Has any science fiction writer from the 20th or 21st centuries ever done a better job exploring the science fictional themes than H. G. Wells covered in the 19th century? Has any novel or film ever gone any deeper into the idea of invaders from outer space than The War of the Worlds? Haven’t we been recycling the same speculations that H. G. Wells began way back then?
This is the third time I’ve read The War of the Worlds by H. G. wells since 1963. The first time I was in the seventh grade. I was too young to understand the novel and read too fast to really appreciate anything other than the basic plot. Back in 2005 I listened to an audiobook edition. I realized then that The War of the Worlds was far better than what I remembered, or any film or TV version I had seen over my lifetime. Reading it again this week, after rewatching the 1953 film, and seeing the 2019 British TV miniseries, I understand why we’re still reading this 1898 novel, and why people keep making filmed versions of it. There were three in 2005 and two in 2019. The War of the Worlds is truly a five-star classic.
I’m not sure young readers know how much credit we should be giving H. G. Wells for his contributions to science fiction. In one sense, the novels he published from 1895 to 1900 can almost be considered the foundation of the genre. Wells covered many of the main science fictional themes that writers are still tilling today. The trouble is, I haven’t read widely enough in earlier literature to know how much Wells borrowed and how much he created.
I do feel Wells brought new speculations and what ifs to the genre. We credit Wells for starting the space alien invasion theme, but Wells only took invasion literature that began in 1871 with The Battle of Dorking in a new direction. Instead of worrying about invaders from Germany or France, Wells asked, “What if invaders didn’t come from Earth?”
Once he proposed that one question, it generated all kinds of possible SF speculation. What if beings from other worlds were more advanced than us? Science fiction has explored that question over and other, but I’m not sure we’ve ever psychologically accepted any being could be superior to ourselves. Reading The War of the Worlds this time made me noticed just how much Wells thought about it. I would love to find reviews of his book published at the end of the 19th century to see if his readers significantly pondered Wells’ ideas. Here are some quotes:
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. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the 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. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment. ... Yet so vain is man, and so blinded by his vanity, that no writer, up to the very end of the nineteenth century, expressed any idea that intelligent life might have developed there far, or indeed at all, beyond its earthly level. Nor was it generally understood that since Mars is older than our earth, with scarcely a quarter of the superficial area and remoter from the sun, it necessarily follows that it is not only more distant from time’s beginning but nearer its end. ... And we men, the creatures who inhabit this earth, must be to them at least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us. ... And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what 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? ... In three other points their physiology differed strangely from ours. Their organisms did not sleep, any more than the heart of man sleeps. Since they had no extensive muscular mechanism to recuperate, that periodical extinction was unknown to them. They had little or no sense of fatigue, it would seem. On earth they could never have moved without effort, yet even to the last they kept in action. In twenty-four hours they did twenty-four hours of work, as even on earth is perhaps the case with the ants. ... “This isn’t a war,” said the artilleryman. “It never was a war, any more than there’s war between man and ants.” ... I learned nothing fresh except that already in one week the examination of the Martian mechanisms had yielded astonishing results. Among other things, the article assured me what I did not believe at the time, that the “ Secret of Flying,” was discovered. ... It may be that in the larger design of the universe this invasion from Mars is not without its ultimate benefit for men; it has robbed us of that serene confidence in the future which is the most fruitful source of decadence, the gifts to human science it has brought are enormous, and it has done much to promote the conception of the commonweal of mankind. ... If the Martians can reach Venus, there is no reason to suppose that the thing is impossible for men, and when the slow cooling of the sun makes this earth uninhabitable, as at last it must do, it may be that the thread of life that has begun here will have streamed out and caught our sister planet within its toils. ... Dim and wonderful is the vision I have conjured up in my mind of life spreading slowly from this little seedbed of the solar system throughout the inanimate vastness of sidereal space. But that is a remote dream. It may be, on the other hand, that the destruction of the Martians is only a reprieve. To them, and not to us, perhaps, is the future ordained.
Can we really imagine meeting a being that is as far above us as we’re above a dog? What if the gap is as large as between people and ants, another comparison Wells makes in the book. Actually, in several places, we’re no more important to the Martians than bacteria are to us under the microscope. Wells can imagine this possibility and he tries to illustrate it in the story, but I don’t think he really succeeds because it’s something impossible to imagine. But Wells, and science fiction written since have tried. Consider Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.
We have to remember how Wells portrays the Martians and how readers of Pearson’s Magazine in 1897 imagined them. The Martians had weapons that used heat, light, gas, and biological agents that quickly dispatched the greatest military in the world. London, the most advanced city on the planet was quickly overrun, and millions had to flee. This is impressive, but does it really mean the Martians are intellectually superior to us? They are more advanced technologically. And that’s been the most common thread in alien invasion stories since, even though we keep gaining in our own technological prowess.
