The Eve Of The War

: The War Of The Worlds

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
ater. With infinite complacency men went to

and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their

assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the

infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to

the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of

them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or

improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of

those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be

other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to

welcome a missionary enterprise. 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. And

early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.

The planet Mars, I scarcely need remind the reader, revolves about the

sun at a mean distance of 140,000,000 miles, and the light and heat it

receives from the sun is barely half of that received by this world.

It must be, if the nebular hypothesis has any truth, older than our

world; and long before this earth ceased to be molten, life upon its

surface must have begun its course. The fact that it is scarcely one

seventh of the volume of the earth must have accelerated its cooling

to the temperature at which life could begin. It has air and water

and all that is necessary for the support of animated existence.

Yet so vain is man, and so blinded by his vanity, that no writer,

up to the very end of the nineteenth century, expressed any idea that

intelligent life might have developed there far, or indeed at all,

beyond its earthly level. Nor was it generally understood that since

Mars is older than our earth, with scarcely a quarter of the

superficial area and remoter from the sun, it necessarily follows that

it is not only more distant from time's beginning but nearer its end.

The secular cooling that must someday overtake our planet has

already gone far indeed with our neighbour. Its physical condition is

still largely a mystery, but we know now that even in its equatorial

region the midday temperature barely approaches that of our coldest

winter. Its air is much more attenuated than ours, its oceans have

shrunk until they cover but a third of its surface, and as its slow

seasons change huge snowcaps gather and melt about either pole and

periodically inundate its temperate zones. That last stage of

exhaustion, which to us is still incredibly remote, has become a

present-day problem for the inhabitants of Mars. The immediate

pressure of necessity has brightened their intellects, enlarged their

powers, and hardened their hearts. And looking across space with

instruments, and intelligences such as we have scarcely dreamed of,

they see, at its nearest distance only 35,000,000 of miles sunward of

them, a morning star of hope, our own warmer planet, green with

vegetation and grey with water, with a cloudy atmosphere eloquent of

fertility, with glimpses through its drifting cloud wisps of broad

stretches of populous country and narrow, navy-crowded seas.

And we men, the creatures who inhabit this earth, must be to them

at least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us. The

intellectual side of man already admits that life is an incessant

struggle for existence, and it would seem that this too is the belief

of the minds upon Mars. Their world is far gone in its cooling and

this world is still crowded with life, but crowded only with what they

regard as inferior animals. To carry warfare sunward is, indeed,

their only escape from the destruction that, generation after

generation, creeps upon them.

And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what

ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only

upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its

inferior races. 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. Are we such

apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same


The Martians seem to have calculated their descent with amazing

subtlety--their mathematical learning is evidently far in excess of

ours--and to have carried out their preparations with a well-nigh

perfect unanimity. Had our instruments permitted it, we might have

seen the gathering trouble far back in the nineteenth century. Men

like Schiaparelli watched the red planet--it is odd, by-the-bye, that

for countless centuries Mars has been the star of war--but failed to

interpret the fluctuating appearances of the markings they mapped so

well. All that time the Martians must have been getting ready.

During the opposition of 1894 a great light was seen on the

illuminated part of the disk, first at the Lick Observatory, then by

Perrotin of Nice, and then by other observers. English readers heard

of it first in the issue of Nature dated August 2. I am inclined to

think that this blaze may have been the casting of the huge gun, in

the vast pit sunk into their planet, from which their shots were fired

at us. Peculiar markings, as yet unexplained, were seen near the site

of that outbreak during the next two oppositions.

The storm burst upon us six years ago now. As Mars approached

opposition, Lavelle of Java set the wires of the astronomical exchange

palpitating with the amazing intelligence of a huge outbreak of

incandescent gas upon the planet. It had occurred towards midnight of

the twelfth; and the spectroscope, to which he had at once resorted,

indicated a mass of flaming gas, chiefly hydrogen, moving with an

enormous velocity towards this earth. This jet of fire had become

invisible about a quarter past twelve. He compared it to a colossal

puff of flame suddenly and violently squirted out of the planet, "as

flaming gases rushed out of a gun."

A singularly appropriate phrase it proved. Yet the next day there

was nothing of this in the papers except a little note in the Daily

Telegraph, and the world went in ignorance of one of the gravest

dangers that ever threatened the human race. I might not have heard of

the eruption at all had I not met Ogilvy, the well-known astronomer,

at Ottershaw. He was immensely excited at the news, and in the excess

of his feelings invited me up to take a turn with him that night in a

scrutiny of the red planet.

