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...
(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 entire section is 1040 words.)
The War of the Worlds has always held a special fascination for young readers. The novel's action is relentless, and the book is suspenseful to the very end. In the novel, Wells sets forth some of his ideas about humanity's place in the universe, about the evils of foreign conquests, and about human nature. At no time in The War of the Worlds is Wells overbearing or preachy. Instead, his presentation stimulates new ideas in his readers and inspires their imaginations.
Furthermore, The War of the Worlds is the novel that inspired many of the popular science-fiction stories of the present day and set in motion a whole sub-genre of alien invasion stories. Wells's insistence on the accuracy of the novel's background details—from a scientific explanation of the astronomical relation between Earth and Mars to place names in the English countryside—has been an important standard for later science fiction.
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Book 1, Chapter 1: The Eve of the War
The narrator of The War of the Worlds is never identified by name. He refers to a “great light” seen on the planet Mars in 1894, explaining that this was six years before the time when he is writing. Earth’s astronomers were perplexed about what to make of it, he says, but later realized that it was the invading forces, being shot toward Earth as if out of a gun.
Book 1, Chapter 2: The Falling Star
People think that the first Martian ship is a falling star, then a meteor. An astronomer hears something within the metal tube that landed.
Book 1, Chapter 3: On Horsell Common
The narrator goes to investigate the crash site, where a crowd of spectators has gathered. Also there are several astronomers gathered.
Book 1, Chapter 4: The Cylinder Opens
The top of the cylinder opens, and the crowd scatters. A Martian, with huge eyes and flailing antennae, jumps out, and another looks out the top. One man who slipped into the crater that the cylinder made tries to crawl out of the hole, but the Martian grabs him and pulls him back.
Book 1, Chapter 5: The Heat-Ray
Because the Martians do not seem able to climb out of the pit their ship is in, people crowd around again. A group of men approach the Martians with a white flag, signaling that they come in peace, but they are incinerated by a Heat-Ray that is fired at...
(The entire section is 1508 words.)