H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds as a Controlling Metaphor for the Twentieth Century

Stephen Baxter


The continuing relevance of H. G. Wells’s 1898 novel The War of the Worlds is illustrated by Niall Ferguson’s The War of the World (2006). This is a history of the ‘age of hatred’ of the twentieth century, showing how the Second World War was the climax of decades of savage warfare which scarred the globe from the 1930s to the 1950s. And Ferguson takes his title, and indeed his controlling metaphor, from Wells’s novel, calling it ‘a work of singular prescience. In the century after the publication of his book, scenes like the ones Wells imagined became a reality in cities all over the world ...’

How did a book written at the end of the nineteenth century come to stand, in a book published in the twenty-first century, as a metaphor for the entire twentieth?

The purpose of this essay is to trace Wells’s influence as exemplified through a century of reactions to this single work in non-fiction and in fiction, in restagings, reimaginings and fresh explorations of Wells’s novel, and in sub-genres deriving from it. These are mirrors that expose the themes of the work itself. My survey includes a fictional response by the older Wells to his own early work. 

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