Science Fiction Studies

#45 = Volume 15, Part 2 = July 1988


  • I.F. Clarke. Of Men and Martians (Carlo Pagetti. I Marziani alla Corte della Regina Vittoria; Hadley Cantril. The Invasion from Mars. A Study in the Psychology of Panic)
  • Patrick A. McCarthy. Stapledon's Microcosm of Community (Robert Crossley, ed. Talking Across the World: The Love Letters of Olaf Stapledon and Agnes Miller, 1913-1919)
  • Gary K. Wolfe. Not Quite Coming to Terms (Patricia S. Warrick. Mind in Motion: The Fiction of Philip K. Dick)


I.F. Clarke

Of Men and Martians

Carlo Pagetti. I Marziani alla Corte della Regina Vittoria. Pescara: Edizioni Tracce, 1986. 76pp. 14,000 lire.

Hadley Cantril. The Invasion from Mars. A Study in the Psychology of Panic. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1986. xvi + 224pp. $27.00 (cloth), $9.95 (paper).

In their different ways these two books give striking proof that the drawing power of H.G. Wells, Founding Father of modern SF, continues undiminished. One indication of a vigorous longevity is this new edition of Hadley Cantril's classic study of The Invasion from Mars, which first appeared in 1940. It now comes complete with the original Orson Welles adaptation of The War of the Worlds, a notorious broadcast which spread panic and alarm throughout the US on the Hallowe'en Night of 1938. Another sign of unfailing interest in the Grand Old Man appears in I Marziani alla Corte della Regina Vittoria, a short study of themes and devices in the early Wellsian fiction and a tribute from a distinguished Italian scholar.

Carlo Pagetti risked much in accepting a limit of some 53 pages for his examination of the scientific romances he chose to study. Nevertheless, he has succeeded admirably in giving his Italian readers an elegant and instructive introduction to Wells's manifold achievements as the first great innovator in the then new kind of fiction. Pagetti starts from the common ground he shares with Darko Suvin, Robert Philmus, and Patrick Parrinder; and he sets out to show how--from the first chapter of The Time Machine onwards--Wells modified and adapted the traditional literary forms--utopias, voyages to an unknown land, imaginary visitants. In effect, Pagetti says, one way to understand the early scientific romances is to see them as natural literary products of the first great age of scientific progress. The rapid spread of scientific information in the last century, the many applications of Darwinism, the expectation of future change generated by the spectacular advances in the new technologies, and the evidence that Earth history was immensely longer and far stranger than former generations had ever imagined --these facts composed the dense cultural humus that encouraged the flowering of Wellsian ideas in the scientific romances. So, in one sense, Wells appears at the end of a century of unprecedented change, well prepared by contemporary experience and by a scientific education to see himself, in the Tennysonian phrase of 1842, as "the heir of all ages, in the foremost files of time."

For Pagetti, then, that sense of organic evolution and of constant technological development is a primary force at work in Wellsian fiction. It leads to a most fruitful experimentation that allowed Wells to transform the traditional patterns of the utopian narrative with great effect. This follows from the creation of new space and new time, since Wells so often concentrates the action of his stories "in the description of a domestic space, minutely described in its topography, which becomes 'utopia,' a 'nowhere' for the invasion of the alien forces" (p. 33). These external influences effect a radical modification of external and internal reality, from the grotesque reign of terror in The Invisible Man to the apocalyptic conquests of the Martian warriors. In this way Wells was able to exploit "the sense of genetic and cultural evolution" that sustains the on-going vigor of his stories. This re-shaping of time and place within the Wellsian narrative leaves the action forever open to future possibilities. At the end there are questions waiting for the reader: What will happen when the pursuers of the Invisible Man get their hands on his secret formula, and what will the Artilleryman do when he has got control of a Martian war machine? As Pagetti observes, "the apocalypse is not the arrival of the Martians, but the 'Martian' quality of future generations and of new ways of living" (p. 33).

The Wellsian scientific romance echoes, and responds to, this unfailing dynamic of being and becoming. The world of 2200 in When the Sleeper Wakes is a universe in constant, agitated movement. It is "a future linked dynamically to the real present by its continual openness to the possibilities of the narrative imagination which unites technology and politics, economics and entertainment, within the experiences of an intellectual" (p. 48). When the Sleeper returns to consciousness in the brave new world of the 23rd century, he is alone like any Crusoe or Gulliver, and his imagination has to piece together whatever coherences he can find in that future society. This process of discovery, as Pagetti sees it, decides both the matter and the manner of the telling. Wells re-works his experience into his stories, and so he creates "an authentic romance of the future, because it is a work that makes the future into an imaginative dimension of fin-de-siècle England" (p. 50). A parallel dynamism operates throughout the narrative mechanism, which records, and reflects on, the ceaseless efforts of the Sleeper to comprehend the turbulent, chaotic urban universe in which he finds himself.

