War of the Worlds is a science fiction novel by H.G. Wells about when Martians invade Surrey. It was published in 1898, towards the end of the Victorian period, known as the Fin de Siècle (end of the century). To find out more about the plot, and what I thought of the book, you can read my review here:
This is the most apparent theme in the entire novel.
The Martians are not human and so are obviously, well, alien. Wells uses language such as ‘strange and ‘monster’ to emphasise how different these creatures are. The Martians are scary and powerful; they bring new technologies with them that humans have never even seen before. They are different, they are intimidating.
‘Machine it was, with a ringing metallic pace, and long, flexible, glittering tentacles. […] Behind the main body was a huge mass of white metal like a gigantic fisherman’s basket […] The monster swept by me. And in an instant it was gone.’
(War of the Worlds, Chapter 10)
The predatory, animalistic language such as ‘tentacles’ and ‘fisherman’s basket’ once again emphasises that it is the Martians who are the invaders, and the humans who are the invaded.
However, Wells not only makes the Martians “other”, but makes the humans “other” too.
The narrator observes the chaos and catastrophe once the Martians attack; homes are destroyed, streets are turned to rubble, and humans flee. Whilst this is happening however, the narrator begins to describe the humans less as individual victims, and more as a homogeneous group, stampeding. He uses language such as ‘the host’ and the ‘multitude’ which is language typically ascribed to alien or other beings.
‘Their skins were dry, their lips black and cracked’
(War of the Worlds, Chapter 16)
Furthermore, this dehumanising language suggests people have begun to lose their human appearance and behaviours in the face of panic – becoming something strange, something they’re not.
As a side note, I feel this line would not be out of place in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness is another book which touches on themes of invasion and otherness, and contains many racist depictions of African slaves as “other”.
Thus, the alterity of both human and aliens in War of the Worlds can be interpreted in a variety of ways.
1. For example, the fear of an unknown, alien population invading white Victorian Britain reflects fears of reverse colonialism. This was the fear that people from countries colonised by Britain, such as India, would attack or invade Britain in revenge.
2. The fear of a technological, scientific invasion also reflects fears of the increasing modernity of Victorian England. Science was making new discoveries and the capabilities of technology were expanding. This might have made some feel uneasy.
3. Furthermore, the invasion of the unknown and the unusual reflects fears regarding the end of the century. For readers in 1898, the 20th century loomed ahead ominously – nobody knew what it would be like, nobody knew what would happen next. So why not imagine an alien invasion?