The War of the Worlds Essay - Critical Essays

H. G. Wells


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

The War of the Worlds is one of a group of novels by H. G. Wells that are classified as scientific romances. The others are The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The First Men in the Moon (1901).

At the end of the nineteenth century, there was much scientific and popular speculation about the possibility of life on Mars. Astronomer Percival Lowell, for example, proposed in 1896 that the canals on Mars were the work of intelligent beings. Wells was acquainted with such theories and published nonfiction articles that discussed them. He also used the idea of intelligent life elsewhere to write a story that would shatter the Victorian belief in the inevitability of progress and the benevolence of the process of evolution.

At the beginning of the novel, humanity goes about its business completely self-assured of its mastery of nature and utterly ignorant of anything that might threaten it. The superior place occupied by humans in the chain of being is usurped in a matter of days. To make the point, Wells draws frequent analogies between how the Martians must regard humans and how humans regard lower life-forms. The Martians must have studied humanity as human scientists might study minute organisms under a microscope, and the aliens take as much notice of human attempts to communicate with them as humans do to the lowing of a cow. Ants, bees, monkeys, and rabbits also are invoked to emphasize the shifting order of nature. The point is clear: Evolution, the process of natural selection, does not inevitably favor humankind.

In this cosmic pessimism, Wells was influenced heavily by the theories of T. H. Huxley, whose lectures Wells attended in 1884. There is no doubt that although the novel ends with the overthrow of the Martians, it is predominantly pessimistic. Not only is all of humanity’s technological knowledge and military power useless against the Martians, but so is its edifice of spiritual knowledge: The curate is the most pathetic character in the book. Weak and cowardly, he clings to scriptures that offer neither explanation nor solace for humanity’s plight. Even though humanity survives this particular catastrophe, in time, as Earth slowly decays, it will face the same crisis that the Martians had faced and that prompted their invasion of Earth. The only solace to be had from the war is the knowledge that too much confidence in the future leads to decadence. Humankind perpetually must be ready for the worst.