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H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds
Few writers have had the opportunity or the skill to impact literary history like Herbert George Wells, known today as H.G. Wells. During his eighty year life from 1866-1946, he wrote over a hundred books, over fifty of which were novels (H(erbert) 1). A pioneer in science fiction, he built on the small foundation laid down by authors like Jules Verne to make science fiction the reputable genre it is today. Literature like Harry Turtledove's "Worldwar" series, Manly Wellman's 1975 Sherlock Holmes' War of the Worlds, Jean-Pierre Guillet's proposed sequel La Cage de Londres, and Eric Brown's 2002 short story "Ulla, Ulla" have continued to be created. Similar films have been made, like 1996's Independence Day and Tim Burton's Mars Attacks. Radio advertisements and books use "The War of the Words" spin-off as their punch line. In perhaps the most famous tribute to The War of the Worlds, (George) Orson Welles' hoax radio broadcast of the book's content created widespread panic in England's streets. With so many already completed works, it is obvious that Wells continues to influence the English world.
Despising social inequality, Wells agreed with the tenets of socialism and wrote often about the division present in class-based societies, his most famous commentary made obvious between the Eloi and the Morlocks in his 1895 The Time Machine . Wells' strong beliefs in and support of Darwin's theory of evolution either led him to believe or stemmed from his insistence that it was possible for humankind to live together peacefully here on the earth, which strongly reveals the utopian slant of his mind. Wells' 1905 book, A Modern Utopia , is probably his work most attributed with utopian literature and proves that he understood and could effectively write on the topic. In the general sense, his novel The War of the Worlds is not utopian, but the details of the invasion lead the reader to think that because of their lack of vision, the (utopian?) cultures of both the Martians and the English are on the brink of dissolution. In Wells' The Outline of History , he says, "Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe." This idea becomes true for both the alien and English cultures. Although nearly all his books focus on science and mechanization, it is this mindset of his that makes many of his books and novels, including The War of the Worlds, utopian or dystopian in nature.
H.G. Wells wrote his 1898 science fiction work The War of the Worlds in response to the historical events of the time period leading up to the turn of the century. The last five years of the century were home to some interesting mechanical discoveries - early motion pictures, electric power, X-rays, florescent lighting, loudspeakers, and key radio improvements. This environment of discovery seems to have captured Wells' imagination, leading to the literary invention ideas like laser heat rays, nuclear bombs, chemical weapons, mechanical warfare, and tanks. In 1894 Mars' orbit had brought it close to Earth, and scientists made themselves busy observing the surface in ways they had not been able to in the past. Canals and waterways, as well as strange lights, seen on the surface sparked discussion about the possibility of life on the red planet. The literary world was also infatuated with the planet Mars. H.G. Wells used this newly popular focus on Mars, scientific realism (as he often did in his novels) and social threads regarding England's colonial expansion, Germany's unification and military industry (Brians 1), and the "rumblings of a pan-European war" (Herbert 1) to give his novel a utopian/dystopian feeling that in the end may not lean one way or the other.
In The War of the Worlds , the English people are infinitely complacent about their society and about any possible threats to the successful society. Although the novel does not present England as a completed, ideal utopia, this complacency of the smoothly-ruling powers is common to dystopian novels. The people are not expecting any changes but are assuming that life will continue as it exists for them. This parallels the culture of England at the time, which was bent towards mechanical and industrial innovation and not the least bit worried about the health of their society or any potential threats from the outside. The urban island setting of Great Britain is ideal for the Martian invasion since it is an island nation, naturally separated from Europe and the Americas or any other potential aid. This isolation made it perfect for a crisis, which is perhaps what Wells was thinking in regards to a potential attack from a unifying military Germany.
The novel shines a mixed light on technological and mechanical improvements. From a positive view, technology is what makes the alien invaders superior to the English armies and would have been the end of English culture if not for the unforeseen effects of terrestrial bacteria on the aliens. The characters in the novel feared their technological power, and there was nothing the inferior English culture could do in the face of such advanced intelligence. This slant of the novel shows the necessity of science for the maintenance and propagation of a culture. From a negative view, technology is what allows the alien invaders to destroy another culture. Wells' belief was that all of humanity is equal, that it is improper for one group of people to destroy or subjugate another people because of their technological inferiority. To Wells, technology should not be the main focus of a society, but a thread exists in this novel that suggests that unless a country keeps up with the technology of the world, that country will eventually be destroyed by that same technology. It is this reverent fear that perhaps explains his theoretical invention of technologies with such destructive capabilities.
The artilleryman that the narrator meets again at the end guesses at what the aliens might do to try to set up their utopian culture here on the earth. At first glance, that does not seem possible. If the aliens tried to set up a ruling system, the humans would revolt. The artilleryman's view explains how humans will "wonder what people did before there were Martians to take care of them" (172). In his prophecy of the future, the majority of captured humans will be content with their new environment and society will run smoothly under the governing of the aliens. With most dystopias, there is a minority class that is allowed to escape or somehow coexist without being snuffed out by the utopian rulers. The artilleryman himself says that he will be a part of the uprising of humans that will eventually overthrow the aliens.
This idea of overthrowing the aliens has led many to read the novel as a critique on the colonial expansion of England. The reader is constantly warned that "before of [the aliens] too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals . . . but upon its inferior races" (Wells 5). The Tasmanians, who "in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants" (Wells 5) are an example of the expansion that was so harmful to many areas. The future underground revolution that the artilleryman suggests parallels similar revolutions that happened in India and other former countries of the English Commonwealth. "As Martian supplants man, it becomes evident that their monstrosity only mirrors our own" (Draper 51). Some have suggested that the journey of the Martians to Earth with the intention of invasion is a prophecy of not just England, but mankind in the future (Draper 51).
At the end, after the aliens have been overthrown by the surprising bacteria, the plot switches from an invasion focus to a rebuilding one. The starting over process is common in utopian literature, primarily because of the need of a clean slate in order for the new ideals to sink in. Wells has England at a point that, in order to prevent events like this in the future, it is willing to try anything, including the complete reexamining of its beliefs and procedures. This gives the ending the feeling of a new utopia on the horizon for England, one in which people would be treated as equal and technology would be used as a tool and not exploited as a weapon or symbol of its global status. The ending flows smoothly with the human liberationalist tendencies of utopias. It highlights that England specifically, or we as a world, aren't doing something right and could benefit from opening our eyes to look to countries who may have something to teach the world community.
H.G. Wells remains perhaps the most acclaimed science fiction author of all time but not simply because of the entertainment value of his literature. The scientific realism he so often used has become a staple for science fiction of today that wishes to hold true to the known and potential future sciences. In a world of increasing multi-cultural sensitivity, the potential threads regarding England's colonial expansion certainly add an interesting twist to The War of the Worlds as an already historically significant prophetic work that warns of the no-longer impending danger of the German forces. Whether or not the novel is completely utopian in nature, its parts offer insight into an English culture of the past while staying amazingly relevant in discussions of the present-day world culture.
Brians, Paul. "Study Guide for H. G. Wells: The War of the Worlds (1898)." 24 September 2005. <http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~brians/science_fiction/warofworlds.html>.
Draper, Michael. Modern Novelists: H.G. Wells . New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.
"H(erbert) G(eorge) Wells (1866-1946)." 26 September 2005. <http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/hgwells.htm>.
"Herbert George Wells: A Biography." 24 September 2005. <http://www.war-ofthe-worlds.co.uk/hg.htm>.
Wells, H.G. The War of the Worlds . Aerie Books Ltd.
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