
The BBC broadcast another radio dramatisation in six parts in June and July 1967, again using the adaptation by Jon Manchip White, although he says he had nothing to do with it, and yet someone uncredited has updated it to the present day. It had Paul Daneman as Professor John Nicholson, , Isabel Rennie as Dora Nicholson, Martin Jarvis as Ogilvy and Peter Sallis as the Parson. The sound score was by David Cain of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The producer was John Powell. (I can vividly remember listening to this). You can find out more about this production here. This production has survived and has been released on CD by the BBC. It’s also available on Audible. You can listen to a clip here.
In 1978 Jeff Wayne released an LP, The War of the Worlds, which told the story through words and music, and sold by the million. It was later turned into a stage musical. You can watch it here.
Another film version directed by Steven Spielberg was released in 2005, which I like even less than the 1953 version…