The Profane Invasion or: How I Stopped Caring and Learned to love Steven Spielberg.

mars-attacks-invasion-box

Review of Tomorrow’s Worlds: the Unearthly History of Science Fiction.  2: Invasion.  First Broadcast on BBC, 29th November 2014.

I have to admit that I found the second programme in the Tomorrow’s Worlds series rather dull.  The selection of material was obvious, most explanations trite.  Or rather, the only explanation offered is that these invasion stories “reflected the anxieties of their day” which is sometimes true and often not true.  The structuring is a little better than the first instalment, working with a rough chronological narrative starting with HG Wells War of the Worlds (1898) weaving through a number of themes (invasion, alien infiltration, a diversion on British TV, invaders of human creation, a diversion on the X-files and aliens as a metaphor for racial and ethnic conflict).  Pointedly, the programme finds no room for humanity invading the planets of others (Dominic has already rudely dismissed the content of Avatar in the previous episode as visually stunning but otherwise “Dances with Wolves in space”).  Thus there is no room for Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950) with its story of humanity’s colonisation of the already inhabited Mars with some strong parallels of colonialism on Earth.

That The Martian Chronicles are ignored is indicative not just of the strong apolitical current in the series, but this instalment’s near complete focus on film with a secondary concern for TV.  The only work of literature that was the primary focus of attention was War of the Worlds, although quickly moving onto the 1953 George Pal/Byron Haskin film.  Other than this the only literary works that are mentioned are as brief introductions to films that were based on them.  Other than this, there is no literary dimension at all (and no room for Jeff Wayne’s 1978 concept album, War of the Worlds, which was a huge relief).

Dominic’s discussion of Wells’ War of the Worlds is not convincing.  He places it in the context of the anti-German (and, of a degree, anti-French) jingoistic literature (although he is careful to say that the novel goes beyond this genre, but leaves out precisely how it goes so unsaid).  The first example of this genre was George Tomkyns The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer (1871) wherein an unnamed but very Prussian country invades Britain.  Because of Britain’s lack of preparedness, it is defeated leading to its annexation and the break-up of the Empire.  The book, like others in the genre, is exactly as Dominic describes, fuelled by a belief in Britain’s military weakness and a call for rearmament.  In the years that followed this became an increasingly popular genre, particularly through the work of William Le Queux, most noted for the Franco-Russian invasion fantasy The Great War in England in 1897 (1894) and the anti-German invasion fantasy The Invasion of 1910 (1906).

It is wrong to suggest, as Dominic appears to, that War of the Worlds is part of this genre.  Certainly, Wells borrows from Chesney: the alien invasion in Wells’ book starts in Woking, a few miles away from the Dorking of Chesney’s book.  This device (to which Dominic alludes several times) of placing war in a familiar suburban setting, predates its SF usage.  Wells was also to borrow from Le Queux’s The Invasion of 1910 (1906) for his own War in the Air (1908),[1] thus proving that all science fiction writers steal their ideas, and only when this proves impossible do they resort to the sneaky practice of making their ideas up.[2]

Dominic states that Wells did not share the Jingoism of such authors, but leaves the idea hanging in the air that he too was concerned about the stability of the British Empire.  This is in line with Dominic’s refrain through the series, that SF reflects the anxieties and hopes of the age.  This is dull and reductionist view which at best is half-truth.  What Wells, Chesney and Le Queax have in common is that they are writing speculative history and it is likely that anyone writing this will have some kind of political agenda.  Why else show possible futures?  The difference between them is exactly their political intent, and Wells was the opposite of that of the jingos.  There are many strands in Wells’ War of the Worlds, but it is almost impossible not to read it as, at least in part, a critique of British and European colonialism with its destruction, disregard for life, enslavement and importation of alien crops (the Martian’s “red weed”).[3]  Unlike many late Victorian social democrats and progressive liberals, at the time of writing War of the Worlds Wells was no supporter of the Empire and thought it worthless unless it formed the basis of a world government.  Certainly, by the time of the First World War, Wells was clearly for the dissolution of Empire and the end of the subordination of colonial peoples[4]

The problem is that Wells’ political book is confused with the apolitical 1952 film adaptation.  Dominic states that the end of the film is true to the end of Wells’ book, in that the aliens are killed not by human endeavour but by earthly bacterial infections, and while the film does quote Wells’ line that the Martians were defeated “by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth,” notably the element of the feeling of religious deliverance is common to the book and the film.  What is lacking in the film is the book’s political message, understated as it is, that in order to face an uncertain future earth most be united in its common humanity.

