Probably the most escapist of H.G. Wells' many science fiction novels, The War of the Worlds is still more intellectually engaging than most works in the genre. Don't let that scare you away, though—the classic tale of alien invaders in late-19th century England is deeply satisfying adventure fiction, filled with human vs. alien combat and scenes of human panic as whole cities evacuate before the rampaging conquerors. Wells' prose is clipped and careful, evoking a world not too much different from ours confronted with an unimaginably foreign, destructive presence.
The plot is pretty straightforward—the narrator observes the approaching spacecraft, the aliens land and begin their reign of terror, the narrator is separated from his wife and spends the rest of the novel trying to survive. Laser guns make their first real appearance in literature, in the form of death-rays affixed to the aliens' roving tripod war machines. The aliens turn out to be from Mars, and they bring with them a rapidly-growing red plant that begins to turn Earth the same color as their planet of origin. Ultimately the Martians succumb to a very tiny opponent in what is one of the most famous science fiction endings of all time.
Written less than twenty years before World War I, The War of the Worlds presages global conflict better than perhaps even Wells himself understood at the time. By imagining war as a fully mechanized and thus impersonal enterprise, he forecast the hitherto unprecedented expenditure of human life the First World War generated. What is ironic is that even with the unstoppable destruction-machines of the Martians, Wells' estimations of the ruin a world war could cause were drastically more conservative than the actual carnage of the Great War itself.
The War of the Worlds is a milestone in literature for a number of reasons. It was the first novel to posit the existence of other malevolent life on other planets, of its ability to approach and land on Earth, and of alien life possessing technical knowledge superior to that of humans. It was one of the first to suggest the possibility of intergalactic travel (previous stories with similar themes were far more archaic and anachronistic), and it was basically the first great science fiction novel. That it is still widely read today is tribute both to its author's timeless imagination, and to his skill as a crafter of language.
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