So for today’s “W” post I want to talk about one of the most interesting literature-related stories I’ve ever heard . . .
In 1898, H. G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds, one of the first novels ever to depict a battle between humans and an alien race – sometimes known as “invasion literature”. He uses the novel as a platform to discuss many of his political opinions on subjects including imperialism, unquestioning faith in military technology, evolutionary theory and the continuation of the human species. Here’s a brief synopsis:
It begins with a series of seemingly mundane reports about odd atmospheric disturbances taking place on Mars to the arrival of Martians just outside of London. At first the Martians seem laughable, hardly able to move in Earth's comparatively heavy gravity even enough to raise themselves out of the pit created when their spaceship landed. But soon the Martians reveal their true nature as death machines 100-feet tall rise up from the pit and begin laying waste to the surrounding land. Wells quickly moves the story from the countryside to the evacuation of London itself and the loss of all hope as England's military suffers defeat after defeat. With horror his narrator describes how the Martians suck the blood from living humans for sustenance, and how it's clear that man is not being conquered so much a corralled.
Needless to say, it’s a fascinating story, and the movie adaptations (particular that of Tom Cruise) didn’t do the book justice. However, one adaptation managed to capture the terror of an alien attack perfectly . . .
On October 30, 1938, actor/director Orson Welles did a radio broadcast for the Mercury Theater on the Air over the Columbia Broadcasting System, featuring Wells’ The War of the Worlds. It was presented to the audience as a news bulletin imitation. And was apparently very realistic.
The series was a “sustaining show”, meaning that there were almost no commercial interruptions during the broadcast. As people tuned in at various points throughout the show, missing the key introduction at the beginning of the program, many were convinced that the faux new reports were actually real, and widespread hysteria quickly ensued. Many fled their homes, terrified that the Martians were on their way. Panicked listeners began calling the studios in terror, and when they were assured that everything was fine, began to outrage at an intended “cover-up”.
CBS came under heavy fire after the incident. Though they argued that there were several announcements informing listeners that it was merely a performance, they still received a good deal of public censure.
Two years later, Orson Welles interviewed H. G. Wells about the event and ensuing panic. Wells admitted that he’d been shocked by the public reaction. But I’m not. I think it demonstrates a genuine fear of alien invasions – perhaps developed in response to our ever expanding technological and scientific progress. Each step bringing us further out into the reaches of space, and conceivably bringing whatever’s out there closer and closer to Earth.
It just goes to show how fiction – or in this case, science fiction – can shake up our lives and teach us something about ourselves. Never underestimate the power of a good performance.
And when it comes to alien invasions, I always keep in mind the immortal words of Mad-Eye Moody, “Constant vigilance.”
This post is part of the Blogging A through Z Challenge 2012. My theme is (in case you didn’t already guess) science fiction. Stay tuned for the rest of the alphabet, and if you’d like to check in on the rest of the participants, simply click here.