Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
In The War of the Worlds, the Martians invade England, landing in ten cylinders at twenty-four-hour intervals, terrorizing the countryside and devastating the heart of London. It is perhaps the most plausible of Wells’s romances, for at the time it was thought that Mars might be inhabitable and that it was far older than the earth. It could well serve, then, as the site of beings who antedate humanity.
The Martians are much more highly developed than humans, but as the narrator discovers, they have landed on Earth to use it as a feeding ground. The Martians are wormlike creatures with bulging eyes and sixteen long, sensitive tentacles projecting from their mouths. They suck living blood. They arrive in huge, spiderlike engines, smothering cities with black smoke and defeating the opposition with heat rays not unlike lasers that can disintegrate artillery.
The Martians succeed where the invisible man failed in establishing a reign of terror, and much of the novel concerns their relentless, apparently invincible progress across the country. There is much less characterization in The War of the Worlds than in Wells’s other science fiction. Rather, the novel is intent on describing the mass hysteria such an invasion would stimulate and on showing how unprepared civilization is for the onslaught of forces from another world.
Wells is particularly hard on a vicar who takes refuge with the unnamed narrator, as if to suggest the usual comforts of religion, especially organized religion, are to little avail in a truly otherworldly event. The vicar is reduced to a state of abject terror, mouthing Christian...
(The entire section is 676 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Although scientists have speculated about intelligent life on Mars, it comes as a complete surprise to England when Martians land, having been shot to Earth in flaming cylinders. At first the projectiles are mistaken for shooting stars or meteors. Then Ogilvy, the first to discover one of the cylinders that has landed, realizes that it is hollow; as it cools, he can hear something inside unscrewing the cylinder’s top. Ogilvy informs a local journalist, Henderson, and soon a crowd, including the narrator, gathers around the cylinder. The narrator suspects the object has come from Mars, but he does not think that it contains a living being. He and the crowd are shocked when grayish tentacles emerge from the cylinder. The crowd flees as the huge creature appears; it is the size of a bear, with a sheen like wet leather, two large, dark eyes, and a lipless mouth, heaving and pulsating. Just before the narrator runs away he catches sight of the monster’s large inhuman eyes and fungoid mass, which he finds disgusting and terrifying.
The humans decide to send a deputation (including Ogilvy and Henderson) to parlay with the Martians, since it seems that the Martians are intelligent even if human beings find them repulsive. The deputation, however, is wiped out in a blinding flash of fire and smoke, which the narrator later learns was the Martians’ heat ray. People panic; the narrator is stunned by the swiftness of the destruction.
The Martians begin to terrorize the cities and the countryside, dealing a silent and quick death to anyone in their way. For the first time it occurs to the narrator that the Martians mean to rule Earth, although he assures his wife that it seems unlikely that they will prevail, given that Earth’s gravitational pull on their bodies is three times that of Mars. Returning home, the narrator regains some of his confidence.
In London, the news from Woking seems so incredible that it is deemed a ruse. Even at Woking junction, where the trains still run, the Martian invasion is treated as a rumor and a curiosity, not a cause for evacuation. The narrator can hear the Martians hammering and stirring, making some sort of preparations. A company of soldiers is dispatched to form a cordon around the pit where the Martians’ cylinders landed. The Martians stay in the pit, but then the narrator, at home, sees one of his chimneys crack, and he realizes the power of the heat ray. He sends his terrified wife away to the town of Leatherhead. Out on the road, the narrator meets people escaping from...
(The entire section is 1040 words.)