The Rout of Civilisation

Killer-bugs aside, in The War of the Worlds, Wells seeks to expose the political as well as biological arrogance of man. In 1898 the British Empire was at his height, stretching across a quarter of all the land on the globe and touching every continent. It was the most widespread Empire the world had ever known, a power on which the sun never set. "With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter." And yet, when the Martians arrive, the Imperial might appeared to count for nothing. As the artillery-man says, "they've made they're footing good and crippled the greatest power in the world." One of the only victories the humans do manage to inflict on the Martians comes from the Ironclad Thunder-Child of the Royal Navy. But even the Royal Navy - the backbone of the British Empire - is not able to stop the Martian onslaught.

And Wells chooses a special fate for London. It is would have been only natural for the Martians to chose to land around London: it was "the greatest city in the world", the "Mother of Cities", the hub of Empire, in 1898 as close as Earth had to a capital - at least in the eyes of the eminent Victorians whose power rested there. But Wells was not always so enthusiastic about the city, once referring to it as, "London, that like a bowl of viscid human fluid, boils sullenly over the rim of its encircling hills and slops messily and uglily into the home counties." It is the suburban outgrowths that Wells allows the Martians to first demolish, and Wells himself was living in Woking, the home of the Narrator, when he wrote the book. In a letter to a friend he described his plan for his surroundings: "I completely wreck and sack Woking - killing my neighbours in painful and eccentric ways - then proceed via Kingston and Richmond to London, selecting South Kensington for feats of peculiar atrocity." There is perhaps no greater expression of Victorian middle-class aspirations than the expanding suburbs of the late nineteenth century. Whilst the working classes - Wells' future (literal) underclass the Morlocks (see The Time Machine, 1895) - suffered lives of danger and disease in slums and factories of the inner cities, the middle classes escaped to leafy streets of rows of miniature mock-ups of country estate houses. Here life was ordered, polite, and above all English. When the Narrator's brother attempts to get an English lady on a boat out of the country, she panics: "She had never been out of England before, she would rather die than trust herself friendless in a foreign country... She seemed, poor woman, to imagine that the French and the Martians might prove very similar... Her great idea was to return to Stanmore. Things had been always well and safe at Stanmore." Indeed when the Martians first arrive, and indeed even after they unleash the first burst of their Heat-Ray, there is a nonchalance in the reaction of the people of these English towns. Even the Narrator quickly regains his calm: "With wine and food, the confidence of my own table, and the necessity of reassuring my wife, I grew by insensible degrees courageous and secure." Meanwhile, "Many had heard of the cylinder... and talked about it in their leisure, but it certainly did not make the sensation that an ultimatum to Germany would have done... [Indeed, the threat of an invasion of Britain - and therefore London - by the Germans was seen by many as a realistic eventuality even in 1898] All over the district people were dining and supping; working-men were gardening after the labours of the day, children were being put to bed, young people were wandering through the lanes love- making, students sat over their books... the stream of life still flowed as it had flowed for immemorial years."

And yet, as becomes clear over the following days, for all the Narrator's talk of decency, respectability and so forth, under this veneer of respectability beats the heart of man's selfish instincts. Even as Woking goes about its everyday life, when the Heat-Ray is first used, the crowds flee in terror and, "three persons at least, two women and a little boy, were crushed and trampled there, and left to die amid the terror and the darkness." As the Martians step up their attack the Narrator tells of "savage struggles" for places on trains, and eventually the days of uncertainty give way to "the dawn of the great panic" as thousands upon thousands of people abandon everything and stream out of the capital in a "roaring wave of fear... the stream of flight rising swiftly to a torrent, lashing into a foaming tumult... banked up into a horrible struggle." The police and the railways "were losing coherency, losing shape and efficiency, guttering, softening, running at last in that swift liquefaction of the social body... It was the beginning of the rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind." Respectability is abandoned, and the comfort of suburbia is demolished: "In one night the valley had become a valley of ashes... the countless ruins of shattered and gutted houses and blasted and blackened trees that night had hidden stood out now gaunt and terrible in the pitiless light of dawn... Never before in the history of warfare had destruction been so indiscriminate and so universal."

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