Thursday, May 31, 2012

Raiding the Stacks: The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells

Ah yes, the long-awaited return of Kalpar's Raiding the Stacks feature, where this week we look at The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.  War of the Worlds is a landmark science-fiction book which pioneered some science fiction tropes while at the same time being very thoroughly a product of its era. And while the book itself is extremely dated, reflecting the prejudices of the late 19th century, it remains a timeless story that taps into our primal fears as a species. The War of the Worlds offers a tantalizing glimpse into the heart of the British Empire at its height, as well as showing that even after a century people are in some respects the same.

The War of the Worlds was originally published in 1898 and is actually part of a larger literary movement that was popular in Britain at the time. From the 1870's up until the First World War an entire genre of "invasion literature" existed in which the British Isles, heart of the greatest empire on earth at the time, were invaded by some malicious enemy. Traditionally these enemies would be Germans or French or some other rival empire, but Wells chose to make his invaders from Mars, adding a new dimension to the invasion narrative. Furthermore Wells created many science-fiction themes about Mars that would last for many years in the genre: the idea that Mars was an arid and dying world, inhabited by an ancient and technologically advanced culture. Fleeing an increasingly unsustainable home, the Martians launch an invasion fleet to prepare Earth for Martian colonization. From War of the Worlds to Independence Day the idea of aliens needing the resources of our planet remains a persistent science-fiction trope which will probably be used in future stories.

An interesting note is that War of the Worlds also tapped into a common belief that the world would end at midnight on 31 December, 1899, and apparently there were numerous stories written at the time about such an Armageddon. If current trends such as Y2K and Mayan Calendar panics are any indication, humanity's fascination with its own destruction is nothing new.

Now I do have on major complaint about War of the Worlds, specifically the fact that all of the Martian space capsules land in southern England and I think that really displays the provincial bias of the author. Was Britain a powerful empire in 1898? Well of course, but that's not to say that other nations such as France, Germany, Japan, and the United States wouldn't present a threat for Martian invaders. Also, you know what, let's look at the map.

Yeah, I use Gall-Peters Projection. What of it?
Now if you'll notice, the British Isles are a little itty bitty piece of land up there in the top of the map. If you were an invading army from space trying to safely land your soldiers where would you send them? I don't know about you, but my first choice is smack dab in the middle of the Sahara in Africa. Especially since the Martian plan hinges on not landing in water. I mean, maybe I'm being picky with geography, but even North America makes a more attractive target than trying to hit the south of England.

Complaints aside, The War of the Worlds actually offers some chilling insights into twentieth century warfare. For example, the Martians use a poisonous gas known only as Black Smoke to kill large numbers of humans, which weirdly predicts the use of poison gas in World War I. In addition the Martians' primary targets are stores of ammunition, telegraph lines, and railroad tracks, which severely hamstrings the humans' defense and disrupts their lines of communication, standard military strategies even today. The Martians also adopt a campaign of fear and intimidation to break human morale and gain a quick victory, tactics utilized by both sides during World War II. Finally, the chapters dedicated to the description of the plight of refugees fleeing the Martian advance seemed incredibly real to me and could easily be about refugees in any of the countless conflicts, both great and small, that have occurred over the past century. I don't know how Wells managed to predict many of the tactics and consequences of twentieth century warfare, but it's an interesting harbinger of industrial warfare.

Perhaps the most influential aspect of War of the Worlds is that it codified the alien invasion for countless science-fiction stories for over a hundred years. The aliens arrive, determined to conquer our planet (or simply use its resources), and initially all of humanity's military forces are powerless to stop them. All hope is lost and it appears the age of humanity has come to an end. However, through some small miracle, whether the common cold in The War of the Worlds, a computer virus in Independence Day, or the simple fact that 70% of the world is covered in something deadly to the aliens in Signs, humanity manages to exploit this small advantage and defeat the alien invaders. (Granted, in War of the Worlds human agency is entirely irrelevant.)

It may be dated, it may be verbose, and it may utilize outdated science, but The War of the Worlds is the alien invasion story, in many ways the literal grandfather of countless science-fiction tropes we know and love today. If you're interested in exploring the history of sci-fi, as well as an interesting view at the late nineteenth century. I'd definitely recommend this book for history nerds and hard-core sci-fi fans but casual readers might be less interested.

- Kalpar

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