Alien Intelligence

One of Wells' greatest innovations in The War of the Worlds is his description of the appearance of the Martians themselves. He was by no means the first to imagine intelligent creatures from another world, but in previous incarnations they tended to be distinctly humanoid. One of the most famous interplanetary tales of the 19th century was Across the Zodiac (1880) by Percy Greg, in which a man travels to Mars in a vehicle powered by an antigravity device, as in Wells' own The First Men in the Moon. (Incidentally, it is worth noting that the Martians in The War of the Worlds travel across space by means of a sort of space-gun fired from the planet - a device Wells used to send men to the moon in 1933's The Shape of Things to Come). But unlike the world of Wells, Greg's space-travelling character encounters Martians so completely human that he takes several of them as wives. That this sort of idea view was not an aberration is illustrated by Wells' Narrator's observation with regard to the Martian cylinders that, "I think everyone expected to see a man emerge - possibly something a little unlike us terrestrial men, but in all essentials a man." They turn out to be "the most unearthly creatures it is possible to conceive," composed of a giant head/body structure with "immense eyes" and a "fleshy beak", with instead of arms or legs, "Gorgon groups of tentacles". Although these tentacles appear of limited use in Earth's relatively heavy gravity, "on Mars they may have progressed upon them with some facility."

The general impression given is that of an octopus out of water, and the resemblance is no coincidence: Wells was not merely imagining something otherworldly, but speculating as to the types of creatures that might evolve under the lower gravity, less dense atmosphere that contemporary science imagined might exist on Mars. Wells had been born only seven years after the most important scientific publication of the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species, and it was through 'Darwin's Bulldog', T.H. Huxley who lectured him at the Normal School of Science, that Wells' fascination with the process of evolution through natural selection was instilled. Natural selection is essentially the differential survival and reproduction of organisms, and the 'fitness' of a particular organism is defined by the environment in which the organism is found, and the selection pressures acting upon that organism. Wells' first novel The Time Machine (1895) had been an allegorical speculation on the future of humanity, and the role and fate of intelligence in the process of evolution, a theme he returns to via the Martians in The War of the Worlds. The fate of humanity in The Time Machine involved (among other things) intelligence dwindling to a minimum as the decadence of modern society removed the selection pressures to maintain brain-power. For the Martians, however, the process has been the reverse, with many of the major organs disappearing leaving just lungs, a heart and an enormous brain. They do not eat food, instead they inject blood directly into their system.

The Narrator relates and article in Punch magazine that had facetiously speculated that such a fate might lay in wait for humanity: "the perfection of mechanical appliances must ultimately supersede limbs; the perfection of chemical devices, digestion; that such organs such as hair, external nose, teeth, ears, and chin were no longer essential parts of the human being, and that the tendency of natural selection would lie in the direction of their steady diminution through the coming ages. The brain alone remained a cardinal necessity. Only one other part of the body had a strong case for survival, and that was the hand, 'teacher and agent of the brain.' While the rest of the body dwindled, the hands would grow larger." "Many a true word written in jest," supposes the Narrator. "'To me it is quite credible that the Martians may be descended from beings not unlike ourselves, by a gradual development of brain and hands... at the expense of the rest of the body." Moreover, "Without the body, the brain would, of course, become a mere selfish intelligence, without any of the emotional substratum of the human being." The Narrator seems somewhat ambivalent to this notion of the banishing of emotional responses, elsewhere noting the "the physiological advantages of the practise of injection" rather than digesting food: "Men go happy or miserable as they have healthy or unhealthy livers, or sound gastric glands. But the Martians were lifted above all these organic fluctuations of mood and emotion." Since Wells' time, a great deal has been learned about the important role emotions play in decision-making processes and human survival, but the rationalistic viewpoint of nineteenth century science was very much geared towards the notion of the triumph of reason and intelligence. Indeed the Martians have become so brain orientated, that the Narrator is convinced "that the Martians interchanged thoughts without any physical intermediation," despite the fact that before the Martians he "had written with some little vehemence against the telepathic theory."

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