Regarded as one of the fathers of science fiction, Herbert George Wells is best remembered for the many classic science fiction novels of his prolific output, The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, The First Men in the Moon, and The Shape of Things to Come, but he was also a progressive thinker, and many of these novels examined the divisions of class in society, and how humanity would develop were these divisions to increase. In this latest lesson in Geek School, contributor Michaël Elliot offers a comprehensive examination of Wells’ most famous work, where his concerns took their most brutal and uncompromising form.
H G Wells’s iconic novel The War of the Worlds is a triumphalistic celebration of British imperial power over foreigners, right? Wrong! Wells, a lifelong socialist, wrote his novel as a radical critique of – and response to – the age in which it was written. Widely regarded as ‘progressive,’ not just for pre-empting the use of tanks and chemical warfare prior to World War One but for the social commentary it makes, The War of Worlds is all the more remarkable as it was published in 1898, after originally being serialised in Pearson’s Magazine in 1897. Far from being a utopian vision and endorsement of Victorian values, The War of the Worlds was (and remains) a progressive exploration and exposé of moral extremes and socio-psychological dilemmas in late Victorian Britain; a phenomenon known as the fin de siècle.
The fin de siècle: the era of the Decadence, The Yellow Book, the New Woman, the scandalous Oscar Wilde, the Empire on which the sun never set. This heady brew was caught nowhere better than in the revival of the Gothic tale in the late Victorian age, where the undead walked and evil curses, foul murder, doomed inheritance and sexual menace played on the stretched nerves of the new mass readerships. The Victorian fin de siècle worried that it repeated this sense of being in the last hours of civilisation, the “sunset of mankind” as Wells described in The Time Machine (1895), and these decadent ‘last moments’ were also imperial ones, for the late Victorian era was one of the most expansive phases of Empire. Between 1870 and 1900 Britain annexed some 39 separate areas, in competition with the European powers in the so-called “scramble for Africa” and the newly aggressive America in the Pacific.
As a realist writer Wells was concerned with the ordinary human condition, particularly of the urban poor, and The War of the Worlds is a Gothic compendium of many late 19th century concerns which are still just as relevant today. The year 1898 saw the height of Britain’s Imperial epoch as Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee and an orgy of British self-congratulation followed. At the time, the European colonial powers – and more especially the British – saw their industrial, technological and political might as tangible evidence of their racial ‘superiority’ to govern their colonised territories along with their native inhabitants. The War of the Worlds is more than just an early ‘scientific romance,’ it is a work of fiction that is deeply critical of materialism, capitalism, religion and – most particularly – Victorian Britain’s imperial agenda.
During the 19th century, London was transformed into the world’s largest city and capital of the vast British Empire, expanding from a population of 1 million in 1800 to nearly 7 million a century later. During this period, London became an unrivalled global political, financial, and trading powerhouse. While the city grew wealthy as Britain’s holdings expanded, London also saw the rise of grinding poverty, where millions lived in overcrowded and unsanitary slums. Despite the wealth of the Empire and the glamour, pomp and ostentatious riches displayed during the Diamond Jubilee, life for the British poor was inhumanly wretched.
This is why Wells placed the events of the story in London, the “great imperial metropolis,” heart of the socio-economic, cultural and political world power of the late 19th century rather than in America or in industrial working class centres such as Manchester or Birmingham. Wells highlights the anxieties of the fin de siècle, the fear that Britain was degenerating back to a primitive form of society, as depicted by the Morlocks of The Time Machine. Contemporary British society believed this was ‘evidenced’ by many shocking crimes sensationalised in the press: the ‘Ripper’ murders of Whitechapel and the London sex industry involving underage girls bought by upper class gentlemen (written about by W T Stead in The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon and serialised in the Pall Mall Gazette). Perhaps more shocking to notoriously prudish Victorian sensibilities was the scandal of the homosexual brothel in the West End’s Cleveland Street involving telegraph boys, members of the government, aristocracy and (allegedly) Prince Albert Victor, eldest son of the then-Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII).
These events cultivated a sense of unease in society and disillusionment in the cultural world, which in turn sparked the rise of a decadent bohemian counterculture which equally disturbed the upper classes. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolutionary development expounded in The Origin of Species (1859) had unsettled an earlier generation by challenging the myth of the Biblical creation and the boundary between human and animal, themes explored by Wells in his 1894 novel The Island of Doctor Moreau.
