Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Autumn/Winter 2003-2004

And speaking of Mr. Wells ...




Richard Dengrove

I imagine some fans will be reluctant to call extraterrestrials evil. It seems so judgmental, so human-centered, so unenlightened. But what do you call it when they seek to destroy us, eat us, use us, do experiments on our bodies - especially push things up our genitalia and rectums? No, we can only call them evil. Maybe not in the general scheme of things, but to us they are evil.


As fans, we might have come into evil aliens in the old pulp science fiction. I hear they were quite plentiful at one time. Heroes were always saving heroines from them. Then there were '50s and '60s horror movies, such as The Thing (1951) with James Arness, George Pal's War of the Worlds (1953), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956).


However, the evil alien is more popular these days for the role it has played in the world of flying saucers. Unlike the horror movies of the '50s, where the aliens could be everything and anything, one type dominates over the rest, the Greys. Also known as the Grays. They were named for their gray skin. Sometimes they resemble the fetus of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Sometimes, they have a big nose, which some find reminiscent of anti-Semitic stereotypes. Sometimes their eyes are slanted. Sometimes, they are short, often under five feet.


However, these seem to be the Greys' main characteristics: large heads, very thin and weak bodies, no ears, long thin fingers, large eyes. Sometimes their thin necks get stressed..


This all seems related to the original evil alien. To find out about him, we have to go back to the 1890s. And to the Mars novels. Where, as fiction, Victorians traveled to Mars and observed its civilization. The first such novel was published in 1880, but the main ones date from the 1890s. For the people of this time, the future was written in stone. To be credible to an audience, the planets had to be portrayed one way in a science fiction novel, and not deviate much from it. All planets started out hot and wet. And, over time, cooled and dried. That at first made for tropical jungles to form with lots of wild life. Some Victorian novels had big game hunters on a tropical Venus or Jupiter. Later, the planet cooled and dried still more. And it was necessary for life to become more intelligent. That was when humanoids appeared. Humanoids who became more advanced scientifically over time. To fight the encroaching cold and dryness. However, it finally overtook them. And the planet died.


This was considered science-based, and that was why you could not deviate from it. It was - sort of. That planets were originally hot, and cooled, was always attributed to the Nebula Hypothesis. The accepted theory about how the solar system originated. However, I cannot see how that could be. Instead, I suspect the idea goes back to the work of William Thomson, AKA Lord Kelvin. And his theory about why the Earth was losing heat. It was suspected that applied to the other planets too. This theory dominated the science of the time. While the Darwinians first objected, they were eventually cowed.


Changes in animal and plant life followed this. The novels claimed they were using the Theory of Evolution to explain how. I suspect their explanation was closer to theories of progress popular in the 18th Century, like Charles Bonnet's (1720-93). Of course, the theory had to be adapted to the findings of Victorian paleontology and geology. The problem is that, according to this theory, development took just one pathway. The changes in life on Mars and Venus would be the same as on Earth. According to the doctrine of Evolution, they can take many pathways, even on Earth.


A third bit of scientific evidence of the time pointed to intelligent life specifically on Mars, the canals. Lines that some felt could only have been made by intelligent irrigators. They were discovered in 1877. And I am sure they served as an inspiration for the Mars novels. It is difficult to tell how strong a theory the Canals were among astronomers. Even in the 1890s, there was some doubt about them. There is no doubt, however, the Canals appealed to the public.


And spawned a number of Mars novels. The first Mars novel of note was Across the Zodiac (1880) by the English scientist and historian Percy Greg. The Martians are technologically advanced as a result of their more highly developed reason. They have movies, which hadn't been invented then. And telephones, which had; but, I guess, were considered advanced. All was not well in this utopia. The Martians had developed their reason at the expense of their emotions. They had lost their vitality, their motivation - their purpose. In the novel, this meant they lived hedonistically with no thought to tomorrow. What is worse is they had lost empathy with other humans. Wives were chattel.


As I said, this reflected Earth's future. You would not have expected the Victorians to be dubious about progress. The impression we get of them is unlimited optimism. But it comes out in the Mars novels and, in fact, is their trademark. So some things are older than we give them credit for.


