- Category: Occidentalogy
- Written by Matthew Lasar
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On the evening of Oct. 30, 1938, radio listeners in the greater New York area settled in for a broadcast of “Ramon Raquello” and his orchestra. Suddenly the performance was interrupted by the host, who explained that he had a special bulletin from “Intercontinental Radio News.” Perhaps a few listeners scratched their heads and wondered what Intercontinental Radio News was, but apparently not many. Mysterious explosions of “incandescent gas” had been observed on Mars through various telescopes, IRN reported.
Next a bulletin came in of strange aerial vehicles in various parts of the country and weird, creepy creatures popping out of them. Soon reports started coming in from everywhere of a Martian invasion of the planet. A huge panic set in. Newspapers received thousands of phone calls.
“I was really hysterical,” a woman who heard the broadcast as a teenager later remembered. “My two girl friends and I were crying and holding each other and everything seemed so unimportant in the face of death. We felt it was terrible we should die so young.”
Finally the man who had produced this radio drama came on. It was Halloween eve, and he had concocted the piece out of a novel written by a man born 145 years ago: H.G. Wells.
“This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen,” the actor and director soothingly announced, “out of character, to assure you that the War of the Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be, the Mercury Theater’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and shouting boo. You will be relieved to hear that we didn’t mean it.”
In retrospect, what is disturbing about the Great War of the Worlds Radio Panic of 1938 is that despite this disclosure — also made at the opening of the performance and during an intermission — some listeners continued to cower in their basements for days. They were obviously responding to the power of Welles’ radio adaptation.
But Welles had help. He was working with a masterpiece written by a man who, three decades before Hiroshima, foresaw atomic energy and nuclear war. H.G. Wells wanted to terrify us about what he saw as the coming crisis — ever more powerful technology in the hands of the human race. “If the dangers, confusions and disasters that crowd upon man in these days are enormous beyond any experience of the past, it is because science has brought him such powers as he never had before,” Wells wrote in his A Short History of the World, published in 1922.
This observation has become akin to a cliché in our time. But it was Wells who gave it to us and dramatically drove it home in the trio of novels that he wrote in an amazing four years: War of the Worlds, The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau. While we love these books and their movie adaptations, what we have forgotten is that Wells composed them as a warning; one that, like an intellectual replicant, now endlessly reproduces itself in new cinematic forms.
When we thrill to the “Rise of the Machine” plots in the Terminator and Aliens series, we are reading H.G. Wells.
H.G. Wells, circa 1890.
‘And We Men’
Herbert George Wells was born on Sept. 21, 1866 — the youngest son of an unsuccessful shopkeeper who lived and worked in a London suburb. At the age of 13, his family apprenticed Herbert to a chemist, then to a retailer of cloth. He eventually escaped both occupations by winning a scholarship to the University of London.
Following graduation, Wells taught biology for a spell. Then he took up journalism, “partly because it is a more remunerative profession in England than teaching,” as he put it. But before then he studied with a philosopher who would have a huge influence on him. T.E. Huxley’s famous lecture, “Evolution and Ethics,” responded to the prevalent doctrine of the time — Social Darwinism, with its assumption that human society is fated to follow the “survival-of-the-fittest” ethos found in the natural order.
Huxley contended that human civilization depended on repudiating this condition, not replicating it. “Let us understand, once for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it,” he wrote. “The history of civilization details the steps by which men have succeeded in building up an artificial world within the cosmos.”
Wells’ novels focus on how science and technology frighteningly play out in the absence of this “ethical progress.” He made that clear in the introduction to War of the Worlds — his famous 1898 account of a Martian invasion of Earth, endlessly spun off in movies like Independence Day and Battle Los Angeles. Neither the 1938 Mercury Theater nor Steven Spielberg’s 2005 version with Tom Cruise includes Wells’ explanation for why the Martians attacked Earth: that their own planet was cooling beyond habitation.
“Looking across space with instruments,” they saw “a morning star of hope,” Wells explained, “our own warmer planet, green with vegetation and grey with water, with a cloudy atmosphere eloquent of fertility, with glimpses through its drifting cloud wisps of broad stretches of populous country and narrow, navy-crowded seas.”
And we men, the creatures who inhabit this earth, must be to them at least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us. The intellectual side of man already admits that life is an incessant struggle for existence, and it would seem that this too is the belief of the minds upon Mars. Their world is far gone in its cooling and this world is still crowded with life, but crowded only with what they regard as inferior animals. To carry warfare sunward is, indeed, their only escape from the destruction that, generation after generation, creeps upon them.
And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?
We survive this assault via biological dumb luck. The Martians turn out to be allergic to Earth bacteria, and drop dead. But references to evolution and devolution are all over War of the Worlds, as in the principal characters’ conversation with an “artilleryman” (loosely portrayed by Tim Robbins in the Spielberg film), who gives the protagonist shelter in a house. In the novel, the soldier has all kinds of plans for what do next — first off creating a new society in London’s sewer system.
