The War of the Worlds (Collins Classroom Classics)

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This Collins Classroom Classics edition includes an introduction and glossary to support students, written by an experienced teacher.

The War of the Worlds H.G. Wells

A big greyish rounded bulk, the size, perhaps, of a bear, was rising slowly and painfully out of the cylinder. As it bulged up and caught the light, it glistened like wet leather … The body heaved and pulsated convulsively. A lank tentacular appendage gripped the edge of the cylinder, another swayed in the air.

ISBN 978-0-00-840045-3


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The War of the Worlds 9 780008 400453

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Introduction A man rides his bicycle across an open stretch of heathland. He is not a confident rider, but this new fashion for bicycling is one he is determined to master. He cannot quite control the brakes, which pitch him forward sometimes onto the grass. Later, he ventures onto the quiet roads around the little Surrey town of Woking. Once known merely for its good commutable railway link to London, the town has recently become notorious as the site of the UK’s first crematorium, built to handle overspill from the capital’s bursting graveyards. The man’s London friends make grim jokes about this, but he doesn’t care. It is peaceful here and he cycles freely along the overgrown canal path, dusty tracks and quiet lanes. Occasionally, he stops and makes notes in his pocketbook, then he cycles off again. Nearly 40 years later, in 1934, the same man – writer Herbert George Wells – was to reflect on this trip: ‘I wheeled about the district marking down suitable places and people for destruction by my Martians.’1 He revealed that his seemingly innocent note-taking had been research for what was to become one of his most popular novels, The War of the Worlds, in which he transformed the sleepy commuter towns and villages around late-Victorian London into a battleground – an unlikely setting for a terrifying alien invasion. In this tale, creatures with ‘intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic’ travel across the ‘gulf of space’ (p.1) and lay waste to suburban Surrey in a relentless mission to conquer Earth and systematically subjugate its human inhabitants. v

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The War of the Worlds, first published in 1897 as a monthly serial in Pearson’s Magazine, then in book form the following year, confirmed Wells’s status as a pioneer of a new type of fiction – futuristic tales that drew inspiration from the latest discoveries in Victorian science.2 Wells described his tales as ‘scientific romances’, although readers today will recognise them as early examples of what we now call science fiction. The War of the Worlds followed Wells’s earlier successes in this exciting new genre: The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and The Invisible Man (1897). First reviewers of The War of the Worlds praised Wells’s gripping story of survival, in which an unnamed narrator eludes the invading Martians and documents their pitiless destruction of humanity. By locating these horrifying events in familiar suburban settings, Wells contrasts the ordinary with the extraordinary to great dramatic effect. As one reviewer put it: ‘Mr Wells never relaxes his hold on the commonplace, everyday life, against which his marvels stand out so luridly.’3 The novelist Joseph Conrad summed this talent up best by calling Wells a ‘Realist of the Fantastic’.4 Wells’s own background certainly contained both the commonplace and the marvellous. The son of a servant and a shopkeeper from Kent, he was one of the first students to win a prestigious scholarship to attend the Normal School of Science in London (which later became Imperial College). At various stages in his life, he was a science teacher, textbook writer, pamphleteer, journalist, novelist and champion of socialism.5 He was also a supporter of the suffragette movement, although his own relationships with women were often unconventional and problematic. vi

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In his autobiography, Wells explains that he left his first wife, his ‘book-shy’ cousin Isabel, due to their absolute ‘incompatibility’, and – quite scandalously for the time – took up residence with his student, Amy Catherine Robbins, while still married.6 Despite this unconventional lifestyle, in the 1890s, Wells’s popular reputation was secured by the success of his fiction, particularly his visionary ‘scientific romances’. These greatly impressed his Victorian readers and critics with their extraordinary inventiveness, and, with their profound warnings about our future as a species on this planet, they continue to resonate with readers in the 21st century.


