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W Is for War of the Worlds


Invading Earth for our resources or our women, serving man, or serving him on a platter, enacting a glorious golden age of
peace and love or simply enslaving us — the idea and possible outcomes of an alien invasion is a pervasive
and exciting theme in science fiction.

We start with the genre-defining alien invasion novel, H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds proper. Published in 1898, Wells’ story is so well known as to be almost a cliche in and of itself: After a series of Martian explosions, strange meteors crash land in London, disgorging cephalopod-like Martians and their massive Tripod war machines. Using a heat ray and a series of chemical and biological weapons, the Martians quickly subjugate Britain, only to be wiped out by common Earthen bacteria.

War of the Worlds wasn’t merely the prototypical alien
invasion novel. It was both a political parable — Isaac Asimov
believed it to be a denunciation of African colonialization — and a
gasket for political tensions. Invasion novels had become increasingly
common in the last decades of the 19th century as mounting political
tensions sent Europe gradually lurching on its way to the first great
War. Wells’ novel was a perfect capsule of parable, moral and escapist
adventure.

It is no wonder, then, that alien invasion scifi has resurfaced time
and time again, during periods of political uncertainty… but not
during periods of actual war. The ’30s and 40’s feature a relative
dearth of alien invasion fiction, but with the ’50s (and the beginning
of the Cold War), science fiction became invasion mad.

Consider 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still.
It is not technically an alien invasion novel, as the aliens never
invade: However, Klaatu is essentially a galactic emissary, threatening
Earth with invasion and possible obliteration if it doesn’t keep its
warmongering planet bound. War of the Worlds
was first made into a film in 1953, similarly highlighting Cold War
concerns. Alien invasion films were ubiquitous with scifi in the 1950s: Invaders From Mars, Plan 9 from Outer SpaceInvasion of the Body Snatchers
the list goes on. Nor did scifi novels show restraint: Famous scifi
novelist John Wyndham wrote no less than three alien invasion
masterpieces during the decade: Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes and The Midwich Cuckoos. And Robert Heinlein wrote his classics The Puppet Masters and Starship Troopers during this same decade, each very clearly spelling out a Cold War parallel.

Alien invasion as a scifi zeitgeist lost a bit of its luster
in the ’60s and ’70s as real world tensions flared up — the Cuban
Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War — Americans didn’t need to look to the
stars for potential invaders. But the ’80s proved another fertile
decade for alien invasion: NBC’s miniseries and subsequent television
series V set flying saucers hovering over major American
cities, piloted by strange reptilian aliens named “Visitors.” Orson
Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game also focuses on an invasion
of insect-like aliens that can only be thwarted by the greatest
military genius in human history: A child. And offal though they may
be, it’s worth noting L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth series was both written and became popular during the ’80s.

But something interesting happened in that decade: The political
cycle of alien invasion fiction weakened as video games became
popularized. Aliens became easy, popular and culturally universal
antagonists. Tecmo’s Space Invaders started the trend, channeling the plot of War of the Worlds into a simple black-and-white arcade game. As technology got more advanced, so did the games: id software’s Doom
is essentially a story of alien invasion, where the “aliens” are eerily
similar to what we would consider to be demons. The fantastic mid-’90s
strategy game X-Com starred an elite force of commandos defending Earth from invasion by a race of aliens. Valve’s incredible Half-Life series is devoted to the invasion of Earth and the subsequent resistance; Bungie’s Halo
series stars a superhuman cyborg as Earth’s last hope against an
endless armada of religiously zealous extra-terrestrials. And so on.
Alien invasion in video games isn’t so much a topic as the brunt of the
genre.

Needless to say, though, with political tensions again on the rise,
the millennium hasn’t been stranger to alien invasion films. This
decade alone has seen M. Night Shamlyan take a stab at the sub-genre
with Signs and another remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Fox even dusted the X-Files
off after a hiatus of nearly a decade. Half-a-dozen alien invasion
films are in production. The only other genre of science fiction doing
so well is the post-apocalyptic. Clearly, when politics get tense,
scifi today steps in and fills the same role that the very first alien
invasion novel filled over a century ago: It offers escape from our
troubles, it parallels, it predicts and fulfills.

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