The War of the Worlds
Understanding Aliens from H.G Wells’ Perspective As Depicted In His Novel, War Of the Worlds
There are plenty of pop culture icons that can be described as “extraterrestrial invaders;” however, there aren’t many in literature. Coincidentally enough, however, one of the first mentions of extraterrestrial invaders comes from literature: the Martians from H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel War of the Worlds. These horrifyingly ugly creatures roam the Earth in giant “fighting machines,” or as they are more commonly called tripods, and ravage all forms of life they encounter. Despite their obvious non-human appearance and power, they still suffer from the same pitfalls that humanity, and life in its entirety, suffer from.
H.G. Well’s Martians first appear in War of the Worlds during the first chapter, after a “meteor” falls to Earth and lands on Horsell Common, in Woking, Surrey. The mysterious nature of this “meteor” is further magnified by what it does next: it opens to reveal several Martians, who the narrator describes as “big and greyish, with oily brown skin,” “two large colored eyes,” a beak-like “V-shaped mouth,” and “Gorgon groups of tentacles.” Despite the thorough description of the Martians appearance, one still finds it hard to actually picture them. This presents the first strength of the Martian invaders: their supreme, God-like invincibility.
The Martians are regarded to by Wells as “minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, [with] intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic.” Wells seeks to portray these Martians as God-like, giving them infinite strength and a lack of value for other forms of life; as a result, the Martians are made out to be invincible. For example, when the military surrounded the Hornell Commons in an attempt to contain the Martians, the military was armed with Maxim guns, which were considered to be the most advanced weapons ever constructed (this was the first automatic weapon, which looked much like a Gatling gun). Wells emphasizes the presence of these weapons because, when placed in historical context, the reader in 1897 would fully comprehend the awesome might of the Martian invaders.
In addition, the Martians roam the Earth in colossal “fighting machines,” also known as tripods, which were armed with advanced weaponry: specifically, the heat ray and a black-smoke chemical weapon. These machines could be eliminated, but in one of the only instances within the novel which this occurred, it took three warships with massive power in order to do so. While in modern times it doesn’t seem like these tripods would be very effective, when reading this piece through the glasses of someone from 1897, this is a massive show of the devastating power of these machines.
The second strength of the Martians is their inherent lack of moral compass. While on the surface this would seem like a weakness, particularly from the eyes of a human, in all reality it makes the Martians ideal invaders; because the Martians have no moral compass, they have no qualms with wiping out the human race in their quest for domination. In addition, because they have no moral compass, they have no need to be rational or fair. There is no such thing as diplomacy for the Martians in the quest for Earth; either humans learn to live under them or they attempt to rebel, either of which gets them killed. It made a rather effective antagonist for War of the Worlds.
Unfortunately for the Martians, their weaknesses are one in the same as humanity’s. One such example is morality; while being portrayed as God-like and invincible, the Martian invaders can still be killed by the same means as people. Those who managed to finish War of the Worlds know that, in the end, it was bacterial infection that finally killed the Martians. The simplest of all of God’s creations, the common cold, destroyed the most advanced race of extraterrestrial beings in a major fit of irony.
The final weakness of the Martian invaders is the pivotal part of Wells’ purpose in writing War of the Worlds: greed, the greatest vice of man.This greed is not a result of a need to survive, but a want for wealth. It is implied (and other versions of Wells’ story directly state it) that the Martians have come to Earth in order to drain it of all of its resources. Wells mentions, within the first page of The War of the Worlds, that the Martians ”regarded this earth with envious eyes.” Clearly Mars is a wasteland, so it is no surprise that the Martians were envious of Earth. The Martians may very well have drained Mars of its resources before looking elsewhere to quench their thirst for wealth.
The importance of this is simple: the Martians, in their entirety, is an extended metaphor for British Imperialism and the British war machine. The elements of the novel add perfectly to equal it: the Martians see themselves as God like, and therefore have no value for life; the Martians seek to enslave the humans; the Martians must feed upon the humans in order to survive, just like the war machine needs innocent lives in the form of soldiers in order to continue; and the Martians moved like a swarm of locusts to rob the Earth of its resources, much like what the British Empire did to India and Africa. This type of metaphor was common during the era, which contained a massive amount of invasion literature; however, it was never done as well in other pieces as it was in War of the Worlds.
Despite the strengths and weaknesses of the Martians, I personally would still like to actually speak with one of them, given the opportunity, because I admire their power, despite their human-like weaknesses. It is a mystery whether or not the Martians’ motives were derived from greed, jealousy (the typical vices of humanity), or a simple hatred for humanity because Wells never expounded upon them within the novel. As a result, Wells has created an interesting and ambiguous antagonist that embodies fear, God-like superiority, and malice, all placed within an unfeeling and cold-blooded package.
H.G Wells’ View of the Alien Attack As Illustrated In His Book, War of the Worlds
The trope of the martian invasion pioneered into the world of Science Fiction back in the 1800s with Herbert George Wells at the head. The War of the Worlds tells the horrific story of a man who survives a deadly invasion on earth, witnessing the destruction of society as he knows it. When the Martians first land on Earth, the humans underestimate the powers of these crude looking creatures. The civilians are at first intrigued by the alien artifacts sent down to earth, and once it becomes clear that the aliens are not coming in peace, many still cling to the idea that human strength would overpower the primitive aliens. The novel follows the drastic downfall of humanity in a short span of time, and once the earth inhabitants are able to come to terms with their own weaknesses, the Martians have already gained a formidable upper hand. Many manners and styles of ego come into play throughout the story, and all are vital for the staggering control which the Martians obtained. In the end, man is brought down not just by the strange visitors but by himself.
At the start of the novel, a ‘meteor’ falls from the sky near the narrator’s home, and he discovers along with other civilians the strange cylinder. The human inhabitants of the town he dwells in are taken aback by what they call ‘a falling star’, however there is not a hint of fear among them, simply an excited curiosity. “There were four or five boys, sitting on the edge of the pit, with their feet dangling, and amusing themselves- until I stopped them- by throwing stones at the giant mass.” (H. G. Wells 272) The bystanders see no reason to fear this strange meteorite, and even go to the extent of playing with it like a toy. New occurrences such as this in the twenty first century are often met with fear due to the knowledge of what could unfold. However it does not occur to the inhabitants of this town that they would be unprepared for the events to follow. They have complete confidence in their military and scientific accomplishments, so much so that they do not even feel the need to reach out for help. When this amount of confidence is engrained in a person’s mind, it is not a conscious choice to feel secure. Instead it is automatic. The ego of man’s accomplishments creates an instantaneous lack of fear of the martian cylinders. Thus, no action is taken and the people are unprepared for what unfolds.
