War Images in H. G. Wells's Scientific Romance and After (2004)

* This is my course essay for H. G. Wells Module of 2003/4 MA course in Science Fiction Studies in the University of Liverpool
* For the translated version of this essay in traditional Chinese, please refer to

The writing of fictional future war could be traced back to the 1871 story 'The Battle of Dorking', which describes a German invasion of England and is inspired by the Franco-Prussian War in the previous year. The popularity of its kind in the 19th century might reflect the instability of the European politics after the reunions of the German Empire, a circumstance able to cause regional conflicts or even wars, as well as the rapid development of military technology. According to Charles E. Gannon's research, the writing could be categorised into three types:
the Victorians not only 'invented' technologically speculative future-war fiction, but they pursued it along three distinct discursive avenues which suggest an enduring model for a tripartite typology of such narratives. The first category portrays new or untested technologies but no imaginary ones, the second introduces technological innovations which are imminent or belong to the 'near future,' and the third incorporates radical or 'far future' leaps in technology.[1]
H. G. Wells's future war writing was about 30 years later than 'The Battle of Dorking', hence he could be considered as a follower of this trend in the Victorian era. 'The Land Ironclads' (1903) falls into Gannon's second type; The War in the Air (1908), The World Set Free (1917) and the 'Book the Second' of The Shape of Things to Come (1933) perfectly fit in the third; as for The War of the Worlds (1898), although the lethal Martian weapons have nothing to do with human's technology, and the event takes place at the 'contemporary', not in the 'future', this novel still provides a classic scene owing to the un-defendable, un-communicable outerspace invaders and the metaphor of the breakdown of a superpower – The Great Britain in the late 19th century. As one of the 'fathers' of science fiction and the representative figure of scientific romance, Wells's stories are better-known among the later sf readers, thus they helped to introduce a variety of sf topics in this genre, and the future war images are no exception.

We can easily detect three different kinds of images in future war texts. Like in Gannon's categorisation, radical military technologies, either real or imaginative ones, are always firstly to be thought about. As the building of military forces being one of the biggest investments in every country, those 'killing machines' have been constantly invented or adapted from existing technologies. Some of them can overthrow previous war tactics and strategies, leading to a military revolution. Tanks, aircrafts, and atomic bombs, all mentioned in Wells's works, are traditional cases in point. This point also demonstrates the typical expectation of science fiction: a breakthrough in science/technology affects the whole world.

The second interesting thing in future war novels is the image of 'the enemy' and people's reactions. Future war texts usually blame some political powers, such as Germany or Japan, for being troublemakers. On the one hand, they indeed played the role of 'peace breaker' in the history; one the other hand, their rises in the world stage also have impacted the traditional international political structure, threatening elder strong nations. However, the utmost reason could simply be that they are different, and we just cannot accept their 'savage' culture, speak their 'weird' language, not to mention their sole ambition is to conquer the world, make us become part of them… This bias also provides the most solid foundation for the invasive aliens, because they can only be 'more evil' than other human races.

War is also the most violent means of political confrontation. People among each side of the war hold their own political thoughts; some even would like to sacrifice themselves for their beliefs. Therefore, in a part of the future war stories, the political issues are discussed and emphasised while the storylines going on; if the writing reflects the situations in the real world, these issues are more difficult to be neglected. Some authors may stay neutral and rationally discuss the pros and cons of arguments of both sides; the others obviously take sides, using their stories to promote their ideologies. Hence we can treat them as the third image in this kind of writing. In the next section, I will discuss Wellsian future war texts through these three perspectives.

