On London terror and War of the Worlds
Maybe H. G. Wells would be proud of the way his future fellow Londoners behaved following Thursday's attacks on subways and buses. But as most of us suspect in our hearts, the worst is yet to come. In his own time, Wells felt it too, and that's what he wrote about in “War of the Worlds.” Surging crowds. Jammed roads. Over-burdened ferries. Burning bodies. Fire from on high. Runaway trains all ablaze.
When Wells wrote “War of the Worlds” in the last decade of the 1800s, he was imagining a dire future, but he was commenting on his own times. I read the book over the July Fourth weekend, while visiting family and friends out of town. The book is an amazing creation for one working with pen and ink, by lamp glow, in an era of horses and buggies, Gatling guns and cannons, telegraph machines and hot air balloons.
In Wells you have aliens who are little more than brains fed nutrients through tubes. All else has withered away from disuse, for they have surrendered their bodily functions, the works of their own hands, to robotic creations. Here you have machines from another world remaking Earth in their own image—much as scientist-philosophers speculate we might one day recreate Mars in ours. Much as leaders of the west are reshaping our formerly primitive world—exporting technology high and low across the globe, seeding the planet with American style factories, Walmarts, McDonalds, computers and cell-phones. Here you have heat-rays and space capsules and remote cameras and machines that are invincible… almost.
When Wells wrote, England ruled. Many a native of India and North Africa, beholding warships, cannons and tempered steel blades, must have felt the British were toying with them. Wells time and again asks his readers to feel empathy for those over whom we hold dominion. That's the true theme of “War of the Worlds.” Putting yourself in the place of those you lord it over, by asking, what if….
Last evening, as this is written, I watched the Steven Spielberg film of the same name, and realized that Spielberg too has rendered a piece of work that resonates most strongly when evoking the past.
Sitting in the theater along with family and friends, there comes a moment in the film when cars tumble and glass shimmers like water sprayed from fountains and people scream in horror as loved ones disintegrate before their eyes--and a dear friend said, “That's what Hiroshima must've been like.”
And again, later, when the camera pans a makeshift bulletin board along a fence where people have posted pictures and flowers and pleas for help in locating loved ones, my friend said, “It's like 9/11.”
Yes, people walk dazed and depleted and dust covered, buildings implode, jet planes crash, and all such imagery serves to open wounds recent and raw and evoke fears of a future we cannot know or begin to build.
I remember lying awake on the night of 9/11 and thinking, “This world will never be the same. We're not wise enough to deal with this.” I'm guessing you had that same heart-sickening realization. The cycle of violence rolls forward, borne along on our deepest yearnings and perversions. Something deep in the cerebral cortex grasps after survival, asserts itself in the world and wills to strike out, even if blindly.
Our leaders tell us we can defeat the enemy through superior technology, and so we set in motion our own machines, making ever greater weapons of mass destruction in places like Los Alamos and Oak Ridge. Leftover technology drifts around the planet, falling into every kind of hand along the way and serving every ideology.
Can the cycle be broken? The response of Britain will be telling. In the wake of their present travail, will the British strike back blindly, as many others have done, igniting another disastrous war against ill-defined enemies, killing tens of thousands of the innocent in “collateral damage,” or will they seek measured redress for their justified grievances, and cures for the causes of violence that grips the world generation after generation?
Time will tell. The future waits to be written, not by the fevered imaginings of a prophet, but by the real players of history who strut and fret their hour upon the stage.
God grant them grace.