Tuesday, January 3, 2012

War of the Worlds 1: The Coming of the Martians

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 scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.

Invasion Stories have been a notable sub-genre of Speculative Fiction for well over a century now. Their level of popularity has waxed and waned depending on the mood and the paranoia of the time. H.G. Wells took this formula and gave it a twist: his invaders were not the militaristic Prussians or the perfidious French or even the countless hordes of Chinese as in one Jack London short story. Wells brought his invaders from outer space and forever knocked humanity off of the top of the food chain.

The story starts out with a description of Mars, as it was known to Victorian Science. At the time, the prevailing theory of the origin of the Solar System was the Nebular Hypothesis, stating that the Solar System was originally a large cloud of gas which cooled and condensed into the planets we know today. Current theory is somewhat similar, but there was one important aspect of the original Nebular Hypothesis that was basic to the premise of War of the Worlds, and was highly influential in Science Fiction for the first half of the 20th Century. This is that as the primordial nebula of the Solar System condensed, the outer planets were the first to form and cool. This meant that these outer planets were much older than the Earth.

This seemed to be verified by astronomical observation. Mars, with it's cold, thin atmosphere, appeared to be a dying planet, millions of years past its prime. (And, by corollary; it seemed reasonable to picture hot, cloud-enveloped Venus as being similar to Earth in the prehistoric past).

And so Wells pictured his Martians as a very old, technologically advanced race dwelling on a dying world with dwindling resources and looking covetously at our own green Earth. In doing so, he quite deliberately held a mirror up to European colonial attitudes of his own era:

And Before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our on species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its own 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?

The first inkling humans have of the oncoming invasion is when flares of light are observed on the Martian surface; "Outbreaks of incandescent gas" similar to "Flaming gasses [rushing] out of a gun." The narrator's friend, an astronomer named Ogilvy, invites him to watch the flares one evening. They occur every night at midnight for about two weeks. Ogilvy speculates that they might be caused by meteors striking the planet's surface, or perhaps by some sort of volcanic eruption. He scoffs at the idea that inhabitants of Mars might be signalling the Earth. "The chances of anything manlike on Mars are a million to one."

Then one night a "falling star" lands in the Common between the villages of Horsell, Ottershaw and Woking. The Thing is an immense cylinder, and when Ogilvy goes to investigate, he sees that the top of the cylinder is rotating, like the top of a can unscrewing. Despite his early skepticism, he instantly realizes that this is an artificial object and undoubtedly came from Mars.

A large crowd of curiosity-seekers from the nearby villages, including the narrator, soon gathers. The top of the cylinder finally opens and the spectators get a glimpse of an octopus-like creature with leathery skin and writhing tentacles. Ogilvy was right after all; they Martians are not particularly manlike.

Ogilvy, along with Stent, the Astronomer Royal who has come to investigate the cylinder, and a few reporters, cobble together a white flag of truce and approach the Martians in order to communicate with them. The Martians, for their part, have begun raising up a long, segmented pole with some sort of mirror at the top.

Forthwith flashes of actual flame, a bright glare leaping from one to another, sprang from the scattered group of men. It was as if some invisible jet impinged upon them and flashed into white flame. It was as if each man were suddenly and momentarily turned to fire.

When the Tom Cruise remake of WotW came out a few years ago, my teenage daughter commented that this scene from the 1953 George Pal version seriously freaked her out when she was little. When I was little, I was freaked out by the Edward Gorey illustrations of the edition I read, with the Martian fighting machines towering over little burning figures lying on the ground and wreathed in flames. Interestingly enough, in Wells's description, the Heat Ray is invisible. There is a puff of glowing, green smoke from its projector before it fires; and its targets burst into flame, but the beam itself is silent and invisible; much like laser beams are in real life.

After killing the Deputation, the Martian's Heat Ray flashes around in a wide circle, incinerating most of the crowd around the pit. By sheer luck, the hero manages to make it home and is surprised to find most of the people there indifferent to the whole matter. These were the ones, after all, who stayed home. They weren't impressed by the initial reports of the cylinder and not inclined to believe the hero's wild stories.

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about the novel from our standpoint of a century later is how slow communications are in Wells's day. News of the Martians is remarkably slow to filter out of the Horsell Common, and much of that is confused and erroneous. (Of course, having the reporters on the scene unable to confirm their initial reports because they've been incinerated doesn't help).

The Narrator tells his wife about the inferno on the Common. She is horrified at his story and fearful of the Martians. He tries to reassure her. The Martians are limited in their mobility by Earth's greater gravity. In the brief glimpses he saw of the Martians, they seemed sluggish and hesitant. As terrible as the Heat Ray might seem, the Martians are trapped in their pit. Now that the initial rush of terror and adrenaline have worn off, the Narrator is beginning to feel more confident.

So some respectable dodo bird in the Mauritius might have lorded it in his nest, and discussed the arrival of that shipfull of pitiless sailors in want of animal food. "We will peck them to death tomorrow, my dear."

That night, the second Cylinder arrives.

NEXT: The Fighting Machines emerge and the fighting begins in earnest.

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