Friday, October 31, 2008

The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells was first published in 1898. In it, Wells shrewdly combined two topics that separately inspired a number of popular novels of the time. One was invasion. Even then, Europeans could feel the Great War coming (what we call World War I), partly because the European powers were adapting new technologies to build up the machinery of war. So in popular novels, authors imagined mechanized invasions. (English authors imagined Germans invading England; German authors imagined English invaders, etc.)

The other topic was Mars. New telescopes led to increasingly better observations each time the orbits of Mars and Earth came closest to each other. In the 1890s, these observations led to sensational speculations. An Italian astronomer saw what he called “canali” or channels, but the word was translated into English as “canals.” American astronomer Percival Lowell thought these canals would prove the existence of Martian civilization. In 1894, a French astronomer reported “strange lights” on the Martian surface which might be signals. Eminent investigators, including Marconi and Edison, devised ways to signal back.

So in this frenzied atmosphere, more than 50 novels concerning Mars and Martians were published during the 1890s. H.G. Wells simply combined these two popular subjects into one story: an invasion from Mars.

That this novel became a classic and all the others are forgotten is testament to the story he told—and foretold. For one thing, he portrayed the Martians coming down from the sky. There weren’t even airplanes yet. He had them attacking real English towns and cities, when bombarding civilian areas was still relatively unknown in warfare.

But there were also levels of meaning within the story, which Wells deliberately created. One had to do with evolution. For much of the story, all the humans see of the Martians are their incredible fighting machines. Much later, an actual Martian is seen: a weak creature with a huge head.

The hero/narrator of the story recalls the theory of a “distant relative” (named H.G. Wells) that this could be what human beings might eventually look like. As technology got more complex, humans would need bigger brains, but not their bodies. Martians were simply an older civilization. So in a sense, humanity was being conquered by its own future.

Some scholars see the novel as anti-imperialist, and there is a lot in the text to support that interpretation. (The writer of the Spielberg version said he intended an anti-Iraq war movie, which is less clear.) Some scholars also dispute this interpretation. But what is indisputable is how Wells got the basic idea for creating the story.

It’s indisputable because Wells described it, several times. Wells was walking with his brother Frank in the Surrey countryside when the conversation turned to the Aborigine inhabitants of Tasmania, south of Australia, who were eradicated when the English transformed the island into a prison colony. What if some beings from another planet suddenly dropped from the sky, his brother wondered, and did the same to England?

In the novel, the narrator refers to the Tasmanians, who "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.”

The narrator didn’t attack Europeans for doing that—in fact, he was looking at the Martian invasion from the Martian point of view. “Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?"

Still, it is clear that the idea came from imagining how “we”—ordinary 19th English in villages outside London—would feel if we were invaded by beings as superior in destructive capability as the English were when they wiped out the Aborigines of Tasmania. (American Indians are also mentioned in the novel.)

In other words, the initial impulse was empathy: imagining from the other’s point of view. At the very least, Wells implied, empathy should limit if not destroy our hypocrisy. If we invade and destroy, we may not be so different from others who invade and destroy. That our machines are more powerful does not mean that the lives of those we conquer are worth less.

Empathy can provide a note of caution and realism to actions that otherwise are obscured by technological distance and comforting terminology, like “taking out” a “target.”

Empathy can guide us to think of the impact of all our actions on others, and in a more positive way, it can guide us in preventing and alleviating suffering, in providing opportunity.

That's the chief lesson I draw from it. Wells was in many ways the father of modern science fiction, especially the kind that I call the science fiction of consciousness. It's more than adventure stories or war stories with futuristic technology. It tells us something about the soul of the future.

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