1: The Coming of the Blogpost
A giant metal cylinder crash-lands near Woking. Out of it emerge tentacled Martians to make war upon humanity from towering mechanical tripods, laying waste to South East England before eventually succumbing to Earthly bacteria against which (we are told) they have no natural defence. But you already know the story. The War of the Worlds is, I suppose, Wells's most famous novel. It has had a greater influence on the development of twentieth-century SF than any other Wells title, and possibly than any other novel (save, perhaps, Frankenstein). It's still a really great read: Wells at his most vivid and economical, thought-provoking and chilling and mind-expanding and exciting. And it's been very extensively discussed by critics, scholars and fans. All of which makes it rather hard to know what to say about it in something as fundamentally disposable as a blog post.
So what I'm going to do is divide the post into two; to make a few rather over-obvious observations about War of the Worlds in part one, toss-in some wilder speculations in part two, and then scurry away into less influential Wellsiana in subsequent posts as hastily as possible. Had I but world enough and time, and leisure, I could write a whole book on this slim novel. As it is I'm afraid you'll have to make do with this hasty brevity. If you are less than satisfied, I'll be happy to refund your entrance fee at the end of the blogpost. Ulla!
So: there are a couple of obvious starting points. One is to note how organically this novel grows out of the writing Wells was doing earlier in the 1890s. Physically, the Martians are essentially ‘Men of the Year Million’: ‘enormous brains, soft, liquid, soulful eyes. Their whole muscular system, their legs, their abdomens, shrivelled to nothing, a dangling, degraded pendant to their minds; the irrational fellowship of man will give place to an intellectual co-operation, and emotion fall within the scheme of reason’. This essay Wells reprinted (as ‘Of a Book Unwritten’) in Certain Personal Matters (1897), to be followed the following year by:
To me it is quite credible that the Martians may be descended from beings not unlike ourselves, by a gradual development of brain and hands (the latter giving rise to the two bunches of delicate tentacles at last) at the expense of the rest of the body. Without the body the brain would, of course, become a mere selfish intelligence, without any of the emotional substratum of the human being. [War, II.2; ‘What We Saw from the Ruined House’]And the novel's famous opening paragraph:
No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same.... is so close to the paragraph with which the ‘Through a Microscope’ essay, from the same volume, ends, it it's tempting to think Wells deliberately re-used it:
And all the time these creatures are living their vigorous, fussy little lives; in this drop of water they are being watched by a creature of whose presence they do not dream, who can wipe them all out of existence with a stroke of his thumb, and who is withal as finite, and sometimes as fussy and unreasonably energetic, as themselves. He sees them, and they do not see him, because he has senses they do not possess, because he is too incredibly vast and strange to come, save as an overwhelming catastrophe, into their lives. Even so, it may be, the dabbler himself is being curiously observed.... The dabbler is good enough to say that the suggestion is inconceivable. I can imagine a decent amœba saying the same thing. [‘Through a Microscope’]In my post on Wells's cycling idyll The Wheels of Chance (1896) I note that it goes over, with human cyborgs, and in comic mode, pretty much the same territory that War of the Worlds goes over with Martian cyborgs, as martial tragedy. In the Experiment in Autobiography Wells says as much, recalling his first cycling holiday: ‘there I planned and wrote the War of the Worlds, the Wheels of Chance and the Invisible Man. I learnt to ride my bicycle upon sandy tracks with none but God to help me ... Later on I wheeled about the district marking down suitable places and people for destruction by my Martians.’
