Thursday, June 02, 2005

Wells: War of the Worlds

The horror of The War of the Worlds (1898) is in the sheer oblivion of humanity to the extraterrestrial menace. After the world had been explored through, and colonized in the main by the British, what was left to fear but space and perhaps the deep sea?
With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. 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.
Fear thrives on the unknown, and the source of future fear are the textbooks of history: this is an ironic inversion of European colonial hubris, and a plea for humility: "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?" Wells's sci-fi is sci-fi a these. (Damn the incapacity here for accents graves.) War's revival now, in the Spielberg 2005 thriller, is no doubt related to our current project (to call it that) in Iraq. Microbes, apparently, were too small for the invaders to see and plan for from Mars. It is to humility that Wells gives emphasis: the Martians were "slain, after all man's devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth."

Ogilvy the astronomer suffers the fate of the prophet who is not understood in his own time; or rather merely "in time": "The fellow thought he was a lunatic at large and made an unsuccessful attempt to shut him into the taproom. That sobered him a little; and when he saw Henderson, the London journalist, in his garden, he called over the palings and made himself understood." Dramatically, however, little is lost by this misunderstanding, as the nature of the terror has not yet been revealed, except in the introductory paragraphs: so even had they comprehended, who knows what action they might have taken.

Aside from the now canonical feature, tentacles, Martians have pre- and post-human features: "the absence of brow ridges, the absence of a chin beneath the wedgelike lower lip"--respectively common to Homo sapiens as vs. Homo ergaster, and Homo Neanderthalis as vs. Homo sapiens. Also they are big-brained. With the first full description we learn: "They were heads--merely heads." Their bodies, or absence of bodies, gives them a spiritual dignity because a freedom from carnal impulses like hunger: "Our bodies are half made up of glands and tubes and organs, occupied in turning heterogeneous food into blood. The digestive processes and their reaction upon the nervous system sap our strength and colour our minds. Men go happy or miserable as they have healthy or unhealthy livers, or sound gastric glands. But the Martians were lifted above all these organic fluctuations of mood and emotion." Hence "the actual accomplishment of such a suppression of the animal side of the organism by the intelligence." They have the ascetic's dispassion, even if they are anthropophagic. Antlike, they do not sleep. Wells's preoccupation with the ascetic ideal is evident also from Moreau: here it merges with the truths of mysticism: "They have become practically mere brains, wearing different bodies according to their needs just as men wear suits of clothes and take a bicycle in a hurry or an umbrella in the wet."

What is shocking in the ponderings of the tale--"I began to compare the things to human machines, to ask myself for the first time in my life how an ironclad or a steam engine would seem to an intelligent lower animal"--is the idea that, if the extinction of the gorilla-size lemurs in Madagascar was no huge loss from a metaphysical perspective, neither might be the extinction of H. sapiens. God, or rather his absence, is the interlinear groundbass of the narrative. We find the Shepperton church; a Curate who asks: "How can God's ministers be killed?" Further in their fear the men of War in fact become animal: "And this was no disciplined march; it was a stampede--a stampede gigantic and terrible--without order and without a goal, six million people unarmed and unprovisioned, driving headlong." Stampede: it is a word we reserve for the beasts. It is not coincidentally the Curate of whom this becomes explicit: as he recoils in fear, he is judged. "Practically he had already sunk to the level of an animal." Wells believed in the most literal sense in a Humanism, a medium between man's animal and spiritual natures. Those are the north and south poles of his imagination.

His hero is the artilleryman, who lives by animal movement and human cunning: "I'm going on, under their feet. I've got it planned; I've thought it out. We men are beat. We don't know enough. We've got to learn before we've got a chance. And we've got to live and keep independent while we learn. See! That's what has to be done." Reply: "'Great God!' cried I, 'But you are a man indeed!'" That proximity of God and man is no accident. As they rest there is a sort of grim celebration of their humanity: "Afterwards he taught me poker, and I beat him at three tough chess games. When dark came we decided to take the risk, and lit a lamp." Bacteria descend however like the angel that stayed the hand of Abraham, and so this sacrifice is not necessary: but its meaning was there, and remains there, for us to know and remember. That is in effect like the moral workings of science fiction. It did not happen: but might it not have happened? Consider...

Maybe the crucial anachronism is in the lento of communications and transport. No one has any idea what is going on; whereas today a cellphone could transmit the occurrences around London through to China in picoseconds. Correspondingly in our modern nightmares the menace is less local, the destruction wrought more urgently devastating. It becomes more of a duel than a war of the worlds.

Wells does well to dwell on the one heat-ray, which must be an analogue of Greek fire. Its singularity focusses the dread. Also his representations of mass panic are hard to surpass:

"Go on! Go on!" cried the voices. "Way! Way!"

One man's hands pressed on the back of another. My brother stood at the pony's head. Irresistibly attracted, he advanced slowly, pace by pace, down the lane.

Edgware had been a scene of confusion, Chalk Farm a riotous tumult, but this was a whole population in movement. It is hard to imagine that host. It had no character of its own. The figures poured out past the corner, and receded with their backs to the group in the lane. Along the margin came those who were on foot threatened by the wheels, stumbling in the ditches, blundering into one another.

The carts and carriages crowded close upon one another, making little way for those swifter and more impatient vehicles that darted forward every now and then when an opportunity showed itself of doing so, sending the people scattering against the fences and gates of the villas.

"Push on!" was the cry. "Push on! They are coming!"

In one cart stood a blind man in the uniform of the Salvation Army, gesticulating with his crooked fingers and bawling, "Eternity! Eternity!" His voice was hoarse and very loud so that my brother could hear him long after he was lost to sight in the dust. Some of the people who crowded in the carts whipped stupidly at their horses and quarrelled with other drivers; some sat motionless, staring at nothing with miserable eyes; some gnawed their hands with thirst, or lay prostrate in the bottoms of their conveyances. The horses' bits were covered with foam, their eyes bloodshot.

That description is good for centering on and reverting to the particular: the brother. It focusses the suspense, even as the scope of the panic extends into Eternity.

But the drama of the novel is the fate of the revelation that "the Martians might have any other purpose than destruction with defeated humanity."

Wells's romances take the form by and large of the first-person confession: Moreau is one; as is War. The hero in extremis does things he himself later questions morally, unlike, say, the hero of Robinson Crusoe, whose romance is lighter, its drama being one of escape from Nature instead of extrication from Man (or Martian). After lashing out at the Curate: "It is disagreeable for me to recall and write these things, but I set them down that my story may lack nothing. Those who have escaped the dark and terrible aspects of life will find my brutality, my flash of rage in our final tragedy, easy enough to blame; for they know what is wrong as well as any, but not what is possible to tortured men. But those who have been under the shadow, who have gone down at last to elemental things, will have a wider charity." The Time Machine, by contrast, is as if out of Conrad: it is in the form of the traveller's tale, except that the traveller is there through time instead of space.

As for the vestigial organ hypothesis: All the reductions of War of the Worlds--a chunk of pop culture as such--is pure vestige, but vestige polished pink. Pure form and little or nothing beyond it. The peony that was the germinal metaphor, has withered and disintegrated, so that there only remains the vase alone. In popular culture the vase becomes the purpose: the peony is forgotten. So invention focuses, not on the meaning of the conceit, but on new more ornately reptilian Martians. Wells's portraits of them, compared to what one would receive from his modern counterparts, are cursory.


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