This post is just a short follow-up to the post back in June concerning Martians. Recall from that post how, during the decades around the year 1900, certain astronomers and science writers such as Percival Lowell, Giovanni Schiaparelli, and Camille Flammarion popularized the idea that Mars was inhabited by a race of technologically advanced intelligent beings. Lowell argued that these Martians had built a global network of canals to irrigate their planet, which was gradually losing its water. Schiaparelli suggested that the changing appearance of the canals indicated that Mars had a global socialist government, with a Minister of Agriculture who controlled the irrigation. Major newspapers ran stories about how Mars was inhabited, and what the Martians were up to.
All this of course had an impact on the popular culture of the time—and indeed on our popular culture today. Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of the “Tarzan” stories, also created a series of stories about “John Carter of Mars”. John Carter was an Earth-man somehow transported to Mars (known to its inhabitants as Barsoom). On Barsoom, where gravity is weaker than on Earth, Carter, the strange visitor from another planet, had exceptional strength and speed and jumping ability—John Carter was a precursor to certain superheroes. And yes, the Martian canals appear in the John Carter stories:
We were twenty days upon the road, crossing two sea bottoms and passing through or around a number of ruined cities, mostly smaller than Korad. Twice we crossed the famous Martian waterways, or canals, so-called by our earthly astronomers. When we approached these points a warrior would be sent far ahead with a powerful field glass, and if no great body of red Martian troops was in sight we would advance as close as possible without chance of being seen and then camp until dark, when we would slowly approach the cultivated tract, and, locating one of the numerous, broad highways which cross these areas at regular intervals, creep silently and stealthily across to the arid lands upon the other side. It required five hours to make one of these crossings without a single halt, and the other consumed the entire night, so that we were just leaving the confines of the high-walled fields when the sun broke out upon us.
John Carter of Mars even had his own comic book in the 1970s, and was the subject of a 2012 Disney movie.
The British author H. G. Wells took the ideas about Mars and its canals and expanded upon them. Yes, Mars was dry, and yes, there was a technologically advanced race of aliens on Mars who built the canals to make best use of Mars’s limited water resources. And furthermore, those aliens had decided that Earth looked like a good place to be—and they were coming here, with their superior technology, to conquer Earth and take advantage of Earth’s plentiful resources! Wells’s War of the Worlds, published in 1898, pitted invading Martians against the British Army and Royal Navy. Giant Martian three-legged walking fighting vehicles armed with both “phaser”-like heat rays and chemical weapons devastated the English countryside, while British artillery and ironclad battleships fought back with only limited success.* Wells’s War of the Worlds led to an entire genre of pop-culture, giving rise in one way or another to a number of popular artistic efforts featuring “invading aliens”, including Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds radio program in 1938, the 1953 War of the Worlds movie, the 1996 movie Independence Day and its recent sequel, and another movie version of War of the Worlds in 2005, just to name a few.
So the stuff of Hollywood summer blockbusters—the superheroes and the invading alien hordes (and, best of all, superheroes versus invading alien hordes!)—seems to have an origin in the Martians craze of the turn of the twentieth century, a craze which itself had its origin in the work of certain astronomers.
*Perhaps not surprisingly for a story written at the dawn of the twentieth century in Great Britain, it was the Royal Navy that managed the most success in bringing down Martian fighting vehicles. Wells’s description of a battle between a British warship and some Martian vehicles, as witnessed from a small paddle-wheel steamboat carrying refugees away from London, reads like it was written for a Hollywood summer sci-fi blockbuster battle scene:
The little steamer was already flapping her way eastward of the big crescent of shipping, and the low Essex coast was growing blue and hazy, when a Martian appeared, small and faint in the remote distance, advancing along the muddy coast from the direction of Foulness. At that the captain on the bridge swore at the top of his voice with fear and anger at his own delay, and the paddles seemed infected with his terror. Every soul aboard stood at the bulwarks or on the seats of the steamer and stared at that distant shape, higher than the trees or church towers inland, and advancing with a leisurely parody of a human stride.
It was the first Martian my brother had seen, and he stood, more amazed than terrified, watching this Titan advancing deliberately towards the shipping, wading farther and farther into the water as the coast fell away. Then, far away beyond the Crouch, came another, striding over some stunted trees, and then yet another, still farther off, wading deeply through a shiny mudflat that seemed to hang halfway up between sea and sky. They were all stalking seaward, as if to intercept the escape of the multitudinous vessels that were crowded between Foulness and the Naze. In spite of the throbbing exertions of the engines of the little paddleboat, and the pouring foam that her wheels flung behind her, she receded with terrifying slowness from this ominous advance.
