By the time he died on August 13, 1946, in London, Herbert George Wells was admired as a prophet and as an important social philosopher who helped shape the modern world; but at his birth on September 21, 1866, his future seemed likely to be one of little education, poorly paying jobs, and anonymity. His father was a professional cricket player and shopkeeper, and his mother was a maidservant. From 1874 to 1880, Wells attended Thomas Morley’s Commercial Academy, and as a fourteen-year-old he was apprenticed first to a dry goods merchant and later to a druggist. When seventeen, he tried to become a teacher in a rural area, then in 1884 he won a scholarship to the Normal School of Science. He left in 1887 without obtaining a degree. In that year he fell severely ill, and his future seemed bleak. In 1891 he married his cousin Isabell Mary Wells, and the marriage foundered.
The War of the Worlds has always held a special fascination for young readers. The novel’s action is relentless, and the book is suspenseful to the very end. In the novel, Wells sets forth some of his ideas about humanity’s place in the universe, about the evils of foreign conquests, and about human nature. At no time in The War of the Worlds is Wells overbearing or preachy. Instead, his presentation stimulates new ideas in his readers and inspires their imaginations.
The War of the Worlds is set in the late 1890s in England. For Wells and his original audience, this was a modern Setting, and the British weapons he describes were the very latest products of high technology. Although the ironclad warships and batteries of cannons may seem old-fashioned to present-day readers, one should keep in mind that these weapons were once symbols of terrible destruction. That the Martian war-machines crush the well-armed and mighty British army confirms the Martians as technologically superior enemies of humanity. After the British artillery batteries are destroyed, no one doubts the Martians’ ability to exterminate humanity.
The War of the Worlds reflects some of Wells’s social concerns, although it is not as heavily laden with social commentary as The Time Machine. The Martians represent colonialists, while the Europeans-traditionally the colonialists themselves-are the primitives confronting invaders who possess a bewilderingly superior technology. Confusion, fear, panic, and bravado are the typical reaction of the English to the invasion. The Martians have “minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts.”
At the time Wells wrote The War of the Worlds, science had become the subject of much public debate. During this period, the natural sciences were becoming part of the everyday curriculum of schools. Journalists responded to the general interest in science-and the particular interest in Mars and its possible inhabitants-with a multitude of speculations. Wells chose a topic for his novel that was calculated to catch the public’s imagination. In addition, his care in presenting accurate details, both in Setting and about the everyday lives of his Characters, gives the narrative a powerful immediacy, as though the action could be taking place in any reader’s own yard.
In many respects, The War of the Worlds is a tale told before. For instance, the Aztecs of Mexico first took Hernando Cortes and his men to be benevolent gods when the Spaniards arrived early in the sixteenth century. The Aztecs were puzzled by the Spaniards’ mighty horses, which they had never seen before; but when they realized that the men of Cortes were not “gods” but instead conquerors, they fought and were slaughtered by weapons vastly superior to their own. Wells’s tale of the tragedy wrought by the colonialist impulse is thus lent force by historical precedent.
1. Why are the Characters given abstract names such as “the Narrator” and “the Curate”? Are the names symbolic? What would be the point of symbolic names?
1. Throughout his career, Wells was concerned about the ethical uses of technology and scientific knowledge. How are his ideas reflected in The War of the Worlds? (A good place to begin your research is Isaac Asimov’s “The Science Fiction Breakthrough” and Rosalynn D. Haynes’s H. G. Wells, Discoverer of the Future. Wells’s own Experiment in Autobiography provides insight into what he hoped to say in his novels about the ethical use of advanced technology.)
Wells wrote several visionary novels similar to The War of the Worlds. These books were called “scientific fantasies” because the term “science fiction” had not yet been invented. The Time Machine focuses on strong social Themes about the ethical treatment of the laboring classes in an industrial society, and it, too, has an apocalyptic vision of the future. The First Men in the Moon depicts frightening outer-space monsters, while The Invisible Man features a scientist whose ethics are so confused that he ends up trivializing his brilliant scientific advancement-the discovery of how to make people invisible. In The Island of Dr. Moreau, scientific knowledge is pursued at the cost of the brutalization of the natural world.