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.