A Short History of Little Green Men (Pt 2)

A Short History of Little Green Men (Pt 2) by Gerhard Gehrke

From the 16th and 17th centuries and the likes of astronomer Giordano Bruno and novelist Cyrano de Bergerac, we jump forward to more familiar territory. None stand out as much in the realms of speculating on alien life than H.G. Wells. Others may have mentioned little green men, but H.G. Wells put Martians on the map with his seminal 1898 science fiction novel War of the Worlds, first serialized a year prior in Pearson’s Magazine.

warworlds musical

The novel tells the story of a race of Martians who come to Earth for conquest because their own home planet is dying. We must imagine Wells’ imagination is fueled by the past three hundred years of astronomy, with telescopic observations revealing the face and surface of Mars. Speculation and an unfortunate mistranslation of the Italian word written by astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli for channels (Canali) into the English word “Canals” leads some to imagine irrigation canals built by Martian hands rather than natural geological formations.

So it’s time for those Martians to come to Earth and take over, writes Wells. Here are the extraterrestrials, and they want something from us.

At most, terrestrial men 
fancied there might be other men upon Mars, 
perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to 
welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet, across 
the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds 
as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, 
intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, 
regarded this earth with envious eyes, and 
slowly and surely drew their plans against 
us.

—excerpt from War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

Soon enough the Martians are tumbling out of their mars-launched canisters and incinerating or poisoning everything that moves. They’ve got big war machines and they ain’t afraid to use them. But what do they look like?

martian war machine

Here’s Wells:

Those who have never seen a living Martian 
can scarcely imagine the strange horror of their 
appearance. The peculiar V-shaped mouth 
with its pointed upper lip, the absence of brow 
ridges, the absence of a chin beneath the 
wedge-like lower lip, the incessant quivering of 
this mouth, the Gorgon groups of tentacles, the 
tumultuous breathing of the lungs in a strange 
atmosphere, the evident heaviness and painful- 
ness of movement, due to the greater gravita- 
tional energy of the earth above all, the 
extraordinary intensity of the immense eyes 
culminated in an effect akin to nausea. There 
was something fungoid in the oily brown skin, 
something in the clumsy deliberation of their 
tedious movements unspeakably terrible.

Not so green and not so little. These Martians are like big land-dwelling Octopus. Wonderful descriptions, though. While others have suggested the possibility of Martians on Mars, Wells brought them to Earth and gave them something to do. Later writers might change motivations or point of origin, but these owe a debt to War of the Worlds for defining what would become a popular vein of science fiction story telling.

The notorious 1938 Orson Welles radio drama of War of the Worlds was before my time, and the Jeff Wayne 1978 musical 
telling of war of the worlds (cover pictured above) is something I have yet to hear.  My picks for best adaptations go to the
1953 film directed by Byron Haskin and the graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen vol 2 by Alan Moore 
and Kevin O'Neill. The 1953 film is in color and does a good job with the glimpses of the Martians. Also notable are the 
sound effects of the war machine heat rays, no doubt fueling many backyard army men vs monster romps with spittle-
throwing pew-pew-pews from the mouths of children. 
war worlds art deco

As far as the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen's handling of the material, it is mostly  faithful to Wells' invasion events 
except for throwing Victorian-era superheroes standing in the Martians' path.

The original novel is still very readable and fast-paced. The book has been scoured for deeper meaning but it can be 
appreciated at face value as a science fiction yarn which has been borrowed from since its publication. 

Do you have any fond memories of the book or its adaptations?

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