Empire over Matter

So, once again, with his super-intelligent, non-emotional, telepathic, bio-mechanical, tentacled aliens, Wells sets a twentieth century science-fiction trend. (Even the creator of the seminal computer game 'Space Invaders' admits to designing his aliens after seeing early illustrations for The War of the Worlds). But there is more to Wells' vision than simply bug-eyed monsters. Time and again Wells uses the Martian's evolutionary superiority to expose the biological arrogance of man and undermine his claim as the pinnacle of nature. The book opens with the revelation that mankind has been being scrutinised by the Martians, "perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same." Elsewhere, humans are referred to as ants in comparison to the Martians, or rats, or as bees and wasps with their pitiful guns that do little more than sting the alien machines. For each big fish, it seems, there is a bigger fish waiting to strike: "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 [Darwin's phrase], and it would seem that this too is the belief of the minds upon Mars." The Earth is 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."

Far from condemning the Martians, the Narrator seems constantly keen to justify their actions by drawing attention to human behaviour: "And before we judge 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 own inferior race. 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?" He attempts to accustom himself to the idea of the Martian injecting themselves with human blood with the thought that "we should remember how repulsive our carnivorous habits would seem to an intelligent rabbit." And the fate of the humans is painted as just - or rather as unjust - as the fate of the creatures that mankind dominates and destroys. A reminder of this fate is even found within an expression of human arrogance: before the Martians let loose their terrible power on the humans, even the Narrator confidently asserts man's supremacy, declaring to his wife that the Martians will be easily defeated; but as he later reflects, "So some respectable dodo in the Mauritius might have lorded it in his nest, and discussed the arrival of the shipful of pitiless sailors in want of animal food. 'We will peck them to death tomorrow, my dear.'" And when mankind is in its darkest hour, the Narrator touches "an emotion beyond the common range of men, yet one that the poor brutes we dominate know only too well. I felt as a rabbit might feel returning to his burrow and suddenly confronted by the work of a dozen busy navvies digging the foundations of a house. I felt... a sense of dethronement, a persuasion that I was no long longer a master, but an animal among the animals, under the Martian heel. With us it would be as with them, to lurk and watch, to run and hide; the fear and empire of man had passed away." And when it is all over, the Narrator concludes that, "Surely, if we have learned nothing else, this war has taught us pity - pity for those witless souls that suffer our dominion." These were not comfortable thoughts to confront the late- nineteenth century mindset with. As Charles Darwin wrote, "Animals, whom we have made our slaves, we do not like to consider our equal."

The biological arrogance of man was a concern that stayed with Wells for the rest of his life. In 1942 he referred to humanity as "the species we so prematurely call Homo sapiens," and in 1944, two years before his death, wrote: "We are learning biological modesty very reluctantly. We make Man the measure of our universe, and the same sort of self-satisfaction that dubbed our sort Homo sapiens, and his biological kindred Primate, blinds us to the many alternative cards our hard and vindictive mother Nature may have up her sleeve for us... Forms may be arising whose weapon will be mortal human epidemics to which they are immune... Only the hard-thinking man with the microscope, working without haste and without delay, can hope to anticipate and avert that attack upon mankind." In other words, by 1944 Wells could envisage the fate that eventually befalls the Martians befalling humanity. There is a simple but brilliant poetry in the Martians succumbing to the 'lowest' form of life - the bacteria: even these great lords of the universe, greater even than man, are struck down by the apparently most insignificant and microscopic

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