Wells's first and most famous war story is The War of the Worlds. This late 19th century novel is one of the first well-known texts narrating an invasion from outer space. As I mentioned before, there is hardly any image of new military technology shaped in this novel, despite the Martian 'Heat-Ray' later becomes a clichéd weapon of advanced civilisations in science fiction. Even the death of invading Martians is because of the bacteria, a factor of nature, not human's effort (at least in Wellsian time). Though Wells does not introduce any new technology here, he indeed depicts in detail the Londoners' reactions to this crisis from the beginning to the end. Due to the fact that there was not any 'serious' records or noted fictional work mentioning that creatures from other worlds may seize the Earth, nobody would have a thought about it. So, in this story, people continuously observed that there had been extraordinary activities on Mars for sure; mankind still did not consider that it could become a threat. We can see it from the famous saying of the astronomer Ogilvy: '"The chances against anything manlike on Mars are a million to one," he said.'[2] What is more, when the first huge cylinder landed, it is civil astronomers, journalists, and 'a number of boys and unemployed men'[3] went to see the '"dead men from Mars"'[4]. The government has not been involved until the invasion broke out. Compared to later interstellar war stories or the rumours about 'the Area 51', the reaction of the British government in this story was pretty slow. The protagonist held an inquest from the tactical point of view in 'The Epilogue', and pointed out this fault[5]. Once the Martians started to attack, there was not any opportunities left for mankind; the war became a one-sided slaughter, in spite of Britain being the strongest nation in the late 19th century. When the battleship 'Thunder Child', which represented the most elite military force in the Kingdom, was defeated, the only hope of mankind also sunk with her. The capital of the empire where the sun never sets was captured; the colonialists were colonised.

Some people, like Isaac Asimov, would consider that this novel is a metaphor of the European colonisation:
Surely, to the inhabitants of the Americas, Australia, Africa and Asia, the coming of the European ships must have seemed as an invasion of Martians would seem to us today. The inhabitants had been minding their own business, doing no harm to Europeans, offering no threat, and yet suddenly they were invaded. …

H. G. Wells must have wanted to write his book in such a way as to demonstrate the evils of this behavior. He must have tried to show his own countrymen what they were doing the world.[6]
Wells might have such an intention, but I am not as confident as Asimov. In my opinion, Wells just gives us another application of 'survival of the fittest', since socio-Darwinism was one of the theoretical supports for the colonisation. The appearance of Wellsian Martian is similar to his prediction of future human in the essay 'The Man of the Year Million' (1893), thus means such an image is Wells's idea about the final stage of intelligent beings. Since Martians may be thousands of years more advanced than mankind, human beings have no opportunity while confronting them. In the dialogue between the protagonist and the artilleryman on Putney Hill, the latter predicts that the Martians will cage and feed humans, raise them like livestock; the remained people will go underground, living in the drains and subway tunnels. 'And we form a band – able-bodied, clean-minded men. We're not going to pick up any rubbish that drifts in. Weaklings go out again.'[7] Another natural selection happens in such a harsh situation. This also reminds reader the contrast of the Eloi and the Morlock, the result of human evolution in Wells's The Time Machine (1895). Although the better evolved species are usually winners in the war, the dead of Martians may imply that however advanced a civilisation could be, the further they go away from the nature, the fewer chances for them to resist her striking back.

'The Land Ironclads' (1903) is a chronicle of a battle. Its fame comes from Wells's introduction to a new weapon – the land ironclads, i.e. tanks. We cannot say that Wells is the man who invented the tank, but according to the history of the tank invention[8], Wells indeed provided some inspirations. Wells might just want to write a story about a new imaginative fighting vehicle, which can block bullets and cross trenches, and to break the cul-de-sac of battles on land after the era of machine gun. Therefore, to him, the technical details are not important.

Wells does not reveal who are fighting in this war. Readers only know that one side is a traditional military power, and the other with the land ironclads is more highly developed. In the beginning conversation, the young lieutenant criticises his enemy:
Their men aren't brutes enough; that's the trouble. They're a crowd of devitalised townsmen, and that's the truth of the matter. …, they're civilised men. …, but they're poor amateurs at war. They've got no physical staying power, and that's the whole thing.[9]
In his viewpoint, only those who are 'savage' enough have more courage and endurance to win the war. Though the war correspondent argues with him, the lieutenant still insists that healthy and brave people are more important than scientific weapons. After witnessing the power of these mechanical monsters, the correspondent entitles the war 'Mankind versus Ironmongery'[10] (Wells's italics), and concludes that the only chance for the beaten side is to 'make things like 'em'[11]. Again, this narrative reflects the socio-Darwinism image appeared in The War of the Worlds. The side with a higher technological level can win over her opponents. It is worth noticing that the engineer soldiers dislike war, but they have to construct the killing machine to beaten the enemy[12], so that the war could be stopped. This could be the source of Wellsian idea about 'a war to end wars'.

