War of the World

comic cover
Yesterday I wrote about our fascination with alien technology that began in the 1950s and is still very real. Today I write about another frightening aspect of that alien thread that runs through our culture and society and seems particularly relevant in this current period.

H.G. Wells (born Herbert George Wells in Bromley, England, 1866) is known as one of the fathers of modern science fiction. I loved many of his books including The Invisible Man, The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau. He published dozens of novels, story collections, and books of nonfiction, most of which were not explicitly sci-fi.

I have written before about H.G. Wells and how he was very much interested in history, biology, and socialism. He certainly had a vision for the future of mankind which was optimistic and pessimistic and it found its way into both his fiction and non-fiction.

I don’t know which version of his The War of the Worlds I encountered first – comic book, movie, or novel. I found my comic book version in a box of Classic Illustrated Comics that I loved reading in my youth and that had a great influence on me as a reader and paging through it made me think of the “war of the world” we have been fighting with our own planet the past year.

In almost all the adaptations of Wells’ novel, the aliens are defeated not by our weapons but by what Wells described as “putrefactive bacteria.” His Martians are clearly well advanced in technology but are ignorant of disease. Wells’ narrator theorized that they had eliminated diseases in their world and so were unprepared to deal with germs, bacteria or viruses on Earth.

I clearly remember watching the 1953 film adaptation on television more than once as a kid. The Martians shown resembled the UFO aliens that were being reported throughout the 1950s and 60s.  they were short, brown creatures with two arms and three-fingered hands and had one cyclopean eye.

That movie chose not to have the aliens use humans as a blood supply in order to live. The movie Martians seemed to have no use for humans and just wanted the planet itself and humans were in the way.

For the alien invaders in Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film adaptation, they are never called Martians. It wouldn’t make any sense to have superior intelligence coming from what we know to be a red and probably dead planet.  Spielberg chose to have their home, as with his E.T., be some unidentified darker part of the universe.

Following earlier adaptations, these aliens are defeated because their immune systems can’t fight off the multitude of microbes that inhabit the Earth. But it is interesting that the closing narration of Spielberg’s film says that humanity has earned the right to the planet by virtue of naturally coexisting with the rest of its biosphere.

That ending note reminds me of when I actually studied The War of the Worlds in a literature class.  I learned that it can be seen as part of a group of “invasion literature” which appeared at a time when anxiety and insecurity concerning international tensions between European Imperial powers were on the rise. This insecurity would escalate towards the outbreak of the First World War.

Before World War II, the 1938 radio broadcast by Orson Welles of The War of the Worlds took hold of a population that had those same fears. In the American 1950s, fears of an “invasion” by outsiders and nuclear fears led to many books and films, such as The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where the invaders looked not like aliens but like us – but they were not us.

Wells was a follower of Thomas Henry Huxley who was a proponent of the theory of natural selection. Mankind versus the Martians is very much survival of the fittest. The Martians’ longer period of evolution gave them superior intelligence.

And the novel also suggests Wells’ beliefs about race as described in Social Darwinism. The Martians are exercising their “rights” as a superior race over humans.  Wells said that the novel was loosely inspired by the news of the genocide subjected to Tasmanian First Nations people by British imperialists.

He says in the first chapter of the book:

“And before we judge them [the Martians] too harshly, we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished Bison and the Dodo, but upon its own inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”

His anti-colonialism sounds noble but I have read that taken as a whole Wells’ writing is not so pure with passages of anti-semitism and a fascination for eugenics.

Those Tasmanians he references are the Aboriginal people of the Australian state of Tasmania. For much of the 20th century, they were thought to be an extinct cultural and ethnic group that had been intentionally exterminated by white settlers. Though the elimination of them – “in spite of their human likeness” – was certainly attempted, people of Tasmanian Aboriginal descent still exist on the continent, probably in ni=umbers less than 25,000.

In Wells’ vision, are we the Martians? Are we at war with ourselves, or are some groups trying to eliminate other groups that they see as “alien”? Will we be defeated not by weapons and warfare but by microbes?

H.G. Wells’ questions are still viable and unanswered.

The Uncertainties of Progress and a History of the Future

H.G. Wells is best known for his pioneering novels of science fiction, including The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, and The Island of Doctor Moreau. Wells also wrote extensively on politics and social matters and was one of the foremost public intellectuals of his day.

He wrote about the new technologies of his time in both fiction and non-fiction and wondered in both about where that technology would lead in the future.

He was not very optimistic. He believed that technology would expand, but he also believed in human folly. That led him to ponder with some trepidation what “progress” might mean for mankind.

In some ways, he is not unlike those who caution us today about where technology, such as artificial intelligence, might lead or leave us.

In an essay by Peter J. Bowler on publicdomainreview.org, he writes about Wells’ uncertainties about progress and the future of humanity.

