A strange thing happened last winter when I was teaching H.G. Wells’ 1897 sci-fi novel “The War of the Worlds” to a class of college freshmen. All of a sudden, the story became chillingly, tragically real.
The Englishman Wells, who along with the French author Jules Verne essentially invented modern science fiction, at the turn of the 20th century wrote short stories, humor and social commentary for such publications as The Pall Mall Gazette. The son of a shopkeeper, trained in biology, he advocated for women’s rights, socialism and other progressive causes. Some of his more memorable essays for the Gazette had such cheery titles as “The Extinction of Man” (1894).
Wordsmiths of Wells’ stripe — like popular science writers today — served as a bridge between the masses and the cutting-edge philosophical and scientific advances of the era. He helped readers grapple with such extremely controversial ideas as the theory of evolution, propounded by naturalist Charles Darwin in his landmark book “The Origin of Species” (1859), which profoundly challenged the Victorian understanding of humanity’s place in nature. Many readers reacted with horror.
Crucially, we should remember that discussions of evolution and its distortions, like “Social Darwinism,” were taking place at a time when European nations like Great Britain engaged in brutal colonialism, conquering vast parts of the globe and enslaving nonwhite local populations — which were often classified as “inferior” or even subhuman.
Many of the ideas Wells explored in his science writing found their way into his fiction. Flush with the success of his 1895 novel “The Time Machine,” he decided to turn the tables on the colonizers.
Right from its famous opening lines, “The War of the Worlds” is filled with dread:
“No one would have believed in the last years of the 19th century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own ... Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this Earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.”
And so it comes to pass that the Martians launch their invasion of Earth by landing here in metal tubes which release towering three-legged machines of war. These mechanical monsters crush everything in their path and burn whole crowds to cinders with their terrifying heat rays. They fumigate London with a poisonous, pesticidal black fog, killing thousands. Humanity, despite its best efforts, can do almost nothing against them. Mass panic grips Britain and the world. The great empire is reduced to a great herd of fleeing cattle — an apt analogy, since those they don’t kill the Martians reduce to a sort of livestock, sucking out their life juices.
But for all its innovations and tremendous influence (every sci-fi flick you’ve ever seen has it in its DNA), “War of the Worlds” is actually just a clever rehashing of what was then called “invasion literature.” For example, George Tomkins Chesney’s 1871 novella “The Battle of Dorking” had already imagined the invasion of England by a merciless German army; Wells just replaced human invaders with Martians armed with hi-tech weaponry.
Wells is also responding angrily to popular adventure novels like Henry Rider Haggard’s “King Solomon’s Mines” (1885) — a direct ancestor to the Indiana Jones movies, by the way — which romanticized European imperialism, often depicting nonwhite races in dehumanizing terms. “War of the Worlds” is a reaction and an overcorrection to the complacent racial superiority of such works’ worldview — now it is white Europeans who suffer at the (slimy) hands of cruel outsiders.
This also explains why Wells uses so many real, named locations. He wanted his British readers to experience the horror of invasion in an immersive, real-life way, with familiar sites destroyed by the Martians. Today you can even find the aliens’ path of destruction on Google Maps.
What’s more, in seeking to sensitize his readers to the immorality of empire, our intrepid author seemed to have a particular atrocity in mind: in the 18th and 19th centuries, the British among others had committed colonialist genocide against the Aboriginal peoples of Tasmania, the large island off the southeastern coast of Australia. He even mentions this sad episode in the novel, writing, “The Tasmanians … were entirely swept out of existence.”
Now it was the UK’s turn.
But then, in the middle of discussing all this with my students, Feb. 24, 2022 happened. The Russian military launched an invasion of its neighbor, Ukraine. Millions of Ukrainians fled the country. And there it was: Wells’ vision of mass evacuation, terror-struck victims scrambling for safety from a relentless enemy, all brought to life. The Guardian interviewed an art historian, Tanya Novogorodskaya — one of thousands at a packed Kyiv train station, all trying to get out of the country. “Look at these faces around us,” she said. “They are exactly the same as in the photographs from the second world war, and it’s just five days. Can you imagine what will happen in a month?”
Watching and reading the coverage, I was haunted by Wells’ lines from the novel, about how “trains were being filled …,” about the “boiling stream of people,” about the “sad, haggard women …” trying to escape London, the Martians at their heels. It was “the rout of civilization, the massacre of mankind,” Wells wrote.
It was too much, too close to the real world for comfort. But then, that’s what Wells had in mind all along.
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