“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.”
— H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds
That is, to my mind, one of the best openings to any book I can name. And as it happens, this is one of my favorite books, though admittedly it’s not just because of the book itself. For me, The War of the Worlds is a full-scale multimedia invasion, playing through from the novel into sequel stories, radio plays, television, films, and even a stage musical. It sounds fantastic, and it is, but that’s all testimonial to the power of this original novel by one of science fiction’s early greats.
The story was first serialized in the UK in Pearson’s Magazine and in the US by Cosmopolitan magazine in December 1897, as was standard practice in that time. Serialization is how Dickens debuted his novels, and, of course, this is how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first presented us with the great Sherlock Holmes. The collected hardcover novel debuted the following year, billed as a “scientific romance” and riding a wave of interest in invasion literature at the time. Such was the nature of the Victorian era; when one builds an Empire through global conquest, it’s only natural to fear that exact scenario happening to you. H. G. Wells was a science teacher, historian, and journalist whose beginnings were in biology and ethics, and whose specialty was world history and social progress. An invasion novel, therefore, is right up his alley. In his own time, he was considered much as Jules Verne was, a forward-thinking social critic, possibly prophetic, and foundational to the modern genre of science fiction as we know it today. We know him today as a futurist who predicted tanks and aircraft (both of which saw service during the first world war), space travel (as with Verne), satellite television, nuclear weapons, and… something very much akin to what we understand as the internet. And that’s not even touching the things he developed for sci-fi. So when you think about it, even if invasion literature was popular at the time, you could bet your bottom dollar that his version of it would be unlike anything the world had ever seen before.
“Perhaps we need some outside universal threat to make us recognize this common bond. I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world.”
— Ronald Reagan, 1987 in a speech before the United Nations
I sometimes wonder if Reagan ever read Alan Moore’s Watchmen when it debuted the year before. I know he didn’t, but it’s interesting to think about. As a Hollywood man, you know he was more than aware of The War of the Worlds.
The plot, of course, is by now one of the most famous in all of literature. Martians drop from the skies in large metal cylinders, releasing tripod fighting machines across the globe, blasting away everything in sight with a heat ray, using humans as biofuel, and terraforming (or is that “Martiaforming”?) our planet with “red weed” to make the Earth more suitable to their own physiology. “It was beginning of the route of civilization, the massacre of mankind.” And yet, Mother Nature has one last trick up her sleeve to save us all. I know, I know… spoilers. Uh-huh… The novel is 120 years old, and it’s one of the most famous stories in our lexicon. Darth Vader is Luke’s father, Soylent Green is people, and Old Yeller doesn’t make it to the end of his own book. If it’s true that what makes this story a classic is the journey rather than the destination, then this novel has a lot to offer for those who have the means — and the desire — to appreciate it.
The brilliance of classic science fiction is that it can be read through two lenses, and sometimes more than that depending on how the reader wants to interpret. Is the invasion of Earth simply one-upping the popular trends of the era’s pulp literature, or does it lend extra weight to the political climate of the time that spawned such literature in the first place? It’s easy to be dismissive, especially when a tale is so incredibly well-known, but I think that to overlook the very real social factors of what this story represents — then and now — is to do this novel a great disservice. And it sort of defeats the point in reading it, even if it does make for a fantastic little adventure story.
I grew up with this story in its myriad forms, and even now I’m finding new ways to appreciate it. What stands out to me now, as a 21st century reader, is the environmental factor. Early in the first chapter, Wells’ unnamed narrator tells us that Mars had undergone gradual and catastrophic global cooling, making the planet uninhabitable, which is why the Martians looked to the warmer climes of Earth. With our modern scientific advances, we’re better learning to understand Mars all the time, and the scientific tools we developed to study other worlds in our solar system, most notably Venus, were turned upon our Earth to help us to discover our own ecological disaster. This gives The War of the Worlds a new — and highly relevant — layer of invasion as corporate greed has created its own metaphorical version of the “red weed,” changing our planet into something unsustainable to human life, compounded as politics turns us from science to belief-driven ignorance. The result is the same, but the Martian heat ray would be kinder. The lesson is also the same: if we’d simply get a grip and quit fighting for power, the planet would heal itself. If we don’t heed the lesson, we’ll wipe ourselves out, and then the planet will heal itself. Either way, Mother Nature is going to win. That’s cold, hard science, and as Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson often tells us, “science doesn’t care what you believe.” [As a science teacher, Wells most definitely addresses the evangelical take on the invasion in his story. It’s as though nothing has changed on that front since Galileo.] It’s a state of affairs that the Pentagon ranks as the number one threat to the United States (admittedly, this changes every single year, but it’s still a high priority), as increased damage to the planet directly affects availability of basic resources such as water, food, and medicine. The few in (corporate) power wielding the weapons of destruction systematically wipe out the masses, who will suffer first if this situation is not corrected.
To put a different but no less direct spin on it, the Martians are siphoning human blood as their own biofuel, essentially making them inhuman predators in addition to otherworldly invaders. Seems there was another popular invasion novel out that very same year that used a similar idea…
To put it all another way, “We have seen the enemy, and he is us.”
It’s not a pretty picture. It’s not designed to be. But I point out once more that, for Wells and for all of us today, humanity has a friend and ally in the Earth itself. If we’re looking for deliverance in the form of a higher power, that’s where we’ll find it… if we’ll only stop fighting her and ourselves. In this story, humanity fights the Martians with basic firearms, artillery wagons, and ironclad ships. It’s hubris to believe that the fight by desperate civilian populations isn’t going to be similarly scaled against the Powers That Be when things get truly dire. And as with the Martians, those Powers That Be will end up dropping just as fast in the end, and they will not understand why or how they overlooked the smallest, most avoidable of factors that could have prevented all of it.
Since I know the story so well, I’m often on the lookout for a quality narration if I spring for the audio version. This one is performed by Simon Vance, which is to say it’s about as top shelf as one could ask.