Wednesday, June 29, 2005

War of the Worlds

War of the Worlds

War of the Worlds (2002)

From "A Study Guide for H. G. Wells: The War of the Worlds":

War of the Worlds was written in response to several historical events. The most important was the unification and militarization of Germany, which led to a series of novels predicting war in Europe, beginning with George Chesney's The Battle of Dorking (1871). Most of these were written in a semi-documentary fashion; and Wells borrowed their technique to tie his interplanetary war tale to specific places in England familiar to his readers. This attempt at hyper-realism helped to inspire Orson Welles when the latter created his famed 1938 radio broadcast based on the novel.

There was a specific event that inspired Wells. In 1894 Mars was positioned particularly closely to Earth, leading to a great deal of observation and discussion. Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli had reported seeing "canali" on Mars, meaning "channels," but the term was mistranslated as "canals," leading to much speculation about life on the red planet. [Although scientists were able eventually to photograph what seem to be large stream beds on Mars, these are on a much smaller scale than the blobs and blotches which misled Schiaparelli into thinking he had seen channels.] One of the 1894 observers, a M. Javelle of Nice, claimed to have seen a strange light on Mars, which further stimulated speculation about life there. Wells turned Javelle into Lavelle of Java, an island much on people's minds because of the explosion there in 1883 of Mount Krakatoa, which killed 50,000 people and drastically influenced Earth's climate for the next year.

Wells became famous partly as a prophet. In various writings he predicted tanks, aerial bombing, nuclear war, and -- in this novel -- gas warfare, laser-like weapons, and industrial robots. It was his tragedy that his most successful predictions were of destructive technologies, and that he lived to experience the opening of the atomic age in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Drawing by Warwick Goble

Illustration by Warwick Goble for Pearson's Magazine, 1897

And, catered for those who enjoyed the rhetorical swill and "fixed" stay-the-course policy of last night's presidential news conference, this from TransparencyNow:

The ability to confuse audiences en masse may have first become obvious as a result of one of the most infamous mistakes in history. It happened the day before Halloween, on Oct. 30, 1938, when millions of Americans tuned in to a popular radio program that featured plays directed by, and often starring, Orson Welles. The performance that evening was an adaptation of the science fiction novel The War of the Worlds, about a Martian invasion of the earth. But in adapting the book for a radio play, Welles made an important change: under his direction the play was written and performed so it would sound like a news broadcast about an invasion from Mars, a technique that, presumably, was intended to heighten the dramatic effect.

As the play unfolded, dance music was interrupted a number of times by fake news bulletins reporting that a "huge flaming object" had dropped on a farm near Grovers Mill, New Jersey. As members of the audience sat on the edge of their collective seat, actors playing news announcers, officials and other roles one would expect to hear in a news report, described the landing of an invasion force from Mars and the destruction of the United States. The broadcast also contained a number of explanations that it was all a radio play, but if members of the audience missed a brief explanation at the beginning, the next one didn't arrive until 40 minutes into the program.


In a prescient column, in the New York Tribune, Dorothy Thompson foresaw that the broadcast revealed the way politicians could use the power of mass communications to create theatrical illusions, to manipulate the public.

"All unwittingly, Mr. Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater of the Air have made one of the most fascinating and important demonstrations of all time," she wrote. "They have proved that a few effective voices, accompanied by sound effects, can convince masses of people of a totally unreasonable, completely fantastic proposition as to create a nation-wide panic.

"They have demonstrated more potently than any argument, demonstrated beyond a question of a doubt, the appalling dangers and enormous effectiveness of popular and theatrical demagoguery...."


We live in a time in which the ability to create deceptive simulations, especially for television, has become essential to the exercise of power. And the inability to see through these deceptions has become a form of powerlessness. Those who let themselves be taken in by the multiple deceptions of politics, news, advertising and public relations, are doomed, like the more gullible members of the radio audience in 1938, to play a role in other people's dramas, while mistakenly believing that they are reacting to something genuine.

Drawing by Alvim Correa

Illustration by Alvim Correa for the 1906 Vandamme edition

From "Why H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds Sounds So Familiar" by William S. Kowinski:

The previous big screen version was a Technicolor attack in 1953, effective enough to scare at least the 9-year-olds (like George Lucas) and 7-year-olds (like Spielberg and me) who saw it.

H.G. Wells died in 1946, the year Spielberg was born, so he was very much alive to hear about the panic caused by the Welles version, and Wells was furious. He didn't like his work turned into a Halloween prank to scare people. That was not the message he had in mind.

Of course, he was still out to scare people, but for a purpose. He was incensed by the complacency of Edwardian England in a world he knew was about to change radically. Therefore, he tried to shock his The War of the Worlds readers with intimations of a type of warfare -- arriving from the sky and attacking not just armies but civilian cities -- that would start in the Great War, but not fully develop until World War II.


There is yet another irony in Wells' story. He portrays the aliens as an older and more advanced race whose planet has turned inhospitable. Their technology is imposing and unconquerable, but when his narrator glimpses an actual Martian, he is as surprised as he is repulsed. The Martians are physically weak, with huge brains and almost no bodies.

In fact, they look very much like what humans will evolve into, the narrator says, at least according to a distant relative of his, named H.G. Wells. This is the fate of humanity when it becomes dependent on technology. Humanity is being conquered by its own future.

If we think of these aliens as simply the Other, a throwback to 1950s space monsters or stand-ins for whichever foreigners we fear, then Wells' point is lost. He is asking us to face ourselves. The process of imagining ourselves the victim of our own blind actions is a step this novel helps us take.

Drawing by Tom Kidd

Illustration by Tom Kidd from the 2001 HarperCollins edition

And from Yahoo News:

Every generation has its fears, and director Steven Spielberg does not shy away from the source of anxiety that his new science fiction epic, War of the Worlds, plays on -- the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

"It's certainly about Americans fleeing for their lives, being attacked for no reason, having no idea why they are being attacked and who is attacking them," says Spielberg.


"The image that stands out most in my mind is everybody in Manhattan fleeing across the George Washington Bridge in the shadow of 9/11, a searing image that I've never been able to get out of my head," said Spielberg.

War of the Worlds is fiction -- but so is the BushCo script for Iraq -- except the resulting destruction and chaos is anything but imaginary. In fact, let's be clear. The Iraq screenplay pitched by the neocons was worse than fiction; it was based on deliberate lies, as the Downing Street Documents demonstrate. Sadly, no microbes will conveniently provide an exit strategy for our current war -- but the mass distraction and theatrical pseudo-patriotism caused by BushCo's catipulted propaganda lurches on with more evasive claptrap about turning the corner and last throes and wingnutty, lost-in-space, completely fantasized ties between 9/11 and the Iraq War.

As I watched Bush equivocate on television last night, I kept thinking the same thing Sylvia observes in the 1953 War of the Worlds film adaptation --

They murder everything that moves.

1 comment:

The Heretik said...

Really well connected. Will endeavor to get that up and linked to tonight. Well done, T

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