Though Wells championed technological developments, he worried about where and how they could be used. Technological innovation would require remodeling society. As good as Wells was about looking at the current leading edge of technology and predicting where it might go, he realized that predicting future inventions and their consequences probably would require a new definition of progress.

In The War in the Air, a science fiction novel, progress leads to more effective, and therefore more deadly, warfare. Written in 1907 and published in 1908, it contains another one of Wells’ prophetic ideas: that the technology of aircraft would be not only used for transportation that could unify the planet, mapping, and research but also for fighting wars.

Remember that the Wright Brothers’s only had their first successful flight in 1903. Wells has a “war in the air” happening in the novel sometime in the late 1910s. World War I did come in that time period but aviation technology did not progress fast enough to make World War I into “war in the air.” There were German airship raids on London, but airplanes of that decade were not capable of the bombings and destruction Wells predicted. That would come with World War II.

Wells even throws some government conspiracy into the plot. He has the Wright Brothers and other aviation pioneers around the world “disappearing” from public view because they have been pulled into secret military projects to develop aviation weapons. Not that farfetched of an idea, considering how scientists were hidden away to develop rockets and the atomic bomb and still are today in parts of the world.

Illustration from Wells’ The War in the Air via archive.org

Wells earlier novel, The Time Machine, sent a time traveler into the future and what he observed was not good. The future was a Darwinian nightmare.  The leisured upper class had devolved due to a less active, less challenging way of life.  (How many people have since predicted that technology would bring us more leisure time?) The descendants of the industrial workers have become brutal rulers.

In the article, Bowler says that the Marxists saw history as climbing a ladder to a kind of utopia. But the Darwinists saw our life history as better represented by a branching tree. Wells saw science and industry’s evolution in the Darwinian way. Look how those originally insignificant mammals developed during the age of the dinosaurs and ended up becoming the rulers.

But he thought that scientific and technological innovation was leaping ahead of society, culture, and politics. We were not ready for the changes.

Another book he wrote in 1914, The World Set Free, predicted that the latest discoveries of atomic physics would give us a new source of power and also an atomic bomb.

The next step in Wells’ fears of progress is displayed in his 1933 novel, The Shape of Things to Come. The war fought in this story reduces us back to savages. His only optimism in the story was that a few technocrats survive who can recreate society but under new and more rational ideologies.

“I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”  –  Albert Einstein

Though I really enjoy Wells’ novels and admire his ability to envision the future, I’m not a fan of the future world he hoped would come to pass. His “World State” had technological innovations helping all but those in charge were an elite group, like those who save and transform the world in The Shape of Things to Come. I hope he was wrong in this prediction of things to come.

Peter J. Bowler is Professor Emeritus of the History of Science at Queen’s University, Belfast and the author of A History of the Future: Prophets of Progress from H. G. Wells to Isaac Asimov.

We Need Time Travel


We need time travel.

I have read in several places that before H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine no one had considered time travel. Unless you’re talking just about literature, I find that hard to believe. Does that mean that no one thought about the “what if” of being able to go back and undo or redo something? No one considered the advantage of being able to shoot ahead in time to see what was to become in order to prepare for it or prevent it?

It’s common today for literature and film to use time travel for all the reasons that any of us consider its possibilities. We want to see history. Nostalgia. We want to change history. We want to see the future. Perhaps, the future will give us hope. It may make us fearful and we will want to change the future. Time is a mystery.

If Wells invented time travel in 1895, he preceded Albert Einstein’s work by a few years. I’d love it if someone found evidence that Einstein read The Time Machine. Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity allows for time travel, though not in a very satisfying way.

Space and time are really aspects of the same thing—space-time. There’s a speed limit of 300,000 kilometers per second (or 186,000 miles per second) for anything that travels through space-time, and light always travels the speed limit through empty space.

If  you could move through space-time and your speed relative to other objects is close to the speed of light, then time goes slower for you than for the people you left behind. Not exactly what most of us think of when you say “time travel.” You won’t notice this effect until you return to those people who were not traveling with you.

This kind of time travel was part of the movie Interstellar. Suppose you were able to travel at the speed of light. They put you on this spacecraft when you are 15 years old and you leave your life on Earth. You travel for five years and at age 20 you come back to Earth. Those kids you left in high school are now 65 years old. You missed the prom and a whole lot more from the past 50 years.

Did you time travel to the future? You seem closer to being Rip Van Winkle than a spaceman. In Washington Irving’s story “Rip Van Winkle” he does the same thing. No time machine or speed needed. He drinks some strange liquor owned by the ghosts of Henry Hudson’s crew and it knocks him out for about 20 years. He returns home and his now-grown daughter takes him in. Oddly, he seems little changed by the experience.

It happens that way to Woody Allen’s character in Sleeper and to the astronaut in Planet of the Apes.

