The War of the Worlds Read online

  The War of the Worlds

  by H. G. Wells [1898]

  But who shall dwell in these worlds if they be inhabited? . . . Are we or they Lords of the World? . . . And how are all things made for man?-- KEPLER (quoted in The Anatomy of Melancholy)





  No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenthcentury that this world was being watched keenly and closely byintelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that asmen busied themselves about their various concerns they werescrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with amicroscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm andmultiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went toand fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in theirassurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that theinfusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought tothe older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought ofthem only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible orimprobable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits ofthose departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might beother men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready towelcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, mindsthat are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish,intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth withenvious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. Andearly in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.

  The planet Mars, I scarcely need remind the reader, revolves about thesun at a mean distance of 140,000,000 miles, and the light and heat itreceives from the sun is barely half of that received by this world.It must be, if the nebular hypothesis has any truth, older than ourworld; and long before this earth ceased to be molten, life upon itssurface must have begun its course. The fact that it is scarcely oneseventh of the volume of the earth must have accelerated its coolingto the temperature at which life could begin. It has air and waterand all that is necessary for the support of animated existence.

  Yet so vain is man, and so blinded by his vanity, that no writer,up to the very end of the nineteenth century, expressed any idea thatintelligent life might have developed there far, or indeed at all,beyond its earthly level. Nor was it generally understood that sinceMars is older than our earth, with scarcely a quarter of thesuperficial area and remoter from the sun, it necessarily follows thatit is not only more distant from time's beginning but nearer its end.

  The secular cooling that must someday overtake our planet hasalready gone far indeed with our neighbour. Its physical condition isstill largely a mystery, but we know now that even in its equatorialregion the midday temperature barely approaches that of our coldestwinter. Its air is much more attenuated than ours, its oceans haveshrunk until they cover but a third of its surface, and as its slowseasons change huge snowcaps gather and melt about either pole andperiodically inundate its temperate zones. That last stage ofexhaustion, which to us is still incredibly remote, has become apresent-day problem for the inhabitants of Mars. The immediatepressure of necessity has brightened their intellects, enlarged theirpowers, and hardened their hearts. And looking across space withinstruments, and intelligences such as we have scarcely dreamed of,they see, at its nearest distance only 35,000,000 of miles sunward ofthem, a morning star of hope, our own warmer planet, green withvegetation and grey with water, with a cloudy atmosphere eloquent offertility, with glimpses through its drifting cloud wisps of broadstretches of populous country and narrow, navy-crowded seas.

  And we men, the creatures who inhabit this earth, must be to themat least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us. Theintellectual side of man already admits that life is an incessantstruggle for existence, and it would seem that this too is the beliefof the minds upon Mars. Their world is far gone in its cooling andthis world is still crowded with life, but crowded only with what theyregard as inferior animals. To carry warfare sunward is, indeed,their only escape from the destruction that, generation aftergeneration, creeps upon them.

  And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember whatruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not onlyupon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon itsinferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness,were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination wagedby European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we suchapostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the samespirit?

  The Martians seem to have calculated their descent with amazingsubtlety--their mathematical learning is evidently far in excess ofours--and to have carried out their preparations with a well-nighperfect unanimity. Had our instruments permitted it, we might haveseen the gathering trouble far back in the nineteenth century. Menlike Schiaparelli watched the red planet--it is odd, by-the-bye, thatfor countless centuries Mars has been the star of war--but failed tointerpret the fluctuating appearances of the markings they mapped sowell. All that time the Martians must have been getting ready.

  During the opposition of 1894 a great light was seen on theilluminated part of the disk, first at the Lick Observatory, then byPerrotin of Nice, and then by other observers. English readers heardof it first in the issue of _Nature_ dated August 2. I am inclined tothink that this blaze may have been the casting of the huge gun, inthe vast pit sunk into their planet, from which their shots were firedat us. Peculiar markings, as yet unexplained, were seen near the siteof that outbreak during the next two oppositions.

  The storm burst upon us six years ago now. As Mars approachedopposition, Lavelle of Java set the wires of the astronomical exchangepalpitating with the amazing intelligence of a huge outbreak ofincandescent gas upon the planet. It had occurred towards midnight ofthe twelfth; and the spectroscope, to which he had at once resorted,indicated a mass of flaming gas, chiefly hydrogen, moving with anenormous velocity towards this earth. This jet of fire had becomeinvisible about a quarter past twelve. He compared it to a colossalpuff of flame suddenly and violently squirted out of the planet, "asflaming gases rushed out of a gun."

  A singularly appropriate phrase it proved. Yet the next day therewas nothing of this in the papers except a little note in the _DailyTelegraph_, and the world went in ignorance of one of the gravestdangers that ever threatened the human race. I might not have heard ofthe eruption at all had I not met Ogilvy, the well-known astronomer,at Ottershaw. He was immensely excited at the news, and in the excessof his feelings invited me up to take a turn with him that night in ascrutiny of the red planet.

  In spite of all that has happened since, I still remember thatvigil very distinctly: the black and silent observatory, the shadowedlantern throwing a feeble glow upon the floor in the corner, thesteady ticking of the clockwork of the telescope, the little slit inthe roof--an oblong profundity with the stardust streaked across it.Ogilvy moved about, invisible but audible. Looking through thetelescope, one saw a circle of deep blue and the little round planetswimming in the field. It seemed such a little thing, so bright andsmall and still, faintly marked with transverse stripes, and slightlyflattened from the perfect round. But so little it was, so silverywarm--a pin's-head of light! It was as if it quivered, but really thiswas the telescope vibrating with the activity of the clockwork thatkept the planet in view.

  As I watched, the planet seemed to grow larger and smaller and toadvance and recede, but that was simply that my eye was tired. Fortymillions of miles it was from us--more than forty millions of miles ofvoid. Few people realise the immensity of vacancy in which the dustof the material universe swims.