I haven't reviewed anything here in far, far too long, and I certainly didn't think this book would be the thing to push me into wanting to write something. However. At Readercon, I picked up the new collection of Ursula K. Le Guin essays, Words Are My Matter
, of which this is not a review because I am nowhere near finishing it, and I noticed that there are three separate essays on H. G. Wells. Three! This is not unique, in the structure of the book-- there are also three separate essays on José Saramago-- but that makes more sense to me, because Saramago, you know, Nobel laureate, relatively recent death, work in an interesting position vis-à-vis speculative fiction as a genre, there are some conversations to be had there that seem very much in Le Guin's chosen critical milieu. But H. G. Wells! Hasn't everything been said already?
Then it occurred to me that I, personally, had not read any Wells since the age of eight or nine, when I'd read The Time Machine
and found it pretty and confusing, and then hit The War of the Worlds
and found it extremely upsetting and went away again. So I went back. The Time Machine
is indeed very pretty, though far less confusing to an older person. The Island of Dr. Moreau
turned out to be the most vicious piece of theological criticism I have encountered in years, and an actual novel with things like character dimensionality to boot, as well as such an obvious influence on Lovecraft that I was shocked I hadn't heard that mentioned before. And then I got to The War of the Worlds
It turns out the reason I found it very upsetting at eight or nine was because it is very upsetting, and at that age I had no context for or capacity to handle the ways in which it is upsetting.
We all know the basic plot: Martians invade, humans are technologically overpowered and defeated, Martians eventually drop dead because of Earth's microbiota. The novel came out in 1898, after having been serialized the year before, and has been dramatized and redramatized and ripped off and remade so often and so thoroughly that it has entered the collective unconscious.
The original novel, however, is notable in intellectual history not just for the archetype of the merciless and advanced alien invaders, but because it is an ice-cold prevision of the nightmares of the twentieth century. The phrase 'concentration camp' had already been coined, c. late 1860s by the Spanish in Cuba, though it would not become widely known by the English-speaking public until the Boer War, which Wells' novel just predates; that phrase is the only part of the vocabulary of future war to which Wells could have had access, and the phrase does not appear in the novel. Here are some of the concepts that do, without, as yet, any names: Genocide. Total war. Gas attack. Blitzkrieg. Extermination camp. Shellshock/PTSD. (Also, on a slightly different note, airplane.)
Wells' vision of war was ruthless, efficiently technological, distanced from the reader of the time only by the fact that the perpetrators were incomprehensible aliens. But he does not let you rely on the comforting myth that it would take an alien to perpetrate these atrocities, as perhaps the book's worst scene, in terms of sheer grueling terror and pain, is the sequence in which six million people attempt to evacuate London on no notice, with no overall organization, no plans, and the train as the most modern form of transportation. The Martians are miles away from that, literally. The only thing Wells spares you is the actual numbers of the death toll... but you can get an informed idea.
And, just in case you happen to believe that people (as opposed to aliens) are too good at heart for this sort of warfare, this novel is also
a savage theological takedown*, in which the idea of humanity as the center of a cosmos created by a benevolent God is repeatedly stomped on by the sheer plausibility
of the nightmare, the cold hard logistics of enemy approach + insanely destructive new bombing technology = frantic evacuation and a military rout. The priests and churchmen in War of the Worlds
generally go insane**; their philosophical framework has left them ill-equipped to handle the new reality. Wells is displaying humanity as a species of animal, no more nor less privileged existentially than other sorts of animal, who may be treated by a sufficiently technological other animal in the way that humans often treat ants. He explicitly uses ants as the comparison.
This is where I noticed something fascinating. War of the Worlds
has the most peculiar version of protagonist-centered morality that I have ever encountered: only
the protagonist and his nearest and dearest are allowed to perform moral actions that are not shown in aggregate.
Everyone else either does good as a faceless mass, or neutral-to-evil at close proximity. The military, as a force, is allowed to act against the Martians, which is seen by definition as moral, but they are at a distance from the novel's viewpoint such that they don't emerge as people while they are fighting-- we meet an occasional refugee from a destroyed division, but we don't see people giving orders, taking orders, firing weapons. When the ramship Thunder Child
attacks two Martians at close range in order to save shipping in the Channel evacuation-- a sequence distressingly like Dunkirk, only in the opposite direction and sixty years early-- it's one of the few acts of heroism and selflessness in the novel that actually works, and it's the ship personified who takes the action. Here's the middle of the fight:
"She was alive still; the steering gear, it seems, was intact and her engines working. She headed straight for a second Martian, and was within a hundred yards of him when the Heat-Ray came to bear. Then with a violent thud, a blinding flash, her decks, her funnels, leaped upward. The Martian staggered with the violence of her explosion, and in another moment the flaming wreckage, still driving forward with the impetus of its pace, had struck him and crumpled him up like a thing of cardboard."***
Notice how there are no humans, individual or otherwise, even mentioned
here. And this is the high point of the book as far as moral action taken, a direct self-sacrifice for the benefit of others. Individual people range from the curate who hears the narrator calling for water "for hours" and doesn't bring him any to the men whom the narrator's brother finds in the process of robbing two ladies and has to fight off at gunpoint. Even most mob action is inimical, including things like the looting of shops and the literal trampling underfoot of the weak.
