The black smoke, or black powder, is a fictitious poisonous gas in H. G. Wells' 1898 science fiction novel The War of the Worlds, used by the Martians to eliminate groups of humans, especially artillery crews, and conveyed by shells fired from a gun-like "black tube" carried by the Tripods' whip-like tentacles. Any animal inhaling this deadly smoke is killed almost instantly, but the smoke becomes harmless on contact with water. The Martians would dispel it after each use with jets of steam, leaving only a residual, "cindery" black powder, which reminds the narrator of what he "read of the destruction of Pompeii". The smoke is very dense, and can be avoided by climbing to higher places. Although Wells never explains the smoke's mechanism in the novel, he mentions that it may bind with argon to become toxic. In reality, argon cannot combine with other elements, with the marginal exception of fluorine, but chemical weapons were widely used in human warfare after Wells' novel was written, especially in World War I.
In other adaptations
The only accurate screen appearance of the black smoke is in Pendragon Pictures' film adaptation, wherein the Martians only use the smoke twice, and it is not described in any detail.
The black smoke is briefly mentioned in the 1978 musical version, where a tripod releases it while engaging the Thunder Child and later when the narrator is trapped. Its effects are not mentioned, however. This is likely the result of an earlier usage being removed at the script editing stage. This musical version featured musicians known as the Black Smoke Band.
In the 1998 PC game, the black smoke can be launched from cannons by three Martian Machine units: the Fighting Machine, the Bombarding Machine, and the Tempest. The smoke deals fatal damage to any human vehicles that come close to it, but its effect varies according to the type of canister.
The Asylum film H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds features a deadly gas, but it is green rather than black in color. The "green smoke" does appear to have the same deadly effect as the black smoke, and the same density. Whereas the novel's smoke is launched from "black tubes" attached to the fighting-machines on an arm, this smoke leaks from a small object ejected from the same slot from which the Heat Ray is fired. The smoke in the novel was described as an ink-like vapour, but the film's smoke is believed to be a kind of toxic gas. It is not described in detail.
In the Asylum's 2008 sequel, War of the Worlds 2: The Next Wave, the black smoke is absent, though chemical warfare is briefly mentioned. A fleet of jets, upgraded with the Martian technology left from the first film, are equipped with a kind of Heat-Ray and missiles containing mustard gas, a weapon only used in warfare once before, in World War I.
The black smoke is not used in Steven Spielberg's 2005 adaptation, but was a considered addition as early as a first draft until it was dropped due to paucity of time. It is also absent from the TV series, though the aliens do make attempts at chemical warfare.
- Wells, The War of the Worlds, Book Two
- Wells, The War of the Worlds, Book Two, Ch. 1.
- A Critical Review of the War of the Worlds, erbert George Wells et al, accessed September 2009