This month, three of Earth’s countries will have exploration equipment arriving on Mars, or to its orbit. China, the United Arab Emirates and the USA have all sent rockets to the Red Planet to discover more of its mysteries.
Mars has enthralled humanity for centuries, and the speculation about the possibility of life there has been ongoing almost as long as we humans have known of its existence. A planet which is not dissimilar in size to our own, with the second most hospitable surface of any planet in our solar system, Mars has long been looked upon as the place which could also be home to our nearest neighbours.
In 1878, channels which looked like they may have been made by water were discovered by an Italian astronomer called Giovanni Schiaparelli. The Italian word, ‘canali’ was mistranslated into English as ‘canals’, which implied that they were created by an intelligent life form rather than being the natural structures which Sciaparelli was describing. This perpetuated the belief that there was life on Mars; an idea which inspired one of the most famous stories about the planet : H.G. Wells’ ‘War of the Worlds’.
In a rather delightful twist of history, one of the key developers of the Apollo moon landing mission was inspired to become a rocket scientist having read War of the Worlds, and some of that technology is still used today in the rockets heading towards Mars as I write this article.
War of the Worlds stands as one of the most important science fiction stories ever written, but as well as being a fabulous sci-fi story it has fascinating social, environmental and ethical overtones which firmly resonate today, over 100 years since its publication. H.G. Wells was thought to have wanted to influence Western thinking on imperialism and environmentalism and this can be seen in the following paragraph, taken from the first chapter:
And before we judge [the Martians] 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?
— Chapter I, “The Eve of the War”
The language used here is shocking to modern eyes – describing the Aboriginal Tasmanians as “inferior” and of “human likeness” is abhorrent – yet the recognition of the evils of imperialism were being hatched, even in an era where racism abounded.
The War of the Worlds is a story about Martian lifeforms invading Earth, bringing vastly superior technology and a brutality that brought a thrill of terror to anyone who opened its pages. All of the best science fiction brings us technology which is possible but not yet invented, and this book is no different. The Martians used a heat ray to vaporise humans, whether it was the army trying to protect the people, or simply folk who were there shortly after their landing. The heat ray destroyed everything in its path – people, animals plants and even buildings. They also used chemical warfare, described as a black fog, poisoning humans en-masse, nearly two decades before such weaponry was first used during the First World War.
The Martians had cumbersome bodies and they used large machines – Tripods – to travel quickly and easily over land. To the horror of the narrator, these Tripods could also travel in the sea, as was discovered when ships of terrified refugees attempted to cross the channel and were attacked by a Tripod in the water.
Horrifyingly, the Martians didn’t just want to murder humans. Their Tripods were virtually impervious to the war machines available at the time to humans, and their terrifying heat rays were unsurvivable, so despite the best efforts of the British Army, humanity (at least in England, where the book is set), fell very quickly. Once subdued, the Martians began to collect humans and store them before extracting their blood and injecting it into their own veins: Martian lunch.
Terrified, separated from his wife and having experienced the terrible and brutal loss of travelling companions who he had met while trying to escape from the Martians’ Tripods, the author reaches the point of not knowing how or whether to continue with his life. Buried alive for some time below a destroyed building, he finally emerges to find the ground covered with a red weed; the Martian weed which is now invading the planet alongside its intelligent fellow lifeform. And yet, in his darkest hour, hope suddenly emerges. The red weed is dying, attacked by bacteria that are unknown on its home planet. The author walks towards a Tripod expecting to be lifted into the bleeding chamber, only to find its controllers dead or dying, similarly overcome by the smallest known pathogen on the planet, bacteria (viruses wouldn’t be discovered for many more decades). The intelligence, might and power of humans was overcome by the Martians in a matter of days, and it took the tiniest creature to save us all. Perhaps the most incredible David and Goliath story ever told?!
As we begin 2021 continuing our fight against the Covid-19 pathogen, so we too continue to recognise that the might of even the most powerful of species can be brought to its knees by the tiniest living (or semi-living) species. The World Health Organisation warns us that encroaching on areas of the Earth where humans should not be present is likely to lead to more pandemics and more viruses attacking our species, just as the bacteria attacked and destroyed the invading Martians.
Throughout most of real-life human history it has been the invaded who have suffered from the presence of pathogens, such as the devastation brought to the Americas by European pioneers. Turning this around and having the intruders become the infected means that perhaps it’s time for us to look back to the warnings of HG Wells and his science fiction masterpiece. Maybe we need to learn that despite all our technological progress, the consequences of invasion, even of a foe that is small, can be infinitely powerful to our detriment.