Martians treated us like animals. In fact, they treated us like cows or pigs, and used humans for food. Does this mean they’re superior? We assume we’re superior to farm animals, but we’ve never been a cow and can’t imagine what cows think of us.
The Martians invaded Earth like England invaded other countries, and the English felt superior because they could get away with it. But does it make them superior? Over and over again science fiction has tried to portray superior aliens. Usually, writers give them advance technology like Wells did in his novel. Writers often give aliens telepathy or other psychic powers to suggest a higher state of being, and at one point Wells speculated about this. Often, advanced aliens are described like gods in old religious texts. But just how realistic is that? Isn’t it really a lack of imagination? I’m not faulting Wells, because he did try, but I think he hit a wall, and so has every other SF writer since.
Notice that Wells gave the Martians the same power that Nancy Kress did in her story Beggars in Spain. Not needing sleep would indeed be a plus, but does it make a being superior? It is a very nice specific attribute. What other attributes make a superior being?
Are we incapable of imagining a realistic being more developed than humans? We consider ourselves superior to animals because we have language. In recent years, many science fiction stories have explored the idea of communication with beings from other stellar systems. The film Arrival, based on Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” does suggest a possibility. What if a language isn’t based on linear time, and the structure of the sentence isn’t depended on word order? That’s a wonderful theory, but is it even possible? Imagining the impossible is impressive, but not as impressive as imagining the possible that hasn’t been discovered yet.
Can we imagine a process of communication that goes beyond language? We always fall back on telepathy. Would that be instantaneously sharing of words, or sharing sense organ input? If the Martians of Wells’ novel could read human minds, would they still kill and eat people, and destroy their civilization? Wouldn’t a superior alien have empathy and compassion for other beings? If we were really superior to animals would we eat them and kill them the way we do? Aren’t we just acting like animals that eat each other?
If you look at in the right light, Christianity was an effort to create a superior human. Unfortunately, few humans have ever achieved what Christian theory hoped to have achieved. Religions have routinely rediscovered compassion throughout history, but they’ve never been able to make humans compassionate. We see in Star Trek, at least in some episodes about the Prime Directive, how the Federation tried to codify a compassionate treatment of other beings, but often the plots don’t allow for it. Still, it’s a concrete example.
Science fiction writers keep trying to imagine a superior being and keep failing. I believe Heinlein tried with Stranger in a Strange Land, by giving his Martian named Smith superpowers. But Smith shows no compassion for lesser beings, and frequently vanishes them out of existence. Clarke tried with Childhood’s End and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but again he falls back on godlike powers, and a lack of compassion for lesser beings. Remember, Earth and humans were destroyed when a new species of humans emerged. Why do we continually believe superior beings have the right to destroy lesser beings?
We seem stuck in a Groundhog Day loop regarding invading aliens. Did anything new really show up in Independence Day (1996) a century after The War of the Worlds, or will show up in The Tomorrow War that’s coming out on Amazon Prime? Isn’t it logical to assume any alien that’s invading us can’t be superior because they’re invading us? Superior beings don’t go around exterminating other beings? Conversely, we can’t be all that superior to the other species on this planet. Unless the only definition of superior is the ability to destroy. And how often in science fiction are we the alien invader? Just recall the film Avatar for an easy example. Or think of how we treated the aliens in District 9.
There are two stories I’ve read this year that dealt with this issue, but sadly, I can’t remember the title and author of either one. The first suggested there were two types of beings in the galaxy. One type wants to conquer the galaxy because they are spreaders. The other type wanted to explore the galaxy because they are seekers, seekers of knowledge. We like to think humanity is a seeker species, but we’re really spreaders.
The other story was about species genocide. A character had the military power to destroy a whole species of alien invaders, but worried about using it. The justification given to her claimed the galaxy was full of violent species that acted no better than murderers or thieves, so it was either kill or be killed, so she killed the invading aliens. As long as we’re a product of evolution do we always assume we have to keep playing its game.
My idea of a superior alien is one that can step outside of their evolutionary upbringing and can act with compassion and empathy towards their fellow species. But I also imagine, this superior species would also develop the ability to communicate precisely, way beyond the power of words, and understand reality. We only perceive reality indirectly, with very limited senses, and usually interpret what we perceive with a lot of bullshit desires. I’m guessing a real superior space alien would avoid us like a dangerous pathogen or generator of gamma ray bursts.
In the end, I wondered if Wells didn’t model his Martians on the English in Africa and India. That implies any science fiction about aliens is really about looking at ourselves in a mirror. Shouldn’t science fiction writer ask how we could become superior beings?