After A Modern Utopia (1905), Wells's future war writing is more concerned about the war possibility in real world. The War in the Air is the first example. This time the new technology is all kinds of aircrafts. When this book was published, the aeroplane had just been invented for five years; therefore the zeppelin still play an important role in the air war, and become the representative flying machine of German invasion air-fleet. In Wells's mind, the control of the air is the most critical matter in the next stage of war, but it might also become the hazard of social destruction:
The thesis is this: that with the flying machine war alters in its character; it ceases to be an affair of "fronts" and becomes an affair of "areas"; neither side, victor or loser, remains immune from the gravest injuries, and while there is a vast increase in the destructiveness of war, there is also an increased indecisiveness. Consequently "War in the Air" means social destruction instead of victory as the end of war.[13]
Compared to the military history in the real world, Wells's image of air warfare is too simple to be practical. It is impossible for readers to believe that merely a group of zeppelins without any supply could have enough ammo to destroy a fleet of battleships and then bombard New York until the city surrendered. But he does get the point that the civilians could be harmed long before the land is seized. Though a nation will not be defeated by merely constant bombards, she will still suffer from the destruction of facilities and the death of people. Fortunately, the real air strikes are restricted by many influential factors and never as effective as what is depicted in the novel. But the importance of air power is continuously emphasised in later Wellsian future far novels. The elite group to rebuild the world order in the movie adaptation of The Shape of Things to ComeThing to Come (1936), whose screenplay writing Wells had participated in, is even called 'Wing over the World'.

The enemy in this novel is Germany, the old 'adversary' of European countries. The story indeed mainly chronicles the German Prince leading his air-fleet to raid the United States, but it is all major countries in the world racing to build their own air force, either to invade other nations or to defend their national sovereignty. This implies the arms race not only makes the international tensions rise, but also has more possibility to cause wars. War is also the cause of the decline of modernisation, scientific development and, most of all, morality. While the protagonist Bert comes back to Bun Hill, what he uses to fight against the bully for love is just bullets.

In The World Set Free, Wells discusses further in the fundamental reason of the arm race and the later 'Great War'. As the science and technology continuously advancing, the social and legal systems could not follow up, plus the politicians still dream of conquering other states and becoming the leader of a unified empire, hence the war is inevitable. There is no possibility of peace until every nation has the consensus on giving up her sovereignty, and decides to join together, forming a world government. The conspiracy of the 'Slavic Fox', the King of the Balkans, who still owns the ambition to rule the globe, is at last discovered and stopped in time. And then the whole Earth starts to rapidly and healthily develop under the scientific new order. Wellsian later futuristic alternate history, The Shape of Things to Come, basically follows the same historical line after the end of World War I, but is written to a greater extent and much more in depth. So we can regard this quite safely as Wells's 'prediction' of the future history, at least in the degree of general direction. Another interesting matter about politics in Wellsian ideology is his disbelief of democracy and condemnation of lawyer politicians. When King Egbert discusses with his secretary, Firmin, about the forming of a world government, Firmin proposes to ask for 'the consent of the governed', but the king just replies, 'The governed will show their consent by silence. If any effective opposition arises we shall ask it to come in and help. … Government only becomes difficult when the lawyers get hold of it, and since these troubles began the lawyers are shy'.[14] Wells's ideal political system is 'Technocracy' – the world run by scientific trained technicians, so his bright future is still based on the advance in science.

The super weapon in this novel is the atomic bomb. The nuclear power was firstly discovered to be a new energy source, and then because of the arms race, it is naturally to be used as warfare. Since it was much earlier than Hiroshima, Wells just describes atomic bombs are extremely devastating weapons with radiation, but he does not expect the large scale and long-term destructions of natural environment. In my opinion, nuclear power here is like aircrafts in The War in the Air, represents the improvement of human technology. And it could be the metaphor for the artefact mankind cannot completely master. It must be until the humanity becomes more mature, and then people are just able to wisely enjoy the benefit.

