Welles or Wells: The First Invasion from Mars

War of the Worlds Analysis

© 1988, Phil Klass

Originally appeared in The New York Times Review of Books,, 1988
reprinted in Dancing Naked, the Unexpurgated William Tenn, 2004
and Synergy Magazine, 2004

When the Martians started coming north from Trenton we got really scared. They would soon be in our town.

My girl friend pointed out to me that I had passed a couple of red lights and I answered "What's the difference if I get a ticket, it will only be burned anyway."

When I came out of the telephone booth, the store was filled with people in a rather high state of hysteria. I was already scared but this hysterical group convinced me further...

...I drove right through Newburgh and never even knew I went through it...I was going eighty miles an hour most of the way. I remember not giving a damn, as what difference did it make which way I'd get killed...1

Well, why? We are fast approaching the seventieth Halloween since Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air broadcast a dramatization of The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, a novel that itself had been written and published a full forty years earlier. According to the Gallup Poll and similar mood-calibrating institutions, as a result of the broadcast about a million and a half people -- or more than one per cent of what was then the population of this country -- were so terrified of the invading Martians that they fled from home in their Studebakers and Terraplanes and Packards, ran and hid where they could, or rioted to force mayors to break open town armories and hand out weapons against the horrors from space. Sociologists and psychologists then and television script-writers now have suggested all sorts of reasons for the panic, many of them quite logical, a few mildly funny.

Almost nobody has turned to the original 1898 novel for a large part of the explanation -- though the broadcast followed the developments in the book quite closely, chiefly substituting New Jersey place-names for the ones H. G. Wells identified in the English countryside around Woking. Analyses of the panic tend to mention Wells's novel only in passing, as a polite media credit: "based, of course, on the well-known work by what's-his-name." This is understandable from movie and TV flacks, but a bit unsettling from scholars and scientists and reputable critics. Why be afraid that literature can have genuine public consequences, that an entertaining fiction might also contain a very large point or purpose?

Certainly, one of the most accepted -- if nonliterary -- analyses is the one published by Princeton Professor Hadley Cantril two years later. Cantril and his associates had access to almost all of the materials involved in the broadcast and subsequent uproar, to the personnel of both the Mercury Theatre and the Columbia Broadcasting System, to over 135 interviews with individuals who had panicked, as well as to "the background of two extensive statistical surveys made prior to the intensive personal interviews."

In his conclusion, Cantril spoke of "the role which the war scare of the late summer and early fall of 1938 played in producing the panic."

That war scare, of course, was the Munich-Sudetenland Crisis of a month earlier. It had ended with the appeasers, Chamberlain and Daladier, buying "peace in our time" from Adolf Hitler at the price of Czechoslovakia's national independence. Cantril's conclusion echoed a column Heywood Broun had published two days after the Orson Welles broadcast, examining the panic with the eyes of a political journalist. Broun was the first to relate it to those anxious hours of radio listening when the diplomats in Munich pulled and pushed at the knot of war:

I doubt if anything of the sort would have happened four or five months ago. The course of world history has affected national psychology. Jitters have come home to roost. We have just gone through a laboratory demonstration of the fact that the peace of Munich hangs heavy over our heads, like a thundercloud.

Agreeing with Broun, Cantril went further. As a social scientist, he had to find a social scientist's explanation:

Probably more important than anything else, the highly disturbed economic conditions many Americans have experienced for the past decade, the consequent unemployment, the prolonged discrepancies between family incomes, the inability of both young and old to plan for the future have engendered a widespread feeling of insecurity...It is not the radio, the movies, the press or "propaganda" which, in themselves, really create wars and panics. It is the discrepancy between the whole superstructure of economic, social, and political practices and beliefs, and the basic and derived needs of individuals that creates wars, panics or mass movements of any kind.

Only an arrant political atheist would argue with such four-square pieties; they remain the bible of all social reform, and long after the Great Depression they still provide the matrix for any quickie election speech. But, right or wrong, they don't answer that one difficult question: why were people so utterly frightened?

A shocked, haggard-looking Orson Welles, surrounded by reporters after the broadcast, saw the essential issue:

I'm extremely surprised to learn that a story, which has become familiar to children through the medium of comic strips and many succeeding novels and adventure stories, should have had such an immediate and profound effect upon radio listeners.

