The War of the Worlds
War of the Worlds, Pearsons illustrations.
The War of the Worlds is a science fiction tale by H. G. Wells which represents one of his darkest evolutionary visions and was to have a powerful effect on public conceptions of alien life.1 It was originally serialized in Pearson's Magazine, from April to December 1897, before being published as a book in 1898.
The title of the opening section, "The Coming of the Martians," the title of the opening chapter, "The Eve of War," and the very first sentence foreshadow the horror that is about to descend:
No one would have believed, in the last years of the 19th century, that human affairs were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's ...
Cleverly, Wells weaves scientific fact into his tale so that the reader is left wondering where the real world ends and glimpses of another possible truth begin. Some familiar names make their appearance:
Men like Schiaparelli watched the red planet – it is odd, by the by, that for countless centuries Mars has been the star of war – but failed to interpret the fluctuating appearances of the markings they mapped so well. All the time the Martians must have been getting ready. During the opposition of 1894 a great light was seen on the illuminated part of the disc, first at the Lick Observatory, then by Perrotin of Nice ... I am inclined to think that the appearance may have been the casting of the huge gun [a borrowing from Verne] ... from which their shots were fired at us.
Swept aside here is the heroic, isolated, near-human race of Lowell. In its place is a truly alien species with an intellect "vast and cool and unsympathetic." As for the anatomy of this other-world creature, Wells had already warned in an earlier article to expect a nasty shock. Now the thing was revealed:
A big, greyish rounded bulk, the size, perhaps of a bear, was rising slowly and painfully out of the cylinder. As it bulged up and caught the light, it glistened like wet leather. Two large dark-coloured eyes were regarding me steadfastly. The mass that framed them, the head of the thing, it was rounded, and had, one might say, a face. There was a mouth under the eyes, the lipless brim of which quivered and panted, and dropped saliva. The whole creature heaved and pulsated convulsively. A lank tentacular appendage gripped the edge of the cylinder, another swayed in the air.
With his appreciation of how living things were shaped and selected by their circumstances, Wells realized that where life arose on other planets it would develop to suit the local conditions, such as gravitational pull and atmospheric make-up. Therefore it would not be easy for a creature that had evolved in one place to adjust to the environment elsewhere:
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, the tumultuous breathing of the lungs in a strange atmosphere, the evident heaviness and painfulness of movement, due to the greater gravitational energy of the earth – above all, the extraordinary intensity of the immense eyes – culminated in an effect akin to nausea. There was something fungoid in the oily brown skin ... Even at this first encounter, this first glimpse, I was overcome with disgust and dread.
Thus was spawned the nightmare of the pulsating brain, of the malicious anatomy – the alien from hell – and the nightmare, too, that might follow were it to transpire that humankind was far from being near the pinnacle of cerebral development. Elsewhere in space, there could be, as Wells put it, species with "minds that are to our minds as ours are to the beasts that perish." And what if those minds meant us no good? How could we possibly stand against them? This is the fear that Wells so skillfully implanted: an alien race, alien in appearance and with an intelligence and technology frighteningly superior to our own. Wells had not had to look far for a precedent for his usurping aliens. In the final decades of the nineteenth century, "technologically-advanced" European powers such as Britain and France had been busily carving up Africa, invading territories at will and trampling on the rights of the indigenous folk whom, in true imperialist style, they considered culturally and intellectually inferior to themselves. As Wells points out in the prelude to the Martian mayhem: "Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?"
Partly this urge to grab new resources and strategic land around the world was a response to instabilities within Europe itself. And so Wells was able to touch another raw nerve. Throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century, the continent was in a perpetual state of tension, its major powers playing a dangerous game of shifting alliances and rivalries. War never seemed more than a careless gunshot away. It might even come from the air given that gas balloons had been used by the Germans during the siege of Paris in 1870. So, just as Lowell's concept of a worldwide canal network and giant pumping stations had seemed all the more credible (and was conceived) against a backdrop of rapid engineering and industrial progress, it was to a public all too familiar with news of international unrest and threats of invasion that Wells directed his menacing tale.
Until The War of the Worlds, stories of visitors to Earth had generally portrayed the outsiders as gentle, peace-lovers, interested only in watching us, perhaps with mild amusement or concern (see Micromegas). But in Wells's novel, the extraterrestrials are painted suddenly in an altogether different light: as a terrifying threat, capable of bringing merciless death and destruction. No human weapon could stand against them, any more than a spear or shield could provide protection against a gun. Wells showed how pathetically helpless we would be if a malignant alien race, centuries ahead of us, did decide to attack the Earth. And in doing this he caused something to stir that had been buried deep within our animal subconscious – the naked fear of the prey when confronted by the irresistible predator. To Technological Man the effect of this sudden exposure to a long-suppressed dread was devastating. Humankind had begun to imagine it was secure in its role as master of the planet. But Wells revealed how feeble our tenure might be should superior beings from elsewhere choose to come and wrest control of the Earth away from us.
