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Erika Lower

Erika Lower

The War of the Worlds is considered a science-fiction classic for a reason: though the novel is set in the 20th century, its messages are surprisingly even more relevant in modern times. With the dream of space colonization slowly becoming a reality, it is important to ensure that humanity does not doom itself to the Martians' fate by becoming thoughtless invaders of another world.

The plight of the Martians resonates eerily in this age of climate change and dwindling natural resources. Though they are presented as the novel's antagonists, the Martians' actions are understandable—they had little choice but to abandon their planet for Earth. Mars was dying, and its residents had to find a way to survive: "The immediate pressure of necessity had brightened their intellects, enlarged their powers, and hardened their hearts." While it may be difficult to sympathize with invasive, murderous aliens, one should consider that the human race may very well find itself in a similar position. Rather than cooling down, as H. G. Wells proposed, our planet appears to be heating up, but the results may be the same. Our environment is changing fast, and if left unchecked, Earth could become uninhabitable in the future.

There's always space, of course. With NASA's goals of reaching Mars by 2040 and rapidly advancing technology allowing us to see more and more of the universe surrounding us, it may not be long until humans begin to establish extraterrestrial colonies. H.G. Wells was hopeful about the survival of humanity on our homeworld, stating that the heavy price our species has paid to adapt to harsh conditions and develop resistance to diseases is the same principle that will protect us from attackers. However, the rules might work in reverse on other worlds—alien planets could very well prove to be as hostile to humanity as Earth was to the Martians.

This possibility exists well outside the realm of science fiction. Earth itself is home to thousands of diseases that have sickened unsuspecting explorers throughout the ages. Without previous exposure to illnesses, the human immune system has no way to fight off unfamiliar infections. This reality becomes even more apparent in the completely new environment of space. NASA recognized "back-contamination" as a possibility on the Apollo 11 mission—to prevent the introduction of potentially harmful microbes that may have been acquired on the moon, the astronauts were quarantined for three weeks before being released to the public. Though the moon proved to be lifeless, other planets may not be as benign, and that is vitally important to keep in mind.

There are also ethical considerations for the colonization of space. One of the reasons the Martians were such formidable foes was not simply because of their advanced technology, but because of their utter disregard for Earth's current inhabitants. Their "red weed", a fast-growing species of plant, rapidly overruns the countryside, and the Martians think nothing of slaughtering unfortunate humans in their path. However, their actions are not without precedent. Wells reminds his readers that "before we judge (the Martians) too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals…but upon its own inferior races." It is an embarrassing truth that we have not acted as good stewards of our own planet. Humanity has routinely extinguished entire species, exploited natural resources, and mistreated its own kind throughout history. Who's to say that we will treat other worlds any better than our own home?

The War of the Worlds is an entertaining work of literature in and of itself, but it can also be seen as a cautionary tale. It brings up important themes to consider as mankind approaches the colonization of space: the dangers we may face, and the rules we'll have to follow to avoid damaging other ecosystems and ourselves. The safest option is to take good care of our own planet to ensure that it endures for generations beyond our own. As Wells states near the end of the novel, "by the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers; it would still be his were the Martians ten times as mighty as they are. For neither do men live nor die in vain."

 

For information on the 2009-2010 Signet Classics Essay Contest, click here.


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