The War of the Worlds is technically an Imperial Gothic Horror story. The Imperial Gothic, for those of you who aren’t horror lit nerds, is a subgenre of Gothic Horror that combines the normal themes of evil coming from the past and good being the act of discovery and modern thinking with the idea that the (then modern) idea of conquering other nations for the sake of building an Empire is actually causing a regression – i.e. the idea that the most modern advances are actually primitive, and thus evil. It’s hard to wrap your head around, I know. To break it down another way: Gothic horror = old is bad and new is good, Imperial Gothic = old is bad, the newest of the new is also bad because it’s secretly old, and modern conservative values are good.
The Imperial Gothic has a tendency to loop around on itself, and many of its stories actually blur the debate between where on the timeline evil falls on. Dracula, for example, has an ancient evil monster who is drawn to England because its modern ways allow him to hide better and its modern Imperialism suits his desires for conquest. The heroes likewise fight him with modern, new science and old, Catholic religious rituals. So which is good and which is evil? Well, it’s hard to tell, isn’t it?
The same is true of The War of the Worlds. In it you have the Martians, an ancient race whose planet is so old that it is in the final stages of its life. Yet the Martians are specifically painted as having evolved from creatures much like humans – they are, essentially, our future. They have incredibly advanced technology, which they use to brutally slaughter humanity and feast on our blood. Their use of us as food at first seems primitive, until the book reminds you that we do the same with species that are less advanced then ourselves. Are the Martians an ancient, savage horror, or are they the evils of what our civilization is becoming? They’re both at once – and neither, when you consider that the narrator constantly tells us not to villainify them, for the Martians’ treatment of humanity is no different than humanity’s treatment of other species and even certain parts of itself.
You might ask why I love this book so much. It’s kind of atypical amongst my favorite stories in that it’s not particularly character driven. It has characters in it, certainly, but unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, those characters aren’t in particular focus, with the exception of the Martians themselves (and perhaps the narrator). That’s not the kind of story I’m normally drawn to. Yet I am drawn inexorably towards War of the Worlds. I have read it many times, and each time has been an absolute delight. I find new things to love about it, I feel its plot and themes resonate with me, and I leave the reading with a profound sense of satisfaction.
The appeal of the novel, to me, lies in its utter compassion for all living beings, and its hatred of stupid, violent solutions. The novel recognizes the importance of every part of the ecosystem when people of Wells’s time – and indeed, many people nowadays – would have laughed at such a concept. We cannot judge the Martians because we have done what they’ve done. If you are horrified at their treatment of humanity, how can you not be horrified at how we wiped out the dodo, the bison, and even entire races of our own species? This isn’t subtext, either – the book repeatedly tells you, time and again, that humanity’s dire situation is equal to what humanity inflicts on others. The cruelty of the Martians is the cruelty of mankind itself.
This is why I fume whenever some science fiction related show or website or article talks about how “lame” the ending of The War of the Worlds is. “It’s a deus ex machina!” they cry, despite the fact that bacteria and the Martians’ underestimation of the problems of colonizing earth are foreshadowed heavily from the first chapter on. “Germs? How lame! Who gets killed by the common cold?” they whine, apparently forgetting that exposure to foreign viruses and bacteria has wiped out many species. “What an anticlimax!” they complain, and this, this is the dumbest complaint of all, and by far the most insidious.
The War of the Worlds wasn’t written to stroke mankind’s superiority complex. No, it was written to confront us with our hubris. It was meant to take humanity, show our best creations to us, and say, “We built our empire on the blood of thousands. Our innovation came at the price of countless lives, and to this day we greedily reach out for more when we have plenty as it is. We consume with mindless gluttony far more than we should, and we destroy entire worlds in our wake. If we do not stray from this path, we will end up starving and parasitic, forced to destroy whole new worlds just to keep our rotting, mutilated husks from extinction. Our only salvation is in realizing how horrible our habits are and learning to work with the world.”
That message would be weakened by having anything other than bacteria to be the savior, for what does humanity respect less than germs? Even the staunchest vegan is supportive of mankind’s desire to wipe out disease! Few people can see the value in mindless, invisible, seemingly insignificant creatures that kill human beings to survive. Wiping out bacteria – causing countless genocides against the microscopic lifeforms of our world – is something that humanity almost unanimously supports. Yet bacteria play countless important roles in our ecosystem. They break down dead matter so it can be reused. They help us digest food. They form endless links upon the food chain which everyone is a part of, no matter how much farther up the chain we are. Bacteria, like everything else in our world, are a vital part of how it functions.
