H. G. WELLS: THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1898)

©2019, by M. Keith Booker

Though it was in fact one of many alien-invasion tales published in Britain in the late nineteenth century, The War of the Worlds can be considered to be the founding text of the alien-invasion subgenre in its modern form. Wells’ novel established many conventions of the alien-invasion narrative and set a standard against which most subsequent alien-invasion stories have inevitably been measured. In its terrifying vision of an invasion of England by technologically advanced forces from Mars,The War of the Worlds responds to a number of topical concerns, including the growing threat of war between England and Germany and the general sense of crisis in British society that was accompanied by apocalyptic concerns related to the turn of the century. Most importantly, The War of the Worlds comments on the then-contemporary phenomenon of colonialism. Crucial here is Wells’ understanding that an invasion by a technologically superior alien power would suddenly place colonial powers such as Great Britain in the same position in which those powers had placed Tasmania, Africa, and other colonized regions of the globe. In particular, Wells’ clear allegorical (and satirical) association of alien invasion with the legacy of colonialism on earth indicates the potential relevance of such associations in alien-invasion narratives as a whole.

Like many alien invasion narratives, The War of the Worlds is set in a relatively realistic version of the author’s contemporary world, which is then transformed into a science fiction setting by the book’s only real departure from the realities of Victorian life: the arrival of an invasion force from Mars. Even here, though, Wells remains in an essentially realist literary mode, showing flashes of the gifts that would later make him one of Edwardian England’s pre-eminent realist novelists. This is especially the case in the passages in which Wells’ narrator provides long descriptions of the Martians’ physiology and technology, providing detailed accounts of the kind for which the great nineteenth-century realists—such as Honoré de Balzac—are so well known.

Still, the sweeping implications of the Martian invasion produce striking new perspectives that allow the book to establish a substantial cognitive distance from reality, while at the same time commenting on that reality in a profound way. The War of the Worlds is narrated by an unnamed protagonist who describes himself as a professional “speculative” philosopher and writer and thus has much in common with Wells himself. Because of his profession, this narrator is able to provide particularly thoughtful and sophisticated reflections on the events he describes, though Wells sometimes undermines his narrator by implicating him in the attitudes that the book is clearly intended to satirize. For example, when the battle with the Martian invaders first begins, the narrator calmly and confidently assumes, as he sips his wine and enjoys his fine food, that the newcomers will be no match for the vaunted British military.

One advantage of the narrator’s professional background is that it allows him to narrate in a style that is roughly Wells’ own, producing in the course of the narration a number of now famous passages. Perhaps the most famous of these passages occurs at the book’s opening, which ominously sets the tone for the following narration:

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 our own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. … Yet across a 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. (1)

Wells here establishes a reversal of perspectives of the kind that is often central to satire, asking his scientifically-minded Victorian audience to imagine a sudden shift in which they themselves become the objects of study by a superior scientific intelligence. This passage specifically asks readers to imagine themselves in the position of animals or even microscopic organisms whose behavior is being observed by biologists. The thrust of the novel as a whole, however, points toward the then-new science of anthropology, asking readers to imagine themselves in the position of the “primitive” peoples of Africa and other parts of the burgeoning British Empire, at the time the objects of intense scrutiny by British scientists whose work was largely designed to describe the ways in which British civilization was superior to those of Britain’s conquered colonial subjects.

In the following pages, Wells’ narrator describes the arrival on earth of a sophisticated Martian invasion force that assembles first gigantic walking war machines and later flying machines that move across the English landscape wreaking havoc and making short work of the opposition they encounter. Among other things, the high-technology war machines of the Martians anticipate the technologization of modern warfare that in less than two decades would lead to the carnage of World War I. The narrator, meanwhile, observes the invasion while attempting to stay out of sight of the invaders, providing commentary on the implications of all that he sees. Despite British attempts to organize a resistance to the invasion, a Martian victory seems assured, until suddenly the intellectually advanced, but physically weak Martians drop dead due to their lack of resistance to the micro-organisms that inhabit the earth’s atmosphere.

The War of the Worlds is thus a double cautionary tale that warns against both the belief that the British have a right to impose their will on less advanced peoples and the complacent assumption that they will be able to do so. Meanwhile, accustomed to the safe, comfortable lives they have been living in England while others elsewhere in the world (including in Britain’s colonies) live lives of perpetual peril, Wells’ Londoners are ill-equipped for the arrival of sudden danger in their midst. And, lest any readers miss the parallels between the Martian invasion of Britain and the British colonial invasion of much of the rest of the world, Wells is careful to make these parallels quite explicit. For example, as part of his initial introduction to the story, the narrator reminds his readers that, before judging the Martians as monstrous,

we must remember the ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit? (3)

Later, near the end of the narrative, the narrator expresses his hope that the experience of the Martian invasion will teach the British to moderate their sometimes brutal colonial policies and to show “pity for those witless souls that suffer our dominion” (162).

