Masterworks Spotlight: The War of the Worlds

No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth 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. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most, terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.

Thus begins one of the greatest – and, arguably, the single most important – science fiction books of all time: H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds.

With more than a century of literature between Wells’ opus and today, the alien invasion story can seem a little hackneyed, these days.  It has, after all, been depicted in literature, radio, film, television, comics and games; it has been used as allegory and warning; it has been subject to satire and criticism; it has been taken seriously and dismissed as ludicrous. But one thing all Gateway readers can agree on: it set in motion the most important and energetic form of literature of the twentieth century. As Adam Roberts says in his introduction:

He spent the whole of the 1890s creating from scratch conceptual templates that later generations of SF authors would laboriously work through: time travel and the romance of the far future in The Time Machine (1895); what we would nowadays call stories of genetic engineering in The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896); invisibility in The Invisible Man (1897) – none of these tropes had been used before. But of all his masterpieces of the 1890s The War of the Worlds is surely the most accomplished . . . This is one of the core narratives of science fiction, and it has rarely, if ever, been better articulated than in this genre-defining novel.

The War of the Worlds is available as an SF Masterworks paperback and an SF Gateway eBook. You can find more of H G Wells’ work via his Author page on the Gateway website and read about him in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.