Is the Sleeper no more than a convenient narrative device? Far from it, says Pagetti, for he is the true heir of all the great utopias; he is the Gulliver who explores the future world which Wells has shaped out of his own expectations. More than that, in the last analysis and in the final pages, when Graham takes to the air against Ostrog, the Sleeper is Wells in his role as the changer of worlds, "the King who will come in his good time and put the world right for them." For an imagination of the Wellsian range every sleep has its special dream, and every awakening can reveal another world in a different future. That conclusion is typical of this brief and lucid book. It is in the best sense an introduction to the scientific romances, and it would undoubtedly profit an enterprising publisher to produce an English translation.

From the future to the past. Aged readers of this journal may possibly recall that Hallowe'en night in 1938, when a dramatic adaptation of The War of the Worlds startled the US and raised a few eyebrows in Europe. The event was more than sufficient proof of the essentially dramatic quality of the scientific romances, and it was also evidence of the curious American propensity for transposing the action in The War of the Worlds to their own country. The first purloining of the Martian invasion has been admirably described by David Hughes in "The War of the Worlds in the Yellow Press" (Journalism Quarterly, 53 [1966]:639-46). There he reports on the pirating of the original Wellsian story, first in the New York Journal in 1897 and then in an enlarged version in the Boston Post in 1898. What the copy-writers supplied was a great all-American disaster. Readers in New York could browse through detailed descriptions of conspicuous destruction: the heat-rays atomize Brooklyn Bridge, and St Patrick's Cathedral, and most of Columbia University, and most other things in their sights. The Bostonians suffered even more, for the Martians obliterate all the famous historic monuments and the major buildings on the line of their advance through Concord and Lexington. Factories, railroads, docks, and shipping --everything vanished in the first great interplanetary war in the history of old Terra.

Some 40 years later, after the radio had added a new dimension to the communications industry, the Martians returned to do their worst in the US. It all began on the evening of Sunday October 30, 1938, when the Announcer cued in the eight o'clock program: "The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater on the Air in The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells." Half an hour later and half-way through the dramatization, telephone exchanges began to jam throughout the Eastern states and thousands of Americans hid themselves or fled in panic, as the CBS stations broadcast the fearful news of the Martian advance. It was a notorious incident--"TIDAL WAVE OF TERROR SWEEPS NATION" as the newspapers reported next day. Orson Welles, when interviewed, affected total innocence and talked of the realistic drama, but more recent evidence suggests that he was well aware of what he was doing.

And then certain people began to ask the question: Why the panic? Within a week of the Orson Welles broadcast, a research team from Princeton University had gone into the New Jersey area with their clipboards and questionnaires. Their director was Hadley Cantril, who later on established the Office of Public Opinion Research at Princeton University; he had just turned 30 in 1938. He had the great good luck to find the ideal subject for a social-science survey right there on his own academic doorstep. His findings appeared in 1940 with the appropriate title of The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic. It has gone through several editions since then, and it now appears in a paperback edition together with the full text of the original broadcast. The study is a model of its kind, but it has little --can have little--to say about the Wells who wrote The War of the Worlds. It assembles the relevant data: 32 million families then owned radios, and an estimated 12 million heard the broadcast; and there are 10 tables that summarize the information on the economic status of the listeners, educational levels, reactions, and so on. The interviews make for fascinating reading. One half-terrified listener reported: "I said to my nephew, we may as well eat this chicken--We won't be here in the morning." Another had a wry pleasure in recalling: "the broadcast had us all worried, but I knew it would at least scare ten years' life out of my mother-in-law" (p. 162).

There is not the least trace of intended irony in saying that Cantril's study offers adequate evidence for what one already knew from intuition and experience. The will-to-believe and the rush-to-escape were directly related to education and economic status. The higher the level of education, the more critical the reception: of those who questioned the broadcast, two-thirds were graduates. What convinced most of the believers was the apparent voice of authority--a professor of astronomy, the Secretary of the Interior, radio reporters. And what made most of them so receptive to such frightening reports was, as many said, the troubled state of their world in the 1930s. Indeed, one columnist summed up the panic as a natural consequence of living in a time of troubles: "The course of world history has affected national psychology. Jitters have come home to roost. We have just gone through a laboratory demonstration of the fact that the peace of Munich hangs heavy over our heads, like a thundercloud" (p. 202).

The most potent factor of all, however, was not within the terms of reference for the Cantril investigation. The radio version succeeded admirably in preserving the startling variety and extraordinary realism of the original story. The adaptor kept as close to the text as he could, and Wells did the rest for him. Howard Koch was so successful that the CBS stations had to make a special announcement at the end of the program: for all those who "did not realize that the program was merely a modernized adaptation of H.G. Wells's famous novel..., we are repeating the fact which was made clear four times on the program, that while the names of some American cities were used, as in all novels and dramatizations, the entire story and all its incidents were fictitious."

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