There's another specific starting point for this novel: the reports in 1894 of sudden bright lights observable upon the red planet. They were recorded first in an unsigned article in Nature [August 2, 1894, p. 319], then at greater length in E. S. Holden's ‘Bright Projections at the Terminator of Mars’, Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (December 1894), 284-5. Nature's report reads:
Projection lumineuse dans région australe du terminateur de Mars observée par Javelle 28 Juillet 16 heures Perrotin. This relates to an observation made at the famous Nice Observatory, of which M. Perrotin is the Director, by M. Javelle, who is already well known for his careful work. The news therefore must be accepted seriously, and, as it may be imagined, details are anxiously awaited; on Monday and Tuesday nights, unfortunately, the weather in London was not favourable for observation, so whether the light continues or not is not known.Could they be signs of communication? Perhaps evidence of the launching of projectiles into space? If so, then what kind of life? We know Wells read at least the Nature paragraph, because he makes reference to it in the first chapter of his novel: ‘during the opposition of 1894 a great light was seen on the illuminated part of the disk, first at the Lick Observatory, then by Perrotin of Nice, and then by other observers. English readers heard of it first in the issue of Nature dated August 2’ [War, 1.1]. We can picture Wells chewing this metaphorical cud through 1895, and writing it up in 1896-97. The story was serialised in Pearson's Magazine April-Dec 1897, with some rather nice illustratations by Warwick Goble, and then published as a single volume by Heinemann in 1898 in the rather underwhelming livery pictured at the head of this blog.
There's another sense in which War of the Worlds grows organically out of its context: it is an example of that crowded late 19th-century sub-genre, ‘future invasion of Britain’ tales. The vogue for this kind of story was kicked-off by Chesney’s Battle of Dorking (1871), in which a small but efficient German army invades Britain and defeats in humiliatingly short order the poorly-organised, -trained and -armed British reserve troops. The intrinsic interest of this tale is small, for it is a thinly-written first-person narrative into which is kneaded quantities of annoyingly hectoring Tory militarism: ‘a little firmness and self-denial, or political courage,’ laments its narrator, ‘might have averted the disaster’, the cause of which he ascribes to the fact that ‘the lower classes, uneducated, untrained in the use of political rights’ had usurped the powers of ‘the class which had used to rule ... and which had brought the nation with honour unsullied through former struggles’. But there's no denying the tremendous contemporary popularity it enjoyed, and the chord of British Imperial anxiety it touched. Blackwood’s Magazine, where the story was first published, reprinted six times to meet demand. Issued as a pamphlet it sold 110,000 copies in two months. Gladstone, the Prime Minister, attacked it in the House of Commons as alarmist. It was translated into most European languages, and other authors rushed to write plagiarisms of or counter-blasts to Chesney’s slim tale. Dozens appeared over the following years: I F Clarke provides a survey and sampler in his Voices Prophesying War (OUP 1992).
Wells deserves credit for the brilliant idea of replacing human adversaries with alien ones; but in other respects The War of the Worlds follows the template established by these kinds of stories. As per, the narrative centres on the life of an ordinary Englishman, and then dramatises the extraordinary erupting into it, including scenes of national military inadequacy and civilian panic. Instead of the Germans or the Chinese it is Martians that invade:
Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of their appearance. The peculiar V-shaped mouth with its pointed upper lip, the absence of brow ridges, the absence of a chin beneath the wedge-like lower lip, the incessant quivering of this mouth, the Gorgon groups of tentacles. [War, 19]Lacking digestive tracts of their own, these beings simply ingest the oxygenated and nutrient-rich blood of others. This vividly visualised icon of monstrous and horrific alien-ness is what the other now-forgotten invasion fantasies from this period lacked, and it is key to the cultural endurance of The War of the Worlds. It also represents one of those odd synchronicities of literary culture: Wells started publishing his tales of Martian-alien vampires mere weeks before Bram Stoker published his desperately famous novel of aristocratic-foreigner vampires, Dracula (1897). This new myth, a way of representing the sense of something simultaneously other and superior, coming here to feed on our ordinary blood responded, clearly, to something in the air (the two men weren't friends, didn't swap story ideas or anything like that). The difference I suppose is that Stoker's predator actualises the crushing power of the past, of class privilege bolstered by all that is old and traditional and deep-rooted; where Wells's predators both represent an in-story future and actualise a wider sense that technology, especially the connected technologies of motility and warfare, are going to sweep away all that old class-historical inertia. Not hard to see which of the two was the more prophetic.