Science fiction's popularity could hardly be responsible. We must remember -- in these days of Star Treks and space shuttles, of Jupiter probes and George Lucas superfilms -- that science-fiction magazines in 1938 usually had circulations under 100,000,2 and that many astronomers simply giggled at the idea of space travel.

Why did people run? One of today's best-known science-fiction writers, Poul Anderson, the author of over a hundred books, concurs with Broun and Cantril. He feels that "war jitters" was an important cause of the panic, but he also quotes Bertrand Russell's ironic comment that "the natural human reaction to any positive statement is belief." And the Mercury Theatre's production, Anderson points out, was much more than a simple positive statement: "It was very well done, very, very realistically done."

He is not referring here simply to the latest -- for 1938 -- radio news-reporting techniques, refined almost to perfection in the month-earlier Munich crisis (thus, "We take you now to Grover's Mills, New Jersey..." "We take you to the battery of the 22nd Field Artillery, located in the Watchung Mountains..." "We take you now to Washington for a special broadcast on the national emergency -- the Secretary of the Interior..." He is referring also to techniques that he and other science-fiction writers today use to achieve special effects, techniques developed by H. G. Wells in the original novel version, forty years before the broadcast.

Primarily these involve a documentary approach. "In plot and fictional technique," Professor Mark R. Hillegas says of The War of the Worlds, "it bears some resemblance to Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year: both novels are offered as eyewitness accounts of a great disaster which befalls mankind and particularly the inhabitants of London." Wells, however, went far beyond Defoe in this respect, and even farther past the traditional and rather Kiplingesque approach he had used in The Time Machine, his first science-fiction novel -- the I-have-a-strange-tale-to-tell-while-you-gentlemen-smoke-your-good-cigars-and-drink-your-fine-old-brandy kind of narrative. For his second novel in this new genre, a genre still known by no other name than "scientific romances," Wells experimented with highly innovative ways of attaching reality to fantastic world events, ways never used like this before in stories. There had been very few stories in which they had been at all needed.

He adroitly alternated the names of actual and fictional astronomers and casually referred to early sightings and publications in genuine scientific journals, using the prose of those journals ("...first at the Lick Observatory, then by Perrotin of Nice"... "English readers heard of it first in the issue of Nature dated August 2nd"... "Albin described it as leaving a greenish streak behind it that glowed for some seconds"). He not only took for granted his readers' historical knowledge of the event ("Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of its appearance"), but underlined it with careful geographic detail ("Many people in Berkshire, Surrey, and Middlesex must have seen the fall of it...") and comical, almost familiar incidents at the site of the first, not-yet-opened Martian cylinder ("There were four or five boys sitting on the edge of the pit, with their feet dangling, and amusing themselves -- until I stopped them -- by throwing stones at the giant mass"... "An enterprising sweet-stuff dealer in the Chobham Road had sent up his son with a barrow-load of green apples and ginger-beer").

So successful was this documentary approach to the English of the time that the February 10, 1898, book review in Nature -- the real scientific journal, not the fictional one -- after remarking upon the "distinctly clever idea," brooded about the need to "allay the fears of those who may be led by the verisimilitude of the narrative to expect an invasion from Mars." This without radio news bulletins of Munich crises by urgent-voiced announcers!

There are even more parallels between the 1898 novel and the 1938 broadcast. Orson Welles and his crew fictitiously tore up much of New Jersey, from the little town of Grover's Mills on out. All they were doing was translating to the New World what H. G. Wells had already managed rather sadistically in the Old. After the great success of The Time Machine, Wells and his new bride had moved out of their meager London lodgings, to a house in Woking, a pleasant little town not far from the capital. Two of his biographers, Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie, give us a picture of Wells anticipating Welles:

I'm doing the dearest little serial for Pearson's new magazine," he wrote to Elizabeth Healey, describing how he cycled around to find the topographical detail for The War of the Worlds, "in which I completely wreck and sack Woking -- -killing my neighbors in painful and eccentric ways -- then proceed via Kingston and Richmond to London, which I sack, selecting South Kensington for feats of peculiar atrocity.

Why South Kensington? It was the site of the Normal School of Science where Wells had studied biology under Thomas Henry Huxley, the famous early defender of Darwin and Darwinism. The scholarship granted him covered full tuition and a stipend of a guinea a week; it had meant escape from grimy, almost hopeless routine and jobs like apprentice sales clerk in a draper's shop; it had made possible a career as an intellectual. The MacKenzies say of the effect upon Wells of the South Kensington Normal School of Science, "What he found there shaped the remainder of his life." He wouldn't have argued with them. In "selecting South Kensington," he was merely showing his gratitude in his own special way.