Just as Dominic attempts to put Wells’ book in the context of the tensions leading to the First World War (Wells did this much more in his War in the Air (1908)), he continues to see future alien invasion films as responses to the fear of real war.  He goes on to report that Orson Welles’ 1938 Radio production of War of the Worlds caused panic in the USA because of the existing tension in the USA about the build up to war in Europe.  This is taken as more evidence of SF reflecting the “anxieties of our times”.  There are only two things wrong with this.  Firstly, as Joseph Campbell has shown in his Getting it Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism (2010) the impact of Orson Welles’ radio broadcast has been hugely inflated, and while some listeners were disturbed by it there was no mass panic.[5]

Secondly, the level of anxiety over the war in the USA, while often cited in connection with the Welles broadcast[6] is overstated.  While there was a degree of anxiety in the USA, not just over the situation in Europe but of Japan’s action in the Pacific, I can find little evidence that this had a decisive impact on US public opinion at that time other than accepting that the USA should build up its military resources as a preventative measure.[7]  Fear of the possibility of a return to depression was a much greater fear.[8]  (The USA in the 1930s is far from being my area of expertise, so if anyone can give me further guidance here it would be appreciated).

As with a broken clock being right twice a day, sometimes Dominic’s analysis hits home.  It is difficult not to read the 1953 film version of War of the Worlds as Cold War anxiety.  Indeed the film makes the point before the opening credits; it follows footage of the destruction of the two world wars not with the threat of the third world war, but a war of the worlds fought with the weapons of “super-science”.  But by taking the analysis up to Independence Day (1996) it is unclear what the present day anxiety might be.  The mid-nineties was the nadir of anxiety, the heyday of a post Soviet world, where the USA had flexed its military might in its first major post-Vietnam operation in a limited policing operation in Kuwait.  The USA was now a hyperpower basking in the new world order a fin de histoire legitimacy.  The film can be read as a reassertion of individual masculinity, and an unabashed call for the US to use its superpower status in a masculine way.  Dominic’s reading of the tone of the film as hubristic is fair enough, but this does not explain why the film was made as it was.  The film is filled with cinematic clichés and ones that ignore Wells’ key point that once a species can build space ships and cover huge distances to reach us, if they want a fight they are unlikely to lose.  The plot is riddled with holes and is so implauible to make it unworthy of serious consideration as SF.  Rather, it is Top Gun with aliens.

Dominic then moves on to an alien infiltration film.  Here, Dominic is right to be cautious about reading Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a straight reds-under-the-bed parable, since (as he suggests) the evidence is that (like all good story telling) this is far wider in its story of the fear of losing individuality which could be read as a Stepford Wives (1975) style criticism of US society.  He is much less sure-footed with his reading of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) and the film adaptation of it, The Village of the Damned (1960).  Dominic sees these as a reaction to the youth rebellion and the growing feeling of a generation gap in Britain.  I am not sure what the evidence for this might be.  The limited disorder around the film Blackboard Jungle and “Teddy Boys” was in May 1955, and may have influenced the writing of the Midwich Cuckoos, published in October 1957.  But the children in the book are no teddy boys, they are demure, polite, over-worldly, self-controlled and anything but wild.  Their power is in their minds, not their fists.  If it was a metaphor it was one that no-one picked up on at the time, or since.  The themes that run through the book are altogether different.  As Dominic comments (quite rightly) elsewhere in the programme, it was the Notting Hill riots of 1958 that shook people up (and the first literary expression of this followed, most notably Colin McInnes’s Absolute Beginners (1959)).  More generalised anxiety about youth rebellion and the generation gap is really a 1960s phenomenon.

The themes of the Midwich Cuckoos are those of morally ambiguous choice (humanity is saved only by a savage choice of the local intellectual who has won the children’s trust to kill them in a suicide bombing).  As Dan Rebellato points out in a notable essay on Wyndham, the book can also be read as a struggle between men and women.[9]  There is no evidence that the book is informed, either consciously or sub-consciously, by the fear of growing intergenerational conflict.  There is a some discussion of The Thing from Another World (1951) and John Carpenter’s remake, The Thing (1982) but these are more horror films with an SF slant.  But by this point the programme lapses into being little more than a series of clips of well known films.

