This is the second part of a two-part series on two early science fiction writers: C.S. Lewis and H.G. Wells. You can read part 1 here, which discusses C.S. Lewis’ reading of Wells and the basic plotline of The War of the Worlds, Wells’ first science fiction novel. While they were both British novelists in the early 20th century, they had quite different worldviews. This second part presents some of Wells’ themes and Lewis’ critique of “Wellsianity.”
Themes in The War of the Worlds
Although it is short, and tells a popular storyline in simple language, the philosophy of The War of the Worlds is complex. In one sense it is an early Modern exploration of personal psychology. The unnamed protagonist, a philosopher, moves through traumatic experiences while escaping, against the odds, the careless wrath of the Martians. Like Goethe’s young Werther, we see the Philosopher’s inner mind throughout his experiences:
After the first human deaths: “With wine and food, confidence of my own table, and necessity of reassuring my wife, I grew by insensible degrees courageous and secure” (50).
Near the end of the Martian’s destruction: “I’m obsessed by the thought that I’m the last man on earth” (from the 1938 radio broadcast, but echoed twice in the book).
We see, in utmost need, the ethical conversation of the Philosopher as he must kill a man—a country church pastor who has gone man—in order to save himself. And we see through the cool lens of scientific philosophy not just the details of the Martian invasion, but the necessary social reevaluation that must take place in times like these.
The War of the Worlds is also a critique of colonialism, a feature of his work that stands against his contemporary, Rudyard Kipling (if I read him correctly), who wrote the poem “White Man’s Burden.” It isn’t hard to see the parallels: the Martians are to Earthlings as the British are to any indigenous culture captured in the sweeping presence of the Empire across the globe. Wells’ works stand as a warning to colonialists—not just in the human damage caused by these imperial invasions, but also in the damage to the invaders. In the end, the Martian invasion fails—not because of the strength of Men, or the British army, or the collection of cooperating revolutionaries. The Martians fail because they are an invasive species, because they are not indigenous to Earth:
“By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers; it would still be his were the Martians ten times as mighty as they are. For neither do men live nor die in vain” (191).
The Death of God
Specifically, The War of the Worlds plots the Darwinian recalculation of humanity for a post-theistic world. No longer are humans valuable because they are made in the image of God. It is their developed sentience, the climbing of the evolutionary ladder, the biological imperative that makes Man great. And humans are certainly not great because we have been renewed by the shed blood of self-sacrificing god, as in the Christian myth. No, humans are great because of the shed blood of the countless millions. And this thinned, naturally selected bloodline, gives humanity pride of place.
It is no literary accident or mere plot device that has the scientist putting to death the religious man. It is this death that Wells predicts. Religion is no longer evolutionarily necessary, and is only helpful in the book under extreme psychological need. And even then, God remains silent as the greatest city on Earth is laid bare. Adopted by Hollywood, there is a rapprochement between the clergyman and the philosopher, between science and religion. The narrator closes the film with an American re-writing of Wells’ iconic lines
“From the moment the invaders arrived, breathed our air, ate and drank, they were doomed. They were undone, destroyed, after all of man’s weapons and devices had failed, by the tiniest creatures that God in his wisdom put upon this earth. By the toll of a billion deaths, man had earned his immunity, his right to survive among this planet’s infinite organisms. And that right is ours against all challenges. For neither do men live nor die in vain.”
This is not a Wellsian sentiment. For H.G. Wells, the church steeples are on fire, the clergyman goes mad and then lays dead in a cellar, and prayers go unanswered. The idea of God, in fact, is an invasive species (as Richard Dawkins will later inform us), and no longer needed in the technological advancement of the 20th century that is ahead.
C.S. Lewis’ Response to Wells’ Philosophy
C.S. Lewis’ narrative response to H.G. Wells’ thesis is most overt in the last novel of the Ransom collection. That Hideous Strength is an End-time battle of ideas, where the modern myth of progress is captured by a single disembodied head: a technologically resurrected brain, like Wells’ Martians, without all the superfluous bodily functions of heart and stomach, relationship and desire. The leaders of the group of scientists bidding to take control of England do not actually follow the principles of reason and the scientific method. Instead, they follow the demonic whispers of the disembodied head, where all ethics are sacrificed for the future “good” of society—a world where the intellectual elite have societal control and, ultimately, all are disembodied heads, perfect Enlightenment brains of pure reason. All of That Hideous Strength is a critique of Wellsianity—not a critique of science, per se, but of Wells’ philosophy lain upon a veneer of scientific progress. It is a chilling read, particularly as it was written at the close of the Second World War, where a modern European ideology was given pseudo-scientific language and made a bid to control society.
While That Hideous Strength responds to Wellsianity in earnest, it is Lewis’ first science fiction novel, Out of the Silent Planet, that most simply shows his inversion of Wells’ philosophy.