We can see that in the earlier stage of Wellsian future war texts, his war images reflect socio-Darwinism: the more advanced wins over the less developed. After he concerns more about the topic of 'Utopia', his future war writing becomes a kind of alternative history; on the one hand it depicts his viewpoint about the future of mankind, on the other hand, urges people to work on for the utopian society after the 'war', if we really cannot prevent it. Although the image of new weapon draws the readers' eyes, it is in fact the political image that shines. As the sf genre goes on, new texts about future war also appear. Here I choose three famous future war novels, which are written by writers of different generations, and see how three types of war images in science fiction are depicted in the same category of stories.

The first one I would like to discuss is Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers (1959), which might be 'the text' representing the sub-genre of future war against BEMs. Though its fame (or notoriety) comes from its political philosophy, the image of M.I. power suit is definitely worth mentioning. Heinlein's imagination could have something to do with his military educational background. Mobile Infantry can be the silver bullet for most military experts who want a thorough and fully inclusive solution in futuristic battles on land. It retains all the merits of traditional infantry, but added on communication, agile mobility (unfortunately not in the water), fair protection (a trade-off due to the previous attribute), and most of all, tremendous firepower both for great-range attack and personal combat. So the Paul Verhoeven's movie adaptation (1997) fails to reflect this part and provides the wrong image of the sacrifice of massive number of soldiers, thus gives the audience a better excuse to critic the social system. At the beginning of the novel, the author illustrates the terrific/terrible performance of only one M. I. platoon by devastating an entire 'skinny' city. Of course, to master such a powerful weapon, the soldiers must be well-trained, and as a matter of fact, the training procedures are no less dangerous than real war.

The political image of Starship Troopers is highly controversial. Critics may blame the world of this novel for being a fascist's society, but Ken MacLeod denies that:
The system it defends is far from the fascism it is sometimes accused of. Anyone who can understand the oath may serve, regardless of their other attributes or abilities. The civilian society which this political system secures is one without wars within the human species, with lots of personal freedom, where almost everyone is reasonably well off, and people who despise the government can do so openly and fearlessly. The book's effect may be analogously benign. Far more of its readers must have been stimulated by it to take an interest in political and moral philosophy than have been converted to that advocated in the text.[15]
Certainly, nobody will believe that the moral philosophy could be analysed or proved in mathematical models, but to me it seems more like a trade-off between the ;authority; and the 'responsibility'. If one wants to enjoy more authority, she has to pay more in responsibility. In the chapter when Johnny Rico is receiving training to become an officer, Major Reid, the lecturer of 'History and Moral Philosophy', explains:
"Under our system every voter and officeholder is a man who has demonstrated through voluntary and difficult service that he places the welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage."

"And that is the one practical difference.

"He may fail in wisdom, he may lapse in civic virtue. But his average performance is enormously better than that of any other class of rulers in history."[16]
This might be the perfect condition, however, it explains why in societies like Taiwan where conscription is in practice, people still hold those men who fulfil the military services in higher esteem than the others. It could be merely a myth that these people are more stable, more disciplined, and are capable of working under pressure and getting along with others, but the image exists. Heinlein further applies this philosophy in his ideal army structure. Everybody in M. I. goes to fight, and the officers are the first ones down to the battlefield. What is more, all the officers are promoted from veteran NCOs, so there is no rookie graduated cadet commanding a group of experienced soldiers. Since officers have the authority over his troopers, they not only have the obligations to take care his minions, but also have paid in responsibility to prove they can do the job. Hence, Starship Troopers is a story about soldiers and their ethics, so it is not weird for readers to see the memorial note of Private Rodger Young.

