War of the Worlds
War of the Worlds, first published in 1898, is arguably H. G. Wells' most well known work of literature. The story is told from the standpoint of an anonymous "philosophical writer" who tells about events that happened six years earlier. Martian cylinders land on planet Earth outside London and the Martians, who are described as having a "roundish bulk with tentacles," promptly begin vaporizing humans. The Martians build giant walking tripods, armed with heat rays, which ruin towns and cities. Yet just when all hope appears lost, the Martians are slain "by the humblest thing that God, in his wisdom, has put on this earth."
Superficially, the story was shaped in response to a specific historical event of the period. In 1894, the planet Mars made an especially close passage to Earth, allowing astronomers to make especially detailed observations. The Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli reported seeing "canali," meaning "channels," on the planet. Of course, the term was mistranslated into English as "canals," and speculation ran amok about the possibility of an advanced civilization on the Red Planet. Fuel was added to the fire by French astronomer M. Javelle of Nice, who reported seeing strange lights on Mars in the course of his 1894 observations.
Martian Tripod, with Heat Ray in Tow
But there was a darker motivation that drove Wells to compose War of the Worlds as well. As I discussed in a previous post, The Dystopia of H.G. Wells, Wells was a devout, lifelong socialist, and his thinking and writing had a profound impact on socialists and Communists of every stripe, from the British Fabians to Vladimir Lenin to Joseph Stalin to Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1941, George Orwell went so far as to make the caustic remark that "much of what Wells has imagined and worked for is physically there in Nazi Germany." Others have made the same observation. In the introduction to the 1999 edition of Wells' Anticipations, M. Gardner notes that "Wells' statements about inferior races, and the use of killing as a tool to weed out the unfit, come perilously close to Hitler's efforts to breed a superior Aryan race, and to 'solve the Jewish question' with the aid of gas chambers."
And what is War of the Worlds, if not a story about the technologically superior Martians coming to Earth to "solve" the "human question" viz indiscriminate killing and extermination?
Today Wells is often hailed as a scientific visionary, but truly, as Koheleth teaches in Ecclesiastes, "there is nothing new under the Sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9). The "heat rays" wielded by the invading Martians are probably less an anticipation of lasers than they are a memory of Greek fire, a secret weapon used briefly by some of the Eastern Roman Emperors of Byzantium. It was a form of "liquid fire" that was hurled onto ships from long, brass canons and burst into flames on contact. It was reputed to be inextinguishable, even on water. The weapon was used so rarely and its formula kept so secret that about 50 years after its invention, no one could remember how to construct or use it anymore. Consequently, it (obviously) fell into disuse, although that did not stop the Arabs from reverse-engineering a similar, albeit much weaker, analog to Greek fire.
Syrian named Callinicus circa 673 AD
Greek fire may have been an effective way to destroy enemy troops and assets, but the most potent devastation it wrought was psychological. The memoirs of the Lord of Joinville, a thirteenth century French nobleman, include these observations of Greek Fire (or more likely, its lesser Arab analog) that were made during the Seventh Crusade:
“It happened one night, whilst we were keeping night-watch over the tortoise-towers, that they brought up against us an engine called a perronel, (which they had not done before) and filled the sling of the engine with Greek fire. When that good knight, Lord Walter of Cureil, who was with me, saw this, he spoke to us as follows: "Sirs, we are in the greatest peril that we have ever yet been in. For, if they set fire to our turrets and shelters, we are lost and burnt; and if, again, we desert our defences which have been entrusted to us, we are disgraced; so none can deliver us from this peril save God alone. My opinion and advice therefor is: that every time they hurl the fire at us, we go down on our elbows and knees, and beseech Our Lord to save us from this danger."The horrors of watching your fellow soldiers burn to death must have been a shattering blow to many soldiers. Men were known to simply flee their posts at the onset of Greek fire, rather than face the flames.