As the day goes on, the strange cylinder opens and the Martians reveal themselves. The protagonist is as stunned as his neighbors, yet it is not a fear of danger, it is the fear of the unknown. The fear disappears as suddenly as it came for the Martians are so different than the human idea of danger. To us, a threat is a human like creature with advancements or mutations, such as a vampire, a werewolf, or another monster of that nature which clearly resembles a person. However the Martians are shown as something else entirely. The narrator describes,
“A big greyish rounded bulk, the size, perhaps, of a bear, was rising slowly and painfully out of the cylinder……. Two large dark-coloured eyes were regarding me steadfastly. The mass that framed them, the head of the thing, was rounded, and had, one might say, a face. There was a mouth under the eyes, the lipless brim of which quivered and panted, and dropped saliva.” (Wells 276)
The Martians are quite unlike any humans, and thus while there is momentary fear, it is of what is different, not of a threat. The onlookers of the Martians do not exclaim out of fear, yet instead insult the aliens’ appearances, one stating, “ ‘What ugly brutes…..Good God! What ugly brutes!’ ” (Wells 277) This response is due to the alarming differences between the Martians and humans. Even the narrator remains unafraid and perhaps pities the aliens, hoping, for the sake of science and discovery, that these aliens will not be destroyed by soldiers before someone gets the chance to study them. As such an advanced society in their own eyes, the humans do not feel threatened by what they simply deem as blobs. This narcissistic reaction urges humans to approach the Martians without the proper equipment and sparks a violent conflict.
A group of civilians is sent to make contact with the Martians, unarmed and unprepared. They approach confidently to assess the aliens, ‘boldly’ as described in the text, sure of their own control over the situation. It is then that the Martians’ true power is revealed. The attack is described, “It was as if some invisible jet impinged upon them and flashed into white flame. It was as if each man were suddenly and momentarily turned into fire… I stood staring, not as yet realizing that this was death leaping from man to man in that little distant crowd.” (Wells 278) The invisible heat ray which the Martians use to obliterate crowds of people is a type of technology which the narrator and the surrounding people had never before witnessed, and it is in this moment that they are stripped bare of the egotistical ideals that man is more advanced than other civilizations. It is a horrifying moment, and the narrator’s describes his emotional turmoil as, “Suddenly, like a thing falling upon me from without, came- fear… The fear I felt was no rational fear, but a panic terror.” (H. G. Wells 279). The humans came to the conflict unprepared due to their narcissistic instincts, and by then it is too late to protect themselves. The novel simply progress into more dramatic destruction as it progresses, with a brutal fall of society.
H. G. Wells illustrates a blinding human weakness, that of man’s ego. The confidence mankind has in our technology, military, and overall success as a civilization blocks out the possibility of more advanced life forms which could pose a threat. In The War of The Worlds, the Martians are considerably stronger in many aspects, yet a full fledged attack or instant migration could have delayed the attack against humanity as the aliens died out after a short period of time from sickness. Due to the underestimation of strength unable for them to imagine, mankind set themselves up for failure.
Haskin and Spielberg’s Visual Production of War of the Worlds by Wells
Juxtaposing 1953’s and 2005’s cinematic representations of War of The Worlds illustrates the tenacity of Wells’ work. 1953’s War of The Worlds appeals to the emotions of those living in the shadows of the Cold War. World destruction themes emotionally shake viewers who exist under constant threat of attack. 2005’s intended audience still had the aftershock of 9/11 in their daily thoughts. Americans coming together in the face of an unexpected threat strongly parallels the atmosphere following terrorism (Spielberg). These movies appeal to the political tensions of the times they were introduced in. Though, in different ways. In Haskin’s version he moves the timeline to the 1950s. Martians are hostile and Earth is being attacked (Haskin). Struggling to survive attacks, civilians channel their religion as a means of remaining sane. “The War of the Worlds” as interpreted by Haskin is dark, but widely appealing to it’s intended audience.
Conversely, the 2005, Spielberg rendition of “War of the Worlds” is a grim and bleak outlook. Spielberg, like Haskin, altered the timeline to be congruent with the release. The main character, Ray, is no longer a scientist. He is instead a struggling single father. As aliens begin to attack, Ray strives to do whatever is necessary to ensure his family’s safety (Spielberg). The film is dark as a result of its representation of humanity. It is not just a demonization of the martians as many were assuming. Some characters are noble and others take advantage of the unfortunate turn of events. It is this creating of the scene and utilization of people as symbols that allows the author’s work to come to life. Wells’ “War of The Worlds” is the keystone of sci-fi and warfare. Different political and socioeconomic situations call for use of different settings and themes using the contemporary cinematic works.
Martians in Wells’ War of the Worlds and Movie Adaptions: Cultural Imperialism
The Martians in the book and the movie The War of the Worlds are a metaphor for the evils of cultural imperialism because their arrival severs the most important means of communication and transportation technology, challenges religion, and leaves identity unclear. The Martians in The War of the Worlds can be used as a comparison to imperialism because their invasion caused the loss of major technologies on Earth and altered the way that humans saw God and the identity of their society.
The narrator in the book explains that the Martians were “hamstringing” mankind by exploding “any stores of powder” and cutting communication and transportation such as the telegraph and railways (Wells 83). This specific example is important because it shows that the Martians crippled society not only emotionally but physically. The War of the Worlds provides a great example of communication and transportation technologies being taken away and it drastically affecting people’s lives. Worth explains in his article how technology and communication technology are such a big part of imperialism when he says “technologies of communication and transport are central to the imperial critique contained within the novel” (Worth, 71). Although the technology is a great part on the human’s side for survival, Wells makes it clear that it is important both ways when he discusses how the Martians killed so many quickly and quietly because of their technology of the Heat Ray, without it, they would not have accomplished as much as they had (Wells 18). The Martians rely just as much on technology as the humans, hence their death in the end, especially made evident in the movie because of their lack of a force field.
The Martians live in giant advanced technological machines that are equip with terrifying weapons of mass destruction, without it they would not live or attempt to conquer Earth. Worth takes this idea of the Heat Ray further when he discusses how Wells uses specific examples within his text of tying the Martian’s use of the Heat Ray to real life techniques of imperialism by saying that the Heat Ray contributed “political and social organization” and how it was in a “respective relationship” to the media that we see today (Worth 71). In a way, you could say that the Martians take out human technology to overpower with their own technology. Worth is saying that the reader can compare the Martian’s uses of invasion to techniques of imperialism in the 21st century. Although people may think that the broadcast airing time of the radio show adaptation of the novel was a coincidence, Mollmann brings this comparison of real time to the novel up front in his article when he discusses how the radio broadcast based on the book was purposely aired at a time of real life threat “from Nazi Germany” and how the film adaptation can be easily associated with “the invading Martians” and “with Soviet Russia and communism” (Mollmann 407).
There are many other ways to compare the Martians’ actions to humans and to real life inside and outside of the book. An example of this is the narrator in the novel himself compares the Martian machines to human machines and the Martians’ advancements on Earth to humans to animals when he says “I began to compare the things to human machines, to ask myself for the first time in my life how an ironclad or a steam engine would seem to an intelligent lower animal” (Wells 38). Although not intended for this, Worth makes a good metaphor for the internet and World Wide Web when he discusses how the Martians are a “cliché expansionist” like an “octopus…with sprawling webs of communication” (Worth 72). Throughout Mollmann’s article, he specifically compares the Martians to the British but at one point steps back to the whole novel and discusses its uses of general imperialism when he says that the novel is “a warning against the dangers of imperialism” and gets so in depth to do a very specific comparison when he says that “The Martians are the British themselves” (Mollmann 407). Although Mollmann briefly discusses the use of imperialism in the novel and its comparisons to the British, he right after says that a specific important adaptation discussed throughout the article, Fighter from Mars, diminishes “the emphasis on imperialism” which disagrees with Worth (Mollmann 407).