And actually, saying that makes me realise that a can of worms, labelled Martian Vampires, is shuddering on the table, waiting to be opened. Because the differences between Wells's and Stoker's versions of the vampire have to do with more than just opposing the technologically-unleashed future and the inertial past. There is also an erotic component to the discourse of post-Stoker vampires that surely isn't there for Wells's Martians. But we're getting sidetracked.
Re-reading The War of the Worlds I was struck by just how well made it is, as a piece of writing. There's a really impressive control and expressiveness to the prose. Rarely in his writing did he again match the desolate beauty he evokes in a London emptied by the Martian threat and overrun with the red weed they have brought across space. At this point in the book the last Martian is ceasing its weird cry and dying.
Abruptly as I crossed the bridge, the sound of ‘Ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla’ ceased. It was, as it were, cut off. The silence came like a thunder-clap. The dusky houses about me stood faint and tall and dim; the trees towards the park were growing black. All about me the red weed clambered among the ruins, writhing to get above me in the dimness. Night, the mother of fear and mystery, was coming upon me. But while that voice sounded the solitude, the desolation, had been endurable; by virtue of it, London had still seemed alive, and the sense of life about me had upheld me. Then suddenly a change, the passing of something – I knew not what – and then a stillness that could be felt. [Wells, War, 159]This quasi-Islamic cry of ‘ulla ulla’, the call from an alien muezzin out of a metallic minaret, is an interestingly suggestive touch when it comes to ‘othering’ the Martians, adding-in flavours of exoticized orientalism (though it has always struck me as a kind of sound it would be extremely hard to make with a beak-shaped mouth). The War of the Worlds, like the other invasion-fantasy books of the 1880s and 1890s, captures a fundamentally xenophobic fear of foreign-ness. Are the Martians merely ciphers for racial and national otherness? Darko Suvin thinks so:
The Martians from The War of the Worlds are described in Goebbelsian terms of repugnantly slimy and horrible ‘racial’ otherness and given the sole function of bloodthirsty predators (a function that fuses genocidal fire-power – itself described as an echo of the treatment meted out by the imperialist powers to colonized peoples – with the bloodsucking vampirism of horror fantasies). [Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (New Haven: Yale University Press 1979), 78]Wells’s novel symbolically distilled the concerns of its age. His Martians are of course imperialists, using their superior technology to invade a nation (England) which had been accumulating its own Empire throughout the century largely because of a superior technological sophistication. In other words, the arrival of the Martians and their mechanised brutalities are the symbolic forms Wells chose to explore a deeper set of concerns about the violence of Empire-building, and about the anxieties of otherness and the encounter with otherness that Empire imposes on the Imperial peoples. But it misses the power of this book to reduce it to a political message, as this sort of analysis tends to do. What works so well in this absolutely gripping book is the minuteness of Wells’s grasp upon the detail of his imagined drama. There are many features of this novel that look, in hindsight, extraordinarily prescient—not prophesy (many of Wells’ imagined futures get core things quite wrong) so much as a Jamesonian future dialectical antithesis working upon the historical and contemporary theses with which Wells engaged to produce a synthesis of both. The alien’s heat-ray anticipates laser technology; the lethal ‘black smoke’ they use looks forward to the use of mustard gas in World War I.
Most insightful of all is the twist at the novel’s end: the inverted fable of Western colonial aggression defeated not by military force but by microbes. It was not until many decades later that historians of the European empires made plain the extent to which it was precisely such agents that made colonisation possible in the first place: Jared Diamond’s study Guns, Germs and Steel (1997) brilliantly explores the way it was European resistance to certain diseases, and the lack of those same microbes in the rest of the world, that laid the grounds for Europe conquering America and Africa rather than, as might have happened, America and Africa conquering Europe. There's a version of Wells in the critical literature that reads him as the prophet of social as well as individual hygiene, broadly contemptuous of the weaker sections of bumbling, decadent, sniffling humanity. When he tells us in this novel that ‘Martian sanitary science eliminated illness ages ago. A hundred diseases, all the contagions and fevers of human life, consumption, cancers, tumours and such morbidities, never enter into the scheme of their life’ [Wells, War, 131] we might even read his tone one of admiration. But the end of The War of the Worlds makes plain that too ruthless a pursuit of social cleanliness is a weakening rather than a strengthening thing. Disease, like empire, is a more complex matter than that, and Wells’ genius in his fiction (if, perhaps, not in his non-fiction) was always with the messy complexities rather than the clean simplicities.