“We have to invent a sort of life where men can live and breed, and be sufficiently secure to bring the children up,” he explains. “Yes — wait a bit, and I’ll make it clearer what I think ought to be done. The tame ones will go like all tame beasts…. The risk is that we who keep wild will go savage — degenerate into a sort of big, savage rat.”
Sooner or later, someone with better machines but no better values than ours is going to chew us up and spit us out.
The Spielberg version of Wells’ most famous novel doesn’t get very far into these scary philosophical weeds. But like so many cinematic adaptations of his writings, it conveys the feeling that the author wanted us to come away with. As we watch Tom Cruise desperately trying to outrun a huge Martian tripod human scooper, our worst suspicions are confirmed. We are living on technological borrowed time. Sooner or later, someone with better machines but no better values than ours is going to chew us up and spit us out.
That’s pretty close to the message of Terminator Salvation. In the fourth movie episode of the Terminator series, Skynet’s hideous “Harvesters” are, like the tripods, grabbing humans en masse and delivering them to a dark fate at the self-conscious machine networks’ headquarters in San Francisco.
But didn’t humanity have itself to blame for that scenario? Didn’t we create Skynet? H.G. Wells foresaw that special kind of hell too.
A rare first U.S. edition of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, right, differs from a first London edition.
Photo: University of California, Riverside
‘A Great Quiet’
Wells’ 1895 novel The Time Machine is an account of how bad the human race turns out when it blindly mimics the evolutionary model. The protagonist of the story, an English gentleman known only as “The Time Traveller,” uses a miraculous vessel to trek to the year “Eight Hundred and Two Thousand Seven Hundred and One A.D.,” (in his own words). He then describes what he finds to a group of friends when he returns, the equivalent of a week later.
In that A.D. 802,701 future, people have devolved into two groups, he discovers: the “Eloi,” a race of peaceful vegetarians who live on the planet’s surface, and the “Morlocks,” the equivalent of subterranean ranchers, who feed on the Eloi with the assistance of underground machines. Movie versions of the film focus heavily on the Traveller’s relationship with an Eloi named Weena — played by teen movie starlet Yvette Mimieux in the 1960 edition — and his battle with the Morlocks. These films dwell far less on the Traveller’s explanation for how things turned out that way.
It appears that the Morlock/Eloi relationship emerged out of the class divisions of the Traveller’s own epoch, Wells narrates. Human intellect had “committed suicide,” by accepting a comfortable accommodation between the idle rich and mechanically inclined “toiler” classes.
“The rich had been assured of his wealth and comfort, the toiler assured of his life and work,” his Time Traveller explains. “No doubt in that perfect world there had been no unemployed problem, no social question left unsolved. And a great quiet had followed.”
But that “Great Quiet” proved lethal to the human species, which requires trouble and danger to maintain its intellectual versatility and sense of larger purpose.
So, as I see it, the Upper-world man had drifted towards his feeble prettiness, and the Under-world to mere mechanical industry. But that perfect state had lacked one thing even for mechanical perfection — absolute permanency. Apparently as time went on, the feeding of the Under-world, however it was effected, had become disjointed. Mother Necessity, who had been staved off for a few thousand years, came back again, and she began below. The Under-world being in contact with machinery, which, however perfect, still needs some little thought outside habit, had probably retained perforce rather more initiative, if less of every other human character, than the Upper. And when other meat failed them, they turned to what old habit had hitherto forbidden.
‘The Way It Led Me’
Wells described an even more personal version of this mindless fate in his grimmest novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau. In this story, yet another English gentleman, named Edward Prendick, blunders onto a remote island that functions as a biological station for a disgraced vivisectionist. Doctor Moreau, driven from civilization, is now on his own, gleefully carving up wild cats, pigs and dogs, and turning them into strange humanoids, or “Beast People,” with which he lives.
Prendick demands to know how could Moreau justify this behavior.
“You see, I went on with this research just the way it led me,” the physician responds:
That is the only way I ever heard of true research going. I asked a question, devised some method of obtaining an answer, and got a fresh question. Was this possible or that possible? You cannot imagine what this means to an investigator, what an intellectual passion grows upon him! You cannot imagine the strange, colourless delight of these intellectual desires! The thing before you is no longer an animal, a fellow-creature, but a problem! Sympathetic pain, — all I know of it I remember as a thing I used to suffer from years ago. I wanted — it was the one thing I wanted — to find out the extreme limit of plasticity in a living shape.
“But,” Prendick insists, “the thing is an abomination.”
“To this day I have never troubled about the ethics of the matter,” Moreau confides. “The study of Nature makes a man at last as remorseless as Nature. I have gone on, not heeding anything but the question I was pursuing; and the material has — dripped into the huts yonder.”
So traumatized is Prendick by Moreau’s island that when he finally escapes, he is no longer able to tolerate the company of humans, whom he can no longer distinguish from the beasts.