The Martians’ tactics of invasion can be closely compared to real life imperialism and times of war when communication is cut before a country or group invades. This comparison really shows how communication is a huge part of society and when cut, it impairs a nation greatly and leaves them vulnerable for attack. The curate in the book The War of the Worlds is easily seen as a metaphor for God and is an odd character in many ways. The curate can also be seen as a metaphor for the Martians because his extreme beliefs and the extreme actions of the Martians, and the Martians are known to not sleep at all and the curate barely sleeps because of his anxiety. The curate is also physically described by our narrator as having large eyes and a receding chin (Wells 53-54). The Martians are described as having no chins and also large eyes (Wells 111-112).
One of the reasons that the curate is so important is because the element of cultural imperialism in the book has a larger playing part of religion, whether it how people’s views change or how it can be compared to cultural imperialism today. The curate often says things comparing the Martians to God, for example when he says that the Martians are “God’s ministers” (Wells 55). Reading the book 50 to 100 years after it was published can make a reader confused on how important this aspect of God is because 50 to 100 years ago, or when the story takes place, religion was ruling the world. Science was a lot lower on the scale than religion and scientists often got shunned or even killed for their discoveries, including Charles Darwin being shunned. The reason this is so important is because during the time in the novel, there was no belief that aliens could possibly exist which means that everyone was even more surprised than a 21st century reader could imagine. This is tied back to the curate because the curate is the example of how people would react to the attack. This reaction includes mostly saying that God is punishing them, rather than thinking that the Martians needed more resources and a place to live, as the novel’s narrator thinks. The ideals of the curate are summed up when he says “It is just, O God!” he would say, over and over again. “It is just. On me and mine be the punishment laid. We have sinned, we have fallen short. There was poverty, sorrow; the poor were trodden in the dust, and I held my peace. I preached acceptable folly – my God, what folly! – when I should have stood up, though I died for it, and called upon them to repent – repent! […] Oppressors of the poor and needy…! The wine press of God!” (Wells 110). Although the curate is very set in his own ways, it shows a nice variety of reactions when compared to the artillery man and the calm intelligent narrator. The curate questions people’s actions and then blames it on the sinners and God for punishing them. These reactions are exactly how those under attack in the real world acted at the time of the novel. This realization causes the reader to read the novel differently because they compare it to the real world.
A religion based society can greatly affect the identity of the society compared to today. The identity of the general society and of the individual are questioned in the novel The War of the Worlds and the movie adaptation. Throughout the whole novel, the narrator is questioning his identity when it comes to the Martian attack, his wife, and his actions towards others. An example of this is when he is in the middle of talking to someone and thinks about himself and says “At times I suffer from the strangest sense of detachment from myself and the world about me; I seem to watch it all from the outside, from somewhere inconceivably remote, out of time, out of space, out of the stress and tragedy of it all” (Wells 22). Even the narrator’s word choice here can question his identity. The narrator also questions other people’s actions, and the whole society questions its own identity. Another example of this is the curate. The curate identifies that it is the sinner’s fault and that God is bringing his wrath. This shows the identity of the religious part of society. The artilleryman shows the military side of society. And the narrator shows the questioning part of society. The narrator questions everything and everyone, including how people react to the Martians and how the narrator compares the Martian’s actions to human’s actions.
The movie adaptation of The War of the Worlds is a great example of all of the identity questions in the novel’s theme. Throughout the movie, the main character questions himself and his relationship to others and in turn grows to improve himself and his relationships; the main character’s identity changes. An example of a scene in the movie where society’s overall identity is questioned is during the boat scene when people are fighting each other and pushing others around or off to get onto the boat. This really shows how people act during a time of crisis and how people change to become more all-for-themselves. These actions can be compared to real life war or how a country or group trying to take over another through cultural imperialism would want this societal identity to change to chaos because it is easier to take over. The boat scene also shows the opposite side of this when the main character’s son goes to help people onto the boat and the intensity of this difference in identity is made apparent by the father’s surprise at his actions. This is a big deal because it is showing that in times of chaos, everyone is expected to act chaotic, and when a character or person does not then people are very surprised and thrown off. Another example of the identity change in the movie is when the van comes by the plane crash with reporters in it. The people are taking all the food and water they can find and then show the main character the videos they have of the Martians. This shows another different point of view because the reporters are helping people and say that they fed New York and have been checking on big cities like DC. All of these examples show how real life people act in times of a crisis and it shows the variety of reactions and how it can completely change the identity of people drastically, people who would never hurt a fly can turn into thieves and murderers.
The novel and the book can be directly used as examples to real life cultural imperialism because of the identity question in any case of imperialism. The book and the movie The War of the Worlds show parallel examples to real life when it comes to the major themes of communication and transportation technology, religion, and personal and group identity and identity change. Everything the Martians did was an example or could be used as an example for a real life imperialistic country and the reactions of the characters can be used as an example for real life reactions to imperialism.
Mollmann, Steven. “The War of the Worlds in the Boston Post and the Rise of American Imperialism: “Let Mars Fire”.” English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920 53.4 (2010): 387-412. Print.
Worth, Aaron. “Imperial Transmissions: H. G. Wells, 1897–1901.”Victorian Studies 53.1: 65-89. Print. Wells, H. G. The War of the Worlds. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1997. Print.
Depictions of Danger in Frankenstein and The War of the Worlds
Both The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley are novels that introduce dangers in the form of an ‘enemy’ – the details of which enemy are largely unknown by the reader. Wells and Shelley, though dealing with enemies in different forms (one a single monster, another a squadron, one man-made and the other beyond man’s comprehension), both present the threat of this enemy in regards to tension and suspense. Whilst reading about this ‘enemy’, the reader is made to feel anxious by use of ominous retrospect in the narrative and the gradual reveal of the monster at hand. Both monsters are introduced slowly and seemingly unthreateningly, but these details combined with the ominous foreshadowing in the narrative develops the idea that there is a threat at hand. The reader is offered little or gradual information about the enemy and as a result, both writers create tension surrounding what is unknown – making the reader feel the threat of danger in a visceral way, as though the reality of each narrative was their own.
Both authors use ominous foreshadowing to indicate to the reader that there is a constant threat – but a threat that the reader knows little about just yet. Use of retrospect is integral to the narratives, in making the reader conscious that worse is to come from each event they are introduced to. For Shelley, use of prolepsis is integral to communicating the constant threat that the monster poses in his story. When we first meet Victor, he is described as “dreadfully emaciated by fatigue and suffering” – seeming that he is not only physically distraught but has also endured extreme emotional strain. Readers subsequently wonder what the reason behind this “fatigue” could be, as Victor begins to warn Walton that his destruction is the result of scientific endeavor. He comments on how Walton seeks “for knowledge and wisdom” as he “once did” and proceeds to ask that the captain listen to his own story in the hopes that he will learn from his mistakes. The use of the adverb “once” not only informs us of his previous (i.e. no longer) pursuit for knowledge but implies a kind of remorse. It suggests that Victor “once” sought out wisdom and endeavored to be a great scientist, but his experience with such scientific development has lead him to consider it a thing of his past. Shelley’s use of prolepsis here links his previous scientific activity to his present broken state. Another example is when he returned to his home shortly after the ‘birth’ of the creature, expressing that he “did not conceive [at that time]” what “anguish” he was “destined to endure” as a result of creating the monster. For Frankenstein’s readers, Victor’s employment of galvanism and current scientific theories would be recognizable to them, and spark curiosity about where science might advance us as a society. Yet hearing him speak with finality about his pursuit for “knowledge and wisdom” (he “once” sought it) sheds a negative light onto what scientific endeavor could actually cause. We are reminded consistently, through this use of prolepsis, that his contribution to science did not lead to success and grandeur but to him becoming this “man on the brink of destruction”. Victor is himself, then, evidence that for the threat of danger in his life, his story – the constant threat of the monster and the death that he brings.
