H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds begins when a Martian capsule lands on Horsell Common, nearing Woking. The Martians from the capsules are quite adverse to human contact and begin to build fighting-machines, which are armed with a heat ray and a poisonous black smoke, which they then use to decimate any threat that faces them. The novel switches between the viewpoint of the narrator and the narrator’s brother, as they both seek to evade the Martians, with the brother leaving England by ship, and the narrator travelling 20 miles to evade the Martians, hiding in a destroyed house before returning to London to discover that the Martians have been killed by Earth pathogens, to which they have no immunity. The narrator suffers a nervous breakdown and later returns home, where he finds his home still standing, and his wife, also recently returned and alive.
Colonialism and imperialism are two very closely related terms, but the two often work in tandem, and are both based on ideas of expansion and control. The easiest way to differentiate the two is that colonialism is a practice, comprised of “the acquisition and colonization by a nation of other territories and their peoples” (Dictionary of Geography “colonialism”), and imperialism is a policy “of extending a country’s influence over less powerful states” (Dictionary of World History “imperialism) that supports “unequal economic, cultural, and territorial relationships based on domination and subordination” (Dictionary of Geography “imperialism”) – one is an actual practice, the other a policy. Colonialism is often a tool of imperialism, and H. G. Wells employs it in this novel as a way not only to make clear the devastating effects of colonialism on native populations, but also to voice a critique of imperialist attitudes.
At the time of The War of the Worlds’ publication in 1898, Britain was the most powerful empire on Earth. British colonialism was in full swing, which Wells notes in the beginning of the novel when he writes that “the Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years” (Wells 5). The Martians’ invasion of Earth is “an experience of colonization in reverse” (Parrinder 75), which “combines comedy and irony with a ready understanding of the pain and humiliation we inflict on beings lower in the social and natural hierarchy than ourselves” (Parrinder 50). To impart the pain and humiliation of being colonized, when Wells describes the people being colonized, he often does so by comparing them to animals and to water. Wells compares English citizens to many different kinds of animals, including infusoria (a type of single-cell bacteria), monkeys, rats, lemurs, dodos, cows, frogs, bees, wasps, rabbits, rats, oxen, and ants. Wells’ decision to equate the English with animals enacts an automatic lowering of their status, reinforcing their deposition as the dominant beings on Earth once the Martians arrive. The particular types of animals that he chooses to compare the English to are also telling, because they can largely be split into two types: ‘dirty’ or stupid animals, like monkeys, dodos, rats, and frogs, and herd animals or animals that live in large groups, like cows, bees, wasps, and oxen. These comparisons are literally dehumanizing as they subjugate people to an animalistic role, as the narrator admits when he feels “a sense of dethronement, a persuasion that [he] was no longer a master, but an animal among the animals, under the Martian heel” (Wells 160), but are also metaphorically dehumanizing because the animals Wells compares humans to connote images of dirtiness, stupidity, and lack of individuality.
The image of humans as ants is notable because it reoccurs throughout the text, and is featured in a conversation between the narrator and the artilleryman in Book Two, Chapter Seven. In this comparison, Wells delivers a two-pronged critique that can apply to all imperial states, but specifically Britain in this text. On a textual level in the narrator and artilleryman’s conversation, Wells minimizes the importance of human society in the artilleryman’s description of men and ants, which parallels the relationship of the Martians and humans: “It’s just men and ants. There’s the ants builds their cities, live their lives, have wars, revolutions, until the men want them out of the way” (Wells 169). The movements and activities of humans are largely irrelevant to the Martians, and are often permitted only out of disinterest. Patrick Parrinder suggests a subtextual significance to Wells’ ant imagery, writing, “a colony or empire of ants is a society based on functional inequality. The class division between queens and worker ants would, if transferred to human society, threaten the survival of the communal organization” (Parrinder 75). So a society that is based on inequality and exploitation is not effective, nor is it destined to be long-lived. This is a pointed comment to make as a British citizen, because as previously mentioned, the British imperialist mindset is based on “unequal economic, cultural, and territorial relationships based on domination and subordination” (Dictionary of Geography “imperialism”).
Wells also compares the human exodus from the areas the Martians have invaded in various forms of water imagery: the exodus is “a boiling stream of people,” and the “stream of flight [rises] to a torrent,” turning into a “foaming tumult” (Wells 154, 144), and he describes eddys and whorls in the current as people try to stop or change direction on the road out of town. This description has much the same effect as describing people as herd animals: it diminishes their individuality and their humanity in portraying their movement as single-minded, forceful, and unstoppable.
