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The War of the Worlds | Context


Victorian England

The Victorian era in England, from 1837 to 1901, is measured by the date of the coronation and death of Queen Victoria. Late Victorian England—the novel's setting—was a period of great social change. The power of the crown was diminishing as voter rolls increased and centralized parties strengthened. Legislation protecting workers reflected growing progressive views, and technological advances made travel and communication easier and more widespread than ever before. In a show of British achievement and industrial and scientific superiority, the Great Exhibition of 1851 showcased the technological advances of the day including the microscope, barometer, electric telegraphs, early forms of photography, and surgical instruments. The exhibition, organized in part by the queen's husband, Prince Albert, was housed in the Crystal Palace, an architectural marvel that towered over trees, demonstrating man's ability to dominate even nature. The great confidence people had at the time in modern scientific and industrial achievements is central to the devastation readers felt when confronted with the vastly superior Martian technology in the novel.

Under Queen Victoria, British imperialism reached it peak, as countries across the globe, from Australia to India to South Africa, came under British rule and governance, a strategy largely motivated by European competition for new markets and resources. Although this period was considered the height of Britain's imperial reach, there was also a sense of national decline when compared to the growing strength of other European countries and the United States. Indeed, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 between the French and the Germans created a fear that England itself was in danger of being invaded one day, an anxiety that takes the form of extraterrestrial invaders in the novel.

The rapid growth of the middle class in England brought increased dissatisfaction with class inequality and growing interest in socialism, a political and economic philosophy that espouses that common ownership and management of industry and property benefits all of society. Socialist ideals gained a foothold among many intellectuals, including H.G. Wells. Wells contributed to the political discourse of the day both through political essays and pamphlets and perhaps more indirectly through his fiction. He explored themes of social mobility, education, and collectivist utopias, while criticizing democracy, the crown, and the staid morality of organized religion.

This period saw the rise of science as a source of authority. Charles Darwin put forth in his On the Origin of Species (1859) the idea of natural selection of the fittest individuals, insuring their survival and reproduction and bettering the species. This theory called into question many beliefs that had been long established by religion. Morality and the structure of society were no longer strictly defined by the church alone.

The Writing of the Novel

Wells rose from poverty to become a biologist and writer. He was greatly influenced by his teacher, T.H. Huxley, an agnostic and a great proponent of Darwinian theory. As a scientist interested in class mobility, it is not surprising Wells was drawn to evolutionary socialism, which held that the ideas of natural selection could be applied not only to plants and animals but to society as a whole, eventually resulting in its betterment. For a time he was a member of the Fabian Society, a socialist group that advocated education as a way to bring about gradual social change. These views influenced his writing increasingly over the course of his life but can be seen even in his early work. The similarities between himself and the narrator in The War of the Worlds are evident in the narrator's intense interest in science and use of reason and observation to survive.

After the success of his first novel, The Time Machine, Wells wrote other stories readers would now consider science fiction, although the genre was known as scientific romance at the time. He took a common path to publication by offering, The War of the Worlds, as a serial in England's Pearson's Magazine between April and December of 1897, as well as in Cosmopolitan in the United States. It was such a hit that two pirated versions with the story set in America were printed almost immediately. It was hailed by critics as a page-turner.

The story in The War of the Worlds is so compelling and universal that it has been adapted countless times. The novel has been made into films, graphic novels, a television series, and a musical. A 2005 Hollywood blockbuster directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise grossed $591 million worldwide. The novel's lasting influence can be seen in the continued popularity of the genre it helped establish: science fiction.

Science Fiction

Science fiction as a genre is primarily concerned with the way individuals and society are impacted by real or imagined science. Some might argue that the label science fiction applies to early 19th-century novels such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), although many credit H.G. Wells's novel The Time Machine (1895) with starting the genre. The genre grew in popularity in the 1920s through inexpensive periodicals such as inventor Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories and Science Wonder Stories. John W. Campbell Jr. helped shape the genre as the editor of the science fiction digest Astounding Science Fiction from 1937 to 1971 through his insistence that science fiction rely on accurate scientific research as much as possible. In novels such as George Orwell's 1984 (1949), science fiction explored dystopian futures in which technology would be used against humanity.

The genre spread to film after World War II with movies such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955), which showed the genre's expansion to anthropological concerns, translating paranoia over communist takeover into invading aliens. Technological advances including the use of the atomic bomb and the launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik in 1957 fueled interest in science fiction and inspired the public's imagination of what it all might mean for the future of humanity. The popularity of the genre on screen was evidenced in the success of television series such as Star Trek in the 1960s and films such as Star Wars in the 1970s, which established the place of science fiction as a mainstay of the box office and network television.

Science fiction most often focuses on the newest scientific advances, as authors attempt to foretell effects to society. More recently this trend can be seen in the biotechnology of genetically engineered dinosaurs in Michael Crichton's book Jurassic Park (1990) and artificial intelligence in the film The Matrix (1999). Although the specific focus may shift as scientific knowledge and technology advances, science fiction continues to explore themes of aliens, parallel realities, time and space travel, utopias, dystopias, and robots, many of which first appeared in The War of the Worlds.

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