In The War of the Worlds, retrospect is contrasted with the narrator’s feelings during the early stages of the invasion. Evidence of the narrator’s confidence during these stages is seen when he reassures his wife that “the Martians were tied to the pit by sheer heaviness, and at the utmost could but crawl a little out of it”. The adjectives present illuminate how empathically confident the narrator was with this false knowledge – that the enemy was held by “sheer heaviness” and could only move “a little”. The phrase “at the utmost”, too, is a kind of colloquialism that is overly reassuring – demonstrating the level of confidence the narrator had in feeling they were safe. Retrospect changes his confidence into foreboding. When hearing about the army’s advances on the Martians, he expressed that “It hardly seemed a fair fight to me at that time”. By adding “at that time” to the end of this expression is an immediate juxtaposition of his opinion after the events, against his complacent confidence then (representative of most Victorians during the peak of the British Empire) and his sympathy towards the Martians. Ironically, the fight is nowhere close to being a “fair” one in the end – in subtly adding “at that time” to his comment the narrator alludes to the threat of destruction which looms in the future. Not only this, but the reader is curious and anxious about why the situation may be less than a “fair fight”. Particularly since this was published at a time where people were easily unnerved by the potential realities literature presented (consider how people reacted when The Battle of Dorking was published, and the necessity that the government reassured the public), Wells’ elusive review of the invasion from the future would undoubtedly have left his readers uneasy. As a result, both narratives create tension by subtle moments of ominous retrospect that indicate a constant sense of threat in the future, from which both narrators are reflecting on the events. Use of contemporary fears or curiosity in scientific development or the possibility of invasion are woven into both novels and enhance the sense of threat already created by prolepsis and foreshadowing.
In a similar way, both Shelley and Wells draw out the reveal of each ‘enemy’ in so gradual a way that creates suspense – such a suspense that leaves the reader feeling threatened but with sparse information about what the threat actually is. This gradual introduction of the enemy is most poignant in The War of the Worlds, when the Martians are slowly and painfully revealed to the narrator. Not only do the cylinders arrive one by one over the course of several weeks, but the first description of a Martian is drawn out and embroidered with visceral adverbs. He describes it as “A big greyish rounded bulk, the size, perhaps, of a bear” that was “rising slowly and painfully”. Not only do the adverbs “slowly” and “painfully” draw out the movement of the Martian in such a way that generates suspense, but the narrator also demonstrates uncertainty when trying to describe it – “the size, perhaps, of a bear”. The word “perhaps” indicates a guess – he can only guess at what size this Martian is, due to how “slowly” it is being revealed. There is little information gathered about the Martian, leaving the reader curious to understand the specifics of what is being observed. Later the narrator describes how the Martian regarded him “steadfastly” and “heaved and pulsated convulsively”. Again, these adverbs sound painful and suggest that the Martian is struggling. For which reason, the narrator felt it was “hardly” a “fair fight” when he first met them – an inference which is later proved completely wrong. Given that the novel was first published as a serial in a newspaper, tension was key to communicating this sense of threat – and so Wells could achieve this by drip-feeding information about the enemy, a being whose appearance was almost incomprehensible to a contemporary audience.
In contrast, the revelation of the monster in Frankenstein is not so slow and gradual but rather evidencing he is harmless and weak. Victor describes how one of the monster’s hands “stretched out” and that he made “inarticulate sounds”. The verb “stretched” implies reaching, not able to access what he is trying to get to (in this case, his father). Describing his attempts at speaking as “inarticulate sounds” demonstrates his incapability to communicate – he does not know anything about language yet, being so new into the world. Though Victor talks about him in a gruesome manner, commenting that when the monster reaches out it is “seemingly to detain [him]”, the monster does not seem to be an actual, aggressive threat at this point – but merely ugly, stumbling into life like the Martian struggled out of their cylinder. This weakness found in the monster’s early moments communicates Shelley’s beliefs in the innate good of children/humans before their experience of society, yet from Victor’s biased and disgusted, retrospective narrative the reader similarly comes to expect evil of this creature. Hence, the descriptions provided by Wells and Shelley in their narratives – though different in the way that they introduce the monsters – develop tension about how each monster will divulge and grow to become the ‘enemy’ the retrospective narrator believes them to be.
The keys to both Shelley’s and Wells’ presentation of the threat of danger, then, seem to be tension and suspense. The anticipation surrounding the monsters’ next movements, particularly evident in The War of the Worlds as a serial publication, is necessary to draw upon contemporary fears and beliefs of science or invasion theory which serve to embellish the sense of threat the two writers develop. If there weren’t tension, suspense and unanswered questions in the narrative when describing the monsters in primary stages or moments of ominous retrospect, the reader would not be free to interpret the text with their own contemporary knowledge (and latent fears). Hence, the two writers present the threat of danger by developing tension, which fuels the building curiosity and unease in the reader.
Not Quite Safe: Concluding The War of the Worlds
Although humanity survives The War of the Worlds, the ending of H.G. Wells’s novel really is not reassuring at all. Though there do seem to be some positive effects such as advances in science, the Martian invasion obviously has its bad effects too: it has seemed to cause some sort of mental illness for the narrator, and probably for many other humans too. Moreover, the narrator talks about the likelihood of another invasion, if not from Mars then from other planets.
One of the reasons that the novel’s ending is not reassuring is that the invasion seems to leave many of the humans with a kind of mental illness, probably post-traumatic stress disorder. The narrator tells us in the Epilogue that occasionally, when he is writing in his study, he ‘see[s] the healing valley below set writhing with flames, and feel[s] the house behind and about [him] empty and desolate’. Since this is in the Epilogue, we know the Martians are dead, so these must be hallucinations. The fact that he imagines the house ‘empty and desolate’ shows that the Martians have left behind a kind of sadness that stays stuck so strongly that the narrator has it embedded in his subconscious mind. We must not forget there are some good effects as well. The narrator says ‘the gifts it has brought to human science are enormous’ which is, of course, greatly reassuring, especially in the eyes of HG Wells, since he was a keen biologist. But a more important reassuring effect would be the narrator’s description of how they might deal with a future invasion from the Martians. He suggests ‘the cylinder might be destroyed by dynamite… or they might be butchered by means of guns so soon as the screw opened.’ This is very reassuring because we know humans will be more cautious now, rather than making the foolish mistakes they did the first time. However, even in this sentence in which the narrator attempts to reassure the reader, there is still a hint of a worrisome effect: the word ‘butchered’. It gives the reader the sense that humans have become crueler as a result of the Martian invasion and it is going to stay that way. Wells makes this clear when he says ‘for many years yet there will certainly be no relaxation.’ Here, Wells uses anastrophe to emphasize the fact that humans are going to stay cruel ‘for many years’. This phrase comes at the start of the sentence to give it the emphasis. However, some would argue that this is a positive effect of the invasion because the Martians deserve our cruelty and we are safer this way.