Other contemporary social and political issues addressed by Wells’ novel are also related to turn-of-the-century debates concerning colonialism. The bookbegins, for example, with a swipe at British bourgeois complacency via a meditation on England’s lack of preparation for the invasion that would be coming from Mars, partly because of the British habit of thinking themselves superior to any alien cultures they might encounter. “At most,” the narrator concludes, “terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise” (1). This habitual arrogance has left England particularly unprepared for the arrival of the vastly more advanced Martians.

In addition, the narrator posits that the Martians have become more advanced because Mars is an older planet where intelligent life arose earlier and has thus had more time to evolve. Compared to earth cultures, the Martians are “not only more distant from time’s beginning but nearer its end” (2). Here the narrator echoes precisely the linear model of historical progress that provided a crucial linchpin for the ideology of colonialism in the nineteenth century. A classic statement of this attitude comes from the work of German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, one of the leading theorists of bourgeois historiography. Hegel’s view of world history as the unfolding of a sort of divine plan led him to the ethnocentric conclusion that his contemporary European culture was the farthest point thus far toward the culmination of that plan and to the nationalistic belief that his own Germany was supreme among the nations of the earth because it was closest to the end of the historical timeline. Among other things, this historical model was used to help justify the colonization of Africa in the late nineteenth century, on the premise that Africa had so far failed (like the abnormal cultures in which Star Trek’s Captain Kirk felt justified in intervening, despite the Prime Directive forbidding such intervention) to progress normallyalong the historical timeline and therefore could use a boost from the more advanced Europeans.

Hegel himself singled out Africa as an example of lack of historical development that served to highlight the relatively high level of development of Europe. For him, Africa was

the land of childhood, which lying beyond the day of self-conscious history, is enveloped in the dark mantle of Night. … For it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit. … What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature.  (91, 99)

The suggestion by Wells’ narrator that the Martians are much farther along the timeline of historical development puts the historical shoe on the other foot, placing the English in the position of an underdeveloped culture that suddenly encounters a more advanced one and casting the earth as one of the dark places of the solar system. This reversal thus serves as a satirical jab at the arrogant Eurocentrism of this Hegelian historical model, or at least at its use as a justification for colonialism.

That the Martians of Wells’ novel are more scientifically and technologically advanced than their British adversaries is indisputable. However, Wells makes it clear that scientific knowledge does not necessarily lead to enlightenment or benevolence. The Martians come to earth with an eye toward exploitation, with no regard for the pain suffered by their human opponents. Indeed, they are essentially vampires. They have evolved so far beyond the physical and toward pure intellect that they have no digestive systems (or sexual organs) but instead feed by injecting the blood of other living creatures directly into their veins. Their main purpose in coming to earth is to harvest the planet’s human population as a source of this blood.

Of course, the evolution of the Martians beyond the physical ultimately proves to be their undoing. Their lack of resistance to earth’s microbes is not merely due to the fact that the microbes are foreign to their experience: it is also due to the fact that they appear to have no auto-immune systems whatsoever. In fact, they have virtually no systems except their brains. This notion of physically effete Martians who have evolved toward a state of pure intellect echoes much late-nineteenth-century British discourse concerning the possibility that the English, spoiled by the ease of life (at least for the upper classes) in their advanced society, might grow similarly weak. In this sense, the fate of the Martians dramatizes many of the same evolutionary (or devolutionary) concerns as that of the Eloi of Wells’ The Time Machine. Among other things, Wells’s Martians enact precisely the doubleness that the followers of Herbert Spencer’s theories of social evolution attempted to associate with the British. In some ways vastly sophisticated, the Martians still live literally by forcefully extracting resources (in this case blood) from others. Their depiction in The War of the Worlds, however, suggests that this combination of militancy and industrialization is not necessarily a good thing.

The discourse of degeneration was, of course, closely connected with the historical phenomenon of colonialism, and particularly with the fear that contact with “primitive” and “savage” peoples such as those encountered in Africa might contaminate the European colonizers, activating their own latent primitive and savage tendencies. Probably the best-known literary representation of this particular phenomenon is Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz, the ultra-civilized European genius who travels to Africa in Heart of Darkness (first published one year after War of the Worlds)to help enlighten the natives, only to revert to savagery, perhaps because the primitive African milieu into which he travels has greater vitality and energy than the effete European context from which he came.