Speculation about the Martian canals and their creators had titillated public interest. But the idea of invasion from space had an altogether more serious and long-lasting effect. It buried itself like a barbed sting beneath the surface of popular culture, so that it would be felt in future whenever there came a hint of the possibility of alien incursion.
War of the Worlds radio play
Broadcast across the United States on October 30, 1938, this production revealed the extent to which the fear of hostile aliens had become entrenched in the public mind. For several months, the CBS radio network had been staging plays by Orson Welles, John Houseman, and their Mercury Theater on the Air. Now it was Halloween, time for something a little special and scary: an updated version of Wells's classic, scripted by Howard Koch (who later co-wrote the screen play for Casablanca).
At 8 pm Eastern Standard Time, the production began, innocently enough, with a weather forecast that commented on slightly unusual happenings for the time of year. Then the smooth-talking announcer led into an outside broadcast, from a New York hotel, where Raymond Raquello and his orchestra were playing ballroom dance music. The bandleader introduced the tune, but abruptly the sound faded. A studio announcer broke in, apologized for the interruption, and read a news flash about explosions on Mars seen from observatories at Mount Jennings and Princeton. More snatches of music followed, punctuated by increasingly alarming news reports. The Government Meteorological Bureau requested that all observatories across the nation train their instruments on Mars... A meteorite, subsequently described as a "huge, flaming object" had landed on a farm at Grovers Mill, New Jersey, not far away ... The station's reporter, Carl Phillips, was on his way there with a mobile crew.
Relentlessly, the tension grew. Amid the hubbub of an excited crowd, Phillips spoke in turn to a semi-coherent eye-witness and to an expert, interviewed earlier in his observatory but now clearly shaken by the turn of events, a Professor Richard Pearson (played by Welles). And then the meteorite, now revealed to be an alien spacecraft, opened. Phillips described the frenzied scene, the monster crawling out, the pointing by it of some kind of device at the radio crew and ... silence. The similarity in tone with that of the commentary on the Hindenburg airship disaster, a year earlier, was striking – and entirely uncoincidental: Welles and his company had thoroughly studied the unforgettable recording of that event. "Due to circumstances beyond our control ...," cut in a studio voice, followed by piano music, interspersed with more confused and totally credible reporting. An official statement from Washington referred to the "gravity of the situation." Seven thousand soldiers had surrounded the object. Most were killed. Washington warned that New Jersey was seeing "the vanguard of an invasion from Mars ..."
Many listeners tuning in late hadn't heard Welles introduce the play for what it was and took the events to be real. Thousands of families in New York and New Jersey fled their homes, freeways were jammed, people called each other on the phone to wish fond farewells, one distraught individual tried to commit suicide, and groups gathered in New England, Harlem, and the Deep South to pray for divine intervention. There were miscarriages, heart attacks, lootings, and brawls. In New Jersey, the National Guard was called out. The CBS switchboard was jammed with callers, some frantic with fear, others bravely volunteering to help repel the alien onslaught. Even weeks later, Red Cross volunteers were trying to persuade families who had fled to the mountains that it was safe to return home. According to research based on interviews begun by Princeton University in the week following the broadcast, well over one million listeners, or more than one in ten of the audience, had been actively frightened by what they heard.
In the aftermath, CBS publicly apologized, Welles (saved from a sacking and police prosecution only by the skin of his contract) vowed it would never happen again, and the Federal Communications Commission passed rules to ensure that it never could. But legislating against human nature is not so simple. The panic triggered by Welles' superb performance exposed graphically the ease with which large numbers of people can be misled and driven over the edge into mass hysteria. With hindsight, it seems obvious that events could not have unfolded in real life with the speed depicted in the play. One moment there are explosions on Mars, a few minutes later a spacecraft has arrived on Earth, and a few minutes later still a large contingent of troops is at the scene. It is hard to imagine listeners being so utterly convinced it was live action. But when people have been conditioned to believe that something is possible, and when in addition they want to believe in the extraordinary, surprisingly little is needed to evoke a spectacular response. Nine years after the Halloween scare, the Martians would be back – with a vengeance.
1. Wells, H. G. The War of the Worlds. New York:Berkeley Publishing Company (1964).