The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1898), part 1.
Herbert George Wells (for ever known by the more familiar H.G. Wells) was a writer
whose work always strongly reflected his passions. He would likely not have recognised himself as a
science fiction writer as we understand it in the modern sense; the phrase had yet to be
invented, so instead he wrote scientific romances, a curious phrase which brings to mind all the
wrong connotations. His most immediate contemporary in the field was Jules Verne, who might be considered the
better science fiction writer of the two (in the strictest sense of the term), as he paid more attention than did Wells
to the scientific underpinnings of his stories. Wells was more concerned with the effects of science rather than
the mechanics, and this I think makes him the greater writer.
Yet Wells was no slouch when it came to science, having qualified as a
teacher and studied under the great T. H. Huxley, and so given his wide ranging interests,
it is no surprise that Wells would involve himself
in the question of life on Mars. On October 19th 1888 Wells had spoken to the debating
society at the Royal College of Science in London. His topic was "Are the planets habitable?"
and on the subject of Mars he had stated, "there was every reason to suppose that the
surface of Mars was occupied by living beings." He returned to the subject in an unsigned
article for the April 4th 1896 issue of the Saturday Review, proposing that any Martians
were they to exist, would have little in common intellectually with humans. The pieces
were falling into place for the creation of his greatest novel.
The story Wells was about to spin for The War of the Worlds was however a completely
new concept in literature, though he was not quite the first to postulate a visit to
Earth from the Martians. This honour belongs to the German author Lasswitz Kurd, but
while the Martian visitors in his 1897 novel Auf Zwei Planeten (Two Planets) were
essentially benign , Wells chose instead to create a race of warlike beings with
no interest at all in dialogue. The Martians as envisaged by Wells are quintessential
bug eyed monsters, but though they are inhuman in appearance they are all too human
Wells was quite deliberate in this regard. Science fiction has long been regarded
as a vehicle for social commentary, and more specifically as a way of sneaking in
criticism beneath the radar of societies not well disposed to unwelcome home truths.
While the creation of the Martian foes was clearly predicated on the work of Percival
Lowell and other canal proponents, the main thrust of the story had been influenced
by events closer to home and a chance conversation between Wells and his brother Frank.
Walking in the countryside one day, they had discussed the calamity visited upon
the aboriginal Tasmanians when the Europeans discovered their land. It had been an
invasion in all but name and resulted in genocidal behaviour by the Europeans, who
had no regard at all for the rights of the indigenous population. Systematically
persecuted, robbed, killed and interned in concentration camps, by the time of the
brothers' conversation they had been wiped out. It was another shameful episode in
the history of colonialism. "Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the
Martians warred in the same spirit?" would ask Wells in the opening chapter of the book.
During the same walk, Wells credits Frank with a crucial observation. "Suppose some
beings from another planet were to drop out of the sky suddenly," mused Frank, "and begin
laying about them here!" At a stroke Wells had two key elements of the story, to which he
would add a third prophetic element. He had in mind a warning for his readers, that the
comfortable existence they took so much for granted could be removed at a cosmic whim,
or indeed by something much more prosaic. The British Empire was then facing resurgent
threats from abroad, notably from France and Germany but Wells was of the opinion that
people had their heads buried in the sand as to the nature of the threat. "Tragedy,
people thought, had gone out of human life for ever. A few of us were trying to point
out the obvious possibilities of flying, of great guns, of poison gas, and so forth in
presently making life uncomfortable if some sort of world peace was not assured, but the
books we wrote were regarded as the silliest of imaginative gymnastics."
The opening chapter of The War of the Worlds blends all these elements together,
setting the scene of a dying Martian civilisation, and an England that is snug and
secure in its compliancy as a power upon the Earth. Upon a serene and indolent corner
of that unsuspecting country comes the fall of what at first is taken to be a meteorite,
but as the unnamed narrator of the book soon discovers, it is in fact a manufactured
cylinder of metal. From within emerge the horrifying Martians. At first it seems
these creatures can be contained within the pit gouged out by the arrival of their
cylinder, but this conceit is quickly banished and a furious battle for supremacy
erupts. Canon and rifle are pitched against a foe armed with giant walking machines,
devastating heat rays and a choking black gas. The fighting is vicious and
uncompromising, and shows to merciless effect how thin the veneer of civilisation
is. The scenes of refugee columns, frantic stampedes and selfish acts of brutality
are amongst the most harrowing passages of the book.
An equally important influence was Wells' own innate dislike of the society
he lived in and the social inequities he saw about him. His early experiences as
an apprentice had taught him that that there much to deplore in capitalism and his
country of birth was not nearly as great as it liked to pretend. The relish with
which he would knock down the great edifices and symbols of authority in The War
of The Worlds is abundantly apparent in a letter he wrote to his lifelong friend
Elizabeth Healey. "I'm doing the dearest little serial for Pearson's new magazine,
in which I completely wreck and destroy Woking - killing my neighbours in painful
and eccentric ways - then proceed via Kingston and Richmond to London, which I sack,
selecting South Kensington for feats of peculiar atrocity."
The tone is macabrely cheerful, but while Wells happily pedalled about town on
his bicycle selecting targets, he was finding a way to work in another of his pet
hates. As he wrote in his own autobiography, "To most Londoners of my generation
these rows of jerry-built unalterable homes seemed to be as much in the nature of
things as rain in September" It is only with the wisdom of retrospect that I realise
the complete irrational scrambling planlessness of which all us who had to live in
London were the victims." In the War of the Worlds, those houses were anything but
unalterable. This was urban renewal the Martian way.
Not unsurprisingly given the influence upon him of his teacher Huxley, he was
also a vocal proponent of Darwinism and viewed this subjugation of the human race
as a perfectly natural outcome in the battle for survival of the fittest. His
Martians therefore had no interest in negotiation or truce. They fought total
war and viewed the human race literally as cattle to be herded, bred and consumed.
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Fighters from Mars. Published only months after the release of Well's War of the Worlds, this unofficial version of the novel is set in and around Boston.