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Vast and Cool and Unsympathetic: 'The War of the Worlds' in Alternate History

By Alex Wallace

“No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that human affairs were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their affairs they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most, terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet, across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.”

Such begins H. G. Wells’ groundbreaking novel, which gave pulp writers a beloved trope and left humankind looking to its astronomical neighbor in terror rather than awe. The War of the Worlds took the work of Schiaparelli and Lowell and turned it into a brutal examination of the consequences of imperialism and the fragility of human society.

Science fiction has been blessed that such a foundational work of the genre has aged like fine wine. The tripod, the metallic monstrosity that bestrides the ruins of a devastated London, retains all the terror it did when Victoria was queen, its screams and its heat rays providing the basis for so many nightmares to come. They fight a savage war of peace to claim this world as their own to escape their own world that is slowly dying. In an ending that would be radical even today, it is not a valiant resistance by humanity but rather the smallest living organisms that damn their imperial ambitions to be one with Nineveh and Tyre.

But the parson and the artilleryman and the poor crew of the Thunder Child could never have fathomed that their own lives and their own world would be regarded with envious eyes by another set of minds: alternate history writers.

Even in Wells’ own lifetime that prescient book was fodder for ripoffs, sequels, and adaptations. A bootleg imitation of this book in the United States was followed by Edison’s Conquest of Mars, which kicked off the genre of the Edisonade in science fiction. Later, Orson Welles terrified the world with his radio adaptation, sending the nation into a panic for the briefest of moments and ensuring the immortality of himself and of the book upon which it was based.

Which leads us to ask: why has this book in particular, of all the great science fiction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, been fodder for so many sequels and expansions by writers? And how do those writers differ in their approach to the original Wells?

I will make a very similar remark here that I made when discussing with Matt Mitrovich the alternate histories of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: that the original writer would doubtlessly say that these writers are missing the point of the original work. Orwell was writing about how totalitarianism functioned in its basest form, and Wells was writing about the folly and barbarism of imperialism. Neither intentionally left any room for sequels; Wells was not Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wrote a great many books about the Mars he had envisioned.

My contention would be that The War of the Worlds feels like a radical departure from Victorian literature as it is imagined in the popular conscience. There are no love triangles and no pining for one’s beloved; there is instead something that feels so overwhelmingly modern to the eyes of the world after World War II, and the effect of reading it decades after the world that Wells inhabited slowly vanished creates a fascinating incongruence that seems ripe for exploration. This principle, that of the interesting asymmetry of the historical and fantastical elements, is what I would argue drives alternate history series like Turtledove’s WorldWar and Birmingham’s Axis of Time.

Furthermore I think there’s an aesthetic quality at play. The Victorian and Edwardian periods are thought of being elegant times, where the world was more beautiful than it is now. Unleashing such metallic monstrosities on such a time feels like an ultimate defilement of beauty, with an effect similar to the destruction of the Eiffel Tower or the Washington Monument, among many other such landmarks, in a disaster movie. Reading such work can feel like the lamps are going out all over Earth, and that we shall not see them lit again.

On a deeper level I think that having the tripods bombard the Earth in that particular moment allows the writer to rewrite the event that in our world destroyed the belle epoque and smashed the gilded age: World War I. The influence on that conflict, particularly technologically, has an obvious influence on a good deal of these expansions, and allows the creation of a world of the internal combustion engine and radio and its ilk to come into being in a way that the author finds more interesting.

Fundamentally, there are two axes that define the types of fiction that have been spun off of The War of the Worlds. One axis distinguishes between the ones that use the setting and the clash of aesthetics to provide the background for a simple adventure tale, and the ones that attempt to continue the commentary on imperialism that the original work had as its bedrock. The other axis is about time and scale; a work may attempt to modify or expand upon the invasion of the original work, or a work may set the action afterwards, turning the desert of peace brought about by microbes into less a peace and more an armistice for some years.

The first axis is easy to define; it is marked by how interested the author is in digging deeper into Wells’ work as opposed to how interested they are in the clash of aesthetics. The other allows for different narrative possibilities; the former allows for a tighter focus on the worldbuilding that Wells merely hinted at, whereas setting it afterwards introduces elements of technological and sociological change. These decisions can determine a good deal of the content of a particular work.

It is the purer adventure tales that I think go against the point of Wells’ work more so than their more thematically dense counterparts. Wells would undoubtedly believe that they are detracting from the point he was making. These works oftentimes take Wells’ Mars and introduce strong elements of Burroughs’ Barsoom into the mix, allowing for that planet to feel more alive in a way that coincides with the Mars of the pulps. In order to heighten the sense of alienness and, paradoxically, the familiar Victorianness of the enterprise, these authors (as well as their more theme-heavy counterparts) may work into their stories elements of other H. G. Wells stories.

These works have roped in The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and several other of his works to create a steampunk-esque Victorian carnival. Perhaps the purest of the adventure tales is The Martian War by Kevin J. Anderson, which has a version of H. G. Wells himself sparring with Doctor Moreau in a quest that takes them both to Mars. The anthology The War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, edited by Anderson, goes even further by having open crossovers between the work of Wells and that of Burroughs and Lovecraft. They both work in the creation of a heavily aestheticized early twentieth century that gleefully borrows from all the fantastic literature of the day.