“I look about me at my fellow-men; and I go in fear,” he confesses. “I see faces, keen and bright; others dull or dangerous; others, unsteady, insincere, — none that have the calm authority of a reasonable soul. I feel as though the animal was surging up through them; that presently the degradation of the Islanders will be played over again on a larger scale.”
Which Is Worse?
We are all familiar with a contemporary science fiction character who also suffers from Prendick’s condition. Her name is Ripley, the heroine of the four-part Alien series and played by Sigourney Weaver. In part one of this quartet of intergalactic slasher movies, Ripley works on a commercial freighter spaceship overtaken by extraterrestrial parasites that lethally implant eggs into her shipmates, one by one. To her further horror, she discovers that the android assigned to the flight has been instructed by her corporate employers to preserve the creatures for further study, rather than let her destroy the vessel.
Having escaped and eliminated the freighter anyway, in Aliens Ripley is at first condemned by her employers, who don’t believe her story. But soon they discover that the creatures really exist and have taken over the small planet where her crew first encountered them. Begged to accompany a rescue mission, Ripley only goes along on the proviso that the point is to destroy the monsters, not bring them back to monetize their abilities.
Company agent Carter Burke (played by Paul Reiser), assures her that this is so. But he has lied to her, of course, and tries to trap some of her crew in a laboratory room with one of the creatures in the hope of bringing an impregnated human back to earth and winning a commission.
“You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse,” Weaver says to Reiser. “You don’t see them screwing each other over for a fucking percentage.”
By episode four — Alien Resurrection — the military has gotten hold of the beasts and is conducting space station experiments on them with humans. The research gets out of control, and the aliens go wild and take over. Meanwhile Ripley has become part alien herself — cloned after dying, then one of the creatures surgically removed from her chest. She, one of the scientists, and a pirate crew that kidnapped more cryogenically frozen victims for the experiments find themselves fighting for their lives.
When one of the frozen captives wakes up, he demands an explanation. “What’s in-fucking-side me?” he demands.
“There’s a monster in your chest,” Ripley wearily explains. “These guys hijacked your ship, and they sold your cryo tube to this … human. And he put an alien inside of you. It’s a really nasty one. And in a few hours you’re gonna die. Any questions?”
“Who are you?”
“I’m the monster’s mother.”
And when Ripley discovers that Annalee Call, one of the pirate crew members, is actually an android (played by Winona Ryder) trying to kill her to destroy the aliens, she is barely surprised. “You’re a robot?” Weaver exclaims. “I should have known. No human being is that humane.”
The episode concludes as Weaver and Ryder descend to Earth in an escape vessel. “What happens now?” Call asks. “I don’t know,” Ripley confesses. “I’m a stranger here myself.”
Like H.G. Wells’ Prendick, Ripley has escaped from the Island of Doctor Moreau. The scale of the experiment is much larger and far more sadistic, but the result is the same. She has lost any ability to see humanness in humans.
The World Set Free
A dozen years after H.G. Wells wrote his most popular works, he gave freer voice to his idealistic visions. These included The World Set Free, a 1914 account of how civilization repaired itself following an atomic war. The human race adopted a single government, Wells explained. It embraced a single language, a single currency and universal education.
“The catastrophe of the atomic bombs which shook men out of cities and businesses and economic relations shook them also out of their old established habits of thought, and out of the lightly held beliefs and prejudices that came down to them from the past,” Wells argued. “To borrow a word from the old-fashioned chemists, men were made nascent; they were released from old ties; for good or evil they were ready for new associations.”
But instead of following these recommendations, the world descended into its first global conflict. Seven years later, Wells admitted that he wasn’t so sure this scenario stood much of a chance.
“The question whether it is still possible to bring about an outbreak of creative sanity in mankind, to avert this steady glide to destruction, is now one of the most urgent in the world,” he wrote in a 1921 introduction to the republished book. “It is clear that the writer is temperamentally disposed to hope that there is such a possibility. But he has to confess that he sees few signs of any such breadth of understanding and steadfastness of will as an effectual effort to turn the rush of human affairs demands.”
What we take from H.G. Wells is the nagging suspicion that we are not in control.
By 1946, the year that Wells died, civilization experienced yet another all-nation conflagration — one that included the use of the atomic weapons he had foreseen three decades earlier. Most of us, of course, share few of the aforementioned utopian socialist hopes. What we do take from Wells is the nagging suspicion that we are not in control, that the technologies we so gleefully develop will continuously backfire on us in ever more horrific ways, and that our love of individual freedom is a collective extermination pact.
In this context, “history,” from now on, is the story of how we as a species repeatedly dodge that mass suicide at the last minute, until at last we don’t. That, not his utopian socialism, is the Wellsian vision of the future that we find so compelling — the version told in his novels and made into movies, to be retold in myriad new forms for as long as we survive.