And those "feats of peculiar atrocity" in the novel he was writing produced yet another remarkable anticipation of the radio broadcast. This, believe it not, was the panic itself, with nineteenth-century Englishmen prefiguring twentieth-century Americans as they fled before the Martians.

I think it's the first mass panic described in a story. It inevitably had to be written by the man who was discovering the parameters of science fiction -- which is, after all, a literature of community, and not individual, character.3 Reading Wells's 1898 description evokes for us today not only the scenes of 1938, but even later newsreel shots of World War II refugees from tanks and Stukas frantically pushing their baby carriages, their piled-high wheelbarrows along the dusty roads of France and the Low Countries:

So much as they could see of the road Londonward between the houses to the right was a tumultuous stream of dirty, hurrying people, pent in between the villas on either side; the black heads, the crowded forms, grew into distinctness as they rushed towards the corner, hurried past, and merged their individuality again in a receding multitude that was swallowed up at last in a cloud of dust.

The carts and carriages crowded close upon one another, making little way for those swifter and more impatient vehicles that darted forward every now and then when an opportunity showed itself of doing so, sending the people scattering against the fences and gates of the villas.

"Push on!" was the cry. "Push on! They are coming!"

And "they" who were coming represented still another first: the first true extraterrestrials to appear in fiction; the first intelligent creatures who were clearly the product of an alien evolution and an alien planetary environment. Up to then, visitors from the stars had been monotonously humanoid, bigger perhaps, or better: mankind imitated or mankind idealized. What else could smarties from space look like? But Thomas Henry Huxley's student drew his picture carefully out of the best knowledge and most scientific conjectures of his time, providing a model for pulp-magazine covers and movie stills in decades yet to be. Even forty years later, the Howard Koch radio script still used much of the color from Wells's original description:


I presently saw something stirring within the shadow: greyish billowy movements, one above another, and then two luminous disk-like eyes. Then something resembling a little grey snake, about the thickness of a walking stick, coiled up out of the writhing middle, and wriggled in the air towards me -- and then another.

A big greyish rounded bulk, the size, perhaps, of a bear, was rising slowly and painfully out of the cylinder. As it bulged up and caught the light, it glistened like wet leather.

Two large dark-coloured eyes were regarding me steadfastly. The mass that framed them, the head of the thing, it was rounded, and had, one might say, a face. There was a mouth under the eyes, the lipless brim of which quivered and panted, and dropped saliva. The whole creature heaved and pulsated convulsively.

The peculiar V-shaped mouth with its pointed upper lip, the absence of brow ridges, the absence of a chin beneath the wedge-like lower lip, the incessant quivering of this mouth, the Gorgon groups of tentacles, the tumultuous breathing of the lungs in a strange atmosphere, the evident heaviness and painfulness of movement due to the greater gravitational energy of the earth --


Good heavens, something's wriggling out of the shadow like a grey snake. Now it's another one, and another. They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing's body. It's large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather. But that face. It...it's indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate. The monster or whatever it is can hardly move. It seems weighed down by...possibly gravity or something. The thing's raising up. The crowd falls back. They've seen enough.

I won't discuss the obvious here: how much was gained or lost in the transition from manuscript to microphone (at least the "glistens like wet leather" metaphor survived!). But was this the panic stimulus? Was it such horrors as "the Gorgon groups of tentacles" -- created by Wells simply because a technologically advanced creature which lacked hands had to possess some other manipulatory organs -- that so frightened the bobby-soxers and the Brooklyn Dodger fans, the Coughlinites and the Townsendites, that they went screaming into the night in search of cover?

If so, it was certainly because of something Herbert George Wells had described to the world much earlier and much better than the Mercury Theatre on the Air. Howard Koch was to go on to receive screen credit for the late-night movie classic Casablanca, and Orson Welles was to be responsible for Citizen Kane, one of the most innovative films of all Hollywood time, but neither would ever come as close again to whatever was in the very core of their fellow creatures as they had that Halloween night in 1938.

For I don't think simple fear of monsters was the cause of the panic, any more than the admitted great realism of the broadcast, or the Munich-Sudetenland crisis or the Depression decade.4 I think that people were responding to something much closer to human fundamentals than economic and political malaise or terror of aliens who pulsated convulsively.