These Martians travel between worlds in a cylinder fired out of an enormous canon, a Wellsian nod towards Verne’s De la terra à la lune (1865) in which men fly to the moon by such technology. But even in the 1860s Verne's contemporaries derided the notion that his astronauts could have survived such a rapid acceleration. Verne took note. Belatedly, in the book's sequel, Verne addressed the scientific and engineering implausibilities of his mode of launching: for in Autour de la Lune (1870) that Verne mentions (for the first time) an elaborate system of ‘tampons … cousins d’eau … cloisons brisantes’ (‘buffers, water cushions, collapsible partitions’) specifically designed to dampen the effect of ‘cette vitesse initiale de onze mille mètres qui eût suffi à traverser Paris ou New York en une seconde’ ‘this initial velocity of 11,000 metres which was enough to traverse Paris or New York in a second’, [Verne Autour, 20]. The impractability of such extreme acceleration would be, if anything, much more debilitating for the soft-bodied Martian beings; and Wells never again proposed launching spacecraft by such a means in his fiction—First Men in the Moon (1901) for instance posits a craft powered by antigravity. I suppose that, as with Verne, the point is that The War of the Worlds is as much metaphorical fiction as rational extrapolation, and that the many touches of carefully observed verisimilitude in the novel reinforce rather than contradict this metaphoricity. Big guns are explosive. Big guns are the technology of big war, and war, bigger even than the one Lieutenant-Colonel Chesney foretold, was the coming thing. We can, in other words, take seriously the ‘war’ in Wells’ title, here. It’s yet another way in which he was surprisingly prescient, treating war not as warriors meeting on a battlefield but as massed tides of refugees. As civilians terrorised and massacred, living under bombardment and gas-attack. The final chapter of the novel’s first book (16: ‘the Exodus from London’) is not only one of the first but also one of the most powerful representations in fiction of the way war would come to figure in the 20th-century: huge crowds of non-belligerents flooding away from the fighting in fear of their lives. War in The War of the Worlds is no longer a horizontal interaction between two armies. It now has a terrible vertical vector—something the 20th-century world would come to know only too bitterly, from shells and bombs to V2s, cruise missiles and drones plummeting down from on-high. When the narrator says ‘suddenly, like a thing falling upon me from without, came fear [Wells, War, 24] he is describing the Martians s externalisations of a state of mind. Indeed that, in a crucial sense, is what The War of the Worlds is about.
One of the most powerful portions of this short novel is its subtle and allusive representation of post-invasion England. From the hints Wells drops, we can intuit a Britain profoundly changed. Some of these changes are obvious: the red weed the invaders brought with them from Mars, the ‘almost complete specimen’ of a dead Martian ‘in spirits in the Natural History Museum’. More haunting, though, are the artfully throwaway references in the novel’s early chapters:
I was at home at that hour and writing in my study; and although my French windows face towards Ottershaw and the blind was up (for I loved in those days to look up at the night sky), I saw nothing of it. [Wells, War, 10]‘In those days ...’ Presumably, as at the point of writing this narrative, those days are long past: the night sky now a venue of fear instead of wonder. A few pages later the narrator notes that ‘few of the common people in England had anything but the vaguest astronomical ideas in those days’: in those days again, pointing to a now in which everybody knows about the solar system and the dangers it poses. Most strikingly of all, it seems to me, is a sentence towards the end of the opening chapter:
People in these latter times scarcely realize the abundance and enterprise of our 19th-century papers.It’s never been clear to me why the aftermath of the Martian invasion should have so reduced the provision of news. Perhaps the implication is that a shattered infrastructure cannot support such things: but I read a different significance into this reference—that the disasters have cured humanity of its passion for news. The news is a way in which we tell stories about ourselves to ourselves, and one of the more radical things about The War of the Worlds is, paradoxically enough, its suspicion of storytelling. Wells’ narrator falls in with a curate, whose narrative of the invasion (that the Martians are agents of God’s judgement against a sinful world) is shown to be inadequate to events. Later he meets an artilleryman who spins a Utopian future narrative with humanity creating a new high-tech subterranean civilisation. But he is shown to be an ineffectual dreamer, his storytelling irrelevant to the grim reality. The irony of this repeated device is that The War of the Worlds is itself, of course, a story, a narrative we are invited to distrust. The narrator more-or-less says so:
Perhaps I am a man of exceptional moods. I do not know how far my experience is common. At times I suffer from the strangest sense of detachment from myself and the world about me. [Wells, War, 30]The narrator’s quixotic mood is integral to the story: sometimes he is rationally dedicated to self-preservation, at other times strangely suicidal moods overcome him (‘an insane resolve possessed me. I would die and end it’). Sometimes he travels over the landscape of the novel with purpose—to investigate the cylinder, to find his wife. At other times he moves passively, or even randomly. He is enough of an everyman to convey Wells’ point: that the human species is inconstant, passive and easily overcome.
