The War of the Worlds first edition.jpg

The War of the Worlds (1898), a novel by H. G. Wells, is the first-person narrative of an unnamed protagonist's (and his brothers) adventures in London and the countryside around London as Earth is invaded by Martians. Written in 1895–97, it is one of the earliest stories that details a conflict between mankind and an extraterrestrial race.

The War of the Worlds has two parts, Book One: The Coming of the Martians and Book Two: The Earth under the Martians. The narrator, a philosophically inclined author, struggles to return to his wife while seeing the Martians lay waste to southern England. Book One (Chapters 14, 16, and 17) imparts the experience of his brother, also unnamed, who describes events in the capital and escapes the Martians by boarding a ship near Tillingham on the coast sixty-five miles northeast of London and is not mentioned again.

The plot has been related to invasion literature of the time. The novel has been variously interpreted as a commentary on evolutionary theory, British imperialism, and generally Victorian superstitions, fears and prejudices. At the time of publication it was classified as a scientific romance, like his earlier novel The Time Machine. The War of the Worlds has been both popular (having never gone out of print) and influential, spawning half a dozen feature films, radio dramas, various comic book adaptations, a television series, and sequels or parallel stories by other authors. It has even influenced the work of scientists, notably Robert Hutchings Goddard.

Synopsis

Book 1: The Coming of the Martians

After ten paragraphs of introductory remarks the narrative opens in an astronomical observatory at Ottershaw where explosions are seen on the surface of the planet Mars, creating much interest in the scientific community. Later a "meteor" lands on Horsell Common, southwest of London, near the narrator's home in Woking, Surrey. He is among the first to discover that the object is an artificial cylinder that opens, disgorging Martians who are "big" and "greyish" with "oil brown skin," "the size, perhaps, of a bear," with "two large dark-coloured eyes," and a lipless "V-shaped mouth surrounded by "Gorgon groups of tentacles." The narrator finds them "at once vital, intense, inhuman, crippled and monstrous." They briefly emerge, have difficulty in coping with the Earth's atmosphere, and rapidly retreat into the cylinder. A human deputation (which includes the astronomer Ogilvy) approaches the cylinder with a white flag, but the Martians incinerate them and others nearby with a heat-ray before beginning to assemble their machinery.

The narrator takes his wife to safety in nearby Leatherhead, where she has relatives, and then returns to Woking. He discovers the Martians have assembled towering three-legged "fighting-machines" (Tripods), each armed with a heat-ray and a chemical weapon: the so-called "black smoke". These Tripods wipe out the army units positioned around the crater and attack surrounding communities, moving toward London. Fleeing the scene, the narrator meets a retreating artilleryman, who tells him that another cylinder has landed between Woking and Leatherhead, cutting the narrator off from his wife. The two try to escape via Byfleet, but are separated at the Shepperton to Weybridge Ferry during a Martian attack on Shepperton. One of the Martian fighting machines is brought down in the River Thames by British artillery as the narrator and countless others try to cross the river into Middlesex, while the Martians escape. Our hero is able to float down the Thames toward London in a boat, stopping at Walton.

More cylinders are landing across Southern England, and a panicked flight of the population of London begins. This includes the narrator's brother, who flees to the Essex coast after Black Smoke is used to devastate London. The torpedo ram HMS Thunder Child destroys two tripods before being sunk by the Martians, though this allows the ship carrying the narrator's brother and his two female travelling companions to escape to the continent. Shortly after, all organised resistance has ceased, and the Martians roam the shattered landscape unhindered. Red weed, a Martian form of vegetation, spreads with extraordinary rapidity over the landscape wherever there is abundant water.

Book 2: The Earth Under the Martians

At the beginning of Book Two, the narrator and a curate from Walton take refuge in a ruined building in Sheen. The house is nearly destroyed when another Martian cylinder lands nearby, trapping them in the house for almost two weeks. The curate, traumatised by the invasion, sees in the Martian creatures heralding the advent of the Apocalypse. The narrator's relations with the curate deteriorate, and he eventually knocks him unconscious to prevent his loud ranting, but not before he is heard by a Martian, who captures him with a prehensile tentacle and, the reader is led to believe, drains him of his blood; blood transfusion is the Martians' form of nourishment. The narrator escapes detection by hiding in the coal-cellar.

The Martians eventually depart, and the narrator is able to head toward Central London. He once again encounters the artilleryman, who briefly persuades him to cooperate in a grandiose plan to rebuild civilization underground. But after a few hours the narrator perceives the lunacy of this plan and the overall laziness of his companion and abandons the artilleryman to his delusions. Heading into a deserted London, he is at the point of despair and offers his life to the aliens when he discovers that the invaders have died from microbial infections to which they had no immunity, since "there are no bacteria in Mars." The narrator realises with joy that the threat has been vanquished. The narrator suffers a brief breakdown of which he remembers nothing, is nursed back to health, and returns home to find his wife, whom he had given up for dead. The last chapter, entitled "Epilogue," reflects on the significance of the invasion and the "abiding sense of doubt and insecurity" that it has left in the narrator's mind.

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