Wars Between Worlds

Submitted by AWL on 21 July, 2005 - 12:23

The idea around which HG Wells constructed his late-19th century novel,"The War of the Worlds", is as simple as it is terrifying. Alien beings land on earth. Their technology is as vastly superior to what humanity has achieved as that of the invading early 16th century Spaniards was to the technology of the Aztecs of Mexico and the Incas of Peru. Despite the tremendous cities they had, the Aztecs and Incas were still confined to late Stone-Age technology, and had neither the wheel nor metallurgy (other than in easily accessible and easily worked gold).

More. The intellectual capacity of Wells’ invaders is as vastly superior to our own as ours is to say, the tiny-brained horse.

Their military technology is to ours what “ours” was to the victims of “civilisation”, when Gatling machine guns were used against the peoples of Africa and elsewhere, in the 19th century.

Worse still, they are predators who want to make the earth theirs. There is no possibility of contact, sympathy or even discourse between the invaders and humanity. It is, from the start, an out and out relentless war of extermination. They either slaughter, or capture and cage human beings on sight.

Those they capture are fed, fattened and kept alive — until their captors are ready to eat them. They are to the invaders only what other animals are to us — food, inferior beings without rights or entitlements other than what serves the needs of the predators.

The novel can be read as a parable of human history and of class society.

In his education, Wells was a scientist — he trained under T H Huxley. He was a pioneer socialist, a Fabian.

The Fabians did not, as Marxists do, believe in socialism as something the working class would create. But, nonetheless, they were socialists. They wanted to see capitalism destroyed and replaced by a higher and better collectivist system. Fabians like the playwright, George Bernard Shaw (of whom Lenin, parodying what the Bible says of the “good man fallen among thieves”, said that he was “a good man fallen among Fabians”) and the historians of trade unionism, Sidney and Beatrice Webb (Lenin in exile in Siberia translated one of their books) were trenchant critics of capitalism. Essentially, they were utopian socialists: people with “good ideas”, for a better society who appealed to people of all classes to realise them in life. Frederick Engels said of them that they thought socialism too good to be left to the working class….

As well as novels, Wells wrote popular histories of civilisation — The Outline of History and A Short History of the World. These were not Marxist works — Trotsky was very scathing about Wells as a historian — but they nonetheless helped educate the rising labour movement into some idea of the shape of history.

Wells was one of the inventors of science fiction, writing novels about such things as time travel — The Time Machine — as well as about extra-terrestrial invaders.
Like many of the pioneer middle class socialists, he was a vegetarian when vegetarians were still widely seen as crankish.

All of this intellectual background lives in The War of the Worlds. Wells created a parable about human history and human society, which ranges from our relations with nature and other animals to the savageries of European colonialism and imperialism — which had wiped out whole peoples and crushed less developed civilisations — to the relationships that go to make up our exploitative class society.

Worlds other than planets make war on each other.

Europeans spread over the earth from the 15th century onwards. They “discovered” and colonised the Americas, “explored” Africa — developing the international slave trade — “discovered” Australia and slaughtered the people already there.

In one sense this had been time-travel. Ranging the world, in which many stages of human development existed side by side, Europeans crossing the seas, simultaneously went “back” to past eras of development — and people more or less defenceless against them. As defenseless as is humanity against the invaders from space in Wells’ story.

The Europeans sailing to south America in the half-century after Christopher Colombus “discovered” it (1492) sailed back in time to encounter in the Incas and Aztecs the sort of civilisation that had existed in Egypt 5,000 years before. They colonialised, butchered, looted, enslaved, exterminated.

Inadvertently they brought to those they visited new diseases, such as smallpox, against which their victims’ bodies had not built up defences, so they died en mass.

Even Wells’ solution to the awful dilemma facing a humankind hopelessly outmatched by the invaders is taken from this terrible history. The newcomers succumb to the bacteria in our air, like Native Americans encountering smallpox.

The socialist Wells lived in a capitalist world in which most people existed on the sufferance of the rich. In which workers lived most of their waking lives working for masters, and could only live if the master class found it expedient to exploit their labour power. In which small working class children in London serviced rich men in brothels. In which old workers, after a lifetime being exploited, were turned out of work without even a pittance of a pension. A world in which the rich treated most of the people as farmers treat their animals…

All this is concentrated in Wells’ parable about aliens doing things like that to all of humankind, to the species itself. And in its time the novel was pretty terrifying, and thought-provoking. The sequence in which helpless people wait, like animals in a human slaughterhouse, to be killed and eaten had a profound impact on me when I first read it in my mid-teens. Read the book.

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