JANE: So, after discussing post-humanity, how about we take a look at a classic SF trope that bridges “out of this world” and, well, “into our world”?
ALAN: Hmm… Let’s see, would you perhaps be thinking about “Alien Invasions”?
JANE: That’s it! We discussed aliens for several weeks back in 2015, but while Alien Invasions involves some of the same material, it is also supremely different in that much of the focus is on the impact of such invasions on us, rather than the aliens themselves.
ALAN: You know, I think almost every time we’ve started talking about a science fiction trope, I’ve begun by pointing out that H. G. Wells wrote the first story about it in 18UmptyUmp. Not surprisingly, I’m going to do it again. He pretty much invented the whole alien invasion theme with his 1898 novel The War of the Worlds.
JANE: Wells’ imagination definitely had what today would be termed a “speculative fiction” bent.
ALAN: I think you could make a good case that SF writers have spent the last century or so exploring the concepts that Wells opened up for us. I have a collection of his complete short stories which I got as a school prize when I was fourteen. I have no idea how many times I’ve read it, but I’ve read it lots. I think the stories are just as fresh and alive today as they were when they were first published. Wells really was a genius.
JANE: And not afraid to go where no man had gone before…
One thing that interests me about the Alien Invasions trope is how, perhaps more than most of the SF tropes we’ve discussed, it is influenced by the cultural currents of the time that it was being written.
ALAN: Indeed so. Invasion scares have always been close to the surface of real life. In the UK we’ve suffered through some very real invasions by Romans, Vikings and Normans and we’ve had several hundred years of paranoid panic about waves of Spanish, Dutch, French and German invaders coming after us. So, of course, it’s very easy to think of science fiction aliens as allegories for whoever the enemy of the day might be.
JANE: Absolutely! Although the U.S. hasn’t suffered the same waves of invasions, I think the colonial heritage in which “we” are both the invaders and – once the desire to overthrow the colonial powers arose – the invaded has left its mark.
So was Wells reacting only to England’s long history of invasions, or was there something more?
ALAN: Wells’ original novel, and many that came after it, assume that the superior technology of the aliens will always give them the edge over us. I think that perhaps this could be taken as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and the massive changes on all levels of society created by it. Centuries of relative stability gave way to an era of rapid change and innovation – we’re still living with this every day and it’s quite natural for us to assume technological superiority will always win the day.
JANE: I agree wholeheartedly. I think it’s important to remember that in The War of the Worlds humans survive by accident, not design. I won’t say more in case some of our younger readers aren’t familiar with this classic.
I will mention that Howard Waldrop wrote a brilliant story, “Night of the Cooters,” that provides a view of what happened in Texas when the Wells’ aliens invaded.
Also, while not precisely a “sequel” to The War of the Worlds, John Christopher’s “The Tripods” series (first book The White Mountains) is a dystopian tale which reads much as if Wells’ alien invasion was not stopped, and what happened thereafter.
ALAN: An important question that I think we need to ask ourselves is just why have the aliens invaded in the first place? Wells’ Martians wanted to live here because their own planet was becoming uninhabitable. From their point of view, humanity is just getting in their way and stopping them from enjoying some prime real estate. This idea has been explored in more depth by other writers.
William Tenn is remembered as a superb short story writer. He only wrote one novel, Of Men and Monsters (1968), but it’s a brilliant one. Giant, technologically superior aliens have conquered the Earth. The few people who remain live like vermin in holes they have excavated in the insulation material that lines the walls of the monsters’ homes. In order to keep themselves alive, the people sneak out to steal food and other items from the aliens.
A complex social, political and religious order has evolved within the walls. Women preserve knowledge and work as healers. Men are the warriors and thieves. As far as the aliens are concerned, human beings are just a nuisance, neither civilized nor intelligent. They are generally regarded as vermin to be exterminated, in much the same way as we regard cockroaches.
JANE: Or mice… I think the title is alluding to Of Mice and Men.
ALAN: I think you may well be right – though I must admit I hadn’t spotted that reference until you pointed it out.
Robert Silverberg took a similar idea even further in his 1998 novel The Alien Years. The novel tells the story of an alien invasion over a period of about fifty years.
The aliens themselves remain quite enigmatic – nobody really knows why they have invaded. They largely ignore the people who are living here. They just want to be left alone to do whatever it is they are doing, though they do make use of humans as slave labour in their mysterious projects.
Any attempt to kill these inscrutable invaders results in extremely harsh reprisals. After one such attempt, the aliens introduced a virus that killed more than half of earth’s population!
Despite this, some people have collaborated with the invaders. Not unnaturally, these quislings are hated and despised by the rest of humanity…
JANE: Ah! Shades of nations invaded by the Nazis during World War II. Even your use of the word “quisling” comes from that time, via Norway. As I mentioned earlier, Alien Invasion is a trope that strongly lends itself to examination of human nature.
ALAN: True – though the Nazis were much less enigmatic than Silverberg’s aliens. However the parallels do tell us a lot about how people might well react under these circumstances.
JANE: I think we both have more to say about this particular trope – including how it expanded in response to different historical events. How about next time?