The influence of the novel and its infamous dissemination
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In 1938, during the Great Depression, my grandmother was a teenager and one of ten children of a Portuguese immigrant farmer from Massachusetts. She liked radio shows like The shadow. His family could not afford a radio but listened to it at a wealthy neighbor’s. On October 30, 1938, she overheard in the middle of an apparent news broadcast about the Martians invading New Jersey and moving up the east coast – to her state!
The “report” was actually The Mercury Theater on the Air’s infamous broadcast of HG Wells’ 40-year-old sci-fi novel The War of the Worlds, narrated by Orson Welles. My grandmother and her neighbors realized it was fiction before they started to evacuate. Still, it’s easy to imagine how they heard the show out of context and therefore panicked.
They weren’t the only ones who thought the show could have been real. There have been dozens of confused and angry calls to police and radio stations, which some reporters later speculated was a nationwide panic. Of course, my grandmother’s story is not proof of a nationwide evacuation attempt, but it fascinated me with War of the Worlds and his radio show. The novel still influences the genre of science fiction today, drawing on timeless fears of invasion. The show illustrates how quickly misconceptions can spread and why media literacy and clear content warnings are important.
The History and Context of Wells’ novel
War of the Worlds is a science fiction novel by HG Wells, originally serialized in British and American magazines in 1897 and published in book form in 1898. Wells had previously published The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and The Invisible Man. War of the Worlds was not the first novel about Martians or alien invasions, but it was one of the first and particularly influential. He was never exhausted.
In the book, technologically advanced Martians invade Earth and land in southern England. They easily dominate the British Army. Ultimately, however, the aliens are defeated because they cannot breathe our air and lack immunity to our viruses and bacteria.
I was surprised to learn that many literary critics have compared War of the Worlds to European invasion literature. In the novel’s preface, Wells invokes this theory, comparing his own fictional alien invasion to the British genocide of the 1820s and 1930s against the Aborigines in Tasmania.
Matthew Wills wrote: “HG Wells’ famous science fiction novel imagines what would happen if the Martians did to Britain what the Europeans did to Tasmania. Wills quotes Aaron Worth as calling this “Imperial satire.” Wells’ preface criticizes colonialism, but is racist and inherently problematic. He exaggerates the differences between humans and equates technology with a “superior” society. This interpretation also expresses the guilt of colonization and is based on the fear that Britain will be invaded.
A radio show
According to A. Brad Schwartz, author of Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News, Welles had the idea for a fictional radio show formatted as a newsletter even before his team did. choose this book. Welles, who was 23 at the time, woke up to dozens of front-page headlines after it aired.
The radio broadcast reportedly caused widespread panic, in part because radio was a new technology. Schwartz notes that Welles’ show used realistic sound effects and an unusually late break 2/3 of the way. It’s 40 minutes of uninterrupted fake news, without context. No wonder people like my grandmother are terrified or confused, tuning in somewhere in the middle.
As a teenager in the 2000s, I didn’t care about satirical “fake news”, including impressions of politicians. In contrast, as Schwartz notes, Federal Communications Commission regulations of the 1930s prohibited radio announcers from posing as FDR, the current president. A voice actor from Mercury Theater made an FDR impression for his politician character, with some denial. It must have sounded almost like a 1930s deep-fake.
Although the radio panic of 1938 was not just an urban legend, it has become over-the-top over time. Schwartz says only about 50 people have been documented trying to evacuate because of the radio room. Sociologist Hadley Cantril popularized and exaggerated the story in a nationwide panic, using vague language to say it had an impact on around a million people.
Other researchers are calling the exaggerated radio panic of newspaper reporters trying to discredit radio, a new medium, as untrustworthy. Following Welles’ airing, the FCC unofficially banned fake news clips, but this did not directly lead to any new laws or regulations.
For some people, the show was disorienting, confusing common sci-fi clichés with the news. In 1938, most American adults did not believe in Martians. However, some did, and the US Navy considered this possibility until 1924. The 19th century Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli, had observed “canals” or canals on Mars. In English, canali has been mistranslated by canals, falsely implying an artificial construction.
Legacy in literature and cinema
HG Wells War of the Worlds had an immediate impact on pop culture. History professor Sarah Bond’s article mentions an unofficial 1898 sequel, less than a year later War of the Worlds. In this novel, The Conquest of Mar by Edisons by Garrett P. Serviss, the Martians built the Great Pyramid – an early, obviously fictitious, version of the “ancient aliens” theory. Bond points out the white supremacist implications of “ancient alien” theories and worries that a sci-fi trope has turned into a conspiracy theory.
War of the Worlds had seven film adaptations, starting in 1953; several television series; video and computer games; audio dramas; and comics. Some of them change the setting. The 2005 film starring Tom Cruise and the 2019 Fox miniseries both updated the original story to a modern setting. Even Orson Welles’ show moved the action of history from southern England to New Jersey, then New York.
Even films that are not versions of Wells’ novel seem influenced by its plot, in which Martians have no immunity to Earth microbes. In Attacks on Mars! a 1996 parody, a country song destroys aliens. In Independence day (also from 1996), their fall is a computer virus. In Panels (2002), they are overcome by water. In A quiet place (2018), Deaf character Regan’s cochlear implant frequency plagues aliens. While none of these is a direct adaptation of Wells’ novel, all of them fall under the trope popularized by Wells: invading vanquished aliens by mundane terrestrial objects or organisms.
War of the Worlds helped shape the entire science fiction genre, called “science romance” in Wells’ day. Alien invasions and tributes to Wells’ novel have become common in science fiction. In the 1930s and 1940s in the United States – sometimes referred to as the golden age of science fiction – Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein, and many other authors published stories of invaders aliens. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume II, a 2002-03 limited-edition comic book series by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, is about an alien invasion.
The controversy over the novel’s airing by the Mercury Theater also seems relevant today. Radio was a new medium in 1938, so actors like Orson Welles wanted to push its limits. Meanwhile, many people lacked the media literacy to distinguish a scary and realistic fictional show from real news.
The release of the novel by the Mercury Theater raises questions about the importance of context, critical thinking, content disclaimers, and artistic license. In the genre of horror films, The wicker man (1973) and The Blair Witch Project (1999) both opened false “warnings”, suggesting that these fictional stories might in fact be true. People still share and believe disinformation online every day, even though they may not believe in an alien drama show.
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