The distinct impression is given that Stephen Spielberg is the most important SF auteur with time spent on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T (1982) and Jurassic Park(1993).  There are, amongst this, some important points where the material bears up to the explanations offered up.  So the discussion of Godzilla as reflecting Japan’s wartime experience of nuclear bombing is fair enough.  As John Landis puts it “All monster are metaphors.  Godzilla is the most obvious one”

Nowhere does the selection of material become worse than with the section on aliens to Earth as migrants, with its potential to act as a metaphor of racism and xenophobia.  Two of the films picked to look at this are poor choices, Alien Nation  (1988) attempts to look at racial politics in the USA though human-Alien encounters.  This is remarkable only in that it mimics the inter-racial police buddy film Lethal Weapon (1987) without being as good (or the cop-convict variant 48 Hours (1981)).  Alien Nation deals with race less well through its heavy handed and obvious metaphor than many other films already had through a naturalistic means (think of comedy’s record in Blazing Saddles (1974) and The Jerk(1979))  Worse, the programme then moves onto The Men in Black (1997), before only returning briefly to something of any quality in the South African film District 9.

This does not add up to a great deal, and I skim past this since here it is the structure of the programme that is at fault, leaving Dominic with very little to comment about.  But the problem is not fundamentally his.

The point is where there is substantial material to work with, nothing is made of it.  This series purports to be a history of science fiction, but it is not.  “Invasion” has its moments where it could have started to do this.  HG Wells took the conventions of the imperialistic anti-German and anti-French future-war novels of the late Victorian period and turned these right-wing speculative fictions on their head (as Dominic states at the last, but no analysis is built around this) with a political work that can be taken as a critique of colonialism.  (Or perhaps the aliens can be seen as our future selves.  Wells was influenced by eugenics, and this is a man grown heartless in a society that selects for callousness: without a rational global society this is what man might become).  A similar point is made about Daleks, they are fictional tin-pot dictators based only on our own inhumanity, a point that is stated but then not woven into a compelling narrative in any way.

The largest failing is that the series fails to take SF itself seriously.  Whereas in the first programme it did at least have the virtue of introducing the casual viewer to a side of SF that they may not have known.  Particularly it looked as the anthropological and sociological worksof Ursula K. Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson, but this instalment was a compendium of the predictable and well known.  That we have three Spielberg films is a give-away, this is a history of the blockbuster.  Missing was the concept of SF as a genre in fiction.  It was one that moved from the popularist comic books and quickly written pulp-fiction of the 1930s  (although much transcended its genre and their were outliers), to one that split in the late 1950s into the less science driven literary and social new wave (Michael Moorcock, JG Ballard, Brian Aldiss and perhaps Philip K. Dick) and the more science driven hard core (Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, Robert A. Heinlein).  Explaining this would have set up some idea that there is an internal dynamics to SF as a literary form.  This could then be used in tandem with looking at it in relation to the existing social world it relates to (although to assume it reflects it is simplistic).  The way that both sides of this split have informed SF on film and TV since the 1960s could them give the series conceptually some underpinning, it could challenge the viewer rather than comfort them with clips of the familiar and often bland.

This is an opportunity not so much wasted, as one that has been abused, shot and dumped in a popularist ditch.

[1] See Simon James, “Introduction” in H.G Wells, The History of Mr. Polly (London: Penguin, 2005).

[2] Naturally, I have stolen this line from Brian Stableford Space, Time, and Infinity: Essays on Fantastic Literature (n.p: Borgo, 2007), pp9-10.

[3] See, for example, John Rieder Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2008) p10.

[4] Partington, John, ‘H.G. Wells: A Political Life’ in Utopian Studies, 19.3 (2008)

[5] A view supported by Jefferson Pooley and Michael J. Socolow, “The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic”

[6] Ref

[7] ref

[8] ref

[9] “John Wyndham: The unread bestseller”, Guardian Books Blog, 20th December 2010 [http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2010/dec/20/john-wyndham-unread-bestseller]

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About Matthew Cooper

This blog is written by Matthew Cooper.
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