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CHAPTER SUMMARY WITH NOTES
Book One: The Coming of the Martians
Chapter One (The Eve of the War)
The book begins with “[n]o 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.” People are going about their lives on Earth, with little concern for extraterrestrial life beyond pondering its possibility. But this will soon change.
Mars, being older than Earth, is therefore further along in the evolutionary process. The planet is now in its final stage, that of cooling off. For the inhabitants that have lived there since before human development on Earth began, the problems posed by cooler temperatures and smaller oceans has led them to develop great intellectual powers, in order to meet the needs of the moment. When they turn their newly created instruments towards Earth, 35,000,000 miles away, they see a way to survive.
By 1894, the Martians have developed space travel, which from Earth’s perspective, appears as if “a colossal puff of flame suddenly and violently squirted out of the planet, ‘as flaming gases rushed out of a gun.’” The event causes little stir on Earth at first, but the narrator meets Ogilvy, an astronomer who is quite interested in it, and agrees to join him at the observatory that night.
Again, around midnight, there is a shot, and this continues for a total of 10 consecutive nights. Then it stops; speculation is that it could possibly be that the gases caused by the shots were disrupting the Martian atmosphere, thereby forcing them to stop the launchings.
People then took note, but continued about as they had always done; the narrator, for example, was learning to ride a bicycle. He went for a starlit walk with his wife one night, and took comfort in “the brightness of the red, green, and yellow signal lights hanging in a framework against the sky.” And every day the “Things” from Mars were quickly approaching Earth.
If the title wasn’t enough, the opening chapter certainly indicates an approaching war. The idea of Mars as the “star of war” throughout history and the likening of the launchings to the firing of a gun both bring out the idea of an invasion from Mars.
“[T]he minute gleam” that was seen when the Things were launched is in sharp comparison to the narrator’s wish for “a light to smoke by” during his time at the observatory and is telling of human nature. Here is a light, full of significance as it foretells the coming of the Martians, yet the narrator, and everyone else, misses the meaning and focuses on the trivial light at hand.
This, along with the details of riding a bike and the signal lights, show the tendency to focus on the little things and miss the bigger picture of what’s going on. Also, they show the frailty of humans quite sharply. Martians with superior minds and space travel capabilities were coming and humans were struggling to control bicycles and finding safety in their 3 small lights hanging against the entire black expanse of space.
In this chapter, Wells demonstrates his scientific background, mentioning such things as the nebular hypothesis and the spectroscope. He compares the manner in which the aliens observe humans to the way humans look at creatures under a microscope. However, he takes it one step further, from writings of a scientific (and sci-fi) tone, to that of social critique. To the aliens, humans seem as lowly as monkeys do to us, and mankind has not really hesitated to place itself above animals, even at the cost of their destruction. Wells also points out that the treatment of “inferior races” (as this written in the time of imperialism) has not been at all above reproach, citing the case of the Tasmanians, an entire people who were wiped out by European immigrants in just 50 years.