How many of our attempts to wipe out bacteria and other diseases have backfired? How often have we merely made a disease stronger by attempts to immunize against it? Scientific studies have even shown that humanity’s dependency on external cures for disease – mainly from drugs, mind you, rather than vaccines – have actually made our immune systems weaker. Not coincidentally, in The War of the Worlds Wells writes that the Martians were destroyed by our disease either because they never encountered disease (which, at the time of his writing, wasn’t actually that scientifically unfounded) or because they had wiped out all diseases on their planet. The Martians, in other words, had done just what man is trying to do – they destroyed disease. Not coincidentally, their native ecosystem was also damaged beyond repair.
WE are the MARTIANS and THE MARTIANS are US. The Martians destroyed disease and, when they were forced to recolonize earth, suddenly had to deal with disease for the first time in probably thousands of years, long after their immune systems had atrophied to nothing. The book, by the way, does not claim they were killed by the common cold, but rather by “putrefactive bacteria.” In other words, they were killed by the bacteria that makes meat rot – i.e. the kind of bacteria that every living thing can fight off from birth! The humblest of all creatures – bacteria, who humanity attributes no worth to – is our salvation because the Martians ascribed to the same self-centered ideology humans believe. They were destroyed by the same desire that makes us try to kill bacteria, our greatest ally in the war. It angers me how many people don’t get this book, especially given how clearly and thoroughly Wells explains the metaphor behind his Martians and the conflict they cause.
The War of the Worlds also takes a stand against solving issues with violence. The humans in the book majorly underestimate the Martians, much as the Martians underestimate the defenses of earth’s ecosystem. The British military is shown cockily believing that they can wipe the “squids” out in an instant, only to be absolutely destroyed within seconds. The Martians are just as cocky, though, relying on their superior military might alone to win battles. They make dumb mistakes and only “win” because they have much better guns – which is how a lot of British Imperial conquests went, by the way. Every battle scene is shown not as a glorious moment of honorable and exciting warfare, but as giant clusterfuck of violence that is performed with such blundering incompetence that it would be funny if it wasn’t so horrifying and destructive. The one Martian fatality in the first skirmish ends with a tripod war machine spiraling out of control and “whirling to destruction,” giving the implication that it is falling apart in the most spastic and chaotic manner possible before it falls into a lake… where its burning metal promptly boils the water and scalds the people hiding in it to death. There is no glorious war here – only hideous, stupid, pointless carnage and death.
The only fight scene that comes off as remotely “epic” is the one between the British battleship “Thunderchild” and some tripods, where the brave British sailors take down a handful of Martian war machines to save a boat of refugees before being killed themselves by the heat rays. It’s notable as being the only scene where one side of the conflict was specifically entering it to save people – not to get glory, like the earlier scene, and not to conquer like the Martians, but to protect. Wells is making a statement here: there is no glory in conquest, and there is no honor in destruction. The only time violence is noble is when it is engaged to save other lives – when it is done for survival instead of gluttony, greed, or pride.
The War of the Worlds is a hard pill to swallow for many people. This is a story that tells us that perhaps our most deeply ingrained instinct – that humanity is special and superior to all other things and the center of the universe – is wrong, and our Imperialistic need to act on it is self-destructive. It tells us that we put too much value on human life compared to other life, and we just don’t want to admit that. So many modern critics have claimed this book is flawed and trite because it dares to say that humanity can’t solve its problems with violence, and instead claims that our only hope lies in coexisting peacefully with the rest of our world. We just can’t stomach that – we can’t accept it. Humans have to be superior. Humans have to be the most and only important thing in the world. Don’t tell us we need bacteria – tell us we can solve every problem by killing the bad guys and shouting “HOO RAH HUMANS ROCK!”
The environment is getting worse. More seemingly insignificant species are dying – who cares about the tigers or the polar bears or the rhinos, after all? They don’t do anything for us. They’re not useful as food. We are dependent on resources that take 300 million years to replenish, we pollute our own atmosphere, and our species is taking up more and more room at an exponential rate each year.
The Martians in War of the Worlds aren’t just iconic. They are our future. Who are we to judge them – who are we to say they are preposterous – when every year we become more dependent on machines and more removed from our environment? How can we criticize them and their preposterous scheme of interplanetary resources when we get better and better at ignoring the hideous negative effects of our own merciless and tyrannical domination of the planet?
We are the Martians, and I fear we shall never learn from their example. Try though Wells may have, we find the truths of War of the Worlds too inconvenient to listen. We shall build our war machines, burn the land, and destroy all that may threaten us, and never will humanity as a whole stop even when our limbs atrophy and our world rots. Someday we will lie, rotting and dying as all our resources crumble to dust and our dead world can no longer show us the mercy of letting us avoid death any longer, and we will wonder what had brought us so low. We are the Martians, and we are doomed.