Something similar to Greg's novel happened in Robert Cromie's Plunge into Space (1890), the next Mars novel of note. The more highly developed Martian reason had made Mars a paradise even though growing conditions had gotten worse. But their reason had also been developed at the expense of their emotions. They had lost their vitality and motivation too. In this novel, that meant the Martians could not get enthusiastic about anything. Not only could they not get enthusiastic about arrivals from Earth; they could not get enthusiastic about their own space travel. They had it and lost interest in it.


The third novel of note was Gustavus Pope's Journey to Mars (1894). It is an early action adventure science fantasy à la Burroughs, complete with princesses. Unlike Greg's or Cromie's novel, the Martians have space travel. Like Greg's novel, however, because the Martians' had overdeveloped their reason, they lacked purpose, and were too involved with the selfish pursuit of pleasure. Now we get to H.G. Wells novel War of the Worlds. Up until now the aliens have been humanoids. They have looked very much like us. Like humans. Humans being considered the height of Evolution.


H.G. Wells begged to differ. And in so doing, took the Mars novel to its logical conclusion. He developed the originally humanoids species of Mars into one more rational in their minds and the design of their bodies. Reason became the reason d'être of both their minds and their bodies. Because of that, they were no longer human. The Martians had developed an enormous head. The better to support an enormous reason. In fact, they were mostly head. A head which permitted them to communicate telepathically and which, I guess, eliminated all misunderstanding.


Furthermore, the hands had evolved into tentacles. Better for manipulating things and building machines. And putting their reason into practice. Their eyes had grown too, to see better what they were doing. On the other hand, they had no bodies. The flesh is weak. Finally, his Martians no longer practiced sex, the most notorious emotion of them all. They budded like a lily or a fresh water polyp. Which means they duplicated themselves at some point in their body.


Similarly, the Martians were more rationally designed than we are. They never had to sleep or experience fatigue. Digestion causes many diseases; so it is reasonable the Martians had other means to get nutrition. They drank blood through a beak and that went directly into their blood streams. Some things that were no longer used have disappeared. Their feet, for instance. The Martians had built powerful machines to replace them. And do many other things. In fact, the Martians were heads who wore machines like we wear clothing. This was an extension of the Victorians' attitude toward machines. Also, their nose and ears were not used much anymore and had disappeared.


This did not make the Martians good, the traditional supposition; but evil. Unlike with Gregg and Cromie, motivation, vitality, purpose, etc. were still there. The need for survival on a dying planet was sufficient to sustain them. However, Martians could no longer empathize with humans. It was worse than simply losing empathy; they were no longer human. And had no more regard for us than we do for cattle. We humans could provide blood their bodies need. And be their pets. And maybe work animals. But if we stood in their way, they would crush us like vermin with their heat rays and poison gas.


And, for us, that is what makes them evil, even though they were doing no less than any other animal does. Including man. This is Wells' crowning irony. However, make no mistake about it: Wells wants us to view the Martians as evil. And he goes out of his way to make them appear horrific.


How do I know all this about Wells' Martians? H.G. Wells says so. A little in the Introduction and a lot in Book II Chapter 2 of his novel. Plus he makes references to articles in an 1893 Pall Mall Budget and Punch Magazine. The reader might be led to believe that he made up these articles to keep the novel's verisimilitude. Baloney! He is referring to his essay "Man of the Year Million," which was reprinted several times in November of 1893. Not only in the Pall Mall Budget but its mother journal, the Pall Mall Gazette. And I wonder if Wells wrote the humorous verses in Punch.


In War of the Worlds, Wells makes no bones that the Man of the Year Million and his present day Martians are supposed to be one and the same. Just like the other Mars' novels. However, in actual fact, they differ. In War of the Worlds, Wells' object was to scare the bejesus out of people rather than satire. By making his Martians horrific and appear unadulterated evil.


In the essay, Martian mouths are small and, I guess, their hands or tentacles are where their neck would be. In the '30s, he was asked to draw a picture of his Martians. And this was the way he drew them. Also, their mouths are small because, in the "Man from the Year Million," they obtained nutrition by taking nutrient baths. A Punch cartoon showed them taking a nutrient bath.


However, this differed completely from the Martians of the novel. He made them more like octopuses. Instead of a small mouth, he gave them, as I said, a beak surrounded by the tentacles. Octopuses were creatures Victorians seemed to fear. Creatures we are not supposed to fear but we do. I hear there was a totally un-p.c .scene in Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea where a hero fights a rather vicious octopus. No one around then to sing the octopus' praises. The beak had a double function: not only was it supposed to resemble an octopus'; it was so the Martians could suck blood from their victims' veins. Like vampires. Which bring terror into our hearts even today.


