The novel “The War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells was published for the first time in 1897 serialized in “Pearson’s Magazine” and in 1898 as a book. It’s freely available on Gutenberg Project’s website.
When explosions are observed on the planet Mars, they become a curiosity in the scientific community but the phenomenon doesn’t seem to go beyond that. However, months later an object crashes near London and people in the area who go to investigate in the crater area realize that it’s some kind of machine that carries beings that resembles giant octopuses who soon kill one of the people who came near with a heat-ray.
The British army reaches the area while another alien machine lands and a battle begins fought by the Martians using the heat-ray and a black smoke. It’s only the beginning of an alien advance towards London, supported also by other machines that in the meantime have been assembled into huge tripods while civilians try to escape.
In the second half of the 19th century in Great Britain the the invasion literature genre became famous in which the authors showed the risk that foreign armies used new technologies to invade the British empire at a time when they considered themselves the greatest world power. There were fears about German and French imperialism at a time when the British had colonies around the world due to their military power.
H.G. Wells had already published his first novels of the genre then known as scientific romance, the precursor of science fiction. It was also an era in which scientific and technological advances were leading to the construction of telescopes that improved the observations of the surface of the planet Mars and the author had an interest in sciences so he took inspiration from invasion literature leaving out the political theme that normally marked it to focus on the element of the alien invasion.
At that time the theories about planetary formation had led to thinking that Mars was an ancient planet and by that time had dried up. Speculations about the presence of canals on Mars had led to the hypothesis that an ancient civilization was trying to keep the planet fertile. H.G. Wells had written speculations on the subject as well that included the possibility that the Martians decided to look for a new planet to settle, which became one of the foundations of “The War of the Worlds”.
The story is told in the first person by one of the witnesses of the arrival of the first Martian machine but it’s a chronicle of the events in which he says almost nothing about himself and his name remains unknown. In “The War of the Worlds” the various characters are used mainly to show human beings’ dismay in the face of an alien military force that proves to be far superior. The confidence of the British military in the superiority of their artillery lasts untile the first defeat suffered from the Martians. From this point of view the novel is quite crude.
Communications at the time were transmitted to distant places via telegraph and one of the consequences of the Martian invasion is that the narrator is rather isolated and knows only what he sees on his own or is told by other people he meets. In essence, he knows the situation of the area in which he moves to escape the invaders but doesn’t know what’s happening in more distant areas, let alone other nations.
The novel also contains reflections in which the fight between humans and Martians is interpreted in a Darwinian key. The ending shows that the survival of the fittest principle is more subtle than superficial interpretations.
“The War of the Worlds” was immediately a success inspiring many later works and in general the alien invasion subgenre. Over time it’s been adapted in various ways and Orson Welles’ 1938 radio program caused some listeners to panic as they hadn’t realized it was fiction. Scientific advances rendered some of the ideas the novel is based upon obsolete but it remains a milestone of science fiction and for this reason it’s still worth reading.