Study Guide

The War of the Worlds Technology and Modernization

By H.G. Wells

Technology and Modernization

Henderson went into the railway station at once, in order to telegraph the news to London. The newspaper articles had prepared men's minds for the reception of the idea. (1.2.21)

This sort of statement about how strongly our world relies on technology appears all over the place in <em>The War of the Worlds</em>. Let's take a moment to mark all three technologies mentioned here: the railway station, which makes travel much quicker that it was before; the telegraph, which makes it much quicker to send and receive information; and the newspapers, which you might not even think of as technology, but which might be the most impressive one of all. Think about all the machinery that you need to create a newspaper (journalists sending stories through the telegraph wires, giant printing presses making thousands of copies) and then distribute the papers (from newsboys to trains).

It is still a matter of wonder how the Martians are able to slay men so swiftly and so silently. Many think that in some way they are able to generate an intense heat in a chamber of practically absolute non-conductivity. This intense heat they project in a parallel beam against any object they choose, by means of a polished parabolic mirror of unknown composition, much as the parabolic mirror of a lighthouse projects a beam of light. But no one has absolutely proved these details. (1.6.1)

If you wanted diagrams of how new technology works, Wells is not really the guy to go to. (You probably want Jules Verne for that.) That doesn't mean Wells just wants to wave a wand and say, "Poof, the Heat-Ray works by magic." No, he wants you to take this thing seriously. Here he's giving us a bunch of details so that we take it seriously, while still noting that there's a lot of mystery involved. (And really, what technology doesn't involve mystery?)

"Fresh attempts have been made to signal, but without success," was the stereotyped formula of the papers. (1.9.20)

Like the first quote in this section, we've got a stealthy reminder of how technology structures our lives and thoughts – "the stereotyped formula" isn't something that just gets used in the papers, but probably gets repeated by people. Also, we could note that the humans have made a serious error here in thinking that the Martians communicate the same way we do.

Or did a Martian sit within each, ruling, directing, using, much as a man's brain sits and rules in his body? I began to compare the things to human machines, to ask myself for the first time in my life how an ironclad or a steam engine would seem to an intelligent lower animal. (1.11.8)

At firs the narrator was struck by how unfamiliar the Martian technology was, but here the narrator is getting the idea that it isn't so different from our own.

"It's bows and arrows against the lightning, anyhow," said the artilleryman. "They 'aven't seen that fire-beam yet." (1.12.31)

Man, the artilleryman is making humans sound like cavemen here. That's how far behind human technology appears when compared to the Martians' weapons.

"What is that flicker in the sky?" [the curate] asked abruptly.

I told him it was the heliograph signalling – that it was the sign of human help and effort in the sky. (1.13.44-45)

We included this quote because there's a curiously religious sound to the narrator's answer about "help and effort in the sky." Is there something religious about technology here? Or is the narrator hinting that we can't look to God to help us, but have to help ourselves? Or is it merely a chance to take something military (the heliograph) and place it in a strange context (southern England)? (That is, just because you're used to some piece of technology, doesn't mean you expect to find it everywhere. We're used to trains, but we don't expect them at the bottom of the ocean, though that would be awesome.)

They exploded any stores of powder they came upon, cut every telegraph, and wrecked the railways here and there. They were hamstringing mankind. (1.17.3)

The Martians try to stop people from fighting back, so they mostly destroy the military equipment. Here their destruction is described as "hamstringing," which generally just means to cripple, but which comes from a bodily metaphor. (It has to do with cutting the tendons in a leg. It's hard to walk without those tendons. So we hear.) It's curious to us that this technological issue is described in bodily terms.

Something rushed up into the sky out of the greyness – rushed slantingly upward and very swiftly into the luminous clearness above the clouds in the western sky; something flat and broad, and very large, that swept round in a vast curve, grew smaller, sank slowly, and vanished again into the grey mystery of the night. And as it flew it rained down darkness upon the land. (1.17.35)

Years after Wells wrote <em>The War of the Words</em>, people would start talking seriously about airplanes (or "aeroplanes"), but here Wells is imagining the narrator's brother seeing something that he might not have words for. Notice how the thing is always talked about as "Something," which is what we all do when we lack the word for unfamiliar technology. One other strange thing about this quote is the way that the language slips from describing this strange new technology to the Biblical sounding language of "rain[ing] down darkness." Once again, we're confronted with the two issues of religion and technology.

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)

Here the narrator really lays it on the line, drawing the connection between the Martians' technology and ours. Apparently, our technology might belong to the same evolutionary chain as the Martians' tech. Maybe our "soaring-machines" (gliders) will lead to flying machines, and our guns will lead to Heat-Rays.