While Wells’ Martians attack Earth in The War of the Worlds, it is Earthlings who attack Mars, called Malacandra, in Out of the Silent Planet. Lewis turns Wells’ narrative on its head: Earthlings are the attackers with technology that allows them to travel the stars and weapons that can “throw death”—rifles, every bit as mysterious to the agrarian Martians as early European weapons were to aboriginals in the New World—but the attackers from Earth are far from superior. Like Wells’ Martians, the Malacandrians are a far older society, but they are technologically simplistic. They put no value in great tools, and, like Lewis, no imagination of progress.
The result is both tragic and comic. The Earthlings think they are superior—Modern European intellectuals tend to that belief in Lewis’ caricatures—and kill at will, including some Martians-Malacandrians that the reader has come to love. But there are caretakers of Malacandria: Eldil, great interplanetary, perhaps even trans-dimensional beings who seem invisible to the Earthling conquerors who are willfully blind to their presence. When the Earthling scientists who have made their way to Mars to plunder its wealth and enslave its people make their final stand, their logic of superiority rings hollow. Their condescending arguments are comical to the reader, as the Malacandrians and their Eldil hold all the cards and betray “technology”—if defined as an efficient a control of the elements—that is not more progressive than human technology, but vastly superior on an entirely different plane. The great conquerors look like children with toy guns and magnifying glasses boasting about their great scientific and military knowledge to Nobel laureates. These great Earthlings utterly fail to conquer the Martians, and are banished from the planet forever.
The role reversal in Lewis’ anti-Wellsian science fiction is obvious. Of all the planets, we discover, it is only on Earth where humans are fallen—it is only in our world where people hurt for pleasure, or kill for desire, or serve the progress of the few to the detriment of the many (or even the opposite). In Wells’ worldview, humans have the bloodline of the gods and are evolving into an unlimited future; in Lewis’ worldview humans are the problem and are set off from the great drama of the Universe because of their colonial desire. While both authors launch a colonial critique told in Martian romances, Wells would argue that the colonial experiment is a step of human social evolution that we can move past, while Lewis thinks that colonialism is the end result of the human problem, the natural result of the loss of Eden.
Lewis was never against the idea of evolution as a scientific principle; he was against the way the fact of evolution worked itself into the myth of cultural progress, the way it wormed itself into the human mind as an essential story of who we are, not just how we came to be. A human, Lewis believed, was not just a biological accident—and certainly not a biological imperative. On this point, Lewis and Wells forever divide.
This brief analysis does not, of course, capture the layered ideas within each author’s work, or cover all of Lewis’ substantive inversion of Wells’ philosophy during his WWII writing. What I find intriguing, however, is how instinctively both authors knew that worldviews—and the power to challenge and perhaps change the worldviews of others—does not lie in the mere acceptance or rejection of propositional truth. Both of these pioneers of science fiction understood that story, myth, was an essential part of the social story. Each author in turn told a story that launched a social critique from his perspective. Each author was subversive, with Wells subverting a narrative that long held sway, and Lewis subverting a Wellsian narrative that had overtaken the English world. Neither book is, in this sense, about the End of the World—they aren’t about eschatology. Instead, they are about the End, and in the end result, of culture. They are about the intentional shaping of belief. Despite all the differences of worldviews, these two early Martian stories share this key feature.
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Does anyone else think War of the Worlds had too much deus ex machina? I’m not complaining, I’m just saying it seemed to convenient for the aliens to die of disease, even though in all likelihood that would happen in real life.
It could be that–certainly the ’05 film feels like that: Terror! Terror! Hey look, birds.
But I think it is central to his thesis. Is evolutionary birthright itself a sort of God of the Machine, and easy answer?
I haven’t read this trilogy (I think I would have eventually), but I know for sure I will. I am just finishing up reading Prince Caspian to my family, and will get these next after the whole Narnia series. I think it so clever the Lewis turned the argument around to show a fallen man, our true state. Thanks for this post, I enjoyed it!
Btw, I am just finishing up the Jan Morris Pax Brittanica trilogy (audiobooks), and I thought it very interesting that Imperialism started as an attempt to make the world better, (detailed in Heaven’s Command), with very good intentions and some good results, but turned, as always, sour with arrogance, greed and pride.
All tyranny, I think, begins as a way to make people better. The divine right of kings had the same idea behind it, and even democracy. What you touch on is one of the unspoken open questions behind Western democracy, and why the U.S. has such a polemical fight for political control: people have such varying ideas of what is “good,” so making people good comes about in different ways.
I love the trilogy, but I probably wouldn’t read it to my almost 8 yr old for a while yet. After we finish Narnia we are doing the Hobbit this fall. I’m curious about Jan Morris.
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