Providing a means to explore the rapid social, political, scientific and technological transformations that shook the late Victorian era, Gothic fiction flourished during the 1880s and 1890s, regaining its cultural significance as a popular literary mode. Wells used the Gothic genre to explore contemporary societal fears and attitudes to great effect in the novels already mentioned, but the revival also benefitted from new magazines and journals such as Blackwood’s and Lippincott’s, the former publishing tales by Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe and serialising Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the latter serialising Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.
To truly understand The War of the Worlds and the philosophy it contains, it is important to understand the relevance of ideology and the impact it had on Wells’ writing. The modern concept of ideology can be considered as having begun with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The German Ideology (1846), in which they argued that “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas” and that “class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time the ruling intellectual force”. However, not all ideological concepts are exclusively political in content; religion has formed the basis for some of the world’s oldest and most powerful schools of thought.
As an example, a definition of the ideology of the British state is that of a Christian Western capitalist parliamentary democracy with a limited constitutional monarchy. Louis Althusser described, in Marxist theory, the Repressive State Apparatuses as including “the Government, the Administration, the Army, the Police, the Courts, the Prisons, etc” while the Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA) included religious, educational, family, legal, political, trade union, communications and cultural ISAs. Wells used The War of the Worlds to criticise the oppressive state apparatuses of a western capitalist society, particularly the army and organised religion, by using the contemptible characters of the artilleryman and the curate respectively.
1891 saw the publication of the first British edition of Friedrich Engels’ thesis The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, a detailed analysis of the appalling conditions of the working class in Britain during his stay in Manchester and Salford. The work was important on the development of socialism and was considered an instant classic at the time of publication, and was particularly influential on British socialist authors including H G Wells and George Orwell. In The Communist Manifesto (1848), Marx and Engels asserted that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” suggesting that the bourgeoisie and proletariat or, in other words, the “oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted and, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstruction of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes”.
The Martians can be seen as an allegory of the capitalist, bloodsucking (literally) and parasitic imperialist upper class, rather like Count Dracula (published, incidentally, by Bram Stoker the same year as The War of the Worlds). In Stoker’s novel, the eponymous vampire, representative of the old aristocratic feudal past, attempts to conquer and colonise London for his kind, much like Wells’ Martians, however, unlike Dracula, the Martians are highly evolved, intellectual and industrialised. The date the first Martian cylinder embarks on its journey to Earth is also symbolic; 12th August, the so-called ‘Glorious Twelfth’ when the traditional grouse hunting season begins by the shotgun-toting, tweed-clad British upper classes and aristocracy. Here a new hunting season is beginning, where humanity is subjugated by a new ‘aristocracy’ and relegated to the bottom of the food chain.
At the start of The War of the Worlds, Wells compared the annihilation of the populace of the Home Counties to the extermination of the Tasmanian native population by the colonising British and, in doing so, displaces the contemporary imperialist self-confidence:
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 dodo, but upon its own 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?
In this case of ‘reverse colonialism’, Wells challenged the attitudes of Victorian Britain by having what was then the most powerful nation on Earth invaded by another race. Towards the end of the novel, after the Martians have been defeated, Wells provides another critique of colonialism and states the case for humanity and indigenous peoples to live wherever they choose without the threat of outside aggressors and imperial expansion when he states, “By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the Earth, and it is his against all comers”.
During the 19th century Britain was the imperial power, endowed with shared sense of self-confidence; there was no question that Britain could be colonised by another race, terrestrial or otherwise. That confidence is further undermined by the fact that the Martians are eventually defeated, not by imperial might, but by bacteria, which the narrator describes as “the humblest things … upon this earth”. The narrator also comments that to the highly evolved Martians, man “must be to them at least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us”. Wells therefore presents The War of the Worlds as a homily on the inevitable evolutionary supersession of humanity and expresses the ambiguities of British Imperialism in the late 1800s.
Although the British Empire was in an expansive phase, it was simultaneously gripped by anxieties of ‘sunset’ and degeneration: this is portrayed when the Martians first arrive in England and everyday life continues as normal, with the “sluggish” creatures being viewed as primitive, thus foiling the cosy notions held by the British populace when they arrive at Horsell Common. The narrator tells us of the “dovetailing of the commonplace habits of our social order” with the “beginnings of the series of events that was to topple that social order headlong” thusly:
…for the most part the daily routine of working, eating, drinking, sleeping, went on as it did for countless years – as though no planet Mars existed in the sky. Even at Woking station and Horsell and Chobham that was the case.