2. The Earth under the Blogpost
Despite the title Wells gives to Part 2 of his novel, ‘Earth Under the Martians’, we don't actually get to see what Earth looks like under the Martians; partly because they only invade a small portion of England, and mostly because they are defeated before they can get very far. But that shouldn't prevent us from wondering how things might have looked, had the Martian invasion been successful.
Let's consider the situation. The global population in the 1890s was somewhere between 1.6 billion and 1.8 billion people. This was what the invaders needed to overcome and subdue.
In Wells's novel, ten Martian cylinders land at seven locations: Horsell Common; Addlestone Golf Links; Pyrford; Bushey Park; Sheen; Wimbledon and Primrose Hill. Reading the text closely we can deduce that each cylinder contains five Martians, a similar number of the bipedal creatures upon which the Martians feed, the component parts for five Tripods ready for assembly, as well as a smaller number of Handling Machines, and the materials to build at least one Flying Machine. As to why no more than ten are sent, Wells's narrator isn't sure:
Why the shots ceased after the tenth no one on earth has attempted to explain. It may be the gases of the firing caused the Martians inconvenience. Dense clouds of smoke or dust, visible through a powerful telescope on earth as little grey, fluctuating patches, spread through the clearness of the planet's atmosphere and obscured its more familiar features. [War, 1:1]It's not clear whether this is the entire expeditionary force, or the vanguard of a larger army that never materialised, or perhaps only a preliminary group sent to reconnoitre. Maybe the Martians planned to send scores, or hundreds, of cylinders straight away, but as Wells's narrator speculates, the exhaust from the guns stopped them doing so. Maybe they only ever planned a small force to begin with, and intended sending more when this advance guard had subdued the territory. At any rate, there's no doubt this is war, and that the Martians are invading.
So what is their longer term plan? It cannot be genocide of the human population, since we are their food, and if they kill us all they will starve. It's hardly conceivable the Martians mean to ship over a breeding stock of the bipeds species on which they feed. I mean, think of the logistics: it would be impractically laborious, and only small amounts could be transferred anyway. And why should they put themselves to such bother when we are so eminently edible?
Ah, but what holds for food also holds for colonists. At five travellers per cylinder, and with the launch of each cylinder causing (it seems) grievous pollution on the homeworld, just how many craft do the Martians envisage sending, overall? Say the advance guard were to be followed by more cylinders, once the territory is subdued: how many? Hundreds? That would result in a Martian population of Earth in the multiples of hundreds. To rule a planet of over a billion souls.
Now it is, of course, true that a small force can subdue a much larger population: that was how we British ruled our empire, after all. Take India: a few thousand officials and a some tens of thousands of British troops ruled and policed a population of over two hundred million people. And it's true that we managed this, in part, through our superiority in the technology of war. The British empire went through a particularly precarious period in the 1880s, with the imperial army suffering serious military defeats in Africa at the battle of Isandhlwana (1879) and in Afghanistan at the battle of Maiwand (1880); two defeats that caused sensation in the British media and among the population. That neither proved the start of massed uprisings against British rule was, really down to one exigency: better guns. First the use of the Gatling gun in the early 1880s and then replacing the old single-charge rifles with the Maxim, the first fully automatic weapon, in 1884. These were used over and over against Zulus, Mahdists, Matabele, Afghans and Indians, and never failed. Wells, a citizen of the imperial power, knew that much. His Martians are certainly armed with vastly superior ordnance than the Earthlings.