To add to this sense of anxiety, the narrator talks about the Martians ‘effecting a landing on the planet Venus.’ This tells the reader that even if it is over for humans, it is not over for Venus and in fact it is not over for any other planet in the universe. We know that Wells wants the reader to infer this because in the first chapter he compares us to ‘infusoria under the microscope’ and the Martians as the man observing us. But there are much bigger things than men, and there are much bigger planets than Mars: it is clear that in this analogy there is still space for other planets of the universe, indiscernibly far away from Earth, to be involved in various other wars. If Wells had just wanted a novel about a war between Earth and Mars, he probably would have called it ‘The War of Woking’, but we know it’s about more than that because the novel is called ‘The War of the Worlds’, indicating that there are clearly more than one world. Again, this all contributes to the effect of the ending of the novel not being reassuring.
One final point to add is that the last chapter mimics the first; they both start with some sort of bird’s-eye view of the situation of how Earth is doing at the moment before the narrator gets on with his own story. We know this because he starts the first chapter talking about everyone: ‘no one would have believed’ but by chapter two he is only talking about himself and a few others who are key to the story: ‘I was at home at that hour…’. In the same way, in the final chapter, Wells starts off with giving an accurate account of what happened, specifically what happened to the ‘Martians that were examined after the war’ and then goes on to say ‘I go to London and see the busy multitudes’. This is in no way reassuring either, because the last chapter is like the first, and the first chapter was followed by violent death and vicious destruction. Wells is trying to say that even more wars are soon to occur. Although this is not reassuring, it could be argued that it is still a tremendous way to end a novel as the end is linked to the start in a way that is almost poetic.
Despite the advances made in the field of science within Wells’s fiction, the end of the novel is not reassuring. Instead it leaves the human mind severely ill and foreshadows many further invasions soon to come, all over the universe.
The War of the Worlds: A Critique of Imperialism
With the close of the 19th century and the dawn of the 20th, much of the world was changing. In particular, world literature was shifting from the ideals of Romanticism to the stark realism of novels written after the Great War. At the beginning of this shift lies the novel The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. It is a unique work in that it can be considered an example of both literary themes present during the 1890s, Romanticism and realism. In the words of Wells himself, it is a “scientific romance” combining aspects of both. While it uses the Martian invasion of Earth as an extended metaphor to critique imperialism in fine Romantic form, its approach is very realistic through its use of verisimilitude, telling of the fictional invasion as an actual event that occurred in the recent past. It is the use of this literary technique that lets The War of the Worlds stand out amidst novels with similar themes but rather more conventional premises, such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Considering the subject matter, the opinions and knowledge of the general public at the time, and the prevailing literary ideas, it was crucial to establish credibility early on. Otherwise, the novel would have been easily dismissed as either too fanciful or too confusing, and its emotional impact would have been greatly reduced. In the novel, Wells provides a base for the use of verisimilitude by writing in the first-person, in the past tense, and from the point of view of a participant writing his memoirs about an event in the near past, all of which contribute to giving the audience a sense of looking back on something that has already occurred. This is crucial, as the audience can better relate to a highly improbable yet historical event, rather than a similar event which only might occur in the future. Wells supports this base through a description of the Martian investigation of man and introduces a comparison to imperialism by immediately laying out that “as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied [like how] a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures… in a drop of water” and that men were furthermore “serene in their assurance of their empire over matter” (3). Incidentally, the use of verisimilitude in The War of the Worlds has the side effect of making the novel more direct (since it is ideally coming across as the narrator’s memoirs) and thus more palatable to the average reader. Rather than needing an extended introduction which could range for chapters and potentially discourage the audience, the novel can instead introduce the most pertinent details necessary to create the background plot and make the transition to the main plot in only a few pages. It is an unorthodox beginning, but it does wonders for convincing the audience that the novel has intellectual merit beyond the basic story and is not just another foolish fantasy to be discarded. As the plot progresses into the narrator’s account of what actually happened, Wells continues to build on the base established in the opening pages to incorporate verisimilitude further into the novel. First, he uses accurate scientific facts to describe Mars and the Martian journey to Earth. He reminds the audience of the vast stellar distances involved (140,000,000 miles), which at the time was hardly common knowledge. For the average reader, this evokes a sense of awe at the abilities of the Martians to traverse such a distance. Then, he leads into a discussion of why the Martians wished to come to Earth in the first place in order to clear up much of the ambiguity as to why such dissimilar creatures (as the reader later learns) would want to go to the trouble of doing so. At this point, the theme of critiquing imperialism comes out strongly, as the narrator addresses the audience directly: “And before we judge them too harshly we must remember what… destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals,… but upon its inferior races,” referring to the Tasmanians that were wiped out by British settlers (5). By comparing the Martians to British imperialists, Wells shows the readers how they, through the British Empire, have mistreated much of the developing world. As for the reader, seeing the similarity between seemingly inhuman monsters and themselves is startling. Wells also draws on his own reality to provide proper names for the people and places in the novel. The narrator states that the Martian preparations were spotted by several real-life astronomers like Perrotin of Nice, Lavelle of Java, and Oglivy, a famous British observer. He even spends the night with Oglivy at his Ottershaw observatory, where they observe the first cylinder’s launch. However, regardless of what this could mean to them, the populace remains unconcerned, as evidenced by Punch satirizing the “volcanoes upon Mars” for the political cartoon (8-9). Wells then places the landing site of the first cylinder as Horsell Common, which was an open area near his home and the home of the novel’s narrator. Wells could have easily placed the setting in a foreign or fictional country, but placing it in Great Britain makes it all the more pressing; reading about somewhere far away being devastated is one thing, but reading about your own town and surrounding towns being devastated is quite another. A common method of distancing oneself from a traumatic event that has occurred to others is to assert that it won’t happen here. Placing the novel in Great Britain prevents the audience from resorting to that method and forces them to confront their fears and apprehensions, both about the fictional Martians and the real effects on the world of British imperialism. Again, most of Wells’s efforts to make The War of the Worlds read like a factual real-life account have to come at the beginning to establish credibility, but that does not mean he can forget the rest of the novel. Throughout the rest of the story, Wells uses several contrasts in the British people’s reactions to the Martian invasion to further support the theme. For example, the narrator describes how, after the Heat Ray was first used, he encounters a group of people who have only heard about it, but not actually seen its deadly effects. One asks, “People seem fair silly about the common. What’s it all abart?” and when given an answer replies that she has heard “Quite enough, thenks” (33). The group scorns the narrator as exaggerating the crisis, which incidentally was the reaction of most people when confronted by the effects of imperialism. They dismissed it as something they didn’t need to worry about, as they have only heard about it, rather than seen it directly. However, when the Martians finally emerge in their iconic tripods, the people change their minds without even a small demonstration of the Heat Ray, as shown by the response at Shepperton and Weybridge shortly thereafter. A similar response is described by the narrator’s brother in London, as the “people in their best clothes seemed scarcely affected by the strange intelligence [of the Martians]” until the Martians arrive, whereupon “the whole population of the great six-million city [poured] en masse northward” (87, 91). Some are even driven to insanity, like the curate that the narrator meets. Shaken by the destruction of Weybridge, the curate slowly goes mad during his time with the narrator, and, once trapped in the destroyed house by the Martian pit, succumbs quickly. He becomes so insensible that he eventually claims, “I must bear my witness!” and rushes to the Martians (156). Fortunately, the narrator escapes by knocking out the curate and hiding in the house’s scullery. These examples work to convey to the reader what it feels like to be the victims of a more powerful entity, which is also how the inhabitants of several British colonies feel, albeit to a lesser degree. While the novel eventually does resolve on the high note of the Martians’ demise, the audience cannot forget how their collective actions towards colonial peoples can be reflected in the fictional Martian actions towards the audience and must confront themselves over what has happened, both in the novel and in reality. Essentially, The War of the Worlds uses verisimilitude in order to combine a thrilling story and an exposition upon the moral dangers of imperialism. Wells could very easily have written two novels that each do half of what the The War of the Worlds does, but the overall emotional effect on the story and the reader would be compromised. A thrilling yet superficial story would excite the reader but accomplish nothing substantial, while an exposé on imperialism would accomplish something substantial, but would be so dull as to end up in a library somewhere, a sort of “call to arms” that no one would hear. When combined, the story may not be as thrilling and the exposé may not be as exposing, but people will read it, and the world will be that much richer for it.
