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My Favourite Martians: The Depiction of the Alien in HG Wells’ “The War of the Worlds”

Updated: Oct 4, 2022

From UKSRN member Stephen Baxter:

HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1897) is 120 years old this year, yet many of its aspects remain fresh – including his depiction of the Martians. While the novel contains memorably horrific sequences of mass destruction and personal human peril, in fact Wells’s Martians were carefully devised as a logically consistent alien species, with descriptions or implications concerning their ecology and planetary management, physiology, history and society, as well as a logical military strategy.

Wells’s Martians are among a small class of fictional aliens to have achieved longevity in our culture; people feel they know them. As such they allow an (admittedly limited) glimpse of how our attitudes to the true alien might emerge. And, as I have found in discussions around my own sequel to Well’s novel (The Massacre of Mankind, 2017), readers seem able to see beyond the Martians’ threatening aspects to admirable aspects, such as their loyalty to each other – and even sympathy for the plight that drives them to the Earth.

As implied in Wells’s majestic opening paragraph (‘No-one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s . . .’) few of his contemporaries were aware of Earth’s cosmic context, as it was then understood. Wells, however, educated as a science teacher, knew that physicists such as Lord Kelvin opined that the sun would cool catastrophically within mere millions of years – a view already challenged by the geologists and biologists, who saw deep time in their fossils and rock strata. Meanwhile the planets were believed to have been formed of matter expelled in periodic bursts from the sun, so that the further a world was from the central star the older it must be: another theory under challenge by physicists such as James Clerk Maxwell who perceived problems with the distribution of angular momentum between the sun and the planets. Still, this was the universe within which Wells’s book was set, a universe in which Mars, older than Earth and further from the sun, ‘is not only more distant from life’s beginning but nearer its end’.

Climate science was in its infancy in Wells’s day, yet fossil finds had proved that hippopotamuses, rhinos and elephants had once walked the muddy valley of a primeval Thames, and the evidence for ice ages in the past had been pointed out by Louis Agassiz since the 1860s. This awareness of the transience of climate and its impact showed up in Wells’s fiction. The protagonist of his first novel, The Time Machine, actually witnessed the cooling of the sun in the far future.

The Martians, meanwhile, had suffered great losses. Their freezing, drying planet had been reduced to a map of canals, a single global hydrology system. In Wells’s day great canal systems had already been built, and we continue with such projects in response to climate change even today. Meanwhile the Martian ecology, presumably once rich and diverse, had been reduced for efficiency to a fast-growing red weed, ‘humanoids’ – perhaps evolutionary cousins of the Martians – who fed on the weed, and the Martians who fed on the humanoids’ blood. The Martians’ own physiology had been reduced to brain, hands, and a simple blood-intake metabolism.

Such losses must have caused great angst for creatures who, Wells shows, are capable of positive emotions such as loyalty: in the war in England, they always returned for their fallen comrades. Of course they treat us very badly, but we are outside their moral compass; as Wells says, ‘before we judge them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals . . . but upon its own inferior races’.

Wells’s Martians were not caricature monsters. They were not even colonialists, like the late Victorian British. They were fleeing a collapsing environment. They were climate-change migrants. They came to Earth because ‘to carry warfare sunward . . . is their only escape from the destruction that generation after generation creeps upon them’. That is what inspired my own sequel; Wells’s Martians had no choice but to come again. Of course we humans have a tendency to see mirrors of ourselves in the animals, or even the inanimate, and to project empathy where it may not be appropriate. But still, in this case it is such resonances with the modern human condition, it seems, that enable readers to have compassion for the Martian.

Featured Image: “War of the Worlds” by Xandyclause

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