I’ve been posting for the last couple of days (weeks, really) about “the War of the Worlds.” It’s a piece of art that has occupied an interesting space in my brain for some time– I think I was first exposed to the story some time in middle school, in comic book form. I remember a very distinct gamut of emotions–shock, horror, fear, awe—running through my body after the first attack, against the delegation with the white flag: how could an enemy be so casually destructive to an obviously non-threatening and peaceful mission? The Martians might have been my first exposure to an enemy that was uncaring rather than evil, destructive instead of diabolical. This exposure to unconcerned (and perhaps more frighteningly, unreasonable) violence was deeply affecting, and probably went on to shape my love for things like HP Lovecraft, et cetera.
I’ll admit, though, that as I grew older, I became disenchanted with the story. Phrases like “clumsy deus ex machina,” “unclear story,” and “whygothroughthewholestorywhenweknowitsjustthecommoncoldthatwinsintheendanyway” spring to mind. I was disappointed in the structure—if a disease, without human intervention or agency, was going to defeat the martians, why did I have to sit through the whole narrative?
I think I understand a little better now. I understand because I finally listened to it.
I’d never taken in the “War of the Worlds” in the form that most people know–as a radio broadcast. A week or so ago, I downloaded Radio Drama Revival’s episode 319, which includes David Ossman’s 50th Anniversary “War of the Worlds” broadcast. Yesterday, I listened to it as I walked through downtown Chicago, and with the hubub and bustle of the busy Loop crowd around me, I began to weep, as the plaintive “2X2L calling CQ. 2X2L, calling CQ. New York? Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there…2X2L, Calling CQ. 2X2L, calling CQ.” repeated again and again in my ears.
I think we may be too used to winning in our narrative fiction, especially in Science Fiction. The odds are stacked, the enemy is undefeatable, but don’t worry–here comes Jeff Goldblum with a computer virus that will bring everything crashing down. Even in our apocalyptic fiction, we never really believe the heroes might lose. There will be massive destruction, but human ingenuity, steel-eyed resolve, and our hero’s love for their girl back home will lead them to make the crucial sacrifice, find the hidden answer, or wend their way into the center of the labyrinth and save the day in one massive stroke.
I think that’s what makes the War of the Worlds so amazing: we don’t win. We lose. We lose hard, and it isn’t a plucky Jon Connor rising up with time travel and rail guns who pulls humanity away from the brink: it’s dumb luck, chance, and biology. We, as a species, have no control over our fate. We go into the battle overconfident, remarking that “[this] almost looks like war!”–and effort after effort is repulsed. We don’t even scratch the Martians: we’re totally helpless. And sure–in the end, humanity survives- but I think what is so perfect about the ending is that in the midst of the celebration, the children playing, in the mounting and displaying of the broken tripods: we know that our survival is utterly un-earned, and is no less fragile or temporary than the day the Martians landed.
I think this is a story we desperately need to hear, especially as Americans. There will come a time, and I think quite soon, when America will lose. If the current climatological predictions are right, humanity as a whole will lose. Hard. We will be knocked to our knees, then flat on our faces, then drowned in the rising waters as our planet’s environment spirals into a completely new form. It is terrifying, and enormous, and absolutely impossible to avert with last-ditch heroics.
We need to listen to the War of the Worlds because we’ve been a country on top of the heap for a long time, and I’m so scared that it makes us feel like we are invincible. We’ve managed to control so many things for so long through military and economic might, but we’ve got challenges coming up where all of our old, conventional tactics will fail.
So. If you haven’t already, go listen to the War of the Worlds–either the original version or the 50th Anniversary edition. Keep your ears open for the 75th Anniversary Competition, and if you’re an audio producer, go make something. This is an important story. I needed to hear it:, and who knows: you might need to as well.
See you in the tunnels,