The social inversions portrayed in The War if the Worlds play with the ideas of biological and imperial domination that were meant to harden Victorians to a robust, re-militarised defence of the imperial centre, while in Wells’ hands they become a way of undercutting British pretensions. Indeed, even the fate of the Martians can also be seen as a warning for capitalists; their greed and failure to work with those who are subjugated under them led to the demise of their short-lived dominance. Wells further criticises capitalism and the materialistic nature of Western society when he has the narrator describe the possessions that people take with
them as they flee the Martians.
People came panting along under heavy burdens; one husband and wife were even carrying a small outhouse door between them, with some of their household goods piled thereon.
The narrator speaks of the charred bodies he passes on his way back to Leatherhead as they fled the Martians’ advance: “here and there were things people had dropped – a clock, a slipper, a silver spoon, and the like poor valuables.” He then comes across a crowd of people at a railway station who were “sufficiently sabbatical to have assumed their best clothes,” a small elderly gentleman intent on taking his “score or more of flower-pots containing orchids” and a group of soldiers “having the greatest difficulty trying to make them realise the gravity of their position.”
While it may seem trivial and futile to take his flowers while fleeing for his life the old man tries to explain that the orchids “is vallyble” to a corporal “who would leave them behind,” and the corporal could be seen as an example of the Repressive State Apparatus, even if his actions are justified and well-intentioned. The narrator also relates a bizarre incident of a “bearded, eagle-faced man lugging a small handbag” full of gold sovereigns which split and spills its contents over the road, of the (apparently Jewish?) man’s fatal disregard for his own life while, blinded by his greed, he tries to fight off those who are trying to help him as he tries to reclaim his useless horde of money:
The man stopped and looked stupidly at the heap, and the shaft of a cab struck his shoulder and sent him reeling. He gave a shriek and dodged back, and a cart-wheel shaved him narrowly … So soon as the cab had passed, he flung himself with both hands open upon the heap of coins, and began thrusting handfuls in his pocket. A horse rose close upon him, and in another moment half rising, he had been borne down under the horse’s hoofs … my brother lugged him sideways. But still he clutched his money, and regarded my brother fiercely, hammering at his arm with a handful of gold.
These are examples of the “fetishism of commodities” that Marx described in Das Kapital (1867) which “attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.” As the masses flee from the Martian attack we see, as described by the narrator, the “liquefaction of the social body,” the rich the same as the poor, and social classes once central to British society completely obsolete. Even the (fictional) Chief Justice, Lord Garrick, is reduced to begging for water on his flight from the Martians’ advance. By the end of the novel London, the once-great metropolis, has been reduced to “a city of tramps,” but perhaps one of Wells’ most chilling depictions of this new regime is the Martians’ treatment of a wealthy man whom they feed upon:
He was a stout, ruddy, middle-aged man, well dressed; three days before he must have been walking the world, a man of considerable consequence. I could see his staring eyes and the gleams of light on his studs and watch-chain. He vanished behind the mound, and for a moment there was silence. And then began a shrieking and a sustained and cheerful hooting from the Martians.
Wells’ social critique in The War of the Worlds is also shown by the cellar the narrator and the curate take refuge, a direct reference to a scullery that Wells’ mother worked in as a housekeeper when he was a boy and which he described in his novel In The Days of the Comet (1906) as
…a damp, unsavoury, mainly subterranean region…rendered more than typically dirty in our case by the fact that it turned into a coal-cellar, a yawning pit of black uncleanness, opened and diffused small crunchable particles about the uneven brick floor.
The discomfort and dirt of the scullery remained with him; like Orwell and Scargill after him, Wells knew that dirt has political significance and this early life experience informed his thinking and attitude to society, for Wells came from a good pedigree of radical socialists.
Life within a capitalist society is a struggle for existence and this literally becomes the case when the human populace has to fight for its survival from the Martians who hunt and feed on them in order to stay alive. Indeed, in the late 19th century a growing sense of atheism led by Darwin’s theories of evolution and Nietzche’s anti-Christian philosophy began a conflict created by loss of religious faith which found full expression in realist and naturalist literature where atheism and agnosticism replaced Christianity. Theories of evolution swept aside religious explanations for human existence; the struggle for survival became, for many post-Darwinian thinkers, the only answer to the age-old question of the meaning of human existence. Therefore, Wells’ novel can be seen as not just as articulating Victorian anxieties during the fin de siècle, but also as an expression of this new way of thinking.
