The narrator begins his tale by stating that the world has long been watched by supremely intelligent beings. He notes that while humans have been scurrying about the earth worrying about trivial matters, wise extraterrestrial creatures have observed their movements “perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.” Although no man, woman, or child has previously suspected there were superior beings living on Mars, an entire civilization of advanced Martians has been watching earth and plotting against the human race. And not long after the beginning of the twentieth century, the narrator writes, this fact brought itself to bear on humanity.
The opening of The War of the Worlds alludes to Antony van Leeuwenhoek, a scientist who in the 17th century fashioned his own microscope and studied a droplet of water. Inside this single droplet, he found hordes of micro-organisms, all undetectable to the naked human eye. This was a groundbreaking discovery, as it suggested that life on earth was much more complex than anybody had previously known. Wells begins his tale with this allusion as a way of reminding readers how impressive and multifaceted earthly life can be—an important thing to remember while reading this novel about otherworldly creatures and how the process of evolution influences everyday survival.
Reminding his readers that Mars is older than the earth, the narrator posits that life must have begun on the red planet long before the earliest stages of terrestrial life). Because the planet is further along in its development, however, it’s also colder and its oceans have shrunk, meaning that it is quickly becoming uninhabitable. This is why the Martians have focused their attention on earth, identifying it as a possible new home because of its warmth, its large quantities of water, and its vegetation.
In this moment, Wells frames the Martians’ interest in conquering earth as a simple biological and ecological necessity. Although it may later seems as if these extraterrestrial creatures crave dominance and destruction, their main goal is simply to survive. Since their own planet is no longer able to support them, they must seek out new options.
Humans, the narrator explains, are surely nothing more to the Martians than monkeys and lemurs are to people. Indeed, humans are “inferior animals” compared to the Martians. The narrator notes that his readers shouldn’t judge the Martians “too harshly,” considering that for centuries human beings have wrought “ruthless and utter destruction” on both animals and other people. The Tasmanians, he points out, were all but wiped out by European settlers in the course of a mere 50 years.
By referencing Tasmania—which England colonized in the early 1800s—Wells reveals his interest in exploring the nature of conquest. His comparison of the world-endingly violent Martian invasion to England’s history of colonization demonstrates his critical eye toward his own country’s history of conquest, reminding readers that although humans are the protagonists of this novel, they too show a lack of respect for human life.
The narrator describes the first signs of life on Mars, explaining that a bright light is visible on the surface of the planet during the astronomical opposition of 1894, when Mars is closest to earth. A number of British observatories note this phenomenon but don’t know what to make of it. In retrospect, the narrator believes these flashes may have been caused by the “huge gun” that catapults the Martians to earth. At the time, the newspapers hardly report on the strange occurrence, completely unaware that the flares coming from Mars represent the greatest threat the earth has ever faced.
Wells’s first mention of the newspapers portrays them as slow and ineffective. This is important, considering that these papers are the primary form in which information is disseminated to the general public. As such, he quickly establishes the fact that Englanders are dependent upon a somewhat unreliable source for critical information, and that clear and effective communication is all too rare.
After the first flashes from Mars, the narrator’s astronomer friend, Ogilvy, invites him to his observatory to view the anomaly. When the narrator looks through the telescope, he beholds a red flare of gas accompanied by a small “projection.” In retrospect, the narrator notes that this projection is yet another missile rapidly making its way to earth, but in the moment, he knows nothing. With his knowledge of astronomy, Ogilvy hypothesizes about meteorites, brusquely discrediting any idea of life on Mars. “The chances against anything man-like on Mars are a million to one,” he tells the narrator. Regardless, the flashes appear for ten nights, each one alighting at midnight. Eventually, the newspapers start mentioning these odd disturbances, but they mainly do so in a joking manner. One newspaper even references the extraterrestrial event in a political cartoon.
Ogilvy’s conviction that life on Mars is highly unlikely shows how humans sometimes use science to avoid having to grapple with the unknown. Rather than considering the true implications of what he’s seeing, he tries to explain the phenomenon away using the narrative to which he’s grown accustomed. Of course, this is only natural, but the human tendency to cling tightly to our established understandings of things—even when that understanding is proved wrong—later works against the human race, blinding it to the reality of its situation.
The narrator and his wife go for a walk one night during the string of Martian flashes. Underneath a crisp dome of stars, he explains the Signs of the Zodiac to her, singling out Mars, which is bright and magnificent in the sky. On their way home, the couple passes a group of merrymakers playing music and singing. They go on walking, passing houses with warm, inviting lights on inside. They hear trains gently rumbling in the distance. “It seemed so safe and tranquil,” the narrator writes.
Wells includes the narrator’s pleasant walk with his wife in order to show a picture of an idyllic life on earth just prior to the Martian invasion. The faint sounds of human life surrounding the couple emphasize the complacency and comfort of life for these people—a life soon to be shattered not only by extreme violence, but by the realization that humans aren’t entitled to the peaceful lives they have led at the top of the world’s pecking order.