Horror and Reality: The Artilleryman’s Contribution to the Novel
During Book Two, Chapter Seven of The War of the Worlds, we are reminded of the artilleryman’s eccentric character. In short, his role is as an object of satire: he voices opinions for Wells to criticise. Nonetheless, the artilleryman does more than this; he gives a horrifying image of how humans will evolve, which can be applied to the real world that Wells was actually writing about.
The artilleryman shows one view Wells is against in his manner of thinking. He is very much obsessed with possession, as evidenced by his bold claim, ‘this is my country.’ This kind of parochial view is exactly what Wells is trying to eliminate through writing this book. Wells uses this phrase to bring colonial thoughts to the reader’s mind, but ensures we still view these ‘navy-crowded seas’ in a negative light through the narrator’s disinterested response. He seems unenthusiastic and gives the artilleryman short answers, even though the artilleryman speaks incessantly, sometimes for entire paragraphs. The artilleryman then continues by telling the narrator that ‘there is only food for one’, which emphasizes his selfishness.
However, as previously mentioned, the artilleryman is more than just an object of satire. He also holds some views which the narrator completely agrees with. One example of this is his contempt for the deeply class-ridden Victorian society. He says ‘if you’ve got any drawing room manners, or dislike eating peas with a knife… you better chuck ‘em away. They ain’t no further use.’ He has made it perfectly clear: classes and drawing-room manners won’t be needed in a post-apocalyptic world. This view is one that Wells agrees with because it suggests that these classes, if not needed in The War of the Worlds, are not needed in the real world either. Wells goes so far to emphasize the narrator and the artilleryman sharing common ground that he even has the artilleryman use the narrator’s ant analogy from Book One.
Much of this has probably been put in place to give the reader a good reason for why the narrator accepted the artilleryman’s ideas in the first place, and then helped him in the task of building a redundant tunnel. The narrator accepts the artilleryman’s insane philosophy at first because they do have so much in common. The artilleryman gives the horrifying image of humans as some sort of cattle for the Martians, living in ‘roomy cages’ with ‘fattening food’, except for a strong race of men and women who will live freely beyond Martian rule. The artilleryman includes himself and the narrator in this group, which clearly appeals to the narrator’s vanity, and so he decides to help the artilleryman.
It is important to note here that we cannot assume Wells’ beliefs are identical to the narrator’s. We know in several instances they differ greatly, for example the narrator prays to God believing He will take action to change the world, but Wells’ beliefs about God (from God the Invisible King) are that ‘God does not guide our feet’ and He will not do anything to change the natural course of nature. The narrator’s selfishness in accepting the artilleryman’s views is another example of when Wells’ views differ from the narrator’s, because, as an egalitarian, Wells would not have believed it right for some people to life as cattle whilst other were living in freedom.
Wells shows his disapproval of this by allowing the narrator to become disillusioned, through the artilleryman’s laziness and inability to complete a task. He tells the narrator: ‘Oh, one can’t always work.’ This is the exact moment that the narrator says he ‘saw the man plain’, which proves it is the artilleryman’s lazy character that gives him away. It gives him away as being insane, which is in no way unknown to the reader. Of course, if the man is thought of as insane, no reader will listen to his ideas because society thinks of insanity as something that makes you think in the wrong way, and is good cause for locking you up away from everyone else. Hence Wells has exposed the artilleryman’s views as incorrect.
One final idea the artilleryman contributes to the novel is the criticism he puts forward of human nature. He says the human race deserves their fate under the Martians because people have led their lives in fear rather than freedom, which has made them easy prey; he also raises Darwinian ideas of survival of the fittest. Ultimately, the artilleryman indicates that the ones who survive will be the ones who are prepared to reject society’s values. This scenario shows Wells’ dislike of society’s values in his own time, such as the inequality of the class system. Wells isn’t only arguing that the class system is wrong, but that we won’t be able to survive unless we eliminate it.
War of the Worlds as a Reflection for Anxiety
Ostensibly an alien invasion movie, Independence Day is a movie that best exemplifies the gender politics of the 1990s, where feminism scared men into fearing for their masculinity. In the 1990s, Hilary Clinton was vilified, books like The Rules: Time Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right became bestsellers to push traditional gender roles and Robert Bly started the Men’s Movement in order to reclaim masculinity. “We no longer have images of ‘real men,’ Bly says, as the men continue the drum beat. Stereotypical sissies have replaced macho men.” (Faludi, 317) In many ways, Independence Day is the hero’s journey from emasculated sissy, running away from aliens to macho men willing to fight back to regain their masculinity. Genre
The genre of the alien invasion began with H.G. Wells’ book The War of the Worlds, in which Martians invade Earth, destroy many landmarks and are ultimately destroyed by germs. There are many interpretations of War of the Worlds. One of the more interesting ones is that the book is a critique of British Imperialism where the invaders give the earth a taste of their own medicine. In the beginning of the book H.G. Wells’ narrator points out that “in spite of their human likeness [the Tasmanians] were swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants.” (5) In light of the British Imperialism, one should note that one of the major problems that British colonialists faced in distant lands were diseases, which is reflected in the happy ending where the aliens die of the cold.
Wartime produces different interpretations of alien invasions. Orson Welles’ radio play for War of the Worlds took place on October 30, 1938, less than a year before Germany invaded Poland, thereby starting World War II. The possibility of war was increasing throughout the 1930s as Germany built up its military, invaded nations and increased the war rhetoric. The interpretation of War of the Worlds wasn’t as important as the panic that the radio show caused. News stories were increasingly giving the impression that war could begin at any time; a radio show stating that it was happening between humans and aliens hit the zeitgeist.
In the 1950s, there were several movies about aliens invading the earth and causing war. Since America was in a post-war prosperity and settling into a Cold War, the alien invasion movies would be very positive. The 1950s War of the Worlds saw many landmarks being destroyed and the nuclear bomb being deployed. It ends with the disease killing all the ships in the last moment before the end. The positivism of the time is reflected in the contemporary review of the film: “Does our side win despite these odds? Of course. But it would be unfair, even to a Martian, to divulge the climax.” (A.W.)
By contrast, Spielberg’s adaptation of War of the Worlds doubled as a post-9/11 therapy with the civilian viewpoint being emphasized. Many of the images of 9/11 were transposed to the movie including dead bodies, missing person notices and mountains of ash. Spielberg purposefully skewed away from alien invasion tropes like generals sitting around tables discussing strategy and landmarks being destroyed. Cloverfield took the alien invasion trope to even more claustrophobic extremes by following four friends through Manhattan as they try to figure out what’s going on and survive.
