The War of the Worlds
by H.G. Wells
Sure, they come from thousands of miles away to kill us, steal our stuff, and drink our blood, but what's so bad about the Martians? Is that all it takes to make them monsters – drinking our blood and destroying our land? The narrator claims that humans do a lot of that same stuff, too. Humans kill others (both people and animals), steal their stuff (just the people), and eat them (just the animals). Are we also monsters, just like the Martians?
This is the fun that Wells has with the Martians, as he juggles two main ideas about them: 1) they are completely alien, so we can feel free to judge them; and 2) they are just like us, so we can't judge them (or at least, if we do, we're really judging ourselves).
Mars Needs Cosmetic Surgeons
On one hand, the Martians are totally monstrous and inhuman. Just look at their descriptions:
[…] the head of the thing, was rounded, and had, one might say, a face. There was a mouth under the eyes, the lipless brim of which quivered and panted, and dropped saliva. The whole creature heaved and pulsated convulsively. (1.4.15)
Generally speaking, most people cannot be described as "heav[ing] and pulsat[ing] convulsively." Usually when we describe someone that way, it means there's a serious health problem involved. And that "one might say, a face" phrase gets us every time. What a way to remind us that the narrator is forced to interpret the Martians' form through a particular set of assumptions, like "living creatures have faces." (Which is the kind of assumption that gets us in trouble when we look at animals like starfish. Seriously, where's the starfish's face?) This phrase it's also a way to remind us that the Martians are really quite different from us.
When the narrator says, "There was something fungoid in the oily brown skin, something in the clumsy deliberation of the tedious movements unspeakably nasty" (1.4.16), you might be tempted to say, "OK already, I get it, they're horrible and completely inhuman." (Once again, if you describe some human as having "something fungoid in the oily brown skin," there might be a health issue.)
But that's just the Martians on the outside – that's before we even get to the internal anatomy of the Martian (like, no digestive organs) or the behavioral differences, like injecting themselves with blood rather than eating a home-cooked meal. There's also the asexual reproduction and the lack of microorganisms, which are both very different from the human norm of sexual reproduction and being chock-full of microorganisms. Put simply, the Martians seem totally alien and monstrous.
Men are from Mars, Women are… also from Mars
On the other hand, no matter what they look like, the Martians are like humans in other ways – all of which are helpfully pointed out by the narrator, as if he were building a court case.
Exhibit A: The narrator notes in Book 1, Chapter 1 how humans engage in the same sort of genocidal colonialism as the Martians (1.1.6). That's really game-set-match right there. The narrator could rest his case that people are just as bad as Martians after pointing that the British wiped out the Tasmanians. In fact, that might make people worse than Martians: the Martians kill humans, but humans kill other humans.
Exhibit B: The narrator also points out that the Martian blood-diet is no worse than the human habit of eating meat – if you ask the meat for its perspective on the issue: "I think that we should remember how repulsive our carnivorous habits would seem to an intelligent rabbit" (2.2.13). We could expand that thought to include vegetables. What would an intelligent head of lettuce think of our habit of eating salad? Unless it was a cannibal head of lettuce, it would probably be horrified too.
Exhibit C: The narrator also makes the connection between the Martian technology and our own use of technology. He notes that humans and Martians share a certain tendency towards invention and mechanization: "We men, with our bicycles and road-skates, our Lilienthal soaring-machines, our guns and sticks and so forth, are just in the beginning of the evolution that the Martians have worked out" (2.2.25). Our technology seems very different – they don't use wheels, after all – but it seems like we share the same technological evolution.
Exhibit D: We very nearly forgot the silliest connection. The Martian sound "Aloo aloo" sounds a lot like the typical British greeting "Allo, allo."
Now that's what we call building an airtight case.
But we have to add one last item about this issue of the connection between humans and Martians. The narrator notes, "a certain speculative writer of quasi-scientific repute, writing long before the Martian invasion, did forecast for man a final structure not unlike the actual Martian condition" (2.2.20). Wells is kind of having fun with us because he's talking about himself – he's the "quasi-scientific" author. In 1893, Wells wrote an essay titled "The Man of the Year Million," and in that essay, Wells describes how evolution might affect people over the next few, eh, millennia. Spoiler alert: We turn into giant brains with hands, pretty much like the Martians. Again, here's more evidence that humans and Martians are quite similar.
Now, what does it do to our reading when we recognize that humans are pretty much like the Martians, even with their wet leather skin and snake-like tentacles? This might be the central issue of the book. (In other words: we're not sure, what do you think?)
For genocidal mass murderers, the Martians aren't so bad.
There is one last issue about the Martians that we want to discuss here, which is their ending. Now, maybe you were glad when the Martians all died from colds or strep throat, but notice how their death is set up in the book. It starts with wailing sounds. The narrator finds these cries moving – very human, we might say. Here's how the narrator thinks of that wailing: "It was as if that mighty desert of houses had found a voice for its fear and solitude" (2.8.7). Now, if you're in a human city (like London), you might expect that city's voice to be human. That's why it's odd that the narrator feels like the city has found its voice in Martian cries. Once again we see that connection between Martians and humans.
Isn't it interesting that the narrator feels a little sad for the Martians? Did you feel bad for the Martians at the end? Your opinion might vary (maybe you hated the Martians or maybe you were just happy to be near the end of the book), but several critics have noted that there's something tragic about the Martians. We can't help but agree.
Do you remember the first chapter of the book when we find out that Mars is probably dying, so the Martians do the only thing they can do to survive, which is find a new planet? Not only have they done the only thing they could do, but it's not enough, and they all die anyway. Sad, isn't it?
By the end of the book there does seem to be a shift in considering the Martians as an object of terror to considering them as an object of pity. If the Martians are really like us and the Martians are an object of pity, then what does that say about us? Should we pity ourselves because we're caught up by these huge natural forces that will eventually lead to the death of our planet?