H. G. Wells’s science fiction masterpiece The War of the Worlds was originally published in Pierson’s magazine in 1897 and was issued as a novel the following year. A century later, it has never been out of print. The story has become an integral part of our culture, frequently retold in graphic novels and films. In 1938, it became part of one of the greatest and most horrifying media events of all times. The Mercury Theatre on the Air, headed by twenty-three-year-old Orson Welles, broadcast over the radio an adaptation of the book that was so realistic that it caused widespread public panic, mob violence, and looting. Until the night of that broadcast, few people realized the power of broadcast media to make whole populations feel powerless when faced with breaking events.
Like the radio program, much of the novel takes its power from appearing to be real. Wells, who had an intense interest in science from an early age, created his Martian invaders with a strict sense of the laws of biology and physics. They are not super beings, but bodiless heads, barely able to move because the atmosphere of Earth is so much thicker than that of their own planet. Still, their advanced intelligence gives them the power to create powerful weapons, such as Heat-Ray guns that can level whole towns; tripods with hundred- foot legs, that give them mobility; and even flying machines, which, in 1898, were beyond human technology. Humanity has entered into space exploration since this novel was published, and many of the specific details are no longer of con- cern. But there will always be uneasiness about the unknown and curiosity about what might happen when people of Earth contact lives from other worlds.