Wednesday, 9 April 2008

'The War of the Worlds' and Steampunk

'The War of the Worlds' by H.G. Wells

This is probably my favourite book cover for an edition of 'The War of the Worlds' this is from a Penguin edition released in the 1970s and I feel really caputures that late Victorian aesthetic wonderfully.

I was reading on 'The Heliograph' website that there is an intention to make a $200 million movie of the novel 'Larklight' (2006) by Philip Reeve. It envisages a solar system which humans have been exploring since the time of Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) so beginning with clockworkpunk, though the novels (this book was the first of trilogy) are set in the Victorian era when colonies have been set up on moons and planets. Apparently the Martians who were the same as those in H.G. Wells's 'The War of the Worlds' (1898) were surprised when invaded by humans. This is ironic because in part the Wells book was a critique of colonisation which was nearing its peak for the British Empire at the time he wrote it, with the British for a change being the 'native' peoples having to face up to an invasion by technologically better equipped colonisers.

My thoughts on 'The War of the Worlds' and its relation to steampunk had also been stimulated by recently reading 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume II' by Alan Moore which features the league battling against the Martian invasion. (I also suggest reading 'War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches' ed. by Kevin J. Anderson (1996) which features a range of stories by leading science fiction authors viewing the events from the perspective of various historical characters around the world, in some cases leading to a string of counter-factuals, such as Chinese expulsion of European powers at the turn of the 20th century using Martian technology, though given Empress Cixi's aversion to the technology available at the time, I personally doubt she would have embraced alien techonology any stronger). The Martians are defeated by a biological warfare disease H-142 (a mix of anthrax and streptococcus) created by Dr. Moreau (from H.G. Wells's novel 'The Island of Dr. Moreau' (1896) which as a novel with its theme of a scientist creating animal-human crossovers through genetic engineering and given last week's announcement of the development of human-animal hybrid embryos in the UK seems even more prescient than 'The War of the Worlds') but is claimed for history that the common cold was the killer. This picks up some of Wells's own themes about biological warfare whether intentional or not, as killed out many native populations of the Americas.

Another interesting follow-up is 'Scarlet Traces' by Ian Edginton (2002) a steampunk graphic novel which sees the British Empire utilising Martian technology in the 1900s and expanding by the 1930s into space. Sequels were not common in Wells's era in the way they are today, but it would have been interesting for him to show life after the Martians have been expelled. There is a sense that the Earth would be purified of Marian influence and technology rather than that technology being exploited. Again there would be parallels with colonialism as the Japanese in particular, through adopting the technology of the colonial powers from the mid-1850s onwards, within forty years were able to make Japan a colonial power itself taking Taiwan in 1895 and Korea in 1910.

Before leaving this graphic novels, there are a couple of asides, notably that the Martians who invade Earth are not the only occupants of Mars and in fact are portrayed as one-time invaders of that planet. The novel shows John Carter from Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom series (1917-64 in novel form) and Gullivar Jones from 'Lieutenant Gullivar Jones, His Vacation' by Edwin Lester Arnold (1905) a novel about his adventures on Mars that was so badly received Arnold gave up writing, though it heavily influenced Burroughs and Carter is taken from another of Arnold's series. Barsoom's Green Martians also turn up alongside the Sorns from C.S. Lewis's (also responsible for the Narnia books) book 'Out of the Silent Planet' (1938) also set on Mars. The other point is made by the character Mina Murphy (who in the graphic novels actually demonstrates no extraordinary abilities, her equivalent in the movie 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen', Mina Harker, is a vampire who can walk in daylight) who it is implied has been attacked by a vampire (referencing Bram Stoker's 'Dracula' (1897)). When the extensive scarring at her neck is revealed in a sex scene, she says that people should not believe the stories about two plain puncture marks in the neck. This was the best comment I had read on vampires in stories for a long time. I had always wondered how vampires drained blood through the two puncture marks simply left by their fangs. The only conclusion I could make was that the fangs had to be hollow and the blood sucked up through them which would make it a lengthy process especially if seeking to drain a person of all of their blood. Of course these days vampires in movies simply rend through the neck and feed like a wolf or lion drinking as much blood as they need. After all fangs are only extended canine teeth which allow predators to hold on to and slice through meat. It is clear the two puncture wounds was only for the sensibilities of the audiences in less brutal viewing eras.

Anyway, another place where I see the steampunk crossover coming to the fore most is in the computer game, 'Jeff Wayne's The War of the Worlds' (1999). It is interesting since musician Jeff Wayne released his music concept album 'The War of the Worlds' in 1978 he has really snatched the title from H.G. Wells. A single of 'The Eve of the War' element did well in the charts in 1978 and when remixed and re-released in 1989 reaching number 3 in the UK. Wayne was early on the games bandwagon as I remember a game 'Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds' (1984) for the old ZX Spectrum home computer which itself was released in 1982. It was created by CRL and was poorly reviewed as the player often died very quickly. The iconography of his album production remains the enduring one despite the appearance of numerous other books referencing the original (just see the Wikipedia listing). The stage production was on tour around the UK last year to sell-out houses and even included a video of Richard Burton doing the narration as on the album.

The story is a gloomy one, though the with the human race really only spared by a twist of fate and to some extent reflects Wells's novels warning of the potential dangers of the coming 20th century. It is set in the 'early years of the 20th century' and the human technology portrayed is really the same as that available in 1898 so pretty powerless against the heat ray firing tripods, the black powder and red weed of the Martians.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen take on the story brings in more steampunk technology along with the approach adopted in those graphic novels, notably the facilities of Captain Nemo's submarine, Nautilus. Some of the most interesting steampunk suggestions come in the PC game. The game itself sees a second Martian invasion which lands in the Grampian Mountains of Scotland (partly for gaming purposes as the humans begin at the other end of the country in London) and though it seems to be set in a world before the First World War (so in line with Wells's novel) internal combustion engine run lorries are far more common than they were until after the war. One interesting element of the game is that you can play as the humans or as the Martians. Both sides can experiment to gain more powerful equipment and the humans can end up with not only armoured lorries but also caterpillar-tracked tanks; self-propelled artillery guns and mobile anti-aircraft arrays both of which in reality did not come in until the Second World War; a tunnelling vehicle and a special forces motorbike. Some of the technology was around in, say, 1905 such as submarines and observation balloons, but not as developed as they were to become. The Martians can develop a whole array from a 'flying machine' (in the novel the Martians pods are fired to Earth from great guns on Mars and have no motive power of their own) a rapid heat way and a 'bombarding machine' through plasma and laser fencing to an explosive 'tempest', a bio-chemical 'constrictor' and the black 'dust' chemical weapon. As the Martians spread so does the red weed.

'The War of the Worlds' was the first real alien invasion story and is likely to continue to have an impact on our contemporary culture, the latest movie version starring Tom Cruise came out as recent as 2005 and despite relocating the action to the USA and replacing the hero's wife with two children, kept many of the key elements including the tripods. The story and its spin-offs which seem to be growing by the year are an invaluable source of steampunk technology, but wait until I start going on about H.G. Wells's 'The War in the Air' (1907) an often overlooked novel with real steampunk elements.

Meanwhile you can access 'The War of the Worlds' freely downloadable/readable in its entirety from at least two websites:

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