November 3, 2003

Wells and Worlds at War

(Check out pictures of Earth from Mars and a great quote from H.G. Wells at National Geographic.)

Part One

I had a few hours drive ahead of me and I stopped in to the Hoboken library to look for books on tape for the trip. One of the things I came across was H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds.

I always loved H.G. Wells. I have copies of The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, and The Island of Dr. Moreau. He created fascinating, amazing stories. I read some of them, saw movies of them, heard re-tellings. But oddly enough I never read The War of the Worlds. I don't even have a clear memory of ever seeing a full movie of it. I know I did see one or two comic book treatments of it. I heard plot summaries and descriptions. I seem to have seen many bits of things about it all my life, one way or the other. So I had a vague impression that I knew the story. And I wasn't particularly interested in knowing more. The attackers-from-space story has been done so much, often so badly, and I had the idea -- without being really conscious of it -- that The War of the Worlds was old stuff, rather quaint at this point, but nothing that drew my interest very powerfully.

But it was the only thing there that suited my mood. I had a taste for something speculative, something to twist my mind a little, to take me on a flight of fancy to a more elevated plane than the one that normally holds me in bondage. There wasn't much else there in the way of speculative fiction.

So I picked it up, and I didn't even listen to it on that trip. But later I put it on at home and was blown away by the quality of the thing: the beauty of its prose, the subtlety of thinking and the power of its speculation, the richness of imagination, the analysis, description, the passion, the power of the story to engage you and make you care deeply what happens. And beyond that, I was extremely intrigued about how powerfully relevant it is right now, today, 21st Century, Post 911.

Published in 1898, it predicted the brutal, mechanized warfare that was to develop in the 20th century. And now again, after 911, it is once again drawn back to the center stage of artistic relevance.

The fact that it is set in the late 19th Century in no way dates it, on the contrary. Seeing Wells' portrayal of a society hit by catastrophes it was utterly unprepared for, unable to even conceive of. We are now very much in the same kind of situation, being threatened by problems we as a population are not cognizant of, not even able to perceive clearly.

Wells has been quoted as saying he doubted the capacity of human civilization to be able to confront a serious crisis. The weapons of mass destruction, the undiscriminating destruction and murder, the cold brutality of utterly inhumane warfare described in War of the Worlds is very much the kind of warfare that did develop, and which the United States, as the number one practitioner of the military arts is now the heir to.

It was the Nazis who actualized and perfected the kind of brutal, mechanized mass destruction waged on civilians that Wells described. The Nazi war machine was like nothing anyone had ever seen before. Savage brutality has surely always existed in human affairs, but the mechanization of killing had never been carried to such a degree of technological development.

Footage of the Polish Army, as the country tried to resist the 1939 Nazi invasionwith its traditional mounted troops and weapons leftover from World War I is pathetic.

Though it was a human conquest of other humans, the consciousness of war of the Nazis was so alien to the world of its victims, it may as well have come from extraterrestrials.

One likes to think there exists some trace of mercy in the human heart for other human beings, some kind of connection that implies some sort of commitment to, some sort of kinship with beyond what you would feel with another species. I would hope that you would value my life perhaps more than you would that of a pig or a dog. But human history shows that this impulse of mercy, or even a sense of the remotest connection, does not always express itself.

Wells portrays an encounter with a life form so alien and remote that in some ways you have more kinship with a slug than to it, if the slug is an earth slug. This life form has no respect for your existence at all, except to the extent that it can somehow use you, eat you, or put you to work.

This alien force just coldly exterminates the people that get in its way. It sets up dominion in your home and proceeds to mount a takeover, that includes laying waste whole cities and killing the populations.

I am reminded of a columnist who said, "Some people read 1984 and think, 'Oh how frightening,!' and others read it and think, 'What a great idea!'" So it must have been with the ideas of mechanized warfare in War of the Worlds. What Wells imagined, was made manifest, not by extraterrestrials, but by men.

If you wanted to adhere to the legal argument put forth by John Grisham, when he advocated holding Oliver Stone legally responsible for killers who modeled themselves on Stone's movie Natural Born Killers. One could make the case that Wells wrote the book on 20th Century war in War of the Worlds.

Wells issued a warning by predicting through a wildly imaginative fantasy, a very plausible demonstration of the inability of people to comprehend and respond effectively to a threat that is new to them. The kinds of catastrophes that Wells outlined as possible, became actual, except that it didn't take any Martians to pull it off.

Now we are at another Fin du Siecle, crossing the bridge into a very uncongenial 21st Century. We find ourselves again in alien territory. The level of brutality and the effectiveness of mass destruction technology has risen to new levels with 911.

For Americans, 911 was an awakening to what others have experienced for decades, many times at the hands of the ruling American oligarchy. The mass destruction that the United States has wreaked upon countries like Vietnam, Iraq, Cambodia, Chile, Nicraragua, Panama, etc., is as destructive as most previous efforts and in some cases approaches that portrayed in War of the Worlds.

Even the technology in the story, the three-legged war machines that were like big robots, are more understandable, more possible, now that we have cybernetic technology and computer chips.

Frank Harris, who edited the Saturday Review and who hung out with people like George Bernard Shaw and Joseph Conrad, wrote in his autobiography (My Life and Loves) that, "Wells impressed me as about the best mind I had met in my many years in England: a handsome body and a fine head. I had hoped extraordinary things of him, but the Great War seems to have shaken him..."

After I began listening to the tape, I found myself going back over it and over it. As I am a slow reader and often go over a single part many times, I found myself doing the same with the tape. But I couldn't random-access it as well as a book, or a CD, so I had to go buy a copy of the book. I found a beautiful Modern Library trade paperback edition that retailed for $5.95 and was discounted to $5.35 at the Montclair Book Center. It has a forward by Arthur C. Clark.

I am pouring over it.

For now here's a good note to end on, also from Frank Harris' account:

Wells spoke of a "world-mending" movement and says, "It is a movement that aims ultimately to make life nobler and finer, to render the conditions of life better, and great multitudes of people happier and more free and worthy than they are at the present time ... One perceives something that goes on, that is constantly working to bring order out of chaos, beauty our to confusion, justice, kindliness out of cruelty and inconsiderate pressure. In the matter of thoughtless and instinctive cruelty -- and that is a very fundamental matter -- mankind mends steadily."

[to be continued]

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