Wells further discusses the futility of religion through his portrayal of the curate who, as an agent of organised religion, is symbolic of the ‘Ideological State Apparatus’ that Althusser wrote of. The curate – blinded by his religious beliefs, which he uses in an attempt to try and ‘rationalise’ what is happening – sees the Martians as “God’s ministers” and is incredulous that God would let something like this happen and let “all our work [be] undone.” He is driven “to the very verge of his reason,” rants about Sodom and Gomorrah and begins to quote or paraphrase verses from the Bible; “This must be the beginning of the end… The great and terrible day of the Lord! When men shall call upon the mountains and the rocks to fall upon them and hide them – hide them from the face of Him that sitteth upon the throne!” The narrator provides the voice of reason, and arguably the voice of Wells himself: “What good is religion if it collapses under calamity? Think of what earthquakes and floods, wars and volcanoes, have done before to men.”
Religion as a form of social control was central to Marx’s theory of alienation, calling it the “sigh of the oppressed creature, the feeling of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless circumstances.” The curate also illustrates the apparent indifference of the clergy to the poor when he laments “There was poverty, sorrow; the poor were trodden in the dust, and I held my peace. I preached acceptable folly – my God, what folly! – when I should have stood up, though I died for it, and called upon them to repent – repent! …Oppressors of the poor and needy! …The wine-press of God.” However, it is not just the curator who shows the futility of religion; at the end of the novel the narrator, who previously had shown his exasperation with religious faith, starts to praise God for His apparent divine intervention when the Martians had actually started dying of natural causes brought on by bacterial infections.
Although the narrator attributes the fact that the Martians were killed by terrestrial bacteria that were put on earth by “God, in His wisdom,” and not some chance act by nature, this should not be seen as an expression of Wells’ own beliefs, for he was a self-described atheist. Here the narrator represents ‘everyman’ as most people at the end of the 19th century would have held some form of religious belief. This self-delusion Wells describes illustrates what Marx meant when he wrote: “Man makes religion, religion does not make man… Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
The artilleryman is the most specific representation of Althusser’s ‘Repressive State Apparatus.’ Although Wells had little belief in the durability of society, he used that figure, who most certainly looked forward to social revolution, to outline a new workers’ society as describes his vision of mankind continuing to exist in the tunnels and drains of London. However, this is to be a workers’ society now that traditional British society is “all over,” indeed there “won’t be any more blessed concerts for a million years or so; there won’t be any Royal Academy of Arts and no nice restaurants… If you’ve got any drawing-room manners or a dislike to eating peas with a knife or dropping aitches, you’d better chuck ‘em away. They ain’t no further use.”
The artilleryman then goes on to criticise the bourgeois classes, “the sort of people who lived in these [large] houses, and all those damn little clerks that used to live down that way – they’d be no good. They haven’t any spirit in them.” He outlines his vision for a new, utopian society further; “able-bodied, clean-minded women we want also – mothers and teachers. No lackadaisical [sic] ladies, no blasted rolling eyes. We can’t have any weak or silly. Life is real again, and the useless and cumbersome and mischievous have to die. They ought to be willing to die. It’s a sort of disloyalty, after all, to live and taint the race.” His vision of a socialist utopian society eventually turns out to be the blueprint to what could be described as a totalitarian state, with himself as its head. The narrator realises him to be a “strange undisciplined dreamer of great things” who “can’t always work” and actually insists on playing card games with the narrator, drinking champagne and smoking cigars while the very existence of their species is under threat.
According to dominant Victorian theories of the fin de siècle, crowds of people were perceived to accelerate degenerate decline, and as Britain, great imperial power and pinnacle of the civilised world, is reduced to panicking masses, the different types of ‘surrender’ embodied by the curate and the artilleryman give voice to these anxieties, but also present the new ideas and ways of thinking about human existence and social theories that were emerging at that time, and Wells does not just criticise Western society in The War of the Worlds but also offers a vision of an improved British society.