Glancing northwestward, my brother saw the large crescent of shipping already writhing with the approaching terror; one ship passing behind another, another coming round from broadside to end on, steamships whistling and giving off volumes of steam, sails being let out, launches rushing hither and thither. He was so fascinated by this and by the creeping danger away to the left that he had no eyes for anything seaward. And then a swift movement of the steamboat (she had suddenly come round to avoid being run down) flung him headlong from the seat upon which he was standing. There was a shouting all about him, a trampling of feet, and a cheer that seemed to be answered faintly. The steamboat lurched and rolled him over upon his hands.
He sprang to his feet and saw to starboard, and not a hundred yards from their heeling, pitching boat, a vast iron bulk like the blade of a plough tearing through the water, tossing it on either side in huge waves of foam that leaped towards the steamer, flinging her paddles helplessly in the air, and then sucking her deck down almost to the waterline.
A douche of spray blinded my brother for a moment. When his eyes were clear again he saw the monster had passed and was rushing landward. Big iron upperworks rose out of this headlong structure, and from that twin funnels projected and spat a smoking blast shot with fire. It was the torpedo ram, Thunder Child, steaming headlong, coming to the rescue of the threatened shipping.
Keeping his footing on the heaving deck by clutching the bulwarks, my brother looked past this charging leviathan at the Martians again, and he saw the three of them now close together, and standing so far out to sea that their tripod supports were almost entirely submerged. Thus sunken, and seen in remote perspective, they appeared far less formidable than the huge iron bulk in whose wake the steamer was pitching so helplessly. It would seem they were regarding this new antagonist with astonishment. To their intelligence, it may be, the giant was even such another as themselves. The Thunder Child fired no gun, but simply drove full speed towards them. It was probably her not firing that enabled her to get so near the enemy as she did. They did not know what to make of her. One shell, and they would have sent her to the bottom forthwith with the Heat-Ray.
She was steaming at such a pace that in a minute she seemed halfway between the steamboat and the Martians—a diminishing black bulk against the receding horizontal expanse of the Essex coast.
Suddenly the foremost Martian lowered his tube and discharged a canister of the black gas at the ironclad. It hit her larboard side and glanced off in an inky jet that rolled away to seaward, an unfolding torrent of Black Smoke, from which the ironclad drove clear. To the watchers from the steamer, low in the water and with the sun in their eyes, it seemed as though she were already among the Martians.
They saw the gaunt figures separating and rising out of the water as they retreated shoreward, and one of them raised the camera-like generator of the Heat-Ray. He held it pointing obliquely downward, and a bank of steam sprang from the water at its touch. It must have driven through the iron of the ship’s side like a white-hot iron rod through paper.
A flicker of flame went up through the rising steam, and then the Martian reeled and staggered. In another moment he was cut down, and a great body of water and steam shot high in the air. The guns of the Thunder Child sounded through the reek, going off one after the other, and one shot splashed the water high close by the steamer, ricocheted towards the other flying ships to the north, and smashed a smack to matchwood.
But no one heeded that very much. At the sight of the Martian’s collapse the captain on the bridge yelled inarticulately, and all the crowding passengers on the steamer’s stern shouted together. And then they yelled again. For, surging out beyond the white tumult, drove something long and black, the flames streaming from its middle parts, its ventilators and funnels spouting fire.
She was alive still; the steering gear, it seems, was intact and her engines working. She headed straight for a second Martian, and was within a hundred yards of him when the Heat-Ray came to bear. Then with a violent thud, a blinding flash, her decks, her funnels, leaped upward. The Martian staggered with the violence of her explosion, and in another moment the flaming wreckage, still driving forward with the impetus of its pace, had struck him and crumpled him up like a thing of cardboard. My brother shouted involuntarily. A boiling tumult of steam hid everything again.
“Two!,” yelled the captain.
Everyone was shouting. The whole steamer from end to end rang with frantic cheering that was taken up first by one and then by all in the crowding multitude of ships and boats that was driving out to sea.
The steam hung upon the water for many minutes, hiding the third Martian and the coast altogether. And all this time the boat was paddling steadily out to sea and away from the fight; and when at last the confusion cleared, the drifting bank of black vapour intervened, and nothing of the Thunder Child could be made out, nor could the third Martian be seen. But the ironclads to seaward were now quite close and standing in towards shore past the steamboat.
Of course, if you’ve seen another War of the Worlds knock-off, the 2012 movie Battleship, it does seem that the citizens of the British Empire are not the only ones to like the idea that their navy is not utterly ineffectual against alien invaders!