Saturday, 17 September 2016

The War of the Worlds by H G Wells

The War of the Worlds is a science fiction novel by English author H G Wells first serialised in 1897 in the UK by Pearson's Magazine and in the US by Cosmopolitan magazine. It is one of the earliest stories that detail a conflict between mankind and an extraterrestrial race, and is one of the most commented-on works in the science fiction canon.

War_of_the_Worlds_original_cover_bw

The War of the Worlds presents itself as a factual account of the Martian invasion. The narrator is a middle-class writer of philosophical papers, with characteristics similar to author Wells at the time of writing. The reader learns very little about the background of the narrator or indeed of anyone else in the novel; characterisation is unimportant. In fact none of the principal characters are named, aside from the astronomer Ogilvy.

The War of the Worlds has spawned seven films, as well as various radio dramas, comic-book adaptations, video games, a television series, and sequels or parallel stories by other authors.

The Coming of the Martians

The narrative opens in an astronomical observatory where explosions are seen on the surface of the planet Mars, creating much interest in the scientific community. Later a ‘meteor’ lands on the common near the unnamed narrator's home. He is among the first to discover that the object is an artificial cylinder that opens, disgorging Martians. He describes them as big and greyish with oily brown skin, the size of a bear, with two large dark-coloured eyes, and lipless V-shaped mouths which drip saliva and are surrounded by two groups of tentacles.

They briefly emerge, have difficulty coping with Earth's atmosphere, and rapidly retreat into their 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. 

 An army of Martian fighting-machines destroying England. (1906)

Military forces arrive that night to surround the common. There is heavy firing from the common and damage to the town from the heat-ray. In the early morning hours, he discovers the Martians have assembled towering three-legged fighting-machines (tripods), each armed with a heat-ray and a chemical weapon: poisonous black smoke. These tripods have wiped out the army units positioned around the cylinder and attacked and destroyed most of the town.

One of the tripods is brought down in the River Thames by artillery as the narrator and countless others try to cross the river into Middlesex, as the Martians retreat back to their original crater. This gives the authorities precious hours to form a defence-line covering London. 

Towards dusk, the Martians renew their offensive, breaking through the defence-line of siege guns and field artillery by a widespread bombardment of the black smoke; an exodus of the population of London begins. This includes the narrator's younger brother, a medical student, also unnamed, who flees to the Essex coast after the sudden, panicked, predawn order to evacuate London is given by the authorities, a terrifying and harrowing journey of three days, amongst thousands of similar refugees streaming from London.

There they manage to buy passage to the Continent on a small paddle steamer, part of a vast throng of shipping gathered off the Essex coast to evacuate refugees. The torpedo ram HMS Thunder Child destroys two attacking tripods before being destroyed by the Martians, though this allows the evacuation fleet, including the ship carrying the narrator's brother, to escape. Shortly after, all organised resistance has ceased, and the Martians roam the shattered landscape unhindered.

War of the Worlds film

The Earth under the Martians

At the beginning of Book Two the narrator and a curate are plundering houses in search of food. During this excursion the men witness a Martian fighting-machine enter Kew, seizing any person it finds and tossing them into a "great metallic carrier which projected behind him, much as a workman's basket hangs over his shoulder", and the narrator realises that the Martian invaders may have "a purpose other than destruction" for their victims.

The Martians eventually abandon the cylinder's crater, and the narrator emerges from the collapsed house in which he was hiding, where he had observed the Martians up close during his ordeal. On the way to West London, he finds the Martian red weed everywhere, a prickly vegetation spreading wherever there is abundant water. Now in a deserted and silent London, he begins to slowly go mad from his accumulated trauma, finally attempting to end it all by openly approaching a stationary fighting-machine. To his surprise, he quickly discovers that all the Martians have been killed by an onslaught of earthly microbial infections, to which they had no immunity: "slain, after all man's devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth."

[adapted from Wikipedia]

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