The War of the Worlds

As the close of the nineteenth century approached, HG Wells was fascinated by the end of the world. It was understandable: Britain had been through huge scientific and social changes, and Queen Victoria’s reign was almost over. So he did what any good writer would: he explored his fears in a novel. The result was The War of the Worlds, a science fiction imagining of a deadly Martian invasion. The story is now iconic, thanks in part to the radio play by Orson Welles, which terrified listeners in 1938 — another period of great uncertainty.


An asteroid impact. Nuclear armageddon. An alien invasion? It is natural for humans to consider the ultimate fate of their species, especially in times of upheaval and conflict. But is there anything to be learnt from all this apocalyptic anxiety?


The Martians in The War of the Worlds seem feeble at first. But they are masters of technology, using huge mechanical tripods as fighting machines, destroying any human or other life they encounter. A century later, we are still fascinated by the possibility of life on other planets.


When the novel was published in 1897, the British Empire was at its height — so it is no surprise that the invading aliens headed straight for London. But much of the novel’s action takes place in the idyllic villages and countryside near Woking. How has England’s geography changed?


HG Wells was deeply sceptical about the British Empire’s effect on the lands and populations it conquered. ‘Before we judge [the Martians] too harshly, we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought.’


Despite the British Army’s best efforts, it is all too easy for the Martians to invade, and then destroy, humanity. Their technology was too powerful to fight. ‘It never was a war, any more than there’s war between man and ants,’ observed the artilleryman.