Wednesday, 22 January 2014

THE WAR OF THE WORLDS.

The reader in search of a sensation may be recommended to peruse "The War of the Worlds" ('London : Heinemann), by Mr. H. G. Wells, a work warranted to send a thrill through the most callous. The story is a gruesome one, told in a masterly manner, with a thoroughness and cold-blooded reality that are remarkably effective. Du Maurier's "The Martians" may have faintly suggested the present use which Mr. Wells has made of his imagination, but instead of a solitary Martian inhabitant, or rather, his spirit, alighting upon this globe, Mr. Wells pictures its invasion by a flight of monstrosities from the Red Planet, who descend in huge cylinders, which were fired from a Martian gun of incredible size. In meteor fashion they rush to the earth, burying themselves in the ground somewhere in the vicinity of London. The readers of Jules Vernes will find this an improvement on anything which that author has written. The Martians as depicted by Mr. Wells have the appearance of octopi. "They were huge round bodies or rather heads—about 4 ft. in diameter, each body having in front of it a face. This face had no nostrils—indeed, the Martians do not seem to have had any sense of smell— but it had a pair of very large dark colored eyes, and just beneath this a kind of fleshy beak. In the back of this head or body—I scarcely know how to speak of it— was the single tight tympanic surface since known to be anatomically an ear, though it must have been almost useless in our denser air. In a group round the mouth were 16 slender, almost whip-like, tentacles, arranged in two bunches of eight each." These curious creatures, who are little more than huge "leathery sacks of brain," with tentacles in place of hands and feet, with lungs, but without digestive apparatus, are a good many centuries ahead of poor human kind in point of scientific acquirements. They have exhausted the possibilities of scientific discovery. Manual labor of every kind has been superseded by cunningly devised machinery. One extraordinary invention is a fighting machine, another a "handling machine," by which huge masses of crude clay are dug out of the earth and bars of pure aluminium, their favorite metal, extracted from them. Their offensive powers in warfare surpass machine-guns and rifled cannon as much as lightning surpasses bows and arrows. Their power is only paralleled by their malignancy, and their only thought is to destroy. Their two great weapons are—first a " heat ray," against which nothing can live, and which has only to be directed against a town to reduce it to ashes; and secondly a poisonous gas, which is fatal to any living creature that inhales it. By help of these weapons they can scatter death and destruction broadcast, and there seems no prospect before mankind but sub mission to an inexorable doom. Mankind, in fact, exists only that the Martians may drain from human veins the life-sustaining fluid. The mode in which our unhappy race is at last delivered is not the least carious part of the story. The deadly bacteria which the progress of science and the effects of heredity have rendered almost innocuous to human beings fasten upon the new-comers, whose bodies, of course, are not germ-proof, since bacteria of any kind are unknown in Mars, and the awful visitants are slain by "God's humblest creatures," and men, rid of their destroyers, are able to breathe again.
The story, it is plain, is a very remarkable performance. The Martian is put forward as a legitimate deduction of science. If such and such theories are tenable, then, Mr. Wells seems to say, my picture can fairly be accented as natural. It is obvious that the first difficulty to be solved is the habitability of Mars. The late Mr. Proctor was sceptical on the point, though he excepted Mars from the major planets which he thought absolutely incapable of supporting any form of life of which it is possible to conceive. Venus and Mercury, for example, in his opinion were too much scorched up by the sun's rays to be habitable. Jupiter and the other great planets, too, are still glowing masses of detached solar fire, not sufficiently cooled down for their surface to be the abode of life. The planet Mars alone, with possibly one of Jupiter's satellites and an asteroid or two, was the only one which Proctor would allow to be habitable, and even there the degree of heat was not sufficient to support life like ours, and its hypothetical inhabitants must be very different in organisation from human beings. Another notable astronomer, Mr. Percival Lowell, has given countenance to the notion of the present habitability of Mars, and his inference is that as the planet is much older than the earth life must have begun earlier there and passed through further stages than it has reached here. Assuming that as far as we know anything whatever of the laws of physical life a certain amount of heat and a tolerably dense atmosphere are necessary to it, then any decrease of heat or attenuation of atmosphere would probably result in modifications in the physical structure of the inhabitants. As existence became more difficult the inhabitants would have to develop fresh powers in order to exist at all, and Mr. Wells's idea is that the development would be cerebral rather than muscular; that in short the creature would become a mere bundle of nerves. "To me," he says, "it is quite credible that the Martians may be descended from beings not unlike ourselves by a gradual development of brains and hands (the latter giving rise to two bunches of delicate tentacles at last) at the expense of the rest of the body." From vertebrates the race would be transformed more or less into molluscs, and the disappearance of the digestive organs: would involve the necessity of taking food in a highly concentrated form; so that the creature would in the end subsist entirely on essences and tabloids, and the disappearance of muscular powers would involve greater dependence on mechanical aids, so that electric telegraphs and railways, excavating machines, &c., would be raised to the superlative degree, and operations would be conducted on a colossal scale. This would explain the 'canals' which some astronomers have observed on Mars; and if our own poor telescopes bring that planet close enough to render its phenomena a subject of eager debate, may we not assume that an older and consequently more intelligent race inhabiting Mars itself may, with vastly superior instruments, look with case across the intervening space of 35 million miles at our larger earth and envy us our "warmer planet, green with vegetation and grey with water, and our cloudy atmosphere eloquent of fertility ?" The pressure of urgent necessity might at last drive them to make the experiment which Mr. Wells so graphically records.
The Advertiser  28 March 1898
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Whether it be a sign of exhaustion or increasing energy the tendency of modern fiction to range outside this world for plot and incident is a phenomenon to be taken note of. Novelists who in the mid-century almost invariably adopted a common place domestic background for their plots, presently took to diving far back in history or penetrating to the ends of the earth so as to dress their narratives in unfamiliar garb. Now vaulting ambition, or despair of striking new sensations upon this globe has launched them into planetary space. In saying this we have in mind no isolated literary exclusion. One recent writer has sailed the seas of Saturn; no fewer than three—of whom the late Mr Du Maurier was the first, and Mr. H. G. Wells is the last—have boldly opened communication with the planet Mars. It would be absurd to believe that the earth is so scarred and worn by the footsteps of romancists that no fresh tracks can be marked out. In reality this leap into the unknowable probably indicates a desire to coin sensations cheaply and lazily. For that reason a large percentage of these astronomically inspired fiction flights are pretty certain to eventuate in crass failure. Only the few writers like Mr. Wells, who can link audacity of imagination with extraordinary vivid narrative power, are likely to really gain the ear of the public. Even with them it is by no means certain that the craving to which they minister is a wholesome one. Mr. Wells, it is becoming more and more evident, owes his success not merely to his ingenuity in stimulating fantastic speculations in the domain of science, but largely to his power of depleting the gruesome the abnormally horrible. The one characteristic is quite as prominent as the other in his latest tour de force, a pretended chronicle of an invasion of this earth from Mars. The quasi-scientific part of the idea resembles the fanciful but innocent romancing of Jules Verne. Mr. Wells however is equally trading upon the longing of the novel lending public to sup full of horrors like the ferocious painter of the Revolution, he is splashing on more red. He sets himself to tell of

