The War of the Worlds
H.G. Wells
1898

One of the earliest books about human-alien conflict, H.G. Wells’ story is a classic of science-fiction whose direct remakes and influences continue to shape our collective imagination about space and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Journalistic in style, The War of the Worlds is a fictional documentation of Martian invasion by a mid-level scientist who manages to hide out in a partially-destroyed building while Martians and their mobile, tripod weapons wreak havoc across England.

The notion that Mars could sustain life was a common one in Wells’ time, and he, like many others, speculated on telescopic images that were emerging showing periodic flashings of light and what appeared to be canals on the planet’s surface. Indeed, in an essay published two years prior to War… the author had attempted to construct a model of possible Martian life and civilization based on the latest astronomical information, and raised the possibility that an older extraterrestrial species on an increasingly-desolate planet might seek out new colonies such as Earth. The War of the Worlds, then, arose directly out of of scientific discovery and speculation of the time, which Wells mixed with equally-timely debates over evolution and colonialism to produce the story.

The impact has been far-reaching. His alien-invasion theme inspired generations of subsequent writers, including Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein. Movies, television, and comic books have retold the story countless times, and a 1938 radio-drama, narrated by Orson Welles, so well-adapted the book’s journalistic style that many listeners and media outlets initially believed the story to be an actual news broadcast, causing a certain amount of panic and subsequent criticism of the broadcaster for its deception and irresponsibility. But the book had other impacts, too – notably its influence upon Robert Goddard, who was inspired to a career in rocket science by the novel and is today recognized as one of the founders of modern rocketry for his work on the theory of space travel, his many rocket-based inventions, and his construction of the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926.

A science teacher and futurist, H.G. Wells stands second to none in his influence upon science fiction as a genre. The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, The Island of Dr. Moreau – in these, like War…, Wells imagined all the potential and danger in scientific inquiry, and addressed the political and ethical questions that arose from new discoveries and possible futures. And his creations continue to inspire and intrigue us – from new versions of his work to groundbreaking scientific innovation motivated in large part by his stories, H.G. Wells remains a looming presence not just in science fiction, not just in popular literature, but in the collective imagination of our age.

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