He resumes his usual idleness, and his strange tale is solemnly taken to heart by the Dutch settlers.

traces the invention of the notion of time travel to H.G. Wells’s 1895 masterpiece The Time Machine. Although Wells — like Gleick, like any reputable physicist — knew that time travel was a scientific impossibility, he created an aesthetic of thought which never previously existed and which has since shaped the modern consciousness. Gleick argues that the art this aesthetic produced — an entire canon of time travel literature and film — not only permeated popular culture but even influenced some of the greatest

Time travel helps us cope with a varity of anxieties. Science historian James Gleick explores wrote Time Travel: A History which is part history and part Einstein thought experiment mixing physics, literature and philosophy.

Isn’t it strange that H.G. Wells, who was so interested in history, only had his time machine travel to the future? Did he give thought to the looping paradoxes of traveling back and changing the past so that you didn’t exist in the future and therefore couldn’t have traveled back and changed things?

Do you ever have the feeling that you’re stuck in a time loop? I’ve written before about my love for the film Groundhog Day. First you feel bad for Bill Murray’s character and he lopps through the same day over and over. But eventually he gets things to work “correctly” and is able to move on.

If all that is too frivolous, then move on to Stephen Hawking. He once, quite unscientifically, hosted a party for time travelers. No one showed up. Where are those people from the future? maybe they are here but are being very careful not to change anything and so are being very, very covert.

John Archibald Wheeler popularized the term “black hole” and coined “wormhole” and gave new hope to time travel literature and Dr. Who.

The wonderful podcast, To the Best of Our Knowledge, has done a bunch of stories on time travel. In one segment, they talked with someone who dreamed about creating a time machine as a child. His intent was to go back and save someone he lost. That child became a theoretical physicist and has spent a lot of his career studying time.

Currently, my time travel is limited to memory, photo albums and video excursions into the past. Nothing in the future so far. I was more in favor of time traveling as described in stories like Time and Again that didn’t require any machines.

When I first read about Einstein’s theories, I was disappointed. I imagined that my 19 year old self might travel back to when I was 9 years old and so have no memory of my present that had become the “future.” I would be trapped in a loop of growing up to 19, getting in the time machine, going back to age 9 and doing it over and over for eternity. I wouldn’t even remember that I had ever done it before. Or maybe I do remember some things. That would explain déjà vu.

Maybe we haven’t met any time travelers because we are all time travelers. We were sent back from some disastrous future and are reliving history over and over again in the hope that we can somehow change things and negate that disastrous future. The hope of time travel.

Time Travel TV

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a penchant for time travel stories. So, it is with some interest that I find that the old-fashioned TV networks are lining some up time travel TV for the new seasons.

NBC has Timeless, billed as a thriller about some misfits time traveling to try to stop a criminal mastermind.

On ABC, we’ll get Time After Time  which has the 19th century sci-fi author H.G. Wells (who wrote The Time Machine and started a lot of this) searching for an escaped Jack the Ripper who has traveled to modern-day New York using Wells’ time machine.

If that sounds familiar, it is because it is based on a 1979 movie also called Time After Time . That’s a film I really enjoyed. Jack the Ripper, a serial killer of the 19th century, turns out to be a doctor acquaintance of Wells who evades the police by using Wells’ time machine. However, Dr. Stevenson may have escaped to the future, but because he does not have the “non-return” key, the time machine automatically returns to 1893. H.G. Wells uses it to pursue Stevenson to 1979, where the machine has ended up on display at a museum in San Francisco.

Wells, the real life author now fictionalized, is shocked and disappointed by the future. His predictions had been of an enlightened socialist utopia. He finds a future of war, crime and bloodshed that is better suited to Jack the Ripper.

On FOX, they are going in a comic direction with the mid-season show Making History which will have  buddies who jump in time back to historical events, such as the Revolutionary War.

Minus the comedy, that last one reminds me of The Time Tunnel show that was on in 1966–1967. It only lasted one season, but that was in a time when a season ran for 30 episodes.  The show was inspired by the 1964 movie The Time Travelers.

I loved that show in 1967. The special effects look pretty poor by today’s standards, but the plot was also about two top-secret U.S. government time travelers who move from one period in history to another. Episodes were set in the past and future. In the series, the two travelers literally jumped into the “tunnel” before the technology was really ready and so become lost in time. I figured back then that I was learning some history when I watched the show. It also was the first time I thought about that paradox of what would happen if you went back in time and changed anything.

UPDATE:  I don’t know if the series currently reruns on any channels, but it is available from Amazon. A reader emailed me to say that the series is available, though in an odd format, for free on YouTube. I watched a few episodes today. It is pretty much as I remember it, and about as dated as any memories I have of 1966. Corny, with tacky effects and I can completely see why it appealed to my 13 year-old brain.

