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.
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?
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. 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?