There's the clear message of the novel itself -- what Wells was really writing.

On the bottommost level, of course, he was giving the public a rattling good adventure story. Almost too good, in fact: the fast -- reacting, entrepreneurial Americans got out a sequel to The War of the Worlds in that same year of 1898. Edison's Conquest of Mars by Garrett P. Serviss let Wells's Martians know what a serious mistake they'd made invading a planet which contained a country like the U.S. of A. Serviss described Mars itself being slam-banged into submission by a space fleet armed with weapons quickly invented by Thomas Alva Edison and his indignant scientific cronies.

On a higher level from Martian blood and thunder, of course, was where the young Fabian socialist expressed his strong partisan commitments. Isaac Asimov is one of those who has noted the emphatic anti-imperialist protest of The War of the Worlds:

The book, when it was published, must have given some Englishmen a sudden insight into how it must have felt to be an African when the European armies pushed in with their science that was beyond understanding, their weapons that could not be countered, and their haughty certainty that native feelings did not count.

It is perhaps with this in mind that Wells, rather savagely, concentrated the full fury of the Martian invasion on the little island of England, whose Empire then covered a quarter of the globe, and which was the greatest and most successful of the imperial powers...

Wells certainly makes it hard to read the passages where the flower of the British army and the pride of the British navy are casually destroyed by the Martians' heat rays without recalling other battles between unequal technologies. Only nineteen years before the publication of Wells's novel, the Zulu chief Cetewayo, his warriors armed with the best spears and shields their culture could provide, had been smashed at the Battle of Ulundi by massed cannon and rapid-firing rifles. And for every African and Australian tribesman -- Wells shows us, by putting us for once on the other side of military invention -- for every American Indian and South Seas native who panicked and fled at the terrifying first encounter with the "great god thundersticks," there were hundreds of others who fought tenaciously and died heroically against weapons they could not begin to understand. They did that, Wells is pointing out, for the same reasons the British Tommies and Jack Tars died trying to stop the Martians: because it was their duty, and they were defending their homes, families, and nationhood.

The suddenness of the attack from outer space, the unexpected, horrific character and appearance of the Martians, even the towering tripods with which the aliens strode about the English countryside, are meant to be equated with how the Spanish conquistadors must have looked to the Incas and Aztecs as they materialized out of nowhere with their crossbows, firearms, and unbelievable, monstrous horses. But Wells was not dealing in simplicities: he did not intend that European man be seen as the only destroyer. The Incas, the Aztecs, the Zulus -- in their turn -- had invaded, had conquered, had slaughtered. Herbert George Wells, who to the end of his life kept repeating, "We must stop war before it stops us," was not a man likely to forget that -- with the possible exception of Antarctica -- there is hardly a square yard of terrestrial soil that has not been drenched many times with the blood of aboriginal inhabitants. We all, pre- or post-industrial man, we all live with that heritage of guilt.

At the highest level of this novel, then, Wells was touching on something we have not been quite able to digest about our past on earth, and our possible future. Two scholars, Samuel L. Hynes and Frank D. McConnell, think he "was concerned not with writing predictions, but with writing parables...." They feel his science fiction consists of "science parables," for they are essentially stories that embody moral judgments and dark, anxious feelings about the nature of science and about the human consequences of the scientific vision of reality.

All this dark-mindedness, of course, comes from the young fiction writer, not the older, nanny-utopist. Wells himself knew that. When George Orwell accused him in 1942 of always having a blind faith in science and technology, Wells replied with a pungent note: "I don't say that at all. Read my early works, you shit."

Thus, the devastating caricature by Max Beerbohm of H. G. Wells -- "prophet and idealist, conjuring up the darling future" -- is of the later international optimist and Outliner of History. He was no longer the socialist who had made socialism look a bit scary in The First Men in the Moon or the atheist who structured the drama in The Time Machine upon the Bible tale of Cain and Abel.

When the Wells of those early works had something important to say, it almost always had a Biblical ring. His mother, the stronger by far of his two parents, had been unable to give him her religion, but she had suckled him irrevocably on her Bible. And therefore in his first few novels, his voice was and is trumpet-loud to anyone whose ethical life began in any similar way. While the message may be modern, the strength of that message derives from its ancient, widely shared idiom.

