One of the greatest science fiction novels of all time, The War of the Worlds, has continued to entertain readers over a century after its first publication. The book combines a striking element of social commentary along with a solid understanding of science that continues to remain relevant to the present day.
Read more on classic sci-fi tales with Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne.
Herbert George Wells was born in 1866. From early on, he valued his education, eventually attending school in London under English biologist Thomas Huxley, a contemporary and advocate of Charles Darwin. The year that Wells spent under Huxley would prove to be hugely influential to his career as a science fiction author.
After his schooling, Wells found work as a teacher in Wales and England before turning to writing about science. Throughout this time, his personal life was volatile. In 1891, he married his cousin, Isabel Mary Wells, only to leave in 1894 to remarry a former student, Amy Catherine Robbins. Their marriage was an open one, and in his autobiography, he notes: "I was never a great amorist, though I have loved several people very deeply."
Wells began publishing fiction in his 30s on the heels of Jules Verne, one of the first great science fiction writers of the era. Wells, however, had a different take from Verne’s style of science fiction.
Where the French author focused on man’s leaps forward with the help of technology, Wells looked to what technology enabled humanity to do. His novel The War in the Air foretold some of the horrors of the coming World Wars, while his major “science romance” stories, The Time Machine, The Wonderful Visit, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds all used technology or fantasy as a means to explore man’s relationship among their peers. While Verne looked outward and explored, Wells looked inward and reflected.
Wells, coming from a poorer background than most writers of the time, was struck early on by the nature of class and social mobility. This was a major theme that would come through in a number of his stories. The Time Machine posits the polarization of wealth and class far into the future, while The War of the Worlds looked to larger societal issues concerning a country with a global reach.
Published in 1898, The War of the Worlds follows an unnamed narrator as England is captivated by a series of shooting stars originating from Mars, which impact around the country. Curiosity turns to horror as the giant shells turn out to be the vanguard of an invading alien army.
Technologically advanced and ruthless, the aliens sweep across England, killing and destroying the English countryside, and capturing any humans who are unlucky enough to get in their way. The invasion comes to a swift halt, however, as the Martians, unaccustomed to Earth’s bacteria, perish, leaving humanity to rebuild.
Well’s understanding of biology and evolution figure closely with the plot of the novel. Influenced by Huxley, who was in turn a vocal proponent of Darwin, he was fascinated with the role that science could impact society. The Martians that have come to Earth have evolved past the point where they need any body at all: “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 own veins.”
Humanity is thrust into a survival of the fittest situation as a technologically and an apparently biologically superior alien race invades the planet. At the end of the day, however, it’s man’s evolution and adaptation with their planetary co-inhabitants that help them survive.
There’s a social message along with the biology, however. In the afterward to the 1986 Signet Classic edition, science fiction author Isaac Asimov notes: “Think, then, how the various non-European nations of the world, particularly those of Africa, must have felt as the 1800s drew to an end,” which perfectly describe the intentions behind the novel.
Wells was writing in an interesting time for England. War of the Worlds joined a literary movement within England, the so-called “Invasion Novel,” chief among which was The Battle of Dorking by George Tomkyns Chesny. These novels followed the Franco-Prussian War and predicated on Great Britain’s anxieties of their vulnerabilities. Well’s intrusion into the Invasion novel field is coupled with the actions that Britain itself had taken with its own colonial holdings—technologically superior, with an indifferent view of what the inhabitants thought of their presence.
In every way, War of the Worlds, isn’t simply about Martians invading the planet. It was about England’s own colonial heritage coming back to haunt it as it weakened. The book was an instant success for Wells and has remained in print ever since.