The discourse of the 90s was not always as blatantly sexist as the following passage from a rightwing blog: “Today, nearly 60 percent of the students enrolled at U.S. colleges are women. And of course it has become much more difficult for men to find good jobs. In fact, less than 65 percent of all men have a job right now” (Snyder). However, that contingent of worry over the amount of women in colleges and working careers was endemic to the culture, even among people who did not overtly worry about men losing their control. When Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House in 1995, one of the major news stories began: “The mother of incoming House speaker Newt Gingrich said in a television interview that her son thinks first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton is ‘a bitch.’” (Reuters)
Even as women were making strides, there was a serious hostility towards feminism. Susan Faludi’s book Backlash was published in the same era as Camille Paglia’s Sexual Persona, which made many sales from the author’s personality and eagerness to fight with feminists. There were many movies that reflected this fear of emasculation including Disclosure, The Big Lebowski and Fight Club, where the heroes needed to regain their manhood. Independence Day Emasculation
Independence Day begins with several male characters in various stages of emasculation. Jeff Goldblum is introduced as an MIT graduate who is caught in a dead end job in a cable company. His co-worker is played by Harvey Keitel who is a flaming homosexual, which is the quintessential sissy character. When the aliens show up over several major cities, the president of the United States only acts because he is warned by Constance Spano, a woman that serves as a functionary between Jeff Goldblum’s emasculated genius and Bill T. Pullman’s emasculated president. Will Smith is the only outright masculine character and yet his girlfriend is an exotic dancer which means that he is not the only man that gets to see her naked. He also trips over toys as he’s walking out of the house.
Once the aliens attack, the movie becomes downright Freudian as the alien spaceships open up in flower like configurations above tall towers including the tallest skyscraper in Los Angeles and the Empire State Building. As the flowery spaceships open up like vaginas, they release an energy that destroys the phallic buildings. Besides the symbolic castration, the destruction scenes also feature the death of Harvey Keitel’s sissy character, a dog that somehow manages to outrun oncoming fire and the president running away on Air Force One as the White House is destroyed. Once Will Smith and Harry Connick jr. try to fight the space ships, they are entirely impervious to attack. The ships will only open for symbolic phalluses in order to destroy them. Other symbolic phalluses will crash against the ships in a vain attempt at getting inside. The only successful attempt to destroy the ships happens when Will Smith lures an attacker into the Grand Canyon, thus reversing the symbols with the earth acting as the killer vagina.
Once the spaceships have thoroughly emasculated the planet, the second act sees the heroes exploring their loss of masculinity. The president discovers that his advisors have been keeping the aliens from him. Once he meets the alien, he attempts to broker a feminine peace treaty with it, only to be rebuffed. He reacts with a speech about fighting and killing them all. Randy Quaid plays a pilot who was anally probed by the aliens. This violation is passed off as a joke and a key to his entire character arc. Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith are both heroic Others whose outsider status allows them to come up with the plot of infecting the alien spaceships with a computer virus. This kind of subterfuge is not necessarily something that more masculine characters would engage in; however, these characters – being Jewish and black – are free to engaging in cunning plans. They are also engaged in the relationship story lines of either reuniting with ex-wives or marrying stripper girlfriends.
The third act is initiated by a presidential speech in which the president claims that they will win a great victory on Independence Day. This plays into the American belief of being the policemen of the world, who maintain all order and stability and successfully repel all nefarious evil doers. In a movie that is decidedly unsubtle, this is the least subtle speech possible. The president has overcome all of his waffling and his feminine beliefs in peace and compromise and has emerged as the warrior that he had once been.
The final fight is a reversal of the destruction at the beginning where phallic aircraft fly up to the spaceship and ejaculate bullets at it. Since the two heroes have installed a virus into the system, the small phallic symbols are capable of doing what the large phallic symbols were unable to do at the beginning of the movie and ravish the spaceships. This is the symbolic equivalent of “size doesn’t matter” and “it’s the motion of the ocean, not the size of the both.” The final victory comes when Randy Quaid symbolically rapes the spaceship by yelling “Up yours, asshole,” (or up your asshole) and thus announcing his victory over the vagina, even at the loss of his own life. In the final montage, the crashed spaceships are shown throughout the planet including a ship that is in the background of spear waving Africans. This part is particularly egregious since the Africans have no technology to destroy the spaceship beyond their spears. Presumably they waved their sharp phallic objects at the spaceship (vaginal symbol) and it fell down from pure fear.
Thus the journey has been made whereby castration and emasculation has been imposed upon the men and they have responded by regaining their manhood through symbolic sexual violence. In the weltanschauung of Independence Day, masculinity is a zero sum game where manhood must be protected at all costs, lest the feminine – depicted as evil alien beings – is allowed to destroy it through independence, domination and emasculation.
A.W. “The Screen in Review: New Martian Invasion is seen in War of the Worlds which bows at Mayfair.” The New York Times. Movie Review. August 14, 1953. Retrieved from http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?_r=1&res=9A07E6DD153EE53BBC4C52DFBE668388649EDE&oref=slogin
Faludi, Susan. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. New York: Broadway Books. 2006.
Reuters. “What Newt Called Hillary Clinton.” SFGate. January 4, 1995. Retrieved from http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/What-Newt-Called-Hillary-Clinton-In-interview-3049641.php
Snyder, Michael. ”32 Facts that show how Men are being Systematically Emasculated in America Today.” The Economic Collapse. Retrieved from http://theeconomiccollapseblog.com/archives/32-facts-that-show-how-men-are-being-systematically-emasculated-in-america-today
Wells, H.G. The War of the Worlds. 1898. New York: Tom Doherty Associate Books. 1988.
Unique No More: Wells, Pearson, and the Critique of Humanism in ‘The War of the Worlds’
When Darwin first published his novel, The Origin of Species, in 1859, it was met with great controversy and backlash, sparking in the process a heated debate between scientists, religious scholars, and the general public over its implications and applications to our human society. His ideas of Natural Selection and “survival of the fittest” went against what had been believed by the majority for millennia–that humans were made in God’s image, exempt from nature, and therefore were superior to all other living kind on Earth. Darwin’s theory challenged that established belief and forced many to question their scientific understanding, religious beliefs, and ancestral lines. However, there soon appeared an answer to the confusion in the form of “Humanism,” or the “solidarity of humanity in the struggle with its environment. (Pearson 29)” Humanists were able to mold Darwin’s theory to fit their idea that while humans may be governed by nature, they too hold power over their fates. However, the author, H.G. Wells, in his novel, The War of the Worlds, writes of a foreign and threatening species, one with no relation to humans at all, that exhibits the same behaviors and actions that proponents of humanism argue are unique to humans. The scholar, Aaron Worth, claims that H.G Wells wrote his novel as a way of criticizing the British Empire’s imperialist expansion into Asia and Africa; however, one could take it one step further and say that underneath H.G Wells’ warning against imperialism there is another criticism–a dismantling of the humanist theory.
In his analysis, The Grammar of Science, Karl Pearson talks about the idea of humanism, a theory that had existed since Renaissance times, but was then strengthened and used by those disturbed by Darwin’s evolutionary theories to separate and allow humans to bend the laws of nature to their own whims. He talks of a “third factor of evolution…the profit that arises to humanity at large from common organization against organic and inorganic foes.” (Pearson 29) He gives an example of a “failure…to master their physical environment” that will lead to “famine.” (Pearson 29) By joining together, humans would, in theory, hold as much responsibility for their rise and fall as the laws of nature. They triumph over foes and struggle when mistakes are made. Instead of simply being governed by the laws of nature, such as the natural selection described by Darwin, humans, proponents of humanism argue, are also governed by their actions. They have “human control over man’s physical and biological environment,” (Pearson 29) something that no other living creature on Earth possesses.