Extra-terrestrial life and the end of the world The timely publication of The War of the Worlds rode a wave of ‘Mars fever’ – a popular obsession with the idea of life on the red planet.7 In 1894, the French astronomer Stephane Javelle had published his observations of peculiar flashing lights coming from the surface of Mars. Many speculated that these were in fact signals sent by Martians attempting to contact the inhabitants of Earth. In an article for The Saturday Review in 1896, Wells himself claimed that there was ‘no doubt’ that Mars was ‘very like earth’ and could be home to intelligent life forms.8 The action of The War of the Worlds begins with the narrator and the ‘well-known astronomer’ Ogilvy watching ‘eruptions’ from the red planet (p.5). Ogilvy thinks the flashes are not communications but ‘meteorites’ or ‘a huge volcanic explosion’ (p.6). The vii

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The Eve of the War No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and 1

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surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment. The planet Mars, I scarcely need remind the reader, revolves about the sun at a mean distance of 140,000,000 miles, and the light and heat it receives from the sun is barely half of that received by this world. It must be, if the nebular hypothesis has any truth, older than our world; and long before this earth ceased to be molten, life upon its surface must have begun its course. The fact that it is scarcely one seventh of the volume of the earth must have accelerated its cooling to the temperature at which life could begin. It has air and water and all that is necessary for the support of animated existence. Yet so vain is man, and so blinded by his vanity, that no writer, up to the very end of the nineteenth century, expressed any idea that intelligent life might have developed there far, or indeed at all, beyond its earthly level. Nor was it generally understood that since Mars is older than our earth, with scarcely a quarter of the superficial area and remoter from the sun, it necessarily follows that it is not only more distant from time’s beginning but nearer its end. The secular cooling that must someday overtake our planet has already gone far indeed with our neighbour. Its physical condition is still largely a mystery, but we know now that even in its equatorial region the midday temperature barely approaches that of our coldest winter. Its air is much more attenuated than ours, its oceans have shrunk until they cover but a third of its surface, and as its slow seasons change huge snowcaps gather and melt about either pole and periodically inundate its temperate zones. That last stage of exhaustion, which to us is still incredibly 2

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book 1 chapter 1

remote, has become a present-day problem for the inhabitants of Mars. The immediate pressure of necessity has brightened their intellects, enlarged their powers, and hardened their hearts. And looking across space with instruments, and intelligences such as we have scarcely dreamed of, they see, at its nearest distance only 35,000,000 of miles sunward of them, a morning star of hope, our own warmer planet, green with vegetation and grey with water, with a cloudy atmosphere eloquent of fertility, with glimpses through its drifting cloud wisps of broad stretches of populous country and narrow, navy-crowded seas. And we men, the creatures who inhabit this earth, must be to them at least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us. The intellectual side of man already admits that life is an incessant struggle for existence, and it would seem that this too is the belief of the minds upon Mars. Their world is far gone in its cooling and this world is still crowded with life, but crowded only with what they regard as inferior animals. To carry warfare sunward is, indeed, their only escape from the destruction that, generation after generation, creeps upon them. And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit? The Martians seem to have calculated their descent with amazing subtlety – their mathematical learning is 3

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Glossary A note on places and place names in The War of the Worlds Perhaps the most effective feature of H.G. Wells’s narrative style in The War of the Worlds is his extensive use of real settings for unreal events. The territory invaded by the Martians is almost entirely suburban – the ordinary commuter towns and villages of Surrey, centred upon the town of Woking (just over 20 miles south-west of London). The myriad place names build up a terrifying, real-time map of the invasion, as well as serving to track the narrator’s desperate flight. The events of Book 1 mostly take place in the area south-west of the capital, bounded roughly by the towns of Knaphill, Woking and Leatherhead. In Chapter 17 – the account given by the narrator’s brother – the action shifts to Essex and the frantic attempts to rescue people from the stretch of coastline from Harwich (about 70 miles north-east of London) to Shoeburyness (a little less than 40 miles east of London). In Book 2, after being trapped for 13 days with the curate in the ruined house in Mortlake (6 miles south-west of central London), the narrator encounters the artilleryman on Wimbledon Common and together they head towards Putney Hill. From this vantage point just to the south of the city, the narrator can see the full extent of the Martian attack. Later in Book 2, the narrator witnesses the dramatic Martian downfall against a backdrop of what is left of Victorian London. As he surveys the ‘jagged ruins of Westminster’ and the shattered dome of St Paul’s Cathedral (p.211) he begins, finally, to contemplate a time of recovery for humankind and for London itself – a time when ‘the pulse of life, growing stronger and stronger, would beat again in the empty streets and pour across the vacant squares’ (p.211). For a comprehensive list of all place names featured in The War of the Worlds see A Critical Edition of The War of the Worlds, edited

