Novel * H.G. Wells * Mars Attacks! * 1897
Do you like science fiction? Sure, we all do. Well, unless you’re a dork or a wiener. For the rest of us cool kids, though, sci-fi’s where it’s at. What’s not to like? Not only does it allow the imagination to roam the vast reaches of space at will, it is also rooted in a semblance of scientific fact. It’s a mode of fiction which assimilates the scientific knowledge of the species and projects it forward. The things science fiction imagines are not only fantastical and amazing, but they could actually happen, maybe. It’s really the most optimistic genre. I would argue that even when sci-fi gets dark, which it does often, it still offers a warning to humanity. Something to hold onto when you’re finished. Like, oh sure, if a comet hit the earth that would suck right out loud, but maybe if we study harder we can find a way to thwart it! See? Upbeat. For this, you can thank my boy H.G. Wells.
To be fair to Jules Verne, Wells wasn’t the actual first science fiction writer. But he was British, which makes him better (I’m kidding! J’aime la France!). I’m not going to transcribe a biography of Mr. Wells, but suffice to say he was a scientist before he was an author. This is the 19th century, after all, and modern society is achieving technological lift-off compared to ages past. Scientific theory is moving just as swiftly as industrial technology, and Wells was right up in there, learning at the feet of such luminaries as T.H. Huxley. Yes, the grandfather of my homie Aldous, and perhaps the greatest champion of Charles Darwin. The first book Wells ever wrote was a textbook. He wrote history and all kinds of other scholarly biz, but that’s not why we’re here. Wells eventually moved to imaginative fiction based on his wealth of scientific knowledge. These were eagerly consumed by the general public, which of course would later on make him something of an outsider when the Moderns rolled around. Besides, he was old and upbeat, unlike those angsty kids. Regardless, Wells was a cool guy for the most part. He was a boisterous showman, and a British patriot. Also, he had a dim view of colonialism and needless discrimination against black people, which is saying something in this time period.
The War of the Worlds is probably the first book about a hostile alien invasion ever written. It is absolutely the most famous. The novel was written at a time when very little was known about space, even that of the inner solar system. Obviously, people have been looking at Mars and the other planets for a few hundred years, but honestly there wasn’t much to see. It is a testament to how quickly scientific observation and theory moves that this book is so wrong about so many things. It is assumed that Mars has a livable atmosphere and liquid water and all kinds of other things which could be deduced from the weak-ass telescopes of the time. Applying what he knew about evolutionary science, Wells imagined Martians having evolved long ago into the creatures that appear in the novel. What he comes up with is all very logical and proceeds from the best knowledge of the time.
The story takes place in the suburbs of London, and proceeds into the great city. At first, a strange extraterrestrial object crashes into the sleepy English countryside. This causes some alarm, but one of the stranger elements of the novel is how little people seem to care about fucking aliens raining down on them from Mars. It’s an entirely local event. Obviously, this is a time before worldwide communications were instantaneous, but they still had telegrams and whatnot. You’d think an event of this magnitude would travel far and wide and they’re be a massive crowd around the crater within hours and days. Nah. People in the area are curious, but most people are like whatever. Then a giant, weird mechanical tripod pops up and smokes a bunch of people with a big old Heat-Ray and folks rightfully flip out.
The story that unfolds is one of horrible, humanity-threatening destruction told from the point of view of one middle-aged, milquetoast scientist and his brother. The nameless narrator lived near the first Martian pit, and is conveniently present as events unfold. Soon four or five of the Martian tripods are roaming around, torching everything they see. This includes the modern British army, which is no match for these bizarre space machines which shoot lasers and use chemical warfare to suffocate the masses. Eventually, London is taken and there are mass stampedes of refugees fleeing the city. All is madness.