I doubt Wells believed a word he wrote about either Martians or the Man of the Year Million. In the "Men of the Year Million," he claimed to be the describing the theory of a rather pedantic German academic. And the rationale was a wild and woolly mixture of Hegelian philosophy and Lamarckian biology. In short, in his rationale, Wells was practicing a popular pastime of the era: ridiculing German academics. Wells certainly knew the difference between Evolution and what this fellow was advocating. He had studied under Thomas Huxley, Darwin's bulldog. In a 1906 Cosmopolitan magazine article he speculated that Evolution would likely take other paths: e.g., intelligent life might come from elephant like or octopus like creatures: rather than a path that would lead to today's Martians and the Man of the Year Million.


But while Wells knew Evolution, he also knew how to be a crowd pleaser.


According to Peter Nicholls' Science in Science Fiction (1983), "Man of the Year Million" was the more influential work. Many science fiction writers based their future man on Wells'. And their aliens. It is true few science fiction writers after Wells had the guts to do what he did: dehumanize man so much that he was no longer man. Even when the alien/future man is evil, he kept his body no matter how small and weak it had become. The hands have only long fingers and not tentacles. As for the budding and the nutrient baths, you can forget them. With those changes, that future man/alien has become a fixture on the popular science fiction landscape.


Because these beings would retain the large eyes of Wells' Martians, I wonder if that was where the phrase Bug-eyed Monster, or BEM, came from? Which was so popular during the '50s. Of course, the real rationale for this was forgotten. Scientists knew by 1910 that the Martian canals were an optical illusion. The public eventually followed. As for Lord Kelvin, it was found in the '30s that he was mistaken. However, the vision of a future man, flawed by reason both socially and by Evolution, remained.


When did this being enter the flying saucer mythos and become the Grey alien, which we were talking about earlier? Joe Nickell claims the first time was Betty and Barney Hill, 1961. However, Curtis Peebles claimed their aliens were reported to have large chests and Jimmy Durante noses. They were only Greys because their skin was gray. It was not until the 1975 Betty and Barney Hill movie, The UFO Incident, that we see full fledged Greys with large heads and eyes, and small bodies.


It was only then the Grey entered the flying saucer mythos. War of the Worlds seems to have been a greater influence here. Like Wells' Martians, and unlike his Man of the Year Million, the Greys have had nothing but contempt for us. In the late '70s and early '80s, they were often about to invade. Also, they mutilated cattle and humans for their blood. Like Wells aliens, in order to eat. They sometimes invade in a rational way, by subterfuge. Sometimes, convincing an evil or naive Federal government to let them set up cities underground. But they prove most rational when, in the 1990s, Budd Hopkins hypnotized subjects to recover memories of UFO abduction. Under hypnosis, they claimed the Greys conducted scientific tests on them: what more rational a pastime could the Greys have. And that, during these tests, the Greys pushed objects up their rectum and genitals. The very sign of rationality gone overboard.


The Greys reached the height of their popularity in the '90s. Of course, their popularity persists. I guess, like the late Victorians, we have been worried that reason has a tendency to go too far. And produce monsters.




Crowe, Michael J. The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, 1750-1900. Dover Publications,1999.

Guthke, Karl S. The Last Frontier: Imagining Other Worlds from the Copernican Revolution to Modern Science Fiction. Translated by Helen Atkins. Cornell University Press, 1990.

Nicholls, Peter, general editor. The Science in Science Fiction. Contributors, David Langford and Brian Stableford. New York : Crescent Books, 1987, c1982.

Nickell, Joe. "Extraterrestrial Iconography," Skeptical Inquirer. 21 (September/October 1997)5: 18-19.

Peebles, Curtis. Watch the Skies: A Chronicle of the Flying Saucer Myth. Smithsonian Press, 1994.

Wells, H[erbert] G[eorge]. The Critical Edition of the War of the Worlds: H.G. Wells's Scientific Romance. With introduction and notes by David Y. Hughes and Harry M. Geduld. Indian University, 1993.


[ HOME ]     [ Current Issue ]     [ Archives ]

Challenger is (c) 2003-2004 by Guy H. Lillian III.
All rights revert to contributors upon initial print and website publication.