The image of the enemy in this novel is not as interesting as the other two. Bugs are still un-communicable killing machines which could be mapped to the Japanese at the end of World War II or the Chinese army in the Korean War, who fiercely fought on until death. But as for the other alien race – the skinny, who have a more humanoid form – also being the enemy at first, they gradually join the human side, thus gives a possibility for inter-racial understanding and friendship. However, it also implies the human chauvinism: only those look like human are good, or can be turned good, otherwise bad. At the end, the troopers successfully capture a brain bug. Does that mean a further understanding of the race of bug so that mankind can seek for peace with them, or is it just for strategic researches in order to kill more bugs? We never know.

Joe Haldeman's The Forever War (1975) is not only a future war novel as a metaphor for the Vietnam War, but also a reflection to Starship Troopers. Due to Haldeman's own experience in Vietnam, the combat scene is more bloody, realistic but less romantically heroic than Heinlein's work. The soldiers are ordinary infantry doing much 'dirtier' jobs than M. I.; they even have to fight with swords and bows in the critical time. Hence there is no super weapon image here.

In spite of the lack of political ideology, the novel indeed provides a silent protest against social control and political manipulation. At the beginning, the UNEF can conscript most elite young people into the army to fight against a completely unknown enemy without previous probes. While the protagonists back to Earth, they are astonished by a society could be even worse than that of more than twenty years ago. There are too many drawbacks: high income tax rate, high unemployed rate, more crimes against property (but the decrease of crimes against person is due to detecting young kids for potential criminals and giving 'treatment', or granting them new 'good' personalities, and this can be another problem), lack of food and medical resources, education might be a little bit better, but it is a failure of governing in general. In fact, how the government deal with these problems is sustaining the war and encouraging people to give up heterosexuality. In my opinion, it seems that the government just want to retain its reign, but does not have a clear object of human future. At the moment he backs to Stargate, the hero Mandella just knows that the war had finished, and the cause of the war could be the old guys from the army 'who were in positions of power'[17]:
The fact was, Earth's economy needed a war, and this one was ideal. It gave a nice hole to throw buckets of money into, but would unify humanity rather than dividing it.[18]
Haldeman might want to use this story to criticise the U.S. government and the social phenomena during the Vietnam War, however, the history could repeat itself. We can see the similar manipulation in the recent war against Iraq. This also answers to Starship Troopers that in spite of patriotism and self-sacrifice being virtues, they could also be dangerous.

The Taurans are the enemies in this novel. But there are not so many descriptions about them. Readers only know that they are a peaceful hive-mind race, relearning how to fight in a war because of human beings. They cannot communicate with mankind until the latter evolved to another cloning hive-mind. This alien image is too hollow to allow further discussion. The soldiers' first encounter with the grass-eating animal is more interesting. In this situation, the troopers considered these peaceful creatures as Taurans and decided to shoot them. However, those who are 'Rhine-sensitive' also suffered from mysterious strike, even as serious as massive cerebral hemorrhage[19]. This could be a reflective image of Vietcong disguising themselves as peasants and ambushing U.S. troopers. But on the other hand, this 'feature' may come from some species of harmless but poisonous frogs or caterpillars; a natural gift to protect them. To me it is also sarcasm to humanity's unbelief to 'the other', the non-humanoid beings, thus they suffer from their war-like behaviour.

The last book I would like to discuss is Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game (1985). This book does not have an obvious war scene but a series of 'kids' battle games', both physical and video simulative ones. These 'battle' descriptions reflect the fact that the development of war technology has entered the era of simulacrum – the real scenery looks just like a video game snapshot. Although in previous ages, what high level commanders dealt with may only be figures and miniatures on the map, the video game image is much easier the connected with arcade parlour and home video play boxes, traditionally regarded as children's stuff. When the war proceeds in this 'cleaner' way, participants could have fewer feelings of guilt, and are very prone to dehumanised. At the end of the third invasion, Ender's reaction after knowing he just annihilated the Bugger's mother planet is a typical example.

