We May Expect
A Review and Analysis of The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells
This review and analysis contains plot spoilers.
The unnamed protagonist, a professor of social philosophy, sits in the study of his home, and writes the following words: "In two hundred years, we may expect". He finds he cannot focus his mind on finishing the sentence and so goes to fetch the morning mail. From there, he is drawn into the strange occurrences in the next town over, where a metallic cylinder has fallen from the sky and embedded itself in the dirt.
What follows from that incident is the nothing less than the slow deterioration of human social order into utter chaos as Martians emerge from the the cylinder and begin exterminating anyone unlucky enough to get near them. The military power of the British empire (one of the world's strongest forces at the turn of the twentieth century) poses no threat to them, and amidst the touchdown of many more cylinders, London appears to be theirs for the taking.
But to fixate on the devastation wreaked by the Martian heat rays, poison gases, and harvesters, as both the 1953 and 2005 films do, is to miss the real point of the novel. At its core, The War of the Worlds is about the true nature of humanity and what we might expect of the human condition in changed environmental circumstances. In the wake of modern climate change and the uncertain resource reliability of our modern world, the questions raised by this century-old novel seem, to me, resonant and poignant for readers today.
In the first lines of Genesis, God grants man dominion over all the other creatures of the Earth. Most of us, as we proceed through are daily lives, are unlikely to give much thought, if any, to the fact that we share our biome with a multitude of other lifeforms. We have taken dominion over other creatures assiduously, and have created for ourselves very safe and sanitary spaces of habitation. As the creation myth demonstrates, we have, somehow in the last forty thousand years, moved seamlessly from self-defense and co-habitation to utter rulership, deciding how and when all other creatures on our planet live and die, and the quality of their existence as well.
Throughout the text, in instances too numerous to recount, the philosophy professor, nearly always on the run from Martian death machines, reflects on how animal-like his and other human's existence has become. When the narrative jumps to the events of his brother (who must escape population-dense downtown London, unlike the philosophy professor, who navigates its countryside fringes), we are given glimpses of the selfishness, stubbornness, and greed exhibited by the average person as resources become scarce and death looms imminent.
Can a human society only advance when resources are abundant and most individuals' Maslow base hierarchies are secure? Perhaps, as the text suggests, social progress is an illusion generated by times of abundance, and our "natural" state is not anything desirous. Certainly not if the novel's Martians rule humans the way humans have ruled the rest of the animal kingdom. Our position of dominance then is called into question: do we deserve dominion over all other species if our behavior can be so easily altered by changed circumstances?
And yet, perhaps the novel is overly rife with futility. We have seen a remarkable expansion of the cultural circle of human empathy over the last century, undoubtedly improving across multiple vectors–race and gender discrimination are lower than at any other time in human history, and individuals enjoy more privileges and freedoms, too. But do these improvements represent permanent alterations to the human condition, or do they merely represent a tenuous and transient social configuration, a thin layer disguising our "real" human nature?
The Curate and the Artilleryman
While the philosopher's brother witnesses the major failings of human character as the entire population of London attempts simultaneously to flee, the philosopher himself witnesses human baseness in the form of two specific individuals, whom he meets at different junctures as he attempts to navigate his familiar countryside now dominated by hostile Martians.
The first individual he spends a significant amount of time with is referred to only as "the curate" (an assistant to a vicar or priest). The opinion of the philosopher towards the curate is very low. The curate is depicted as mentally decrepit in every intellectual and emotional way possible. He is prone to hysterics and ranting about doomsday, judgment, and the sins of mankind as well as his own. He repeatedly gourmandizes upon their meager food and water stores, refuses to engage in any form of rational discourse with the philosopher, and appears utterly ignorant of how the noise he makes has the potential to attract the attention of the Martians. This is eventually his undoing, as his behavior eventually does alert the Martians to his presence, which gets him killed and nearly results in the death of the philosopher as well.
I found the curate's depiction wholly consistent with Enlightenment attitudes toward members of the clergy. Wells depicts organized religion as no salvation from the rigors of a world in which humanity has been debased. Far from it, religion is portrayed as intellectually and emotionally crippling.
The philosopher meets the artilleryman before the curate, but is soon drawn away from him by circumstance. They meet again later in the novel, after the countryside and London have both been occupied and emptied of human inhabitants.
When they meet again, the artilleryman speaks of building up a new society that will thrive in the sewers beneath London, while the Martians remain oblivious to their presence. Of course, the artilleryman will ensure that the weak-minded (like the curate) remain penned and/or slaughtered by the Martians. He will take only the best specimens of humanity for his project, and their underground society (both metaphorically and literally) will eventually learn the secrets of Martian science and stand as their peers, or even overthrow them. The artilleryman additionally desires no literature, art, or philosophy. He wants only the hard sciences for his new society.
Initially, the philosopher is drawn into this rhetoric. However, after the artilleryman and the philosopher spend a night drinking wine and playing cards, the philosopher awakens to the notion that, for all the artilleryman's talk of himself being a superb specimen of humanity, his behavior does not jive with his rhetoric, and the philosopher leaves him.
Both of these characters speak to elements of the human condition. While it may seem unkind to think unwell of our fellow man, we have to admit the loss of mental faculties under the extreme stress of imminent threat to our life are real and possible afflictions that any of us might succumb to. And I likely do not need to cite specific examples of the failed social experiments involving a charismatic leader desirous of creating an empire of supermen possessing traits he finds noble.
In the end, alone in a London roamed by hostile Martians, stripped of the human infrastructure and social companionship that will render his philosophy worthwhile, the philosopher also succumbs mentally, eventually walking himself toward one of the alien machines, ready to meet oblivion rather than subsist, running and hiding alone in the deserted metropolis. His life is saved only by the fact that the aliens have finally succumbed to the Earth's microorganisms.
Wells' prose is clear and eloquent, lending enough description to events to convey the horror of the desolated countryside and the ruthlessness of the Martian attacks without encumbering either characterization or plot. His major themes are expressed both subtly and with an appropriate amount of repetition (enough to be remarked, but not so much as to feel heavy handed).
Are humans better than other animals? Do our abilities to transmit ideas across space through spoken words and time through writing endow us necessarily with the right to be lords of all other creatures on Earth? If the Martians of The War of the Worlds are true science fictional metaphors for humanity's behavior toward other species, then the answer would seem to be a resounding "no."
And what of the philosopher's aborted essay? What might we expect of humanity in the next two hundred years? Will we maintain our ideals, morals, and ethics, as climate change and resource depletion impact us ever more acutely in coming decades?
Most science fiction has proven inadequate to the task of guessing the future, either technologically or socially. Wells, wisely, leaves his philosopher's sentence incomplete.