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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Themes

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Ambiguity
One reason that the invasion against the Earth is so successful is that the humans do not know what to make of it. The first Martian craft to arrive lies in the crater made by its arrival, seeming to be powerless. There is a noise from within, but that stops, leading astronomers to believe that the creatures inside have perished. When the Martians emerge from the cylinder, they are weak, gelatinous organisms, and their inability to move very freely in Earth’s thick atmosphere leads scientists to believe that they do not pose much of a threat. These assumptions are based on what little information can be gleaned from the spacecraft’s behavior. The Martians seem to pose no threat, until they swiftly begin their destructive attacks.

Even after the Martians prove hostile, the people of London do not see the danger facing them because the news is so sketchy. While people are being cut down by Heat-Rays just twenty miles away, Londoners go about their daily business. The novel seems to be making the point that, given an ambiguous situation, people will prefer to believe that all things are going to remain as they were. The view of the Martians that the narrator gets from his secluded house on the end of a Martian crater, where he watches them drain the blood from humans and throw away their bodies, is vastly different from the early assumption that they were disabled. Action is forestalled for crucial days by uncertainty about what these very strange visitors want or are capable of.

Victory and Defeat
Once the humans in this novel realize that the Martians can and will destroy them, they see the entire adventure in terms of victory and defeat. Early on, a party of scientists approaches the Martian cylinder with a white flag, to signify a willingness to live in peace, but that peace party is incinerated by the Martians. After that, the reports about the invasion are all sweetened with false hope because an artillery shell manages to destroy one of the Martian pods. The fact that they can be destroyed indicates to the hopeful that they will be, although no similar victories occur. By Book 2, there is no longer any pretense that humanity might be victorious. The narrator finds great appeal in the plan that the artilleryman puts forth: he cedes inevitable victory to the Martians, but says that, if it is able to survive and reproduce, the human race might find a way to be victorious at some distant time in the future.

Man versus Machine
One reason that the Martians do not seem all that threatening is that they are small and weak. They lack mobility, being made of large heads that slither slowly around on tentacles. Their power makes itself manifest when they climb into the tall tripod machines that can carry them high above the ground and shoot Heat-Rays. In Chapter 10 of Book 1, when the narrator first encounters one of the Martian tripods up close, he constantly refers to it as a machine but is also amazed at how responsive it is to the controls of the Martian inside:

. . . it was no mere insensate machine driving on its way. Machine it was, with a ringing metallic pace, and long, flexible, glittering tentacles (one of which gripped a young pine tree) swinging and rattling about its strange body. It picked its road as it went striding along, and the brazen hood that surmounted it moved to and fro with the inevitable suggestion of a head looking about.

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(This entire section contains 869 words.)

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is that neither the Martians nor their machines would independently be able to vanquish humanity but that the combination of living creature and metal machine would prevail.

Persistence
Persistence is at the heart of Herbert Spencer’s social Darwinian concept of “survival of the fittest.” In this book, it shows itself on levels grand and miniscule. At the level of world dominance, there is the theory that, although greatly overpowered, the human race could survive and eventually win out over the Martians over the course of generations, but only if some humans are willing to adapt to the new reality of being conquered. These people would have to live underground and train themselves: “We can’t have any weak or silly,” the artilleryman explains. “Life is real again, and the weak and the cumbersome and mischievous have to die. They ought to be willing to die. It’s sort of a disloyalty, after all, to live and taint the race.” His theory that the race can live on, with modifications, makes sense, but then he proves unwilling to make those necessary modifications.

The ultimate defeat of the Martians comes, not from the persistence of human willpower, but from the persistence of the human biological organism. The human bodies that have survived over the course of millions of years are the ones that have been able to survive exposure to bacteria: the ones that have not have died off. The Martians, with no history of exposure to these bacteria, die quickly. The Martians’ swift invasion is terrifying and effective, but it is the bacteria that have persisted that make the survival of humanity possible.

Themes

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The principal theme of The War of the Worlds is evolution. The Martians are what humanity could become. They are superintellects with bodies that have shrunken with disuse. Inside their terrible war-machines, they are fearsome masters of technology. They blast whole towns out of existence; indeed, they destroy and kill sometimes without purpose — just for the joy of exercising nearly invincible power. Outside of their machines, they are pathetic and nearly helpless.

The destruction of the Martians by microbes has seemed too easy to some readers. The Martians were "scattered about . . . some in their overturned war-machines, some in the now rigid handling-machines, and a dozen of them stark and silent and laid in a row, . . . slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared." To Wells, whenever humanity gained something when evolving it also lost something; here, the Martians had gained great intellects but lost the robust bodies that they would have had in their evolutionary past. With their advanced technology came contempt for nature; with that contempt came ignorance. The infections surprised them and they were reduced to crying "ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla" as dogs ran them down. Wells was a cautionary visionary in an era when Western civilization reveled in its technological conquest of nature. Much of the novel's effect upon the imagination of readers has been its direct contradiction of the assumption that all technological progress makes life better. The Martians saw themselves as so superior to nature that they were not bound by rules of morality and ethical behavior. Their contempt for other living beings brought about their own destruction. So too, by implication, may humanity's arrogance lead to contempt for ethics and humanity's own destruction by the forces of nature.

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