It's easy to be a jaded reader of science fiction, especially if you grew up with the conveniences of Star Trek, Star Wars, and the reality of spaceflight. So it's important to remember that writers like H.G. Wells never got to see the famous Blue Marble photograph of Earth; they never got to see what our planet looks like from space—something most of us take for granted in this era. This awareness, our conception of the Earth as a big blue marble, has become so pervasive as to make descriptions like this seem ... odd:
...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.
(Emphasis mine.) Wells didn't grow up with the Apollo missions; he only dreamed of men walking on the moon. So to write a story about Martians invading Earth, one saturated with speculation that uses the most cutting-edge science available to him in the 1890s, is all the more amazing and deserving of praise. The War of the Worlds is not a novel of the ages because of its story or characters—indeed, it lacks both—but because it is a testament to the power of one's imagination.
It's a good thing The War of the Worlds is short, because a book at any length in this style quickly becomes dull. The first thing that struck me is how Wells names so few of his characters. I'm pretty sure under ten characters in the book are named, and all of them are killed off in the first couple of chapters. The narrator and his wife go nameless; supporting characters are simply identified as "the boy" or "my brother," "the curate," "the artilleryman." That's not to say the characters lack personalities. Although none seem three-dimensional, Wells takes the time to invest the main characters with a cynical sort of human nature: the narrator vacillates between misguided optimism and extreme pessimism; the brother soon finds his own altruism erode in the face of Martian-induced anarchy; the curate goes mad; the artilleryman seizes upon impractical, Nietzschean visions. In a way, the dearth of names is appropriate to what Wells accomplishes: set pieces, scenery with dialogue, rather than actual characters decorate the scenes of The War of the Worlds. Through these inanimate beings, Wells shows us how he thinks civilization—because this is Britain, after all!—would behave during an apocalypse.
The narrative itself is extremely procedural. In addition to the nameless characters, who lend to the narrative its feeling of an anonymous article recounting "the terrible Martian invasion," the narrator often goes off into clinical descriptions of the events that befall him and his own interactions with the Martians. This book is all tactics and no strategy.
No, where Wells truly excels is his portrayal of the Martians as the Other and his exploration of how humanity reacts to the invasion of the Other, to absolute and utter catastrophe. The Martians never parley with humanity, neither to threaten nor to deliver ultimatums. They are taciturn and methodical, ruthlessly organized in their effort to dominate the Earth. Our entire understanding of them is predicated on the narrator's perception, on his perhaps fallible assignation of thoughts and desires to the Martians. They are, he supposes, doing this out of a need to survive—Mars being a dying planet—but it's worth noting that this is total supposition; for all we know, the Martians were utterly malevolent and their planet was fine.
The Martians certainly bring out a certain malevolence in humanity. There's no shortage of books that show the dark side of humanity, of course. But the alien invasion story is unique because of its ability to render us, as a species, totally impotent:
For that moment I touched an emotion beyond the common range of men, yet one that the poor brutes we dominate know only too well. I felt as a rabbit might feel returning to his burrow and suddenly confronted by the work of a dozen busy navvies digging the foundations of a house. I felt the first inkling of a thing that presently grew quite clear in my mind, that oppressed me for many days, a sense of dethronement, a persuasion that I was no longer a master, but an animal among the animals, under the Martian heels. With us it would be as with them, to lurk and watch, to run and hide; the fear and empire of man had passed away.
This is not the first time Wells compares us to animals; earlier in the book he compares his initial underestimation of the Martians as tantamount to the dodos' lackadaisical attitude toward the first sailors on Mauritius. However, the sentiment doesn't truly sink in until Wells' narrator re-encounters the artilleryman, who sums it up: "We're beat.... This isn't a war. It never was a war, anymore than there's war between man and ants."
From here, the book briefly digresses into a dim vision of humanity's future under the heels of the Martians. The scary thing is, I can see it happening. Our greatest strength as a species is how adaptable we are—but that strength can also be a disadvantage. Civilizations have grown comfortable under the rule of tyrants (just don't ask for the recipe for Soylent Green...); I was ready to envision humanity under the Martians.
It's worth remembering too that this all happens, and was written, before World War II. But does this sound familiar?
It may be that in the larger design of the universe this invasion from Mars is not without its ultimate benefit for men; it has robbed us of that serene confidence in the future which is the most fruitful source of decadence, the gifts to human science it has brought are enormous, and it has done much to promote the conception of the commonweal of mankind.
Finally, everyone knows how the story ends, even though few people probably even read the entire book: the Martians are felled by tiny, microscopic bacteria, because "there are no bacteria in Mars." Of all the science in this book—much of which is accurate, by the way, if not precise—that is the most ironic statement, for scientists currently searching for life on Mars, past or present, are focusing on finding that life under a microscope. So fortunately for us, I don't think the Martians will be aiming their rockets at Earth anytime soon.