The political image of Ender's Game could be naïve. The world is under the control of a Hegemony government, preparing for the third outerspace invasions. Like The Forever War, in order to reduce the total cost of resources, the number of children of each couple is strictly regulated. And the government is continuously seeking talented kids for future war commanders, because they need a genius to repeat the consequence of 70 years ago. However, the sovereignty of the world government is far less strong than what I think. As soon as the Bugger War ends, all the nations start another war on Earth. Finally, Ender's brother, Peter, who won the support of public opinion through internet forum, successfully obtains the position of Hegemon. According to this storyline, the influence of internet forum is greater than any that of other media, an innovative idea in the 1980s but lacking supporting details. The same reason can explain that the plot how Peter and Valentine lead the forum is also unpersuasive.

Due to the fact that the original 'Ender's Game' (1979) novelette contains only Ender's battle experiences in both Battle and Commander Schools, and Card admitted that the main reason to expand this novelette to a novel is for the project of Speaker for the Dead (1986)[20]; the add-on subplots, including the descriptions of Ender's siblings and his psychological game, can be regarded as the background for the latter books in this series. The former provides the story for Card's newly-written 'Shadow Saga'; the latter explains the reason that Ender becomes the speaker for the dead. As the historical background of this story, the Buggers had invaded the Earth twice and both defeated. To the readers, the image of Buggers is still the traditional hive-mind BEM one. However, when Ender found the cocoon of the Queen, what he sensed is the true image of Buggers:
We are like you; … We did not mean to murder, and when we understood, we never came again. We thought we were the only thinking beings in the universe, until we met you, but never did we dream that thought could be arise from the lonely animals who cannot dream each other's dreams. How were we to know? We could live with you in peace. Believe us, believe us, believe us.[21]
Why hive-mind aliens are horrible, partly because there is only one thought among billions of creatures, which contradicts the individuality in traditional human societies. In Starship Troopers, people cannot understand them but kill them all; in The Forever War, it is until the humanity evolved to another 'hive-mind' and then two civilisations are able to communicate. Till Ender's Game, it is another conceptual breakthrough – the hive-mind alien shows respect and sympathy to our individuality. If we treat the hive-mind alien as a metaphor for the communists, another image related to contemporary international politics suddenly appears. The First World not only should not regard the Second World as the great enemy, but also has to negotiate with them (a lesson shown in The Forever War), respect them, and even help them. But, could people do this? According to the later books of Ender Saga, Card still seems to remain pessimistic. Referring to the real history, in spite of the breakdown of Iron Curtain, the world is still far from peace. Wherever there are people, there are always conflicts. Maybe it is the reason that new war images are continuously coming out in literary genres, and science fiction cannot escape from this 'tradition'.
[1] Gannon, Charles E., Rumors of War and Infernal Machines: Technomilitary Agenda-setting in American and British Speculative Fiction (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2003), p. 16.
[2] Wells, H. G., The War of the Worlds (New York: Signet Classic, 1986), p. 8.
[3] Ibid, p. 14.
[4] Ibid.
[5] See Ibid., p. 202.
[6] Asimov, Isaac, 'Afterword' in The War of the Worlds, pp. 213-214.
[7] Wells, The War of the Worlds, p. 178.
[8] See Gannon, op. cit., pp. 64-74.
[9] Wells, H. G., 'The Land Ironclads', in The Complete Short Stories of H. G. Wells, ed. by John Hammond (London: Phoenix Press, 2000), p. 604.
[10] Ibid, p. 620.
[11] Ibid.
[12] See Ibid, pp. 616-617.
[13] Wells, H. G., 'Preface', in The War in the Air (published along with The History of Mr. Polly) (Lodon: Odhams Press, n.d), p. 167.
[14] Wells, H. G., The World Set Free (published along with The First Men in the Moon) (London: Odhams Press, n.d.), p. 248.
[15] MacLeod, Ken, 'Politics and Science Fiction', in Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn ed., The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 233.
[16] Heinlein, Robert A., Starship Troopers (London: Four Square Books, 1961), p. 157.
[17] Haldeman, Joe, The Forever War (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1975), p. 232.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid, pp. 49-51.
[20] See Card, Orson Scott, 'Introduction' in Card, Speaker for the Dead (London: Legend 1992), pp. xiii-xiv.
[21] Card, Orson Scott, Ender's Game (New York: Tor, 1986), pp. 353-354.

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