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 pieties and proclaiming the day of judgment. In a half-starved, delirious state, he ventures toward the Martians before the narrator can stop him and is killed.
The concrete descriptions of London and of the damage wreaked upon it by the Martians enhance the verisimilitude of the narrative as the narrator struggles to survive and retain his presence of mind. Although he comes across another character who vows to carry on the fight, human expressions of defiance seem more pathetic than encouraging. It is astonishing how quickly civilization seems morally and physically bankrupted by the invasion.
There is little comfort in the denouement of the novel. The Martians succumb to the environment, having no antibodies to cope with bacteria that attack and destroy their nervous systems. Otherwise, they might very well have succeeded in destroying civilization. The narrator gradually comes to realize that the Martians are dying when he hears their awful, moaning shrieks.
Reviews of The War of the Worlds noted that the novel had the gripping quality of a firsthand newspaper dispatch, a dramatic presentation of bulletins as the Martians conduct their relentless advance, instilling terror, physically and mentally immobilizing the population. Part of the excitement stems from closely following the narrator’s narrow escapes and his piecing together of what has happened in the city.
The Martian invasion provides Wells with a scenario for commenting on the organization of modern life. The mass of humanity is treated as just that: a mass, a mob of largely undifferentiated human beings who trample upon each other and cannot organize a common defense. They are as weak as the Elois who are dominated by the Morlocks, as unconscious of worlds larger than themselves as are the Sussex inhabitants who peer curiously at the invisible man.
The Martians, the time traveler, the invisible man—for all their differences—function as devices for upsetting human complacency. Wells deeply distrusted human self-satisfaction and what he regarded as a typically English contentment with life as it is—as though life had always been that way and would continue to be so. Wells believed the contrary, that modern life would be a series of disruptions and that the twentieth century would see apocalyptic changes, perhaps initiated by science, but probably exacerbated by human ignorance, greed, and smugness. Humanity might, as in The War of the Worlds, be able to escape the worst fate Wells could imagine for it, but it could not count on such a conclusion.
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 area of the pit. The Martians have set fire to everything within range of their heat ray.
The narrator then gets his first full view of a walking Martian or Martian machine of glittery metal, swinging its long, flexible tentacles. It has come out of the third of the ten Martian cylinders that landed on Earth. On the road the narrator encounters an artilleryman, the only survivor of an artillery clash with the Martians, who describes his fallen comrades as burnt meat. The destruction wrought by the Martians has been indiscriminate and universal, unprecedented in the history of warfare on Earth. The artilleryman decides to try to get to London to join the horse artillery there; the narrator opts to return to Leatherhead. The third cylinder blocks their way, however. Although the artillery does destroy one Martian, it proves ineffective against the heat ray, which obliterates everything in its path. The narrator just misses being killed as the foot of a Martian machine comes within yards of his head.
The narrator then realizes that the Martians are methodically destroying the country. Every twenty-four hours, another cylinder arrives to strengthen and consolidate their power. Although England sends all of its heavy guns and warships against the Martians, this firepower is destroyed as soon as it comes within range of the heat ray.
Unable to return to Leatherhead, the narrator takes refuge in a house occupied by a curate who is devastated and depressed by the invasion, believing it to be a sign of God’s judgment. Soon it becomes clear to the narrator that the curate has gone insane. Talking to himself, refusing to listen to the narrator’s pleas that they must ration their food and make no noise, the curate puts both his own life and the narrator’s life in jeopardy. Martian tentacles have already invaded the house and have just missed detecting the narrator’s presence. When the curate announces that he is going out to preach the word of God that sanctions this destruction of the world, the desperate narrator feels he has no choice but to kill the curate to keep him from exposing them both; he bashes the curate in the head with the back of a meat cleaver.
After more than two weeks, his food supply exhausted, the ravenous narrator decides to leave the house and take his chances on the streets, where he once again encounters the artilleryman. It now seems clear to the artilleryman that there is no way of defeating the Martians. He plans an underground life; he will live in the city’s sewers and try to find ways to accommodate himself to the Martian rulers. The narrator rebels against the idea of such a subhuman existence, but he also thinks that the rule of human beings on Earth is over. Humans have become merely food for Martians, who feed by injecting themselves with human blood.
To the narrator’s astonishment, however, he soon comes across the rotting bodies of Martians, and it suddenly occurs to him that they have been destroyed by the lowliest of life-forms: bacteria. Mars does not have the bacteria found on Earth, and so the Martians have no immunity to these tiny organisms, which the human body has learned to tolerate over thousands of years. The narrator sees the destruction of the Martians as only a reprieve for humankind, however. Although he has been incredibly fortunate in that he has survived and has been able to reunite with his wife, he now lives with a sense of insecurity, no longer certain of Earth’s invulnerability.