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Literature Spotlight: Appearances Deceive

War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells, is classic science fiction. Written in 1924, it depicts the catastrophic and totally unexpected near-extinction of humanity by aliens from Mars. One of the main themes running through War of the Worlds is the idea that mankind's assumptions about their world, the universe and the nature of life are constantly being challenged. The main reason the martians' landing is so catastrophic to humankind is because the humans, by and large, have been lulled into a false sense of security. They believe they are capable of overcoming anything, that they are the most powerful beings in the universe, and as such are completely unprepared for the martians' attack.

Humans at the beginning of H.G. Wells's novel are portrayed as very self-satisfied. Even when confronted with the landing of the first martian cylinder, humanity is quick to dismiss the event as a mere curiosity. The story on the eve of the first day was “dead men from Mars,” (P. 14) and villagers from the area headed to the commons to see the cylinder as if it were a sideshow attraction. Almost immediately they are in over their heads and their assumptions are being proven wrong. The martians look nothing like humans, as everyone was subconsciously expecting them to. After this initial shock wears off, though, humanity quickly regains its mis-guided sense of security. The gravitational pull of earth is much stronger than the aliens' native Mars, and they are sluggish in the atmosphere. Seeing this humanity continues to maintain a smug attitude about it all, claiming with certainty that there is no way the martians can get out of their pit. It never occurs to anyone that, just as humans have built technology to compensate for their weaknesses, the aliens might have done so as well. The reveal of the “fighting-machines” and the Heat-Ray throw this assumption into chaos, as the martians begin to slaughter the humans with no more thought than we might have to stepping on an anthill.

Stepping on an anthill brings up another facet of this theme: War of the Worlds is full of imagery depicting the humans as insects under the martians' feet. The artilleryman states that “It never was a war, any more than there's war between man and ants.” (P. 238) This imagery emphasizes the power the martians seem to hold over humanity, and humanity's inability to deal with them at all. After all, how would an ant colony retaliate against a bulldozer? This imagery also points out the idea that humans barely register the existence of insects, just as the martians must barely be registering the humans' attempts at retaliation. The introduction of the black gas furthers this theme by bringing up fumigation imagery; the idea that the martians spread a noxious cloud of gas across the land, then use jets of steam to disperse the gas itself, is reminiscent of humans smoking out a wasp nest or any other unwanted infestation. This imagery reduces all the splendor of humanity to a mere nuisance, something that must be dealt with to make the planet livable for the martians.

Fueling this theme is the fact that the humans actually do begin to display animalistic behavior in the wake of the martians' destruction. Houses are broken into and looted, morals are abandoned, and it becomes every man for himself. Even our narrator succumbs to these animalistic tendencies, in a powerfully-moving scene where he murders an insane companion to keep from being discovered by the martians. This scene shows just how precarious our position really is, and how little it takes to unseat even the most sturdy of morals. Seeing humanity's reaction makes it practically unthinkable that they could have resisted even if they knew what they were up against.

This theme comes full circle when the final destruction of the martians comes not at the hands of humans, but of the lowest of life forms – bacteria. In essence, what humanity could not do, the common cold did. This further emphasizes the powerlessness of the humans – the martians would have perished regardless of what humanity did to stop them. They were taken out by an entirely different force, and so humanity doesn't really have a role in this drama at all. You could remove all of the humans and the story would have played out in much the same way.

Despite this, though, War of the Worlds has a truly hopeful theme arise in its resolution. Throughout the novel there are descriptions of the sheer size of the martians' fighting-machines that highlight the futility of fighting something so much larger. But the destruction of all-powerful aliens by microscopic organisms reminds us that size does not equal power, and that the smallest of beings can still have a crucial impact. It also reminds us not to judge based on appearances or assumptions, and to keep our hubris in check. For in the vastness of the universe there are bound to be thousands of species more powerful than us, but that does not mean we are powerless to fight them.

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