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Apostles of Mercy: Aliens and Agency

EGrumer's picture

A note on citations: The War of the Worlds is in the public domain; as such, I read it online, in a digital edition that lacked page numbers. This makes citation somewhat tricky. I have chosen to cite by chapter number, as consequence, both for The War of the Worlds and (for the sake of consistency) for Slaughterhouse Five. Thus, in Slaughterhouse Five, parenthetical citations are author and chapter number (Vonnegut 1) and in The War of the Worlds parenthetical citations are author, book number, and then chapter number (Wells I, 1). If this is unacceptable, I can change it. However, I find that I rather like this form of citation. Considering the differences in pagination in various editions of the same book, it does not make things much more difficult to reference than page numbers would; either method would involve some flipping through pages to find the quotation cited.


Both H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five involve the meeting of human beings and extraterrestrials. The two alien races, the Martians of The War of the Worlds and the Tralfamadorians of Slaughterhouse Five, however, could not be more different. The first, the warmongering Martians, are a mirror held up to humanity – bloodthirsty conquerors who care little for the destruction they wreak. The second alien race, the Tralfamadorians, are a foil to humanity; omnipotent and blasé, they seem entirely set apart from human feeling, going with the flow of events because, able to see the past and future as well as the present, they don't believe in free will. For both Wells and Vonnegut, science fiction is a way to speak out about the real world, with the genre as a prism to see things through.

The Martians' conquest of Earth, in The War of the Worlds, boils down to one chilling maxim for humanity:

And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit? (Wells I, 1)

For Earthlings to complain about the Martians attacking Earth would be hypocritical. Not only do human beings drive some of their own planet's animal species to extinction, they do the same thing to their own kind. Humans wipe out other humans – those whom the narrator classifies as being “inferior” races – for nothing better than land. Land is indeed what the Martians want, too. They come to Earth to take it, a cool and comfortable planet for the Martians to colonize (Wells I, 1).

Arrogance shines through in the behavior of all the species involved – human, Martian, and Tralfamadorian. The humans of The War of the Worlds feel smugly certain of their special place in the universe, unencumbered by neighbors on any other planets (Wells I, 1). The Martians show their superciliousness in their attack on the Earth; they neither pause nor seem to feel the slightest remorse in their killing (Wells I, 5). The Tralfamadorians, too, are incredibly arrogant. They see all of time at once, “where each star has been and where it is going” (Vonnegut 5). Because of this, they feel superior to humans, telling Billy Pilgrim that he will never even be able to understand their literature (Vonnegut 5). Billy, a human, has his own assumptions; he is quite sure that all the universe must fear Earth and her crazy, violent human beings (Vonnegut 5). In this way, all three species are alike. In common, all three share a certainty that what they do and think is correct, no matter how horrific their actions are or how self-centered their beliefs.

When both The War of the Worlds and Slaughterhouse Five end, nothing on Earth seems likely to change. The narrator of the former goes “to London and see[s] the busy multitudes in Fleet Street and the Strand, and it comes across [his] mind that they are but the ghosts of the past, haunting the streets that [he has] seen silent and wretched, going to and fro, phantasms in a dead city, the mockery of life in a galvanised body” (Wells II, 10). He is traumatized by what he has witnessed, but no one else seems to remember. Everyone else in London continues on as they did before the Martian invasion. Likewise, in Slaughterhouse Five, Billy campaigns earnestly for the truth he has discovered, thanks to his time on Tralfamadore: that death is not to be feared, because the dead person is still alive in the other moments that he or she has lived (Vonnegut 6). He is not taken as a savior, except by a few devoted followers; mostly, he's just another crackpot who claims to have been abducted by aliens (Vonnegut 6). Billy's bootless quest, convincing the general population that death is not absolute, is not the movement that it could have been. It does not seem to occur to Billy to speak out against war (a horror, like the invasion of Earth, that he has lived through), as it occurs to Vonnegut and others who witness the firebombing of Dresden to do (Vonnegut 1). He does not speak out against things that could be changed, merely against feeling sad about the inevitable. Billy does not think that he can change anything: past, present, or future (Vonnegut 3).

Both Wells and Vonnegut use the genre of science fiction to explore some of the uglier truths of their ages. Wells, writing in 1898, presents colonialism with aliens as colonizers. The Martians behave rather explicitly as European immigrants to new countries did in Wells' time, using their superior technology to kill the indigenous people and take their land. Vonnegut, writing in 1969 about the horrors of World War II, which he himself survived, uses the Tralfamadorians to contrast Earthling behavior (Vonnegut 1). With the humans believe in free will, they also engage in violent, sickening wars. Children march off to fight in those wars, asking no questions and deviating from no authority – although, since they believe in free will, they think that they could (Vonnegut 1). And yet, the Earthlings behave like Tralfamadorians, not acting on their ability to change things. They simply kill and are killed.

So it goes.

...Or does it?


Anne Dalke's picture

So it goes. ...Or does it?

It was a delight to me, this semester, to see how our co-constructed syllabus fit together in unexpected ways; the proposals to read Slaughterhouse-5 and The War of the Worlds came from very different sources, and yet the two texts intersected in such interesting ways, and I'm very happy to see your further exploring of some of those intersections here.

So let's go on exploring some more. For starters, tell me what the difference is between a foil, a mirror, and a prism ("the warmongering Martians are a mirror," "the blasé Tralfamadorians are a foil," and science fiction, in both cases is "a prism to see things through," showing us that "arrogance shines through in the behavior of all ....").

For next steps, let's think about the point of "thought experiments" which end, as you say both of these do, with the perception that "nothing on Earth seems likely to change." What then is the outcome of each the experiment? What is the idea that is being played with--and played out--in each case, to what end? What happens when an experiment in a lab fails? What then are the next steps? And if literature "mirrors" that process? Or is a "foil" to it, a "prism"?

Finally, of course, I want to push back on your cute ending, and ask you to actually say whether you think (!?). Having read and comparatively interpreted these texts, do you believe that it goes "so...."?

"Or does it?"