The Space Machine by Christopher Priest operates in a manner similar to Anderson by combining The War of the Worlds with The Time Machine. This is helped by a strategic insertion of modern science by invoking the notion that space and time are two aspects of the same phenomenon, thereby allowing the time machine to travel to Mars as well as to the future. The Mars of this book is heavily Burrovian, with different species jostling for power and the fearsome tripods being in the service of but one of those. Like Anderson, it also features a version of H. G. Wells as a character, albeit not as a primary one.

Another adventure tale exploiting the clash of aesthetics is The War of the Worlds: Aftermath by Tony Wright. This novel posits that the invasion of the original novel did not concern everything that the Martians had left in the vicinity of Britain, and uses that to continue on the war. It allows the conflict to be fought once again for the sake of drama.

Bridging the gap between the pure adventure tales and the more thematic exploration is the three expansions on The War of the Worlds by C. A. Powell, namely The Last Days of Thunder Child, The Last Days of the Fighting Machine, and The Last Days of Purgatory, which I shall impromptuly refer to as the Last Days trilogy. There is no set order that these need to be read in; their trilogy is based around setting and not plot.

The Last Days of Thunder Child revolves around the crew of the namesake ship whose doomed intervention between a civilian ship and a Martian force leads to its own death but the salvation of the civilians. The Last Days of the Fighting Machine is about people in the countryside trying to survive the invasion. The Last Days of Purgatory, which in my opinion is the superior of the three, is about a nunnery in London coping with the collapse of society in the wake of the Tripods’ stride. They all work as adventure tales, but they also work as parables about resilience of humanity generally and Britain specifically. Even when the gatling’s jammed and the colonel’s dead, so they would argue, there will always be an England.

However, the art of expanding on the themes of the original Wells novel reaches its apex when it truly expands on the commentary on imperialism that was the bedrock of that book. It elevates the enterprise from simply exploiting a clash of aesthetics to becoming a commentary on a force that has shaped the world inexorably. It belies an ambition to be Wells’ equal, and if done well it is magnificent to behold.

The best of the pure thematic explorations, in my opinion, is The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter. It brings up the action to a different roaring twenties, and turns the plot into a metaphor for great power competition and the Cold War, with Earth as Latin America or Africa or parts of Asia: the playground and the graveyard of planetary empires that jostle and joust with each other like the titans of myth, leaving devastation in their wake. It also takes great care to show the effects of this imperialism on different parts of the world, and not just the Global North; there is one scene set in Australia that I found to be perhaps the most emotionally affecting in any work that uses The War of the Worlds as its basis.

Incidentally, this isn’t Baxter’s only derivative work based on Wells; his The Time Ships, which is a sequel to The Time Machine, is another fantastic work of his with alternate history elements.

Another work which uses the theme of imperialism deftly is The Great Martian War series by Scott Washburn, with one of the books being co-written with Jonathan Cresswell-Jones. Of all I have read of this little subgenre, this is the one that most uses the Martian invasion as a way of rewriting the First World War. The Martians land again some years after the first invasion and are met with a world that has been arming itself and researching new weapons as it looks in terror through telescopes at their crimson neighbor. Throughout the series, the various empires of Earth are now working in collaboration to fight off the Martian menace, in what can be read as a form of ruling class solidarity. This war is fought with tanks and ironclads and machine guns and airplanes, trading the static war of the trenches for a very mobile war in the United States and in the Middle East, in the books that have been published as of the writing of this article in October 2020.

Washburn’s work also works as a way of exploring how imperialists act, here in Martian guise. The Martians are not a unified bloc; they have sectarian tensions on their homeworld that affect the way their war effort is waged in a key way that I will not spoil. It also shows how damned stubborn imperialists can be, waging wars whose costs are so high for years and years and not have anything to show for them. At points, Earth in this world has resemblances to Ethiopia as it is being invaded by the Italians.

Moving on from the ‘adventure vs. theme’ dichotomy, there are some trends in these works that are worth noting. One is the selection of historical figures that pop up; Winston Churchill is popular by virtue of having his hands in every military pot the British had in the first few decades of the twentieth century, and partially due to his lasting fame as the man who saved Britain from a continent dominated by the Nazis. The other one that stands out to me is Theodore Roosevelt, who is a favorite choice for an American wartime leader. The Great Martian War series gets a lot of plot development from having the man be his country’s Churchill when confronted with the lumbering monstrosities that ravage the country; the animated film The War of the Worlds: Goliath takes a step further and has the man fight the Martians personally.. Roosevelt was certainly the sort of man, like Churchill, who embodied a can-do pragmatism common in the Western world in the time, and in that regard they are both interesting foils to what appeared to Wells as incomprehensible and unstoppable forces of nature, only felled by nature in turn.

Another noteworthy trend in these works is the internationalization of the setting, whereas the original takes place solely around London. Britain is often portrayed as needing help in surviving the original invasion (as in Powell’s trilogy), and this invasion is usually succeeded by an invasion of the entire planet. Interestingly, there aren’t many examples that internationalize the original invasion, rather than going with a second invasion.

On some level, these works can feel like they’re glorying in the fact that such an invasion did not happen, and that the Mars of our reality is the cold, unfeeling one that Kim Stanley Robinson so deftly imagined. It’s telling that those who are reimagining an invasion that was an obvious metaphor for colonialism come mostly from countries that were colonized themselves; rvbomally discussed this very well in an article for the Alternate History Weekly Update. In that sense, alternate historians have become the greater intelligences that watch this Victorian world with envious eyes.



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