When The Martians Landed in New Jersey

My first read of the story was from my Classics Illustrated comic version.

During the week, I wrote a post about two fellow Rutgers College alums who have published books. One of those writers is Robert Kaplow who wrote the novel, Me and Orson Welles: A Novel (which was made into a 2009 film that’s in theaters).

The novel and movie revolve around Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre group putting on a production of Julius Caesar on Broadway.

But, writing that post led me back to reading about Welles (whose films I was a bit obsessed with in my college days) and that led me to the famous 1938 radio broadcast they did of War of the Worlds that had folks in my home state in a panic.

The program mixes believable “real” radio with fiction, which is why listeners were taken in by it.  It starts with the introduction from the novel, talks about the aliens and even gives the play’s setting as the following year, 1939.  There’s a weather report (they were doing the show from New York City) and some dance music. Then, it is interrupted by news flashes about strange explosions on Mars.

You can listen to the War of the Worlds original radio broadcast and it’s interesting to hear, but I doubt that you’ll be taken in, or that you can really imagine what it must have been like to hear it on the Halloween night in 1938.

The news breaks get more frequent and there is a report of a “cylindrical meteorite” that lands in Grover’s Mill, N.J. We go to a live remote from there (Did listeners believe that CBS had reporters in the Grover’s Mill area?)  The “meteorite’ is, of course, a spaceship, and when the top unscrews they see a tentacled Martian who promptly zaps the crowd with a heat ray.

Apparently, this was the key part of the broadcast where listeners in the New Jersey & New York area left the radio and started talking to neighbors, or calling the police and the radio station.

Back to the radio – an all-out battle ensues, the infantry has an edge on the Martians at first because they are weak in Earth’s gravity, but then a “tripod” machine comes out of the pit where their spaceship landed and starts destroying soldiers, citizens, power stations, transportation and buildings. (Luckily, not the radio crew.)

The “Secretary of the Interior” (Who sounds like F.D.R.)  talks to the nation and the news is not good. Air Force bombers get burned up by the heat ray and there are reports of cylinders falling all across the country. Five tripods cross the Hudson River and attack New York City.

Then – intermission.  I’ll bet a lot of listeners left the house then. Too bad they did because after a “station identification” the announcer reminds listeners that it is all a story.

The last third of the show is kind of a letdown as Welles (as Professor Pierson) describes what happened after the attacks and the story ends the same way as H.G Wells’ The War of the Worlds novel ends. The Martians are defeated by our “alien” germs and bacteria.

What Welles was doing was something new and listeners had no reason not to accept the news flashes as anything but true. Because many homes still did not have telephones, neighbors started talking to other neighbors, missing bits and pieces of the play and probably furthering the confusion.

People who had been listening to Edgar Bergen and Don Ameche on another station told neighbors that there were no news reports on that station. I’m guessing that either calmed people down – or convinced them that the government was doing a cover-up of the disaster!

There are plenty of “urban legends” about the numbers of people in New Jersey who were on the roads in panic, or the geologists from Princeton University who went looking for the “meteorite” that had fallen, or about people who shot at a farmer’s water tower in Grover’s Mill thinking it was a Martian tripod weapon.

Grover’s Mill did draw enough crowds to require police to control the crowds. The crowds and flashing police car lights probably added to the panic.

I can identify with the reaction of the little town of Concrete, Washington to the program, because I had a similar experience watching the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still for the first time as a kid as they did listening to Welles’ broadcast. (Read about my viewing experience here.)

That small town of 1000 had an explosion and a power failure in their town just as Welles was broadcasting. The town dropped into darkness and their radios failed. It is said that some listeners who had been listening to Welles fainted or grabbed their families and guns and headed into the mountains. It turned out that the Superior Portland cement company’s sub-station had suffered a short circuit causing the flash of light and the power failure.

It is often said that the panic had something to do with pre-World War II fears and there were people who thought the Martians would turn out to be Nazis invading the U.S. using rockets and death rays.

This kind of mass hysteria turns up in other movies and TV shows that followed. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is often pointed to as the 1950s take on the “Red Scare” of Communism that was strong in the U.S. at that time.

I fondly recall seeing an episode of The Twilight Zone called “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” when I was a kid. Originally broadcast in 1960, it scared me and I didn’t even know there was a Red Scare. It’s a great lesson on the dangers of prejudice and mass hysteria.

In the episode, a neighborhood goes into panic mode thinking there are aliens attacking – or that there are aliens living on their block. The “monsters” of the title might be aliens from outer space or the prejudiced folks who live on Maple Street. I won’t spoil the ending because you should try to watch it.

I do buy into the idea that the event might have caused U.S. Air Force officials to cover up any “unidentified flying object” reports that came in later years for fear of a news report causing a similar panic.

If such a thing happened today, it would probably start on social media.