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Science fiction in its infancy: Fantastic illustrations for ‘The War of the Worlds’ from 1906

H. G. Wells must have had a blast writing The War of the Worlds—his classic tale of a martian invasion destroying most of south-east England, for this fictional invention allowed Wells to take wicked revenge on the stifling suburbs and hick towns that had constrained him during his childhood in Kent and his youth when he worked as a draper’s assistant. Wells loathed Little England‘s suburban middle class—which is a tad ironic considering that many of his own views were the epitome of the worst kind of Little Englander.

Wells’ early inspiration for The War of the Worlds came during his time as a teacher working in the environs of grimy, industrial Stoke-on-Trent in the late 1880s. He was astonished to see the night lit red by the iron foundry furnaces—and the relentless alien clanking mechanized sound of machinery. It started an idea that was further developed by reading the works of scientist Thomas Huxley—in particular his propagation of evolutionary theories on natural selection.

Huxley had been considering theories on issues of good and evil from a Darwinian perspective. Huxley suggested goodness was not related to a divine creator but merely the result of other cultural and social developments. To make his point, he offered up the analogy of a gardener tending to his garden by removing the weeds and pests—to ensure what was best could flourish. This line of thinking he further developed with the example of colonization—in particular the English establishing settlements in Tasmania:

They clear away native vegetation, extirpate or drive out the animal population, so far as may be necessary… In their place, they introduce grain and fruit trees; English dogs, sheep, cattle, horses; and Englishmen.

Wells assimilated Huxley’s thoughts and cleverly embedded these in The War of the Worlds—but instead of Englishmen he used an invading army of ruthless Martians to destroy and crush the indigenous population.

Perhaps surprisingly, Wells didn’t think this form of colonization was necessarily a bad thing. He considered it all part of the “evolutionary process” as he later wrote in his book Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought where he revealed some of his own very troubling Little Englander views.

In Anticipations Wells detailed his speculations on the future—where cities would expand, labor-saving devices would offer more leisure time and the world would be run by a “new class of modern efficients.” Wells looked forward to a world that eradicated the physically and mentally ill, the lower classes and “those swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people” that would “have to go.” The book was incredibly popular—but was later described as “strong-armed fascism.” Wells was a socialist—so it’s not always the Alt-Right who hold racist views. It was two Catholic writers—G. K. Chesterton and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—who forcefully condemned Wells’ wrong-headed and racist thinking which stemmed from his dodgy interpretation of Darwinian theory.

In spite of Wells’ many odd and often grossly intolerant pronouncements throughout his long life—his works have—as Jorge Luis Borges said—become mythic and will last long after the English language is forgotten. Which is palpably true as Wells concepts of alien invasion (The War of the Worlds) or time travel (The Time Machine) or animal hybrids (The Island of Doctor Moreau) have become embedded in universal culture—identifiable ideas to even those who have never heard of. let alone read H. G. Wells.

Wells started writing The War of the Worlds in 1895. He finished it sometime in early 1896 and revised it in 1897. The story was originally serialized in Pearson’s Magazine in 1897 and was published in book form in 1898—since when it has never been out of print. It has been adapted for the screen, television and even concept albums too many times to mention.

In 1906, Brazilian artist Henrique Alvim Corrêa produced a stunning series of some 130 illustrations for a French limited deluxe edition of The War of the Worlds. Though Corrêa tragically died from tuberculosis at the early age of 34 in 1910—and much of his work was lost during Germany’s invasion during the First World War—his illustrations for The War of the Worlds—created in consultation with Wells—are the definitive illustrations to this classic work of science fiction.
More invaders from Mars, after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
‘Who’s Out There?’: Orson Welles explores the possibility of Extraterrestrial Life in 1975

In 1975, a year before NASA’s Viking 1 spacecraft orbited Mars, Orson Welles presented Who’s Out There?, a NASA produced documentary examining the “likely existence of non-Earthly life in the universe.”

Thirty-six years on, this is a fascinating piece of archive, and rather timely with the news that NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory is due to be launched in November in a bid to make the first precision landing on Mars in August 2012.

Starting with H G Wells novel, and his own infamous radio production of The War of the Worlds, Welles, together with Carl Sagan, George Wald, Richard Berendzen and Philip Morrison, explore what was then “the new view of extraterrestrial life now emerging from the results of probes to the planets,” and conclude that “other intelligent civilizations exist in the universe.”

