The War of the Worlds Introduction
In A Nutshell
Imagine you are reading a book in which horrible invaders launch a sneak attack on England. The English people try to resist, but the invaders are just too powerful and England is totally crushed. Now, what's the title of that book?
You might guess – either through your insane genius or by reading the title of this guide – that such a book is titled The War of the Worlds, which is a fantastic guess. (Yes, we'll be talking about this book a lot. Possibly more than is healthy.)
But, hey, there's a chance that you instead guessed that this book is titled The Battle of Dorking (1871), which was a book written many years before H.G. Wells penned The War of the Worlds. The Battle of Dorking tells the story of how the Germans invade and defeat England, and it was incredibly popular (not to mention incredibly boring). Yes, it was so popular that the British military actually went on some maneuvers to prove that they could stop the Germans from invading. It was such a popular book that people wrote songs about it and made jokes about it. And it was such a popular book that people wrote copycat books in which some foreign invader attacked England. Sometimes it was the French that invaded England, often it was the Germans.
[Complete-and-utter-side-note alert: Why were the English so nervous about the Germans? Well, in 1870 the Prussians crushed France in the appropriately named Franco-Prussian War. As in, totally crushed – so crushed that the people in Paris ran out of food and ate their zoo animals (source), which is our definition of crushed. You can understand why the English might be a little nervous about these Germans. Or at least you can understand why English zoo animals would be a little nervous. But back to War of the Worlds.]
Then in 1897, instead of another book in which the French or the Germans invaded, it was the Martians who invaded England in H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. Sure, there are some slight differences between The Battle of Dorking and The War of the Worlds, but these two books sound a lot alike if you are vague about where the invaders are from, and if you leave off the ending.
While Wells' book has some original (or original-ish) ideas – like having the invaders die of bacterial infection – The War of the Worlds is definitely a descendent of The Battle of Dorking. Although Wells makes the invaders Martians, The War of the Worlds is in the small family of books called "invasion literature," which started with Dorking. All very interesting.
There's something you should keep in mind, though: England hasn't been successfully invaded since 1066. Nor was anyone attempting to invade England in the 19th century – England was the one doing the invading. For instance, to use one example that comes up in The War of the Worlds, the British settled Tasmania in 1803. And what about the native Tasmanians? They didn't do so well. That's actually the starting point of the book: what if the Martians did to the English what the English did to the Tasmanians?
Wells makes this connection himself when he re-tells the moment when he (with the help of his brother Frank) came up with the idea for the book:
"Suppose some beings from another planet were to drop out of the sky suddenly," said Frank, "and begin laying about them here!" Perhaps we had been talking of the discovery of Tasmania by the Europeans – a very frightful disaster for the native Tasmanians! I forget. But that was the point of departure. (Source)
Now go ahead and read about such "frightful disasters." And be glad this version is fiction.
Why Should I Care?
We're going to say something that might seem crazy, but stay with us – we promise it will make sense in the end. Ready for the craziness? OK, here goes: you should care about H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds because… it's a story about us.
That's crazy, right? The War of the Worlds is about what happens when 19th-century England is attacked by 19th-century Martians. This book clearly isn't about us because we're not from the 19th century and English (at least Shmoop isn't), nor are we from the 19th century and Martian. Right?
Well, yes and no.
Yes, it's true that this book is focused on England and the 19th century. It was written in 1897 in England, for Pete's sake. But at the same time, this book isn't just about the English in the 1800s – it's about how people respond to disaster. Like, when Martians come to burn down your town, are you going to try to be a hero and get people out of danger? That's what the narrator's brother does. Or are you going to look out for yourself first? That's pretty much what the artilleryman does. Or are you going to crack, like the curate?
Now, we hope that Martians aren't attacking your town at the moment – well, really, we hope that no one is attacking your town. But even if no one is using a Heat-Ray on you, The War of the Worlds is still a story about you, because it's also a tale about how we all deal with the unexpected, the stressful, and the disastrous. We can all relate to that, can't we?