The War of the Worlds has two parts, Book One: The Coming of the Martians and Book Two: The Earth under the Martians. The narrator, a philosophically-inclined author, struggles to return to his wife while seeing the Martians lay waste to southern England. Book One also imparts the experience of his brother, also unnamed, who describes events in the capital and escapes the Martians by boarding a ship near Tillingham, on the Essex coast.
The plot has been related to invasion literature of the time. The novel has been variously interpreted as a commentary on evolutionary theory, British Imperialism, and generally Victorian superstitions, fears and prejudices. At the time of publication it was classified as a scientific romance, like his earlier novel The Time Machine. The War of the Worlds has been both popular (having never gone out of print) and influential, spawning half a dozen feature films, radio dramas, a record album, various comic book adaptations, a television series, and sequels or parallel stories by other authors. It has even influenced the work of scientists, notably Robert Hutchings Goddard.
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.
— H. G. Wells (1898), The War of the Worlds
The Coming of the Martians:
The narrative opens in an astronomical observatory at Ottershaw where explosions are seen on the surface of the planet Mars, creating much interest in the scientific community. Later a "meteor" lands on Horsell Common, near the narrator's home in Woking, Surrey. He is among the first to discover that the object is an artificial cylinder that opens, disgorging Martians who are "big" and "greyish" with "oily brown skin," "the size, perhaps, of a bear," with "two large dark-coloured eyes," and a lipless "V-shaped mouth" surrounded by "Gorgon groups of tentacles." The narrator finds them "at once vital, intense, inhuman, crippled and monstrous." They briefly emerge, have difficulty in coping with the Earth's atmosphere, and rapidly retreat into the cylinder. A human deputation (which includes the astronomer Ogilvy) approaches the cylinder with a white flag, but the Martians incinerate them and others nearby with a heat-ray before beginning to assemble their machinery. Military forces arrive that night to surround the common, including Maxim guns. The population of Woking and the surrounding villages are reassured by the presence of the military. A tense day begins, with much anticipation of military action by the narrator.
"..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 scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise 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…"