“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 War of the Worlds, Chapter One
H.G. Well’s The War of the Worlds is widely considered to be the first alien invasion story.
(It’s not. Voltaire’s short story Micromegas was written over one hundred years earlier – but that doesn’t really feature an alien invasion so much as two aliens coming to earth, snickering, and generally attempting to dispel human ideas of grandeur and a ‘the universe was created for us’ mentality. Robert Potter’s fairly unknown The Germ Growers, on the other hand, is most certainly an alien invasion story. The plotline just has more covertness than explosions and so is largely ignored in favor of the more popular if six years younger War of the Worlds. But this really isn’t important.)
Regardless of its dubious status as ‘first,’ the novel did launch a large number of typical alien invasion themes about invasions, otherness, survival, and helplessness that authors during the Cold War picked up on and expanded in earnest. Each sci-fi book about extra-terrestrials has a touch of H.G. Wells in it and, for all that the book itself has been surpassed in terms of quality in both plot and characterization, that subtle inclusion has made the subgenre pretty strong.
One thing that alien invasion novels as a whole established, perhaps more than any other general scenario in books, is the use of aliens and their invasions as metaphors and analogies for more real-world issues.
The militant invasionary tone in The War of the Worlds, as well as the narrator’s frequent philosophical musings, hearkens back to European and colonial tensions. Everything from the Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters alludes to the covert and hyper-suspicious Cold War. Other portrayals of potentially antagonistic alien interventions, like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Bruce Coville’s My Teacher Is an Alien series, theorizes about a large community of aliens that can see all of our deadly global problems and wants us to shape up – or else.
And I’m kind of fond of this, because alien invasions can be applied to any number of issues, ideas, and plots – so I have to give H.G. Wells points for this.
But the thing I hate the most about his book – the thing that surpasses even the ridiculous dues ex machine, cop-out ending of the book – is how he justifies the Martians’ actions in the first chapter. He was certainly not the first person to use this idea, but he widely popularized it, and that it is still used today is partially because of him.
He said that because Western colonizers decimated native populations and civilizations, it’s only fair that the same thing happens to the whole world.
This is stupid.
This is stupid.
For one thing, and this is a slightly smaller contention (but still valid), that would screw over all non-Europeans/-Americans twice. The narrator, immediately established as British and rather well-to-do, is so stuck in his Western, dominating mindset that he fails to realize that if Europe suffers from a global catastrophe, so will the rest of the globe – parts of which had just been decimated by Europe and the United States.
These 19th century colonizers might have thrown away their right to complain, according to his argument, but the rest of the world has not, and the fact that he made that argument shows he hadn’t learned his lesson from the Martian invasion.
The second argument, and the one I think of with the most indignation, is that that’s the worst logic I’ve ever heard, because it doesn’t allow us to condemn our actions and do better. Dominant powers have usually killed off their inferiors in terms of power; history is full of this. But H.G. Well’s narrator is arguing that since we did it to someone else, we can't argue when it happens to us.
The immeasurably better argument is to say that the Martians coming in and killing everyone in order to steal our resources is wrong, and so us going into another country to kill everyone and steal their resources must have been equally wrong -- and so we shouldn't do it anymore.
It’s not that hard of a concept. I would have expected more than an ‘it’s only fair’ argument from someone reflecting on a catastrophic war that humans lived through only due to a lucky chance.
(Of course, the fact that humans survived the attack from colonizing aliens only through accidental biological warfare is ironic, since that’s exactly what lead to the European victories and domination of the
those colonizing powers were trying to seize resources.)
Do you have your own critiques and comments about The War of the Worlds or the use of alien invasion novels to discuss important issues? Feel free to leave comments. Also, please recommend this post on StumbleUpon – all it takes is a click!
Rachel is the co-founder of How To Survive Alien Invasion Novels, and spends her time writing, studying, and reading what would probably be considered far too many books. Connect with her and Rusty on Twitter and Facebook, and click here to read more of her articles about alien theories and how to survive alien invasion novels.