Apart from and above its adventure aspect, apart from and above its political point and social satire, The War of the Worlds is a parable dealing with a specific human issue that we all manage most of the time not to think about. It's a parable whose moral is announced, not at the end, but at the beginning of the novel -- in Chapter One.

A dying, increasingly arid Mars is described, a world of advanced life-forms that have studied our own desirable planet, our military weakness, and our relatively puny technology:

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, and it would seem that this too is the belief of the minds upon Mars. Their world is far gone in its cooling and this world is still crowded with life, but 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.

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 the 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?

This was 1898, please to remember. Victoria was on the throne, Kipling sang the White Man's Burden and dominion over palm and pine, while Darwin's Survival of the Fittest was quoted about the necessary bloodshed of the past. How did Thomas Huxley, Darwin's defender, H. G. Wells's teacher, react to that last question?

Well, he might never have specifically referred to hypocritical apostles of mercy in any of his lectures at the South Kensington Normal School of Science, but he was certainly an unpredictable Darwinist. In the famous Romanes Lecture at Oxford, he had warned that for humans there had to be other evolutionary considerations than biological survival. "Social progress means a checking of the cosmic process at every step and the substitution for it of another, which may be called the ethical process..." He even went so far as to suggest that intelligent creatures should see the necessity of insuring the survival of not merely the fittest, "but of those who are ethically the best."

It is certainly possible that such a scientist, lecturing on human evolution to the biology classes in which Wells sat, could have introduced the concept of a "brother man." Wells used the phrase in The Time Machine to refer to the undersized, exploited ancestors of the Morlocks, the British proletariat of his own century. In the opening passages of The War of the Worlds, however, he seems to be thinking in Huxleyan terms of somewhat different siblings, of every approximation of the human type, from what we would once have called Neanderthal Man back to what we now call Australopithecus, all the brother men successfully competed with, and successively destroyed by our kind. And in this activation of the conscience of our species Wells remembers a Biblical "least of these:" the bison and the dodo stand for all of our more distant biological kindred, wiped forever from the schedules of life because our forebears were greedy far beyond the needs of survival. As, today, we honest heirs are on the verge of extinguishing the whale and the rhinoceros.

There it is -- the moral of Wells's interplanetary parable: "As we have done, should we not some day, perhaps quite soon, be done by?" The stain of our biological success is nothing less than the mark of Cain to moral animals such as we. Our kind has not only triumphed as biological competitors, but also as creatures with consciences and religious commitments, with ethical systems and sharp awarenesses of guilt. I believe we are at least subliminally aware of a special, shared guilt. Even knowing that natural law recognizes extenuating circumstances, we are still waiting for justice to arrive, demanding payment of us in our turn. When H. G. Wells's novel of 1898 came through to Orson Welles's America of 1938, and people learned that at last creatures had arrived who were more intelligent -- and better-armed -- than we, of course there was a panic. Our time had come at last.

I think H. G. Wells might have seen it as a headlong flight from justice.

1 The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic, by Hadley Cantril, with the assistance of Hazel Gaudet and Herta Herzog, Princeton University Press, 1940.

2 For that matter, they don't do much better than that today.

3 Just as it functions best not as a literature of gadgetry, but as one of large cultural and moral issues, which is why writers like Olaf Stapledon and Ursula K. Le Guin chose to make their statements in it. And why this century's version of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress has to be C. S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet.

4 For that matter, in 1947, nine years after the world had laughed its head off at the hysterical Americans, two years after the thorough defeat of the Axis, Radio Quito, in Ecuador, did the War of the Worlds broadcast all over again, this time substituting Ecuadorian place names for Koch's New Jersey and Wells's English countryside. Whatever the parallel social traumas in Ecuador may have been, the initial reaction was the same as in the U. S. Multitudes poured out of the city in all directions, running and driving as far and as fast as they could. According to Mr. Emilio Yscuerdo, charge d'affaires at the Ecuadorian Embassy, "There was real panic throughout the city; everybody was terrified...almost everybody who heard the broadcast believed the news to be true, and many claimed that no other information had been given previously. That was why they were so angry at the station." In fact, they were sufficiently angry at the radio station, the oldest in Ecuador, that -- once the hoax had been admitted -- they came back and burned it to the ground. Two people are known to have died in that panic -- one of them in the station building when it was set afire. Nobody anywhere has since repeated the broadcast the same way.

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