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The War of the Worlds: How Prescient was H.G. Wells?

Updated: Jun 29, 2021

Herbert George Wells (1866-1946) was a hugely prolific writer, and arguably the father of science fiction; he was nominated for four Nobel Prizes in Literature in his lifetime. Quite how prognostic Wells was, though, is still shocking.

Watercolor illustration of famous English writer, Herbert George Wells.
Herbert George Wells

To set context to Wells’ acclaimed novel, The War of the Worlds was published in 1898; it is a short story which focusses on Earth’s invasion by ‘Martians’. It’s therefore understandably surprising that such an outlandish book can be so prescient. However, Wells’ technique of interspersing such an imaginative headline with every day matter-of-fact details, now known as ‘Wells’ Law’, allows for a powerful conveyance of criticism of society, and predictions (of gloom).

Whereas the inspiration for The War of the Worlds is unclear, there are still notable events which may have encouraged Wells. By the time he was writing this novel, right at the end of the 19th Century, there had been three centuries of observation of Mars, starting with Galileo in the 1600s. However, in 1895 (just three years before Wells’ novel was published), the American astronomer, Percival Lowell, published a book titled Mars. It speculated about life on Mars, explaining how inhabitants could be melting the polar ice caps to irrigate the land; this provided an extremely comprehensive theory of how life could exist on Mars, potentially being a stimulus for the aliens in the book. Wells also wrote this book at the turn of the century – a time at which there can be much nervousness. This alarming story, therefore, could be as a result of the general feeling of unease and reflection amongst the British population.

As a child, Wells’ family was fairly poor, and he had limited access to books. However, his attraction to reading began when he broke his leg as a child and was brought books from the local library by his father. One of the next most influential things in Wells’ life, after his love of reading, was his passion for science. In 1890, he was awarded a Bachelor of Science Degree in Zoology from The University of London. Of course his love of literature was important in sparking his writing ability, but his interest in science was, too. As will be further explored, Wells was very much a Darwinian, and this belief filtered into his novels, including The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine. This belief also allows readers to more surely identify Wells’ warnings about the future of humanity. Focussing on one of his most celebrated novels, The War of the Worlds, shows us Wells’ own views on society at the time, and his predictions and forewarnings for humanity. Not only do his basic concepts such as the ‘heat-ray’ which the Martians use (being remarkably similar to a modern-day laser) show Wells’ predictive genius, but in a time of coronavirus, Wells’ more sweeping judgements on humanity are powerfully mirrored in today’s reality.

Throughout the book, the main criticisms that Wells brandishes upon society surrounds humanity’s arrogance and dominance over the world. In the first chapter, Wells mentions the ‘infinite complacency’ of man and our ‘ruthless and utter destruction’ of other species. Wells asserts that man is ‘blinded by his vanity’ in this book, and this criticism is shown to be humans’ main weakness, as they are decimated by the invading species without forewarning.

This level of complacency which Wells highlighted through his fiction at the end of the nineteenth century, was clearly carried through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Humans have continued to exploit Earth’s natural resources, and destroy large swathes of the environment – perhaps Wells’ criticism is rather fitting. Without wishing to put too finer point on it, many governments’ under preparation for the coronavirus pandemic most strikingly demonstrates Wells’ observation that man is complacent, and simply believes that it will “all be fine in the end”.

Furthermore, although The War of the Worlds clearly depicts unrealistic and unscientific circumstances, the way that the dominant and intellectually superior Martians are actually killed by bacteria suggests Wells has an underlying respect for nature and an ultimate doubt of the power of technology. In Wells’ novel, even the most powerful and fantastical beings from other planets could still succumb to Earth’s natural forces, just as humanity has experienced recently both with coronavirus, and climate change. A reader could do well to view the Martians as a representation for humanity: an invading species destroying everything in its path until it gets dominance over the native species. If read this way, it would lead readers to believe the unremitting growth of humanity will be curbed, and draws an extraordinary parallel with both the world wars which occurred after the writing of the novel, and particularly, the Covid-19 pandemic.

Another of Wells’ predictions was regarding technology, and it seems he was not a massive fan. Whilst he was a scientist, as mentioned above, he was very much a Darwinist, which is relevant when considering his viewpoint. Through the Martians – which are actually just heavily evolved humans – Wells suggests that humans may physically “degenerate” in the future. In the book, as humans became more reliant on technology, their features such as limbs experienced a ‘steady diminution’. This means the Martians are basically just brains inside a strange, mechanical body.

Wells’ prognostications here draw interesting parallels with another of his books, The Time Machine, in which humans evolve into two separate species, one being the Eloi, whose physical features are again diminished and who are vastly inferior to the previous state of humanity. This again is painfully symbolic of the 21st century where – for example – the majority of the population is overweight or obese in the UK and America. Our reliance on technology such as cars, and the ease of ordering fast food has only occurred because of our intellectual growth, but this means that the average human body is deteriorating throughout the Western world.

Finally, the fact that these awe-inspiring Martians who are technologically superior to humanity are actually killed off by bacteria again shows how Wells is offering a subtle warning about over-reliance on technology. The state of the world today, with humans destroying their bodies, and coronavirus outwitting the even most assiduous governments, demonstrates once and for all Wells’ astonishing level of prescience.

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