illustration of a large alien vehicle, a tripod, attacking a city with lasers

The War of the Worlds

by H. G. Wells

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The social commentary in The War of the Worlds is thick, but it continues to attract a multitude of readers, and the depiction of civilization collapsing in gallant resistance against an implacable enemy is grand, even moving. Science fiction writers ever since have used their fantasies as vehicles for commenting on society, but few fire the imagination the way Wells does. Discussion groups could approach the novel from the angle of its social commentary and work their way into the ideas at the foundation of the tale. Another angle for approach would be the apocalyptic vision of the book; it portrays our civilization collapsing into ruins, with good and bad equally destroyed. What makes this vision stirring?

1. How well is the climax of the novel developed? Do you think the highly evolved Martians would forget something like disease? Is the climax forced too much to fit Wells's social commentary (when something is gained, something is lost) at the expense of a coherent plot?

2. What are the parallels between the events in The War of the Worlds and the history of colonial empires? Don't stop with Western civilization's expansion; note the parallels in the history of Eastern empires, as well as the violent invasions of the Middle East and Europe by Huns, Mongols, and others. What generalizations about humanity is Wells making with his tale of conquest and utter defeat?

3. Some characters have names that represent their professions. Catalogue these and see whether Wells is making any comments about the kinds of people they represent.

4. Some readers are particularly annoyed by the Curate. Is Wells using him as an allegorical figure to say that religion is irrelevant?

5. The War of the Worlds draws on some of the popular, as well as serious, science of its era. It would be fun to find out just what people thought Mars was like back in 1898 and to see how Wells borrowed from the scientific thinking of his day. For instance, some scientists really thought that there were canals on Mars, although such an idea is no longer taken seriously.

6. Scientific views have changed greatly since the time Wells wrote The War of the Worlds. Using this novel as an example, how dependent are science fiction writers on the science of their times? What does changing scientific knowledge do to how audiences respond to a science fiction novel?

7. Should humanity seek revenge on Mars?

8. Why, with all of earth to choose from, would Martians target England? Try approaching this topic
from the view of the 1890s.

9. Now that the Martian invasion has failed, what are the first several things humanity should do?

10. Wells did not like the radio version directed by Orson Welles of The War of the Worlds. How does the radio-play differ from the novel? What, in particular, might have irritated Wells?

Kirk H. Beelz

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