The War of the Worlds
by H.G. Wells
In honor of the proximity of the landing of the latest Martian rover, Curiosity, to the Independence Day celebrations in the United States, NASA’s website displays a picture labeled “Fireworks over Mars.” The red planet has carried the burden of Earthlings’ dreams for millennia. For Americans in 2012, it’s a setting for space age pyrotechnics. For Great Britain in 1898, fearful of its neighbors’ military expansionism, it was an invading force whose armament all the queen’s artillery couldn’t subdue.
And to the young H.G. Wells, chronically ill and desperate to escape from his family’s working class poverty, Mars was his ticket to financial security and social acceptance.
After leaving school at fourteen and failing at a variety of jobs, he became an under-master at seventeen in small grammar school. As Lovat Dickson describes in “H.G. Wells: His Turbulent Life and Times,” the school’s headmaster hoped to take advantage of a Education Department scheme to pay bonuses for training teachers “to specialize in the teaching of the new subject of science.”
The master turned his assistant Wells loose with every textbook he could get his hands on, and the resulting examinations showered him with certificates, and better still, a scholarship with the possibility of a bachelor of science degree. “Science held out to nearly everyone at that the time promise of a new dawn,” Dickson wrote. “(Wells) was never to lose the rapture of that first vision.”
He tried his hand at writing first with a couple of textbooks and journalism work. But in the last decade of the nineteenth century, in a burst of creativity, he wrote the handful of science fiction novels that still keep his memory alive. He would go on to write dozens more novels and works of nonfiction. More serious works, he thought, that would make his reputation. Few have stood the test of time.
Near the book’s opening, a strange cylindrical object falls from the sky into a sand pit near the London suburb (and Wells’ home at the time) of Woking. Amazing though it
seems to modern readers, neither the news media nor local authorities take much interest in the phenomenon until the emergence of the Martians themselves from their vehicle.
“I think everyone expected to see a man emerge -- possibly something a little unlike us terrestrial men, but in all essentials a man,” Wells’ unnamed narrator reports. The creatures who emerge, however, have little in common with human beings, and only one small weakness, a fatal flaw that will finally destroy them without any help from the greatest weaponry humanity of the time could muster.
The last dying Martian is left to walk the streets of a London nearly deserted by human beings, sobbing in vain for its kind. The story raises the idea of a united government for the planet -- a concern that greatly occupied Wells’ last few decades. But it had also prefigured the possibility of the world’s total destruction. An event that by the time of Wells’ death the year after the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, began to seem all too possible.
(Wells’ science fiction is readily available at www.amazon.com/, among other sources. To keep up with the doings of Curiosity -- more properly, the Martian Science Laboratory -- see www.nasa.gov/missions_pages/msl/index.html/. )
(Disney dissed him. But without a John Carter of Mars, could there have been a Tarzan of the Apes? I seek answers next week from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “A Princess of Mars.”)