The War of the Worlds does not mark the first or last time that H. G. Wells uses the man-into-animal image – it appears in numerous other works, including The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Time Machine. In The War of the Worlds, it communicates Wells’ viewpoints on various issues related to imperialism and colonialism: by comparing people to animals, he attempts to express the experience of colonization and control, and by comparing them specifically to ants, he comments on the inequality and precarious nature of an imperialist nation. As he diminishes people and attacks any sense of superiority the British people in the novel may hold, he questions their right to rule over other nations and peoples. The narrator presents this sentiment at the very beginning of the novel when he reminds the reader that “before we judge [the Martians] too harshly, we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals [ …], but upon its own inferior races” (Wells 7).
The War of the Worlds is uniquely situated as the first piece of science fiction that incorporates a tradition of invasion literature. Invasion literature is exactly what it sounds like: they are texts focused on stories of Britain being invaded, often by France or Germany, their main industrial and economic competition, and expand on the worry that “this competition would become outright war” (Danahay 22). Wells includes many facets of typical invasion literature, including his use of a first-person narrator who is a survivor of the conflict, well-known English locales, and the destruction of London, which is a symbol for the heart of the British Empire and all of its culture, assets, and strength (Danahay 22-23). However, Wells alters the form by heightening the fear of superior technology, making it Martian and otherworldly to achieve a higher level of anxiety. Although he focuses his text specifically on England’s destruction, the threat the Martians pose is global; it is all of humankind that faces potential colonization or destruction, not just England. However, in attacking England, Wells can again focus on the British Empire and its weaknesses, and quickly it could fall, given a foreign threat. By incorporating invasion literature into his writings, Wells shapes an overt political commentary and his “notions of imperialism […] have deeply affected every subsequent writer in the tradition of galactic imperialism” (Parrinder 66).
Wells’ description of the Martians in The War of the Worlds is also quite telling about his views of imperialism: the Martians do not have digestive systems, so in order to survive they “[take] the fresh, living blood of other creatures, and injected it into their own veins” (Wells 200). In invasion literature, the nations who force imperialism upon the invaded are vampiric in the sense that they consume the economic and cultural capital of the invaded nation; Wells makes this cultural vampirism literal as the Martians suck the blood out of English citizens in order to fuel themselves. The notion of vampiric colonizers is also a critique of imperialism, because it demonstrates the same draining of resources and wealth – the introduction from my copy of The War of the Worlds includes the statement that the Martians “were vampires, but their very vampirism was a sign of their greater ‘civilization’” (Gunn xvii). By describing the Martians as vampiric in nature, Wells makes his negative views of colonization and the imperialist mindset that motivates it very clear.
As a work of speculative fiction, The War of the Worlds literally images what would happen if Earth were to be invaded by Martians. Allegorically, it speculates on the rise and collapse of a modern imperialist state. H. G. Wells’ perspective on imperialism and colonialism is presented to the reader via three main avenues: his repeated human-animal comparisons, his incorporation of invasion literature structures, and how he describes the Martians as vampires. With these methods, Wells forces the reader to experience a hostile colonization through the narrator, including the dehumanization and loss of self that it imparts, and suggests that imperialism is a precarious and vampiric system. Written in a period of intense colonialism, Wells’ criticism is well founded, and he ensures it is present in the mind of the reader as they begin and end the novel – he asks them to remember the extermination of the Tasmanian people, and the cost of colonialism, writing that “by the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth” (Wells 273). The War of the Worlds exists in a tradition of politically critical speculative fiction, like Gulliver’s Travels, and it encourages its readers to take on a critical perspective when it transposes their circumstances to a Martian-human conflict, allowing them a critical distance. This novel continues to be a pertinent source of critique, as concerns about invasion, belief in national superiority, and the destructive influence of imperialism all remain relevant today.
If the Martians’ death at the end of the novel is an allegory for the death of colonialism, what then do we make of the fact that they were killed by bacteria? What do they represent?
If The War of the Worlds took place today, would imperialism and colonialism still be the issues that Wells would be critiquing? Would it still be set in England?
Could this novel also be read as a Darwinian text? Will the cycle of colonization and exploitation will continue ad infinitum because of the survival of the fittest and continual evolution toward superiority?
Sources & Resources
The Broadview Edition of the text, with an excellent introduction.
Patrick Parrinder’s “Shadows of the Future: H.G. Wells, Science Fiction, and Prophecy” – Chapter 5 is most relevant.
Historical context of the novel’s inspiration and reception.
An article linking sci-fi and colonialism, offering reasons the two are often paired.
Orson Welles’ (In)Famous Radio Performance of ‘The War of the Worlds’
The trailer for ‘Independence Day,’ a film adaptation of ‘The War of the Worlds’
A 1898 illustration for a magazine publication of The War of the Worlds
A poster for the 1953 film adaptation of The War of the Worlds
A sculpture of the Martian tripod, erected in Woking, where part of the novel takes place, and where Wells lived for a time.