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Archive for August 4th, 2016

WarOfTheWorlds01
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By Roderick Heath

It seems now as if H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel The War of the Worlds marked a vital moment not just in the evolution of science fiction as a literary mode but maybe even of the modern consciousness. Wells contemplated the possibility that life might not only subsist beyond the confines of the Earth, but that such life might be intelligent and aggressive enough to attempt an invasion, displacing and annihilating humankind, in his tale of the inhabitants of Mars annexing the Earth with great technological advantage only to fall victim not to human ingenuity but to common microscopic infection. Wells was hardly the first writer to contemplate the possibility of alien life, but he ventured deep into speculative realms with both clear and ruthless logic and proper dramatic art, bundling together a panoply of concepts from his scientific learning and intellectual precepts to contemplate, with such fervour and detail that it resembled reportage, what such an event might feel like and how it might play out. Here was the new creed of scientific understanding reporting dragons on the fringes of its mental maps, in the new vision of the Earth not as deistically guaranteed realm but as just another bauble in the infinity of space, its human populace mere pretentious zoology. The most frightening reflexes apparent in Wells’ thinking come not from any great leaps of imagination but from consideration of events still playing out at the time Wells was writing, in the processes of colonialism. Wells’ narrator says of the Martians that descend upon Victorian Britain:

 “And before we judge 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 own inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of 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?”

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You couldn’t ask for a cooler diagnosis of human inhumanity nor more sinister counsel that one day what went around might well come around. Wells also worked a variation on a popular pulp fiction theme of the day, the possibility of an invasion of England by a foreign power, necessitating valiant and gruelling battle in the green fields. This storytelling mode, although the basics have changed greatly over the years, remains the basis of a tremendous amount of popular culture: if the quiet and order of everyday life are disrupted by a destructive force from without, how will we rise to the challenge? But Wells gave it a nasty twist, confronting his then-contemporary readership with the unsettling prospect of an enemy far more powerful and equally careless about things regarded as inferior. In addition to gifting his contemporaries a few chills, too, Wells’ nightmarish tale, realised with force by illustrator Warwick Goble in the original serialised version that appeared in Pearson’s Magazine, bequeathed to subsequent generations a dark and inquisitive strand of science fiction.

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