"bloody and unnatural acts ;
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters;
Of deaths put on by cunning and forc'd cause." 

This the morbid note which rendered "Dr. Moreau's Island" a shocking rather than a readable book, is dominant also in the Martian fable. Nevertheless the agile fancy of this excursionist into the preternatural is disposing seriously-minded people to accord Mr. Wells a respectful hearing, quite as though he were the prophet of a new scientific faith.
The utterly changed direction which our ideas of evolution would take if the Wells doctrine were gravely accepted is the point brought home most forcibly. Mars is a planet 35 million miles further removed from the sun than this earth. It is much more advanced in its cooling process and may have been habitable aeons before the lowest forms of life could exist here. Such speculations have led various writers to dream of the inhabitants of Mars as a race of dazzling beings endowed with intelligence far beyond that which man has yet attained. An attractive, almost godlike, personality is the Martian as hitherto evolved in the brains of visionaries. Mr. Wells, whose province it is to startle, is not so crudely conventional. The theory of superiority he accepts, but it is a superiority of intellect only, divested entirely of morality as understood among mankind. The flabby, squid-like monsters who descend upon this earth in projectiles fired from Mars have no more sympathy for our race than man for the insect he crushes underfoot or the animal he devours for food. "That last stage of exhaustion which to  us is still incredibly remote has become a present-day problem to the inhabitants of Mars. The immediate pressure of necessity has brightened their intellects, enlarged their powers, and hardened their hearts."
But what are we asked to accept as the consequence of this postulate? Simply that in their development the Martians have run entirely, to brains. The legless, armless bulk, covered with an oily, gleaming integument, which represents a Martian's body, is a mere receptacle for brains. Even the hand, the "teacher and agent of the "brain," has been supplanted by Gorgon-like clusters of tentacles. Losing individually the power of swift or easy motlon—or discarding it as unnecesiary—the Martians ensconce themselves as a directing intelligence inside whatever form of their wonderfully perfected machinery they choose to wear by way of body. They clothe themselves in mechanisms as man might wear a suit of tweeds, mount a bicycle, or seize an umbrella on a wet day. Now it is a gigantic hooded tripod 100ft high in which these weird visitants go stalking over the land, scorching up people and cities with a heat-ray miraculously gene rated and projected, or suffocating them by the discharge of a poisonous gas. Next it is a flying- machine, next a "handling-machine" which will excavate or construct or cast metal with a deftness and rapidity unknown to human workers. Thus the earth passes for a time under the domination of in vertebrate creatures, hideous and shapeless, who are ultimately destroyed by one accident alone—they have no resisting power to the micro-organisms the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which our systems have learned to battle.
It is a boldly extravagant conception. We need not stop to inquire whether Mr. Wells does not betray his own theory when he conjectures that beings of this sort may have descended from a race not unlike what man is to-day. With the disappearance of the body and the digestive system in favour of the brain, these fabled Martians seem  to have taken on many of the characteristics of a lower instead of a higher form of life. The Martin nourishes himself still but only by sucking the blood of living beings, like the foul Vroucolaka of the Greeks. The tentacle, with whatever marvellous dexterity it is informed, is not an advance upon the hand. If man lost the digestive apparatus, the power of motion without mechanical aid, and took to propagating his species by germinating or budding, like some of the lower organisms he would have sunk pitiably in the scale of creation as our intelligence reads the problem. The demand for this literature raises a far more interesting and a practical issue. Is Max Nordau right, and have we amongst us a race of writers and readers who are jaded, morbid, and decadent?

The Argus 30 April 1898


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