At the end of the novel the narrator says “this invasion from Mars… has done much to promote the commonweal of mankind.” As the masses flee London, Wells portrays the beginnings of what could be described as a communistic society when the “scattered multitudes” grow hungry “the rights of property ceased to be regarded.” The narrator then goes on to describe the initiative shown by a group of people in Chelmsford calling itself the “Committee of Public Supply” who seize the pony being used by the narrator’s brother and his two associates “as provisions, and would give nothing in exchange for it except a share in it the next day.”
Further on we see more examples of the ‘commonweal of mankind’ as the narrator describes how his brother saw “the most amazing crowd of shipping… that is possible to imagine” of various nationalities helping refugees flee the Martian invasion, “English, Scotch, French, Dutch and Swedish… neat white and grey liners from Southampton and Hamburg.” At the end of the novel the narrator informs us that after the Martian invasion international aid was still coming “across the Channel, across the Irish Sea, across the Atlantic, corn, bread, and meat were tearing to our relief,” while the vestries in London were “indiscriminately distributing bread sent us by the French.”
As the people of London begin to return to their homes the narrator provides us with a critique of capitalism as he describes the first signs of the “grotesque” face of capitalism shamelessly “flaunting” its profile at the earliest opportunity in the shape of advertising and newspapers:
Already [the streets] were busy with returning people; in places there were shops open… At the corner of the bridge, too, I saw one of the common contrasts of that grotesque time – a sheet of paper flaunting against a thicket of red weed, transfixed by a stick that kept it in place. It was the placard of the first newspaper to resume publication, the Daily Mail. I bought a copy for a blackened shilling I found in my pocket. Most of it was in blank, but the solitary composer who did the thing had amused himself by making a grotesque scheme of advertisement stereo on the back page.
Here we see the machinations of capitalism striking up again with one particular newspaper, the Daily Mail, selling its product to an impoverished public in a rather desperate manner as most of its pages are blank or filled with advertisements (Rupert Murdoch, take note). Although life is returning to normal for the understandably relieved London citizens it would be fair to assume that they have more important provisions to buy than a “mostly blank” newspaper, and the narrator even admits that he had “learnt nothing fresh” from it.
The War of the Worlds continues to provide an important parable for society today and influenced other science fiction social commentaries including the film The Day the Earth Stood Still (1953) which can be regarded as a critique of the McCarthy-era anti-communist ‘witch hunts’ and Walter Tevis’ novel The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963) in which an alien from a planet suffering from severe drought travels to Earth to try and ship water back to his people but is ultimately defeated by the greed and power of corporate America. The War of the Worlds can be read as more than just an adventure story or a fictional account of a war between the world of earthly humanity and the world of Martian invaders, as beyond that is the struggle between the worlds of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie; the novel is, arguably, a metaphor for class warfare. This highlights one of Marx and Engel’s central theories in The Communist Manifesto, that the exploitation of one social group by another causes alienation between the two:
Large-scale industry has established the world market… This market has given an immense development to commerce… This development has, in its turn, reacted on the extension of industry; and in proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended, in the same proportion the bourgeoisie developed, increased its capital, and pushed into the background every class handed down from the Middle Ages.
Over a century after publication, do the values of Victorian society critiqued in The War of the Worlds remain in modern society? Alex Callinicos, Marxist academic and editor of International Socialism confirmed Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto as “a manifesto for the 21st Century”, yet conversely, on the eve of his visit to Cuba, Pope Benedict XVI bleated “Today it is evident that Marxist ideology in the way it was conceived no longer corresponds to reality.” While the Pope’s comments are not entirely surprising given Marxism’s view on religion and radical socialism may have died with the collapse of the Iron Curtain, there are still lessons to be learned from Marx and Engels and from The War of the Worlds.
By presenting a critique of Victorian Britain’s imperial agenda and the materialistic nature of society, Wells presents a novel with a glimmer of hope for the betterment of mankind; for Wells, like Marx and Engels, envisioned the “commonweal of humanity” coming together where “in place of the old local and national seclusion and self-efficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations”.
2012 brings the Summer Olympiad, when London will once again become the socio-cultural hub and focus of the world’s attentions, the same year which sees another Diamond Jubilee of a British Queen, against a backdrop of threatened industrial and union action by the disgruntled, impoverished masses. As the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government entrenches itself in present-day London, what will be the outcome of the war between the worlds of the modern Haves and Have-Nots?