Invasive species in literature

Over the weekend, I snagged a copy of NYRB’s insinuating reprint of H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, with creepy illustrations by Edward Gorey: exactly the man you’d want for etching tentacles and heat-rays from the 1890s. I last read the book in junior high. I had blocked out my memory of exactly what and how the Martians eat—I experienced a genuine involuntary shudder when I came to that passage yesterday afternoon—but the floorplans of the abandoned houses that the narrator breaks into were strangely intact in my mind.

It seems to me that Spielberg faces two awful challenges in his adaptation. First, there’s probably no way he can preserve the intense Britishness of the novel, in which the narrator hears “the gride of wheels,” converses with sappers, and explains that the Martians’ poison gas when released takes the shape of a kopje. The careful inventories of the conditions of every London rail station, as civilization gradually deliquesces, are not likely to be transferred in full to the screen.

Second, what to do about the anticlericalism? I’m not sure the American public would be pleased to see millennialism so bluntly equated with feeblemindedness, or would stand for the fate that Wells assigns to the weak-chinned curate who gets vocal about his sinful nature at an inopportune moment. I suspect Spielberg will either soften the character or change his profession—if not omit him altogether. (I’m also betting that the narrator and his brother get consolidated into one heroic figure.)

It would be a Sisyphean task to list the later science fiction that echoes Wells, but two leapt to mind on this re-reading. The rocket launched by the villain in The Incredibles embeds itself in the ground and then unscrews its top in a way reminiscent of the Martian cylinders. And the future of Martian dominion imagined by the man on Putney hill—humans kept in cages as cattle, kept docile by singing, painting, religion, and (for the “more sophisticated elements”) eroticism—reminded me of the vision in The Matrix of pacification by broadband streaming.