War of the Worlds directly reflects the twin concerns over the possibilities of degeneration into savagery and evolution into physical weakness. For example, a former artilleryman encountered by the narrator late in the book expresses the fear that, in the wake of their apparent defeat by the Martians, any humans remaining outside Martian domination “will go savage—degenerate into a sort of big, savage rat” (171). Meanwhile, the Martians themselves quite clearly serve as a cautionary image of the direction in which British society itself might be headed—into the kind of moral weakness that makes it possible for the Martians unflinchingly to visit such a brutal assault upon a helpless England and the kind of physical weakness that makes the Martians completely dependent on technology—and completely vulnerable to earthly disease.

Of course, the vampirism of the Martians reinforces the link Wells wishes to establish between the Martian invaders of earth and the British invaders of Africa and elsewhere. Indeed, if the vampirism motif makes the Martian invasion seem especially horrifying, it is also one that is in many ways a perfect metaphor for the European extraction of labor and resources from the colonies. It may thus be no coincidence that Wells’ use of this motif follows directly on the publication of the greatest of all vampire narratives, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), which itself serves, like War of the Worlds, as an allegorical reversal of the terms of colonialism. Thus Stephen Arata, discussing Dracula, notes that Stoker’s text reflects an anxiety often found in popular British fiction at the end of the nineteenth century, in which “a terrifying reversal has occurred: the coloniser finds himself in the position of the colonised, the exploiter becomes the exploited, the victimizer victimised” (120–21).

Arata relates these anxieties to contemporary fears concerning degeneration, as well as to guilt over the practices of British colonialism. In addition, vampirism is a perfect metaphor for capitalism as a whole, as the socialist Wells, like Karl Marx himself, surely realized. Thus, in Capital, his most important diagnostic study of capitalism, Marx declares that “capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks” (Tucker 362–63). For Marx, this vampire image is clearly designed to shock his Victorian audience into a recognition of the exploitative nature of capitalism, just as Wells uses it to try to shake his own Victorian audience out of their comfortable bourgeois complacency concerning colonialism. Wells’s former artilleryman provides a particularly bitter denunciation of British middle-class conformism and complacency when he suggests to the narrator that “those damn little clerks” that used to live in the area would be of little use in the guerrilla campaign he hopes to mount against the triumphant Martians. He envisions these timid clerks as having few passions other than being on time and following rules, “skedaddling” off to work in terror of offending their bosses, then rushing back home in terror of offending their wives by being late for dinner. Their primary concern in life, he concludes, is “safety in their one little skedaddle through the world. Lives insured and a bit invested for fear of accidents.” For such rabbit-like clerks, the artilleryman concludes, Martian captivity will be a “godsend,” providing them with “nice roomy cages, fattening food, careful breeding, no worry” (169).

The artilleryman here anticipates Marlow, the protagonist of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,who proclaims with a similar bitterness that his affluent listeners in London, with their safe protected lives, cannot possibly comprehend the violence and savagery that inform life in colonial Africa. “Here you all are, each moored with two good addresses, like a hulk with two anchors, a butcher round one corner, a policeman round another, excellent appetites, and temperature normal—you hear—normal from year’s end to year’s end” (54). Conrad and Wells thus make similar points about the rationalization and routinization of late-Victorian bourgeois society—and for similar reasons. In particular, both writers suggest that the comfortable routine of day-to-day life in middle-class Britain is possible only because the British ignore the brutal facts of the colonial domination and exploitation that provide much of the wealth on which their affluence is based. Wells’ Martians, meanwhile, are similarly oblivious to the effects of their invasion on the human inhabitants of earth, and their ultimate demise suggests the potential danger of such obliviousness to those whom they regard as lesser than themselves. They are, after all, struck down by “the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth”—micro-organisms against which the highly advanced Martians could presumably have protected themselves had their arrogance not prevented them from even considering the need to do so (182).

Despite the fact that it is so intensely engaged with topical issues relevant to the concerns of late-Victorian Britain, The War of the Worlds has remained a central text of Western culture for more than a century, well beyond the dismantling of the British Empire. That the text remains compelling can be attributed partly to the fact that it can be read simply as a tale of high adventure in which underdog humans battle courageously (and ultimately successfully) against a seemingly invincible foe. However, the political concerns of The War of the Worlds remain current even in the postcolonial era. After all, the postcolonial world has maintained a state of unequal development in which some parts of the globe are vastly richer and more technologically advanced than others. In some ways, in fact, Wells’s central story of mismatched combat between a technologically advanced superpower and less advanced states that lack the firepower adequately to defend themselves is more relevant now than ever.