The narrator and his brother, however, mostly behave as one would hope to behave in a catastrophe. They are constantly picking up strays, helping total strangers pack to evacuate, fighting off muggers, attempting to assist the trampled, sharing their provisions with others, etc.. They are the only people in the book who do this sort of thing-- every other individual (except a couple of the strays, who are there to be rescued and get in the way) is out for themselves and can, at very best, be bought with cash on the barrel at a high price.
Now, it's not that the narrator and his brother are saints. They're fully developed, three-dimensional, relatively decent people. The brother participates in the looting of a bike shop, refuses water to a dying man for fear of putting his own people in danger, and fails to rescue anyone from the relentless trample. The narrator may well kill a man to save his own life, and certainly aids and abets the murder if he does not strike the final blow (it's impossible to find out exactly when the man dies or what specifically killed him).
The odd thing is that nobody else has any of their virtues. No one else is picking up strays; no one who isn't under military orders to do it is knocking on doors to begin the evacuation; no one is giving away food and water; no one except the military is attempting to place themselves between those they love and danger. In short, there is none of the kind of everyday, tiny, sometimes futile heroism that the twentieth century has shown us is almost impossible to beat out of humans entirely.
Now, I think this is intentional, as part of Wells's argument: the Martians have broken the human social order as if it were an anthill, and none of the ants has any idea what to do anymore. It's part of the demystification of humanity's place in the cosmos and the insistence on our nature as intelligent animals.
However, I think it skews the thought experiment in two ways: firstly, the narrator (and the only other POV character, the brother) have to be decent enough that we as readers are willing to read a book from their perspectives, and in 1898 that was harder than it is now. "Probably murdered somebody who wasn't a villain or an enemy combatant, and is never punished for it in any way except by vague remorse" is a pretty radical stance for a first-person narrator in an English novel of that period, and Wells has to talk us round into considering this a sympathetic or at least justifiable stance by having the narrator be in most other ways a flat-out hero. I don't think this does too much damage to his argument, as the resemblance of the narrator to other hero-types of the period makes Wells's more radical premises easier to communicate than they would otherwise be. It's not the presence of altruism in the narrator that is the major way the experiment is skewed.
It's the absence of altruism in others, as shown by the work of Rebecca Solnit, the memoirs of Primo Levi, the oral histories of the camp survivors of several cultures: one reason The War of the Worlds
is so very upsetting is that its events are more unmitigatedly depressing
than the same circumstances would be in real life. One of the wisest men of the twentieth century, Fred Rogers, said that in tough situations you should look for the helpers (and somewhere elsenet I saw the corollary, which I think Mr. Rogers considered implicit but which could use unpacking anyway, that if you cannot find them, the helpers had better be you). In The War of the Worlds
there are no helpers at all, except what little the narrator and his brother can manage. We have actual science now about the way people form communities in catastrophe; we have innumerable anecdotes from the worst places and times in the world about those who in small ways, quietly, do what they can for others with what they have. It's not that Wells was wrong about us being animals, about trying to knock us off the pedestal that insists that everything was made for humanity and we are the only important beings. It's that while we are a social animal, we are a social animal on the micro-level as well as on the macro, and we have now seen that the micro-level does not have to be limited to immediate biological family, because the bonds of catastrophe can cause, and in fact seem to produce, some amount, tiny though it may be, of genuinely altruistic behavior.
When I happened to say to nineweaving
that I was in the middle of a Wells re/read, she promptly replied with a couplet from a comic verse she had memorized as a child: "H. G. Wells / Creates new hells."
Which is true. His Martian invasion, the twentieth century through a glass darkly, is right up there on the list of the most nihilistic things I've ever read, not because of the Martians, but because none of the humans are outright villains. Some of them are insane, and some are annoying, and many are behaving in ways unconducive to long-term survival, and all of them are terrified; but you believe in them not only as individuals but as a plausible set of people for the narrator to run into in the middle of a war. It's only after thinking about it for quite a while afterwards that I noticed how neatly Wells had removed the capacity for altruism from his secondary characters. The Martians are frightening and cool and interesting (and clearly described as being drawn by H. R. Giger, which has not made it into any of the adaptations I've seen), but I think one reason this particular nightmare has lasted so long and clung so thoroughly in the back of our heads is that it would take recreating these terrible catastrophes in almost every particular to prove him wrong about the essentials of human nature and the ways people would behave in these circumstances. That's part of the book's appalling genius.
The thing is, though-- we did.
And he is. * albeit not as much of one as Moreau, which is saying something
** that classical nineteenth-century insanity in which they rant and rave and chew the furniture, i.e. nothing you can find in the DSM, and therefore I just use 'insane' as I am not sure there is a less aggravating descriptor for this particular literary trope
*** Via Project Gutenberg's HTML copy