THE WAR OF THE WORLDS is a novel predicated on a self-reflexive fear of death and domination, a kind of catharsis of the imagination during the height of the British empire. Being alive invites the fear of being dead, and being so powerful and in domination of other lands and peoples invites the fear of that being inverted. H. G. Wells has said the concept for the story was born out of a discussion with his brother on the genocide the British had carried out over the indigenous Tasmanian people. What if that sort of evil was visited upon the British themselves? What if they suffered that kind of imperialism, that devastation? The very idea is described early on in the book.
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. The intellectual side of man already admits that life is an incessant struggle for existence, and it would seem that this too is the belief of the minds upon Mars. Their world is far gone in its cooling and this world is still crowded with life, but crowded only with what they regard as inferior animals. To carry warfare sunward is, indeed, their only escape from the destruction that, generation after generation, creeps upon them.
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?
The invading Martians are then allegorical for the British, and for imperialists and colonists in general. Wells even identifies the systemic drive of imperialism in the point that the Martian existence is unsustainable and requires exploitation of other, new worlds and peoples to continue. To drive home how allegorical this point is, those the Martians previously subjugated were literally humanoid as well.
Their undeniable preference for men as their source of nourishment is partly explained by the nature of the remains of the victims they had brought with them as provisions from Mars. These creatures, to judge from the shrivelled remains that have fallen into human hands, were bipeds with flimsy, silicious skeletons (almost like those of the silicious sponges) and feeble musculature, standing about six feet high and having round, erect heads, and large eyes in flinty sockets. Two or three of these seem to have been brought in each cylinder, and all were killed before earth was reached. It was just as well for them, for the mere attempt to stand upright upon our planet would have broken every bone in their bodies.
The novel works as a kind of flush of anxieties, a catharsis through putting humanity through the worst reduction and domination possible, exorcising fears from the more nuanced of a society being treated as it treats others, to the more fundamental of death and annihilation. Living out these death fantasies is of course immensely popular in fiction, and THE WAR OF THE WORLDS forms an important part of the history of invasion literature, although – of course – science-fiction is the genre it’s most important to.
The secular cooling that must someday overtake our planet has already gone far indeed with our neighbour.
On that note of science-fiction, Wells uses his mock-science of the biology of the Martians to ponder on how humanity is defined by its most material aspects (again, it’s interesting how pragmatic the novel’s politics are).
They did not eat, much less digest. Instead, they took the fresh, living blood of other creatures, and injected it into their own veins. I have myself seen this being done, as I shall mention in its place. But, squeamish as I may seem, I cannot bring myself to describe what I could not endure even to continue watching. Let it suffice to say, blood obtained from a still living animal, in most cases from a human being, was run directly by means of a little pipette into the recipient canal. . . .
The bare idea of this is no doubt horribly repulsive to us, but at the same time I think that we should remember how repulsive our carnivorous habits would seem to an intelligent rabbit.
The physiological advantages of the practice of injection are undeniable, if one thinks of the tremendous waste of human time and energy occasioned by eating and the digestive process. Our bodies are half made up of glands and tubes and organs, occupied in turning heterogeneous food into blood. The digestive processes and their reaction upon the nervous system sap our strength and colour our minds. Men go happy or miserable as they have healthy or unhealthy livers, or sound gastric glands. But the Martians were lifted above all these organic fluctuations of mood and emotion.
In another sequence of the book, the artilleryman (all characters save the astronomer Ogilvy go unnamed, a curious stylistic touch perhaps to emphasise the shared relatability of the invasion crisis) describes a fanciful plan for how humanity might survive by focusing on pragmatic living and pragmatic peoples, where scientists and intellectuals are important, but insofar as they retain and work with knowledge helpful to the greater populace. Wells seems to often return to this idea of pragmatic, material actions and causes as being more meaningful than social structures or philosophies. This is also shown in the ending, where the narrator stresses over the tangible possibility of a renewed Martian attack. He questions the basis of the sort of social Darwinism that would see the Martians justified in their invasion, and thus see the British justified in their imperialist pursuits. In 1907, Churchill – talking of the British rule in Uganda – said the British were ‘as remote from, and all in that constitutes fitness to direct, as superior to the Baganda as Mr Wells’ Martians would have been to us’, in a chilling interpretation that seems to identify more with the Martians than the humans of the story.
For better or worse, what saved humanity in the end did not save countless colonised peoples of the world, and in fact the inverse was even sometimes true (as with the Native Americans afflicted with smallpox). Microbes are mentioned three times in the book, once at the beginning, the middle, and the end.
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.
The last salient point in which the systems of these creatures differed from ours was in what one might have thought a very trivial particular. Micro-organisms, which cause so much disease and pain on earth, have either never appeared upon Mars or Martian sanitary science eliminated them ages ago. A hundred diseases, all the fevers and contagions of human life, consumption, cancers, tumours and such morbidities, never enter the scheme of their life. And speaking of the differences between the life on Mars and terrestrial life, I may allude here to the curious suggestions of the red weed.
And scattered about it, some in their overturned war-machines, some in the now rigid handling-machines, and a dozen of them stark and silent and laid in a row, were the Martians—dead!—slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared; slain as the red weed was being slain; slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.
For so it had come about, as indeed I and many men might have foreseen had not terror and disaster blinded our minds. These germs of disease have taken toll of humanity since the beginning of things—taken toll of our prehuman ancestors since life began here. But by virtue of this natural selection of our kind we have developed resisting power; to no germs do we succumb without a struggle, and to many—those that cause putrefaction in dead matter, for instance—our living frames are altogether immune. But there are no bacteria in Mars, and directly these invaders arrived, directly they drank and fed, our microscopic allies began to work their overthrow. Already when I watched them they were irrevocably doomed, dying and rotting even as they went to and fro. It was inevitable. By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers; it would still be his were the Martians ten times as mighty as they are. For neither do men live nor die in vain.
While a powerful ending in its own right, it does not map easily onto the themes of retargeted colonialism and misled social Darwinism – at least, not yet. The concept of every thoughtless death as part of a cumulative strengthening of humanity is appealing and affirming, but the fundamental idea of tiny, imperceptible, and born of shared struggle as having an inoculating affect against a dominating class is empowering in its own more abstracted way as well. What ultimately undoes the Martians is their arrogance, and the mechanisms of material nature. Perhaps it’s best seen as a form of divine intervention, a cosmic condemnation of the inhuman imperialism Wells probes. Such solutions aren’t as easily found in reality, but perhaps such fantasies form part of the negative image needed to see the achievable more clearly, not unlike how the narrator maintained his sanity.
From certain vague memories I am inclined to think my own mind wandered at times. I had strange and hideous dreams whenever I slept. It sounds paradoxical, but I am inclined to think that the weakness and insanity of the curate warned me, braced me, and kept me a sane man.
A seminal work for good reason. Four cannisters, and some red weed.