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by David Y. Hughes and Harry M. Geduld, Indiana University Press, 1993, pp.227–35.

Book 1: The Coming of the Martians Chapter 1 1 infusoria: a zoological term (now obsolete) for the genus of microscopic creatures found in organic material 2 nebular hypothesis: the theory that our solar system – the sun and the planets – formed from clouds of gas and dust in space. In this theory, the sun was created first and the planets followed in order of their proximity to the sun. Mars is nearer to the sun, so would be older than Earth according to this hypothesis. 2 secular cooling: (in astronomy) cooling which takes place over a long time 3 bison and the dodo: By the 1880s, the American bison had been hunted almost to extinction by European settlers. The dodo – a large flightless bird from Mauritius – became extinct in the 1660s following the arrival of Dutch sailors on the island. 3 Tasmanians: The population of the indigenous people of this Pacific island of Tasmania, south of Australia, was decimated in the 19th century by the activities of European colonisers. The island, originally known as Van Diemen’s Land, was once a British penal colony (1803–53). Subsequently, there was extensive exploitation of the island’s natural resources and forced resettlement of its indigenous people, which ultimately led to their complete extermination. 4 Schiaparelli: Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli (1835–1910) was an Italian astronomer who produced the first drawings of Mars in 1877. These featured what he termed ‘canali’, or channels, on the surface. This was mistranslated as ‘canals’ and led to the widespread belief that these were built structures – proof of the existence of life on Mars. 4 Lick Observatory: This observatory in California opened in 1888. At the time, it housed the largest and most powerful refracting telescope in the world.

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4 Perrotin of Nice: Henri Joseph Anastase Perrotin (1845–1904) was a French astronomer and the first Director of the Nice Observatory. He conducted investigations into Schiaparelli’s ‘canali’ on Mars. 4 Nature: a prestigious scientific journal, first published in 1869; one of its early contributors was Thomas Henry Huxley, H.G. Wells’s inspirational teacher at the Normal School of Science 4 Lavelle of Java: a fictional scientist who may have been based on the French astronomer Stéphane Javelle (1864– 1917), who is mentioned by Wells in his article ‘Intelligence on Mars’ in The Saturday Review, April 4 (1896) reprinted in David Y. Hughes and Harry M. Geduld (eds), A Critical Edition of The War of the Worlds (1993), Indiana University Press, pp. 295–297 4 spectroscope: a scientific instrument for analysing and recording energy from light or radiation 4 Daily Telegraph: a British daily newspaper, founded in 1855 and which had a high circulation in Wells’s time 6 chronometer: a very accurate clock or timepiece (such as a boxed, handheld watch) particularly for use at sea 6 Ottershaw and Chertsey: towns in Surrey, to the south of London 7 Punch: a humorous weekly British magazine, first published in 1841, famous for its satirical cartoons Chapter 2 10 sand pits: sand quarries on Horsell Common, an area of large open heathland near Woking in Surrey 10

thirty yards: a distance of just over 27 metres

12 waggoner: a man who drove a strong horsedrawn vehicle or wagon (used for heavy loads) 12 potman: a man or boy who served alcohol in a public house 12 taproom: the bar room in a public house or inn Chapter 3 14 ‘touch’: a child’s game of chase or ‘tag’, in which one child

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