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SHORT PLOT/CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)
Mars is a planet older than Earth and has entered the cooling-off stage. The drop in temperature and sea level drives its inhabitants to devise a method of getting off the planet. They fire themselves off in canisters towards Earth.
The astronomer Ogilvy sees this and becomes excited, and gradually the rest of Britain takes an interest in Mars. Articles are run in the papers and people begin watching the flame, which appears when the canisters are shot into space around midnight for ten nights altogether. However, no one has any idea what is about to happen and life continues on. The narrator for example, learns to ride a bicycle.
It lands and Ogilvy sets off to find the fallen meteorite (which is what he believes it to be). When he thinks there is a man inside it, he hurries off to tell someone, finally convincing the journalist Henderson.
The news spreads and soon there is a crowd about the pit that the landing caused. A young shop assistant is knocked in by the crowd of people pushing for better positions. The cylinder’s top unscrews and the Martians emerge. They are a bit larger than humans and have many tentacles. They lack bodies but have heads with big eyes. At the sight of them, the frightened crowd runs off to shelter behind trees. The shopkeeper’s figure stands out against the setting sun, struggling to get out and then it disappears into the pit.
The crowd remains stunned but eventually curiosity gets the better of them and people begin to move closer. The Deputation advances, until, after a flash of light and three puffs of green smoke, a machine rises and sends out a laser-like beam, sending 40 people up in flames. Then the machine goes back down into the pit.
The narrator takes off running, terrified, until he collapses near a bridge. When he has regained control, he makes his way back home and tells his wife of the Martians over dinner. When he realizes he has scared her, he quickly explains that they cannot possibly be much of threat since the Earth’s stronger gravity will make them slow.
Only those in the immediate area of the pit are concerned at this point and everyday activities continue. The Martians are busily at work in the pit and every so often the Heat-Ray emerges and kills those that have ventured too close. The military starts to become involved, realizing the danger of the situation.
After a restless night during which the second cylinder lands, the narrator tries to get some news about the Martians but is unable to, as the military has control of the church towers and does not tell him anything. As they begin to ask people to leave the area, the narrator gets a dog cart from the landlord of the Spotted Dog, who is unaware of the situation. The narrator gets his wife and the two head to Leatherhead, where she has cousins.
Shortly after their arrival, the narrator heads back out, reminding his wife that he promised to return the cart but really because he finds it exciting. By the time he returns, a severe storm is raging that sends the horse bolting down a hill. The cart overturns, landing the narrator in a puddle. Through the lightning, he sees a towering metal tripod. It is a machine that has a Martian inside it who controls it. He struggles home, seeing the innkeeper’s dead body on the way.
While he is recuperating, he hears an artilleryman outside and invites him in. The shaken man saw one of the Martians destroy everything around him with the Heat-Ray, managing to escape himself only as a result of an accident that pinned him under his horse. The two start off together the next day, but the artilleryman soon leaves to make his report to the brigadier-general.
The narrator continues on his way, seeing many people preparing to leave their homes. At Weybridge and Shepperton, five Martians appear and begin using the Heat-Ray on everything around. The narrator and others jump into the river. Hidden guns fire at a Martian machine, bringing it down directly in the water, which soon becomes boiling hot. The narrator makes it to an abandoned boat and makes his way downstream.
When he lands on a bank, he falls asleep from exhaustion and when he wakes up, the curate of the Weybridge church is sitting beside him. The curate is unable to comprehend the destruction and it is all he can do to follow the narrator about.
At this point the book switches to tell of the flight from London, through the story of the narrator’s brother. News is slow in reaching London and so daily life has changed little. Fugitives from the towns that lay in ruins start arriving, and this sparks more interest. Then early on Monday morning, policemen are going from door to door, shouting warnings. Once the news sinks in that the Martians are unstoppable and are headed for London, the brother joins the crowd leaving.
By this time, the Martians have changed their weapon of choice from the Heat-Ray to the Black Smoke, which is a deadly dark gas. The Martians are able to disperse it by firing a jet of steam into it. After news of its use spreads, organized opposition to the invasion ends and people flee.
The brother travels with the wife and younger sister of George Elphinstone. They come upon a scene of horrible mass migration. Miserable people walking and in every type of vehicle are fighting their way forward, for fear of the Martians. When a man’s bag of money breaks and he is run over by a horse and cart while he is attempting to pick up his loose coins, the brother and another man try to move him out of the way. The injured man struggles still to get his money and ends up crushed under a horse.
Unwillingly but knowing it is necessary, the brother, with the aide of Miss Elphinstone, navigate through the crowds and secure passage on a paddle steamer to Olstend. As they are departing, they witness part of the fight between the warship “Thunder Child” and the Martians before the smoke and sunset cover the scene.
Shortly after the story reverts back to the narrator, the fifth cylinder lands close by and he and the curate end up trapped in a house on the edge of the pit it created. The curate’s conflicting personality and loosening grip on reality eventually lead him to start talking loudly of his sins and his desire for food. The narrator hits him over the head with the butt of a meat chopper but it is too late to prevent the Martians from noticing. One comes up to the hideout and pulls out the still body of the curate. The narrator hides in the coal cellar for a few days.
On the fifteenth day, the narrator realizes that the Martians have abandoned the pit and it is now safe to come out. He is amazed at the changes that have taken place, especially the widespread growth of the red weed from Mars. While he walks, with the vague idea of returning to Leatherhead and tracking down his wife, he gathers food where he can.
At Wimbledon Common, he meets the artilleryman again, who has spent his time thinking up impossible plans and doing little. Quickly becoming disgusted by the card games and champagne, the narrator leaves him and goes to London. The city is covered with dust and dead bodies, and is ominously quiet. The sound “ulla, ulla” repeats for some time but then it too stops. The narrator soon discovers it was the sound of a dying Martian.
The narrator is overtaken with a desire to end his life by running at one of the Martians and having it kill him. However, when he reaches the top of Primrose Hill and looks down into the final pit the Martians have created, he sees them lying dead, having succumbed to known earthly bacteria to which men have become immune.
He is not the first to realize that the Martian threat is gone and as a result of a telegraph to Paris, people all over the world joyously set out to return to their homes. The narrator wanders crazily for three days until a kind family takes him. When he has regained his health, they tell him of the destruction of Leatherhead but he wants to return there anyhow.
When he gets back to his old home, he finds his wife there as well. Life gradually begins to take on its previous appearance, but the narrator still occasionally has flashbacks of the world under the Martians and fears their return.