However, Wells’ writing of fictional Martians may very well discredit that theory. In Aaron Worth’s analysis, “Imperial Transmissions: H. G. Wells, 1897–1901”, he claims that “Wells elaborates monitory parables that link near-infinite imperial expansion with the threat of imperial extinction. (Worth 69)” He asserts that War of the Worlds was written as a warning–the British empire was engaged in a massive colonization and expansion campaign and Wells believed that such an operation would lead to the ultimate extinction of the civilization. In fact, as Worth points out, “the British Empire is curiously absent from The War of the Worlds…surely because the British Empire is present in counterfactual form in the novel, symbolized as the Martians’ invading force; England, in effect, is confronted with its own possible (imperial) future. (Worth 71)” The roles are reversed in Wells’ novel–instead of Britain being the all-mighty power, they are the conquered nations, the unassuming natives confronted by an all-too-powerful threat.
And, while Wells’ martian forces were most likely intended to represent the British Empire in his allegory on imperialism, there is another group that they could also represent–the human race as a whole. Within moments of their arrival, the people of Earth witness firsthand what happens when another species joins together to defeat foes. By harnessing the power of nature, the Martians “slay men so swiftly and so silently” with a deadly heat ray. The narrator doesn’t know exactly how such a deadly machine was created and used, but based on his hypothesis of a “parabolic mirror” reflecting “heat, and invisible, instead of visible light,” (Wells 28) we can infer that it had to do with the manipulation of nature–an ability that supporters of humanism only attribute to humans.
The evidence of the Martians’ ability to manipulate their environment, however, does not stop there. The narrator witnesses a Martian deploying capsules of “Black Smoke,” which upon being released,“hissed against the walls, smashed all the windows it touched, and scalded the curate’s hand” (Wells 116). This fictionous poisonous gas causes devastation to the world around our narrator, killing all those who encounter it on ground level and proves to be a powerful weapon, especially when combined with the heat ray introduced earlier in the novel. Comparable to the mustard gas used during WWI, this poison uses the same means of delivery as how Nature delivers us with oxygen–through the air. The Martians took a harmless feature of nature, one that surrounds humans and is unavoidable, and turned it into a harmful and deadly force through the use of a scientific and technological weapon.
We see in documentation of the British imperial movement that the majority of their success came from the careful manipulation of nature through the use of advanced technology. According to the Saylor Foundation, Britain’s use of “steam engines and steel ships allowed imperial forces to penetrate inland using the rivers that had previously been unnavigable. (Saylor 5)” If the laws of nature were the only factors in play, the British would not have been able to access and conquer the civilizations protected by dangerous rivers. However, as humanism argues, the ability to have “human control over… [the] environment” (Pearson 29) made it so that humans (in this case the British imperial forces), were not hindered by the natural formations of the region–their mastery of technology and manipulation of the environment made them superior beings…just like the “heat ray” of the Martians made them more powerful than the people of Earth in The War of the Worlds.
However, humanism concedes that not always does man’s control over his surroundings lead to ultimate success. While Pearson mentions an example of a famine in his The Grammar of Science, the Saylor Foundation brings up a real life example of what happened to Britain and their force during their quest for Africa. While “the steamship aided European mastery over much of Asia;… in Africa, Europeans were still stymied by malaria.” (Saylor 5) Having moved too quickly into the African continent, toting guns and advanced technology, Britain did not account for the risk of unknown illnesses befalling them. This wasn’t simply a case of Darwin’s natural selection, for without the conscience choice to move men from Europe to Africa in an effort to gain control over resources and land, the British imperial forces would not have ever been exposed to malaria. It took the collective failure of humans to properly prepare combined with the dangerous diseases present in Africa to lead to the infection and initial failure of Britain’s invasion of Africa.
Therefore, it’s not just the Martians’ success in harnessing nature to defeat foes that forces us to question the idea of humanism, but also their failure at the end of the novel. Humanism admits that a collective failure can most definitely lead to great consequences, and the Martians, like the British in Africa during their colonization, certainly did face ramifications. The novel does not end with some great battle between the aliens and humans; rather, it ends with the simplest of solutions: bacteria. Having not accounted for foreign diseases and microscopic dangers during their invasion of the planet, the Martians were “slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared.” (Wells 168) Wells most likely was using this demise to show that the overexpansion of the British empire was conscience suicide, but he inadvertently also made an important comparison between humans and the Martian race, one crucial to the argument against humanism. Like the humans in Pearson’s example of the famine, or Saylor Foundation’s discussion of the failure of the British empire, the Martians were subjected to the same consequences as man–their fates were not simply governed by nature, they were decided by the consequences of their actions and their conscience decision to defy the laws of nature and enter into an area that they would have never naturally come upon.
Proponents of humanism based their arguments off the concept solidarity– that humans are the only living things on Earth to possess a skill or trait that allows for them to manipulate nature’s laws and forces. Humanism uses this idea to accept Darwin’s controversial theory on evolution– such a theory can still exist in their natural world, because human solidarity exempts them from the known laws of nature, of natural selection, of “survival of the fittest.” All other creatures, because they do not possess the same solidarity, are subject to nature’s ways. But, Wells shows that this may not actually be the case. While Martians are technically not of this Earth, and there is a possibility that some can argue that this fact means a comparison between Earthly humans and alien Martians cannot be made, there is no denying that it weakens the foundations of the humanist argument. If a fiction author can so easily imagine another creature possessing superior traits, it is quite possible that another creature, perhaps even one of Earth, is also on the same level. For once, in War of the Worlds, the tables have turned on humans–our belief that nothing is greater than us is severely contested when the new arrivals in the novel so easily take us down. Humanism was an accepted solution to the conflicts between traditional religious beliefs and Darwin’s modern theories, but after Wells’ allegorical representation of the British empire in the form of cruel space invaders, perhaps another way of merging religion and scientific thought needs to be made.
Ultimately, the largest critique against humanism in The War of the Worlds is not simply the fact that a species separate from humanity has the capacity to possess the same traits as humans. No, it has to do more with the entire idea of controlling nature. No matter how many examples are given for the manipulations of surroundings; whether you are examining the Martians’ heat rays and poisonous fog or the British’s steamships and guns, there never seems to be a permanent solution. Yes, the Martians and humans found a way to bypass the laws of nature for a moment. They created great clouds of poison, travelled up unforgiving rivers. They defeated foes through superior technology. But in the end, they were met with the same fate–eventually nature caught up to them and took them out with the most simple of threats: disease. Humanism allows for the possibility of failure, but for those who argue for the theory, such failure is only through one path–a collective failure. They attempt to keep the control within the hands of humans. But disease can wipe out one individual or many; you can collectively fail to protect yourself, but you can’t collectively fail to stop disease–it will occur with or without you. So while the idea of an inhuman species possessing the same traits that humanists argue are unique to humans in itself dismantles the theory of Humanism, it is the demise, and what facilitated it, of the Martians in The War of the Worlds, that ultimately challenges Humanism. Control of nature, no matter who supposedly holds it, is as fictional as the alien monsters described by H.G Wells.