In spite of all that has happened since, I still remember that

vigil very distinctly: the black and silent observatory, the shadowed

lantern throwing a feeble glow upon the floor in the corner, the

steady ticking of the clockwork of the telescope, the little slit in

the roof--an oblong profundity with the stardust streaked across it.

Ogilvy moved about, invisible but audible. Looking through the

telescope, one saw a circle of deep blue and the little round planet

swimming in the field. It seemed such a little thing, so bright and

small and still, faintly marked with transverse stripes, and slightly

flattened from the perfect round. But so little it was, so silvery

warm--a pin's-head of light! It was as if it quivered, but really this

was the telescope vibrating with the activity of the clockwork that

kept the planet in view.

As I watched, the planet seemed to grow larger and smaller and to

advance and recede, but that was simply that my eye was tired. Forty

millions of miles it was from us--more than forty millions of miles of

void. Few people realise the immensity of vacancy in which the dust

of the material universe swims.

Near it in the field, I remember, were three faint points of light,

three telescopic stars infinitely remote, and all around it was the

unfathomable darkness of empty space. You know how that blackness

looks on a frosty starlight night. In a telescope it seems far

profounder. And invisible to me because it was so remote and small,

flying swiftly and steadily towards me across that incredible

distance, drawing nearer every minute by so many thousands of miles,

came the Thing they were sending us, the Thing that was to bring so

much struggle and calamity and death to the earth. I never dreamed of

it then as I watched; no one on earth dreamed of that unerring


That night, too, there was another jetting out of gas from the

distant planet. I saw it. A reddish flash at the edge, the slightest

projection of the outline just as the chronometer struck midnight; and

at that I told Ogilvy and he took my place. The night was warm and I

was thirsty, and I went stretching my legs clumsily and feeling my way

in the darkness, to the little table where the siphon stood, while

Ogilvy exclaimed at the streamer of gas that came out towards us.

That night another invisible missile started on its way to the

earth from Mars, just a second or so under twenty-four hours after the

first one. I remember how I sat on the table there in the blackness,

with patches of green and crimson swimming before my eyes. I wished I

had a light to smoke by, little suspecting the meaning of the minute

gleam I had seen and all that it would presently bring me. Ogilvy

watched till one, and then gave it up; and we lit the lantern and

walked over to his house. Down below in the darkness were Ottershaw

and Chertsey and all their hundreds of people, sleeping in peace.

He was full of speculation that night about the condition of Mars,

and scoffed at the vulgar idea of its having inhabitants who were

signalling us. His idea was that meteorites might be falling in a

heavy shower upon the planet, or that a huge volcanic explosion was in

progress. He pointed out to me how unlikely it was that organic

evolution had taken the same direction in the two adjacent planets.

"The chances against anything manlike on Mars are a million to

one," he said.

Hundreds of observers saw the flame that night and the night after

about midnight, and again the night after; and so for ten nights, a

flame each night. Why the shots ceased after the tenth no one on

earth has attempted to explain. It may be the gases of the firing

caused the Martians inconvenience. Dense clouds of smoke or dust,

visible through a powerful telescope on earth as little grey,

fluctuating patches, spread through the clearness of the planet's

atmosphere and obscured its more familiar features.

Even the daily papers woke up to the disturbances at last, and

popular notes appeared here, there, and everywhere concerning the

volcanoes upon Mars. The seriocomic periodical Punch, I remember,

made a happy use of it in the political cartoon. And, all

unsuspected, those missiles the Martians had fired at us drew

earthward, rushing now at a pace of many miles a second through the

empty gulf of space, hour by hour and day by day, nearer and nearer.

It seems to me now almost incredibly wonderful that, with that swift

fate hanging over us, men could go about their petty concerns as they

did. I remember how jubilant Markham was at securing a new photograph

of the planet for the illustrated paper he edited in those days.

People in these latter times scarcely realise the abundance and

enterprise of our nineteenth-century papers. For my own part, I was

much occupied in learning to ride the bicycle, and busy upon a series

of papers discussing the probable developments of moral ideas as

civilisation progressed.

One night (the first missile then could scarcely have been

10,000,000 miles away) I went for a walk with my wife. It was

starlight and I explained the Signs of the Zodiac to her, and pointed

out Mars, a bright dot of light creeping zenithward, towards which so

many telescopes were pointed. It was a warm night. Coming home, a

party of excursionists from Chertsey or Isleworth passed us singing

and playing music. There were lights in the upper windows of the

houses as the people went to bed. From the railway station in the

distance came the sound of shunting trains, ringing and rumbling,

softened almost into melody by the distance. My wife pointed out to

me the brightness of the red, green, and yellow signal lights hanging

in a framework against the sky. It seemed so safe and tranquil.