But guns are not enough, on their own, to hold down an empire. The British fought two costly wars in Afghanistan in the nineteenth-century, both aimed at securing the northern border of British possessions in India against Russian expansion. But this aim was actually achieved by soft rather than hard power: in David French's words, ‘in Kabul a mixture of diplomacy and bribery usually worked well enough. In 1857, £220,000 helped ensure that Afghanistan remained neutral while the British crushed the mutiny. That was security at a bargain basement price.’ Divide and rule, paying off some local Indian rulers and warring down others, the judicious use of bribery, flattery, treaties of mutual advantage and the like, was much more important than brute force in controlling the huge populations of empire.
We have to assume the Martians longer-term plans include something like this. Even a steady fleet of cylinders, fired from the red planet, each bringing only a handful, or tentacle-clutch, of new individuals, would only very slowly build a population of colonists: it would still only be in the thousands even after many decades. A tiny elite to govern billions.
Wells's novel, of course, concerns the initial stages of the invasion, when shock and awe is the strategy. But, had they not succumbed to their microbe nemesis, we have to assume the Martians would not have continued on a strategy of mere destruction and massacre. The invasion, having cowed the earthlings, would have had to set up imperial structures: client rulers to keep the rest of the population in check, to ensure that the Martians were kept supplied with food (our blood) and left in peace to build whatever structures and technologies they desired.
We must remember one thing above all about the Martians: though they are horrific and monstrous to human eyes, and though Wells's novel draws on the literary conventions of Gothic horror to represent them for our excitement (as per the Dracula parallel I discussed above), the Martians themselves are super-rational beings, highly intelligent and quite removed from the bestial substrate of mere emotion. For them the invasion is a rational and intellectual project.
Perhaps they do view us as cattle, and surely they aim to exploit us. But, having observed us so minutely for so long, they would know that we are clever cattle, capable of impressive feats of farming, engineering and urbanisation. Though they would inevitably consider us inferiors, they would nonetheless plan to talk to us, to negotiate a settlement, on terms of rationally conceived mutual interest, under the aegis of their overwhelming advantages in military might and technology.
Which brings me to my final speculation. To talk to us, they must know our language. It would make sense to gather as much information as possible before the military landing. What if the Martians had sent a lone cylinder at some earlier point in human history, to scout the territory? For a species millions of years ahead of us, evolutionarily speaking, and functionally immortal, this first contact might have been many centuries ago. Let us say they observed human life starting to build great cities, long walls, clearing forests for farming. Say they sent a scout to investigate, and that this individual stayed long enough to learn something of human society, luckily escaping human illness. Say this Martian returned to his homeworld with reports of the structures under which human life is organised, and something too of its language. The Martians are a pinnacle civilisation who have remained effectively the same for hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of years. They would not expect the passage of a couple of thousand years on Earth to alter such things as the language in which earthlings communicate with one another.
We tend to assume the invader's cry of ‘ulla ulla’ is one Martian trying to communicate with another:
“Ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla,” wailed that superhuman note—great waves of sound sweeping down the broad, sunlit roadway ... “Ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla,” cried the voice, coming, as it seemed to me, from the district about Regent's Park. [War, 2:8]But what if it's not? What if it is the Martians trying to open channels of communication with us, using their best guess as to our language, Latin? Are they saying ullus: but the vocative plural, since they are addressing all of us, and neuter since the Martians have no gender?—‘ūlla’. Which is to say: could it be the Martians are striding about England calling to us: ‘anyone? anyone?’ And being puzzled, in their emotionless and rational manner, that nobody is answering them?
I know, I know. You are not convinced. I'm well aware the chances of anyone believing my speculation are a million to one, they said. But still ...