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The story starts with some very general statements about life before the war, such as the famous opening line: "No one would have believed in the last years of the 19th 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 scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water" (1.1.1). Creepy alert!
At first, we don't know who is talking. Is this an omniscient narrator or a character in the story?
But we do know a war is coming because the chapter title tells us. Also, "war" is in the book's title – so, really, there are lots of clues that war is coming. We know that, but the people on Earth don't know it. Yet. (Cue threatening music.)
The narrator gives us some background information on Mars – info that he pretends we already know (1.1.2). Like, you know that Mars is running out of natural resources, right? Everybody knows that. The real question is whether the Martians have considered invading Earth for its natural resources.
Now, we might not want the Martians to invade and kill us and steal all our stuff, but the narrator reminds us that that's exactly what humans have done to each other – like when the British pretty much wiped out the Tasmanians. So who are we to complain?
The narrator notes that people saw some flashes of light on Mars, but didn't know what they meant.
If you're keeping track, so far the narrator has described people as dangerous (at least if you're a Tasmanian – which you're not, because they're extinct) and as a little shortsighted. You can already tell that this isn't going to be a feel-good story that makes you proud to be human.
By the way, this all happened six years ago (1.1.9), so the narrator knows how everything turns out all right. Now we know that at least one person survived. (Unless this is a Martian narrator – shoot.)
Also, though we know this happened six years ago, the narrator never tells us what year it all started. He mentions 1894 as the year some great light was seen on Mars, but that light is not the flashes he mentioned.
Finally, the narrator reveals himself as someone in the story, though someone without a name.
Now, on to the real action.
The narrator meets the astronomer Ogilvy, who invites him to the observatory to see the weird lights on Mars.
The night at the observatory is entirely ordinary by our human standards. The narrator drinks some water because he's thirsty and the people in the villages are fast asleep.
The narrator then contrasts this ordinary stuff with the coming of the Martians. He notes that things are hunky-dory now, but there's some "Thing" coming to Earth to bring "struggle and calamity and death" (1.1.13).
Ogilvy doesn't believe that Mars has intelligent life. He thinks the strange lights are just volcanoes or meteorites falling on Mars.
Astronomers observe flashes of light on Mars once a day for ten days. The newspapers mention these strange lights, but no one can guess what they really mean. Instead, people just go about their ordinary lives. For instance, the narrator spends his time learning how to ride a bicycle. (Check out "Setting" for more on the bicycle. Seriously.)