The speculative philosopher

Mars, the ‘red planet’

The War of the Worlds by H G Wells.
— ‘Evolution and Ethics in The War of the Worlds‘ by John Huntingdon (1982).
Penguin English Library 2012 (1898)

And before we judge of [the Martians] 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?

Though we’d rightly take issue with the narrator’s term “inferior races” for the Tasmanians, he is correct to refer to genocide as one atrocity among many that humans have long visited on populations, along with species extermination. Throughout Wells’s alien invasion story he constantly has the narrator compare the Martians’ treatment of humans with our lack of concern for social insects like ants, bees and wasps, or gets him to comment on the belief that animals are only useful when treated as a food source.

But The War of the Worlds isn’t only framed as a moral tract (the narrator identifies himself as a speculative philosopher): it pretends to be a journalistic first-hand account of a few weeks in June in the last decade of the 19th century, from the first intimations of activity on Mars to the arrival of the supposed vanguard of a colonising force, the devastation of the hub of a global empire, and finally the defeat of the aggressors by the humblest of terrestrial allies, microbes.

Yet Wells is also having fun with his apocalyptic scenario as described by his unreliable narrator, and even while he includes scenes of horror and of wanton destruction and death he’s alert to his story’s satiric impact.

The plot is so familiar that one doesn’t need to worry overmuch about giving spoilers. It’s a pioneer of the alien invasion trope which has since been imitated, adapted and parodied in numerous iterations, from radio and screen versions of Wells’s original to novels like John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes (1953) or Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (1969), and on to comic horror films like Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! from 1996 (which was itself based on a trading card series published at the height of the Cold War, around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis). The tripartite structure of prologue–invasion–defeat is common to nearly all iterations as well as being integral to The War of the Worlds.

Wells was writing at the zenith of the British Empire’s dominion over the globe, with London’s teeming population (approaching six million inhabitants) at its hub. In choosing southeast England as a setting Wells was implicitly suggesting that the Martians deliberately selected this part of the world, at that time the world’s largest conurbation, for its geopolitical importance. A sequence detailing the crash-landing of half a dozen or so cylinders around Woking in Surrey slowly builds the tension until the unnamed narrator becomes the sole survivor after curious onlookers are annihilated by a heat ray.

Thereafter terror heaps upon terror as the squid-like Martians take to the tripods they have been assembling, laying waste to buildings, infrastructure and the natural environment (an invasive species of red weed rapidly takes root) before marching over the Thames to strike at the heart of the capital. As chaotic streams of refugee Londoners head northwards or to the coast to escape death the narrator, when he is not describing the straits and scrapes he gets into, speculates and philosophises about the how and the why that have resulted in a cock-sure imperial nation being brought to its knees.

1894 flyer design for Pall Mall Budget by Maurice Greiffenhagen: an article in this periodical is mentioned in the novel

I mentioned that we are being entertained by an unreliable narrator. How so? In The War of the Worlds Wells adopts a journalistic style of reportage which puts me in mind of Defoe’s 1722 A Journal of the Plague Year (though I’ve only read a few extracts from the latter): there’s a wealth of circumstantial detail — days enumerated during the month of June, a journey from Surrey to Primrose Hill which can be followed on a map, periodicals referenced, first hand descriptions of the Martians and their machines, a secondhand account of a trek through Essex — all giving an impression of verisimilitude but, like Defoe’s Journal, it stands at the halfway point between fact and fiction. In fact, I wonder if this 1898 scientific romance wasn’t heavily influenced by Defoe’s work: it’s largely set within London, both involve vast swathes of the population, both claim to be an authentic memoir and both turn upon the fact of a deadly contagion.

But the novel is curiously devoid of crucial details, such as the names of the narrator, of his wife and his brother. True, we are introduced to a few named individuals such as an astronomer, a journalist or the Elphinstone women, but they either die or soon drop out of the story; and the people whom the narrator spends much time with, such as the artilleryman and the curate, are never identified by name. As a purported memoir it is strong on the narrator’s feelings and reactions and observations, but other than a devastating indictment of the curate and the artillieryman he seems oddly uninterested in the experiences and thoughts of other survivors, and in fact comes over as self-pitying, a characteristic which I’m sure Wells intended for him, perhaps to allow the reader to identify with him.

Hell (detail) from Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights triptych (Prado Museum)

Where the novel really pays off is in its creation of atmosphere. The overall colour palette is red: red from the planet Mars, from the passage of the cylinder projectiles as they scoot through the atmosphere, from the conflagrations raised by the Martian heat rays, from the vivid sunrises and sunsets, from the alien red weed that chokes vegetation and ruins and river courses; contrasted with the crimson and scarlets is the absence of light — the black of night and of the narrator’s imprisonment in the depths of a destroyed suburban villa, the black smoke of the aliens’ poison gas, the black deposit when the gas comes in contact with superheated steam, the blackened stumps of trees and buildings in the wake of Martian destruction. While John Huntington’s essay in this edition expands on the use of this limited colour palette, I myself am most reminded of the vision of hell in the right-hand panel of Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, an apocalyptic scene with fires raging in the background, contrasting with the night sky and stark silhouettes.

The War of the Worlds was a wonderful corrective to a prevailing British jingoism, an attitude which is unfortunately still held a century and more later. We can see it in expressions of native supremacy, a nostalgia for a long gone imperialism, a harking back to the Blitz spirit, a belief in exclusivity and special treatment. One feels that, should the English Home Counties be today selectively targeted for an alien invasion, that Wells himself (woken as if from a long coma-induced sleep) would be able to adapt his novel with very few changes to its overall message.


1/21 TBR books in 2021. Read for Vintage Scifi Month

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8 thoughts on “The speculative philosopher

    1. If I said I was sorry would you believe me?! Seriously though, it’s clear Wells had great fun trashing his then home town of Woking and its environs and even meting out horrendous demises for the (unnamed) butcher, baker, candlestick-maker et al who were his neighbours. He apparently cycled around trying to work out which houses, streets and pine woods to zap and raze to the ground; a literary Blue Meanie!

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  1. Excellent post Chris, and I hadn’t made the connection between this and Plague Year before (though I read the latter quite recently) but I totally get your point. And it’s terribly depressing to see how quickly we’ve regressed to this kind of jingoistic rhetoric…

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    1. You surely mean “world-beating jingoistic rhetoric”?! But thanks, Karen, I think the strength of a piece of classic fiction is how much it speaks to us moderns and our contemporary concerns. In this respect this Wells novel surprised me when I was just expecting a steampunk-anticipating period piece.

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    1. Thanks! No idea if they’re valid for Wells or not, but if he knew the Defoe (which is very likely for someone of his period) he’d no doubt leap to the the Great Fire of London in 1666 which succeeded the Plague Year of 1665 as an inspiration for his own metropolitan conflagration. In any case there were enough apocalyptic canvases in the National Gallery to further his vision of hell, even if he didn’t know of the Prado painting.

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