“So soon as they flung the first shot, we went down on our elbows and knees, as he had instructed us; and their first shot passed between the two turrets, and lodged just in front of us, where they had been raising the dam. Our firemen were all ready to put out the fire; and the Saracens, not being able to aim straight at them, on account of the two pent-house wings which the King had made, shot straight up into the clouds, so that the fire-darts fell right on top of them.”
“This was the fashion of the Greek fire: it came on as broad in front as a vinegar cask, and the tail of fire that trailed behind it was as big as a great spear; and it made such a noise as it came, that it sounded like the thunder of heaven. It looked like a dragon flying through the air. Such a bright light did it cast, that one could see all over the camp as though it were day, by reason of the great mass of fire, and the brilliance of the light that it shed.”
“Thrice that night they hurled the Greek fire at us, and four times shot it from the tourniquet cross-bow.”
The Hive Mind in Action
Did Wells intend on striking a similar sense of psychological terror into the hearts and minds of his readers, when he penned War of the Worlds? To answer the question, let's examine some of the themes Wells drives home in this book:
You are (always) under surveillance: Wells wastes no time driving this important point home to his readers. The (infamous) opening words of War of the Worlds are reprinted here for reference: "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."
Notice the not-so-subtle point that those who are watching you are much more "intelligent" than you. In other words, not only are you being watched, but you're also much more stupid than the people who are doing the watching.. So don't try anything funny like trying to outsmart them or anything(!)
You are weak and completely powerless: Wells depicts the Martian technology as being so far in advance of our own so as to be, for all intents and purpose, utterly invincible. What resistence the humans manage to put forward proves useless and futile, and ultimately it's not even the humans who manage to "save themselves." Rather, it's a common bacterium. If Wells' first point was that you are both stupid and you are being watched by those who are more intelligent than you, his closing point seems to be that you are more useless to the ecosystem than a bacterium is.
More encouraging, uplifting thoughts from the pen of H.G. Wells..
Your instincts and emotions are useless: Note also the importance that Wells places on cold, hard technology. There is no room for saving grace in War of the Worlds. There is no morality, no spirituality, no love that can save anyone in this story. Technology, that is to say, the manipulation of material resources to serve specific economic and political ends, is depicted as being all powerful, and he who has the most powerful technology is made to be King of the World. He who does not command the most advanced technology and the most lethal military will be (completely) exterminated by the one who does.
There are, of course, traces of Wells' appreciation of eugenics to be seen in this.
There's No Room for Love in War of the Worlds
What a stark contrast this is to the Wachowski Brother's 1999 film, The Matrix, where in the end it is the immortal, undying emotion of love that not only "saves" the humans but that delivers them victory over the tyranny of cold, lifeless technology(!) (For the moment, at any rate...)
You cannot communicate with those who are all-powerful: In War of the Worlds, the alien invaders simply land and begin vaporizing humans. These are not the highly intelligent, scientifically curious, benign "aliens" of Carl Sagan's dreams. Rather, these creatures cannot be reasoned with, their motives cannot be fathomed and they cannot be rationalized in any way other than as instruments of terror.
Moreover, communication with these omnipotent beings is depicted not only as being impractical, but as well near impossible. The message that Wells seems to be communicating here is that when faced with such unfathomable power and terror, your best (perhaps only?) option is to abandon your cerebrum, along with all its higher brain functions, and listen to what your reptilian brain is screaming at you: drop everything, panic senselessly and then run for your life(!)
In future posts, I'll explore why Wells might choose to advance such themes in his literature. How can such themes serve the Communist cause and mold what could be appropriately be called the "Hive Mind?" Do stories like this encourage xenophobia? How can xenophobia be used as a political tool by social elites? Why did Bilderberger Steven Spielberg and Scientologist Tom Cruise choose to remake this movie this summer? What possible agenda are they (whether consciously or not) putting forth into the collective American mind?
Stay tuned for more.