The War of the Worlds and the Significance of Science Fiction

In 1938, the world was waiting for war. Germany had invaded Czechoslovakia. The United States was battling the Great Depression. The Great New England Hurricane had struck. And then, this was heard over the American radio waves:

Streets are all jammed. Noise in crowds like New Year’s Eve in city. Wait a minute… Enemy now in sight above the Palisades. Five—five great machines. First one is crossing river. I can see it from here, wading the Hudson like a man wading through a brook… A bulletin’s handed me… Martian cylinders are falling all over the country. One outside Buffalo, one in Chicago, St. Louis… seem to be timed and spaced… Now the first machine reaches the shore. He stands watching, looking over the city. His steel, cowlish head is even with the skyscrapers. He waits for the others. They rise like a line of new towers on the city’s west side… Now they’re lifting their metal hands. This is the end now. Smoke comes out… black smoke, drifting over the city. People in the streets see it now. They’re running towards the East River… thousands of them, dropping in like rats. Now the smoke’s spreading faster. It’s reached Times Square. People trying to run away from it, but it’s no use. They’re falling like flies. Now the smoke’s crossing Sixth Avenue… Fifth Avenue… one hundred yards away… it’s fifty feet…

Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater’s dramatic radio adaptation of H. G. Wells’ 1898 science fiction novel The War of the Worlds unwittingly caused brief terror among unsuspecting listeners. As the report seemingly brought breaking news of an unprecedented disaster of an unstoppable Martian attack, a nervous nation verged momentarily on the brink of panic. People gripped armchairs in disbelief. Some seized shotguns in defiance. Others piled into cars in despair. The program is considered a major episode in broadcast history. Just as Welles used Wells’ story to tap into the tensions of his times (putting a new spin on what today is called “fake news”), so too does it bear application to these uncertain and unstable days. The War of the Worlds is a timely and timeless piece of literature that poses a primordial question concerning the fabric of civilization—a story that contemplates the cause and consequence of cultural upheaval and the miraculous balance that is universally taken for granted.

Though a shocking book on its own merits, it is even more shocking that the work of Wells encapsulates a type of hype that is prevalent and pervading. As surprising as it sounds, much stands to be gleaned and gained from this forerunner of the interplanetary genre as the world moves unsteadily into unthinkable wars as tremendous technologies and changes almost worthy of science fiction cast great and growing threats to the human race. In short, the significance of The War of the Worldsis that scientific romances often spring from the scientific realities that drive the world to war.

With The War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells cemented the seminal story of human contact with life on other planets—and they did not come in peace. Strange explosive plumes are telescopically spotted on the surface of Mars, and, soon after, red-hot cylinders crater the earth’s crust in the English countryside. These capsules soon prove to contain bulky, oily, creatures who painfully struggle forth under the foreign atmosphere to construct looming mechanisms designed to exterminate human beings with remorseless rapidity and efficiency. Their terrible, towering tripods—now iconic in alien lore—wipe away cities with searing heat rays and smother multitudes with noxious black smoke. The extraterrestrial invaders methodically rampage England, decimating resisting armies and navies alike, while systematically taking possession of the earth and preparing it for their own.

As the Martian militia marches calmly across the land laying waste and devastation to everything in sight, the panic of the people is both painful and poignant. Multitudes flee London and the surrounding boroughs en masse, trampling each other down even to death in the frothing mud with their feet and their fear. The frantic desperation of the surging throng is far more terrifying in a way than the smoothly striding monsters. Confusion, starvation, and desolation tug and tear at the bulwarks of society and psychology until the floodgates are broken and humanity is reduced to a swarming anthill of helpless brutality, hapless insanity, and hopeless ingenuity. With disturbing dioramas and vignettes of destruction, Wells drags readers to the heart of distress and sets it against a throbbing backdrop of sheer pandemonium as civilization is shaken. The intrigue of the novel is skillfully and equally divided between the thrill of alien assault and the challenge of human survival. As Kepler is quoted in the opening of this book concerning life on other worlds, “Are we or they Lords of the World?”

In these days of turmoil, there is hardly need for Martian attacks to cause terror. The wars of the world are sufficient without involving others—and the results in life resemble those seen in literature. Scientific fact and science fiction are consonant concerning the viral quality of fear in a free-floating age. Men tend to pause and panic when the gears grind beyond their control. The unknown is both fascinating and frightening. As a concept, The War of the Worlds demonstrates this irrefutably when it was dramatized on the air by Orson Welles in 1938. But as a novel, it retains a prime and primal significance as it shows a startling fragility and fracture of the human infrastructure, which should be no less startling today. For instance, if the dynamic circuit network goes down, so will the Internet and the global positioning systems (no, this is not science fiction), and then food will not arrive in stores. And that would just be the beginning. Man is not immune from attack, despite his accomplishments. Ingenuity leads to dependency which can lead to despondency. Modernity has built a castle in a cloud, not literally, but virtually—which is even worse. Humanity hangs by a worldwide spider web.

The new White House administration has sparked a debate about alien immigration as though it were an alien invasion. Like in a science fiction tale, America seems overshadowed and even overwhelmed by new and strange powers and new and strange developments, wild dangers, and a weird volatility. There is confusion, chaos, and a bizarre complacency. H. G. Wells called The War of the Worlds an “assault on human self-satisfaction,” which self-satisfaction blunts the thrill of existence and the drive to keep up the struggle to survive—the struggle that makes life precious. The War of the Worlds can be viewed as an analogy of the importance of defending one’s culture vigorously against forces that would change it either furtively or forcefully, and resist resting upon the laurels of artificial success and false security. The self-satisfaction of man is the first stumble towards his fall, for humanity will never reach the summit of existence. Peace is impossible. Culture must always be weeded, watered, and watched. America’s multicultural trajectory is dangerous because culture melts in the melting pot. America’s gradual capitulation to powers proclaiming diversity and reproving discrimination can render Americans weaker in diplomacy and principle once instincts are dull and defenses are down.

The Autocracy of Mr. Parham is all about dictators, and dictators are all about us,” H. G. Wells wrote, mentioning his 1930 novel. “The world in the presence of cataclysmal realities has no need for fresh cataclysmal fantasies. That game is over. Who wants the invented humours of Mr. Parham in Whitehall, when day by day we can watch Mr. Hitler in Germany? What human invention can pit itself against the fantastic fun of the Fates?” Be that as it may, it is also true that some fates are not fun, but fatal. The terrors of science fiction are often symbolic of terrible facts. The War of the Worlds may beg the very question Mr. Wells asks concerning fictional and flesh-and-blood dictators, but perhaps readers will better analyze the world and its wars after reading The War of the Worlds.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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