The ongoing popularity of Wells’s basic tale can also be attributed to the fact that it has been updated in several forms since its original publication—though the very fact that it can be successfully updated says something about its continuing relevance. Probably the best-known of the various reincarnations of The War of the Worlds is Orson Welles’s notorious broadcast of a radio play adapted from the novel in 1939, a broadcast so convincing that many took it as a news report of a real Martian invasion (this time of the U.S.) leading to widespread panic. Welles’s version was intended largely as a cautionary tale designed to shock American audiences out of the complacency with which they were able to regard fascist expansionism as a European problem that posed no threat to America. The portability of the messages that reside in the original novel was again demonstrated in 1953, when American director Byron Haskin adapted the novel to a film that reflected a number of anxieties of the early Cold War years. Both the Welles radio play (in which the Martians can roughly be associated with fascism) and the Haskin film (in which they can be associated with communism) lack the clear satirical reversal of the original novel, in which the Martian invaders of Britain are allegorical stand-ins for the British themselves. On the other hand, Haskin’s film version can also be taken as an expression of early-1950s anxieties about the growing technologization of everyday life in America. It also expresses 1950s American piety, putting great emphasis on Wells’ suggestion (clearly made in irony—Wells was not a believer) that the Martians were essentially defeated by the hand of God (and even having them start to die off just as they attack a church).

Finally, Wells’ implied warning (in the ultimate defeat of the Martians) that the British themselves might not be as invincible as the nineteenth-century rhetoric of “imperishable empire” would imply retains a special relevance in the early twenty-first century, when many see American global dominance as an established and permanent fact. This fact may explain Steven Spielberg’s updated film adaptation of the novel in 2005. However, while Wells carefully links his Martian invaders to the activities of British imperialism, Spielberg makes little attempt to link his Martians to the global military adventurism of the U.S. If anything, his Martians are vaguely associated with anti-American terrorists, though that motif is not really developed in the film. An impressive special-effects extravaganza, Spielberg’s film unfortunately lacks the thoughtfulness of the original Wells novel.

WORKS CITED

Arata, Stephen. “The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization.” Victorian Studies 33 (1990): 621–45.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. 1899. New York: Penguin Random House, 2017.

Hegel, G. W. F. The Philosophy of History. Trans. J. Sibree. New York: Dover, 1956.

Tucker, Robert C., ed. The Marx-Engels Reader. 2d ed. New York: Norton, 1978.

Wells, H. G. The War of the Worlds. 1898. London: Vintage, 2017.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Herbert George Wells (1866–1946) was one of the world’s most important and influential thinkers and writers for more than a half century, from the 1890s to the 1940s. His thoughts on history and politics had an important impact on the course of many subsequent debates in those fields, while his meditations on utopia, dystopia, and the growing technologization of modern society were crucial in forming the modern Western mindset. These meditations also made Wells one of the founding figures of modern science fiction, especially as they often appeared in science fiction novels (which he himself referred to as “scientific romances”). Collectively, this body of novels—which includes such well-known works as The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898)—can be taken as the beginning of truly modern science fiction. Slightly later, but lesser-known works by Wells—including When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), The First Men on the Moon (1901), The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth (1904), and A Modern Utopia (1905)—are also important and include especially thoughtful reflections of Wells’s socialist political ideas. Indeed, all of Wells’s science fiction is intensely engaged with the social and political issues of its day, demonstrating early on the potential of science fiction as a mode of commentary on such issues.

Wells would also go on to produce a number of highly successful and influential novels in a more realistic vein, though some of these, such as the remarkable Tono-Bungay (1909), continue to display some science fictional elements. As Don Smith notes in H. G. Wells on Film, Wells’s work (especially in science fiction) has also been widely adapted to film, keeping it fresh for generations of future audiences—though often at the expense of seriously diluting the intellectual content of the original novels.Because of his central importance as a figure in the Western culture of the first half of the twentieth century, Wells has been the subject of extensive critical commentary, including such book-length studies as Mark Hillegas’s The Future as Nightmare: H. G. Wells and the Anti-Utopians (1967) and Frank McConnell’s The Science Fiction of H. G. Wells (1981). Richard Hauer Costa’s H. G. Wells (1985) is a good basic introduction to Wells and his work. Wells has also been the subject of several major biographies and numerous individual critical essays, many of which have been collected in volumes such as H. G. Wells and Modern Science Fiction (1977, edited by Darko Suvin and Robert Philmus), whichconsiders the impact of Wells’ work on subsequent writers of science fiction.

WORKS CITED

Costa, Richard Hauer. H. G. Wells. Boston: Twayne, 1985.

Hillegas, Mark. The Future as Nightmare: H. G. Wells and the Anti-Utopians. New York: Oxford UP,1967.

McConnell, Frank. The Science Fiction of H. G. Wells. New York: Oxford UP, 1981.

Smith, Don G. H. G. Wells on Film: The Utopian Nightmare. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002.

Suvin, Darko, and Robert M. Philmus, eds. H. G. Wells and Modern Science Fiction. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell UP, 1977.