Carl Sagan:  The most optimistic estimates, in the view of many, about the number of civilizations that there might be in the galaxy is of the order of a million, which means that only one in a few hundred thousand stars has such civilizations.
George Wald:  That would mean a billion such places just in our own galaxy that might contain life.
Philip Morrison:  As I believe there’s a society of these groups, not just one, there’re probably very many.  There’s only one, we have no hope of finding them; there’re probably thousands, maybe as many as a million.  They probably already have had long history of this same experience, of finding new ones and bringing them into the network.
Carl Sagan:  And I would imagine, an advanced civilization wanted to talk to us, they would say “Oh, look, those guys must be extremely backwards, go into some ancient museum and pull out one of those – what are they called – radio telescopes and beam it at them.”

In summation, Welles says:

In 1976 we’re going to be able to explore Mars for perhaps not so humble microorganisms.  Before and after that, we’ll be searching the planets and the galaxies for clues to fill in the new patterns we’re discovering, the evolution of evolutions that has produced us and the possible millions of other civilizations….
...The difference between the spacecrafts of NASA and the lurid flying saucery of that old radio War of the Worlds is the difference between science and science fiction and, yes, between war and peace.  It’s our own world which has turned out to be the interplanetary visitor; we’re the ones who are moving out there, not with death rays but with cameras, not to conquer but simply to learn. We are in fact behaving ourselves far better out there than we ever have back here at home on our own planet.


Bonus - Orson Welles directs The Mercury Theater’s radio production of The War of the Worlds


Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Scientists Create Invisibility Cloak

Since Perseus escaped the gorgons with his helm of invisibility, the idea of a cap or cloak of invisibility has been a fixture of myth and fairy tale. A helmet of invisibility appears in Norse mythology, and the first mention of an invisibility cloak occurs in Welsh folklore, with the story of Caswallawn (the historical Cassivellaunus), who used one to murder Caradog ap Bran and his fellow chieftains. From then via H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Man through Jack the Giant Killer, via science-fiction to Harry Potter, invisibility has been the stuff of fantasy.

Now scientists at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland maybe about to change all that, as they have created a material which could be used to create an invisibility cloak. The material, called Metaflex, may provide a way to manipulate light to render objects invisible.

Metamaterials have already been developed, which bend and channel light to render objects invisible at longer wavelengths, but visible light poses a greater challenge because its short wavelength means the metamaterial atoms have to be very small. So far such small light-bending atoms have only been produced on flat, hard surfaces unsuitable for use in clothing.

In 2006, a group of US/UK scientists announced they had devised a way of cloaking that made solid objects disappear from sight.   At the time, Sir John Pendry, the theoretical physicist at Imperial College London, who developed the idea, said cloaking devices to hide vehicles from radar were only a matter of years away, but as Pendry explained, “Our device is more an invisibility shed than an invisibility cloak.”

Today newspapers report scientists at St Andrews believe they may have overcome this problem, as:

They have produced flexible metamaterial “membranes” using a new technique that frees the meta-atoms from the hard surface they are constructed on. Metaflex can operate at wavelengths of around 620 nanometres, within the visible light region.

Stacking the membranes together could produce a flexible “smart fabric” that may provide the basis of an invisibility cloak, the scientists believe. Other applications could include “superlenses” that are far more efficient than conventional lenses.

Describing their work in the New Journal of Physics, the researchers write: “Arguably, one of the most exciting applications of Metaflex is to fabricate three-dimensional flexible MMs (metamaterials) in the optical range, which can be achieved by stacking several Metaflex membranes on top of one another…

“These results confirm that it is possible to realise MMs on flexible substrates and operating in the visible regime, which we believe are ideal building blocks for future generations of three-dimensional flexible MMs at optical wavelengths.”

Lead scientist Dr Andrea Di Falco said: “Metamaterials give us the ultimate handle on manipulating the behaviour of light.”

The full report from the New Journal of Physics can be read here.

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Happy Birthday H. G. Wells
06:25 pm


H. G. Wells
Nerd Culture


Today is the 143rd birthday of H. G. Wells, the author of The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, The Island of Dr. Moreau and dozens of other lesser known works. Though he’s responsible for inventing many of the most-known tropes of the genre, Wells thought of himself not as a genre writer but as a social commentator. This National Geographic article, for instance, quotes a telescope maker as saying “One of the jobs of science fiction writers is not so much to predict the future as to prevent the future. In that regard, Wells did a very good job.”

Apparently, and mind-bogglingly, H. G. Wells is also the man responsible not only for modern science fiction but also for table-top wargaming, which eventually led to the creation of things like Dungeons and Dragons, Warhammer 40K and World of Warcraft. No sh*t!

Let us salute one of the fathers of all nerddom!

Posted by Jason Louv | Leave a comment