I’m not going to talk about Martians much, at least not for their own sake. Obviously, most people who pick this book up are here for the Heat-Ray and the devastation and the creepy, lithe, wailing tripods. That’s what I was looking for the first time I read this. And those tripods? Despite being a sci-fi icon for over a hundred years, they’re still evocative, alien, and terrifying. If you doubt this, just look at games like Dishonored and Half-Life 2, both of which shamelessly steal the design. Part of what works so well is that the reader never has any idea about their intent. These things just show up and start murdering everything. All the conclusions we draw come from a narrator who is shown to be totally wrong about things, most of the time. Still, they are alien in the truest sense of the word. They are unknowable. However, this is a book about the scientific progress of the 19th century more than it is a book about aliens.
One of the most striking things about studying this time period is how self-aware people were. It’s one thing to read novels and histories about the late 19th and early 20th centuries and draw conclusions. It’s quite another to read those books and see passages like:
“People in these later times scarcely realise the abundance and enterprise of our nineteenth-century papers. For my own part, I was much occupied in learning to ride the bicycle, and busy upon a series of papers discussing the probable developments of moral ideas as civilisation progressed.”
Wells, and Huxley, and everyone else participating in this glut of scientific and technological progression were well aware that what they were involved with was unprecedented in human history. They were excited! They were eager to master new technology and plot the evolution of human civilization. New ideas, specifically that of natural selection, sparked a revolution in scientific thought, and it was this theory that clearly inspired much of this novel.
Again and again throughout this story, the theory of evolution pops up. The Martians are said to be an ancient race, beginning their ascent up the evolutionary ladder long before humans were even a thing. As such, they are far beyond us as a species. Not only is their technology far superior to humanity’s, considering we’ve only just begun our ascent in this regard, but their very shape and appearance is different:
“We men, with our bicycles and road-skates (?), our Lilienthal soaring-machines (??), our guns and sticks and so forth, are just in the beginning of the evolution that the Martians have worked out. They have become practically mere brains, wearing different bodies according to their needs just as men wear suits of clothes and take a bicycle in a hurry or an umbrella in the wet.”
First of all, Wells is clearly enchanted with the bicycle. I suppose he couldn’t foresee what a menace they’d eventually become, but oh well, can’t win ‘em all. More importantly is the understanding that as technology advances and evolves, so too does our reliance on them. At no point does Wells seem to imply that this is necessarily a bad thing, but he does make a clear link. The Martians are utterly unable to function without their fabulous, unknowable technology. Further, their bodies are entirely unprepared for life outside of their own planet. Now, I’m not convinced that super-intelligent brain-creatures wouldn’t understand germ theory, but I guess Wells wasn’t ready to exterminate humanity, even in fiction.
Finally, there is a clear warning here about the destructive power of advanced technology. This is a theme that Wells will return to often, especially with his 1908 novel The War in the Air (which I will get to). The key here is that these books were published well before 1914. The common idea behind World War I is that humanity crashed headlong into the lightning-fast technological advancement of the time. We simply didn’t understand the new-fangled weapons that were being produced, and before anyone realized what was happening, soldiers were getting machine gunned by the thousands. This idea is kind of true, but it’s not a universal statement. For instance:
“Where flames had been there were now streamers of smoke; but the countless ruins of shattered and gutted houses and blasted and blackened trees that the night had hidden stood out now gaunt and terrible in the pitiless light of dawn. Yet here and there some object had had the luck to escape – a white railway signal here, the end of a greenhouse there, white and fresh amid the wreckage. Never before in the history of warfare had destruction been so indiscriminate and universal.”
He might as well be describing a scene from The Blitz only forty years later. Wells was not the only person worried about the industrial scale of future warfare, of course. The implications were clear simply by virtue of the speed and availability of new and more deadly weapons, being produced on an industrial scale even before the onset of World War I. And yet, as we know, total war happened anyway, despite the optimism and hope held by Wells and his contemporaries. This disconnect between what could have been, and what actually happened, is a large part of what spurred the Moderns to exist in the first place. Yes, technology and science were progressing at breakneck speed. The political and social structures of the time, however, were unable to keep up. They were not equipped to move as fluidly with the future as the scientific community was. Wells and those like him could warn of the danger again and again, but the entrenched political empires of Europe were not able to heed them. In the end, Martians from space weren’t needed to wreak havoc for civilization. We do that quite well ourselves.