Lesson 2: The Alien Peril

Lesson Objectives
After completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Discuss varying approaches to the theme of alien invasion in science fiction.
  • Identify stylistic differences between science fiction novels written in the late-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries.

The War of the Worlds, by H. G. Wells
The Puppet Masters, by Robert A. Heinlein

One of the issues facing Great Britain during the 1890s was the possibility of invasion, a carry-over from the Napoleonic Wars renewed by modern methods of warfare that resulted in the fall of Paris before the new German “needle guns” in 1871. When H. G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds, he conflated these concerns with his own Darwinian concerns about humanity’s position in the universe.

Humans, who for all their history had been one species evolving in competition with others, now faced superior aliens. The Martians served as symbols of progress which had gone far beyond humans, who are helpless before what, in another sense, loomed as their ultimate scientific fate. Ironically, the defeat of the Martians is brought about by a competing species of life against which their very past successes have left them defenseless: bacteria.

Wells the writer, while he looked at the future with a kind of horrified dread, enjoyed the detailed destruction he plotted in his imagination. As he planned the novel, he recalled in his autobiography, “I wheeled about the district marking down suitable places and people for destruction by my Martians.” And he wrote to a friend:

I’m doing the dearest little serial for Pearson’s new magazine, in which I completely wreck and destroy Woking—killing my neighbors in painful and eccentric ways—then proceed via Kingston and Richmond to London, which I sack, selecting South Kensington for feats of peculiar atrocity.

By the time Heinlein authored The Puppet Masters in the 1950s, the public focus had changed to the Cold War and the competition with the Soviet Union. The ability of Marxist philosophy to make incomprehensible zealots out of seemingly ordinary citizens—a product, perhaps, of the Great Depression in which Heinlein grew up—led to concerns about brainwashing and the take-over by ideological enemies. Robert A. Heinlein’s Puppet Masters were the ultimate horror of surrendering one’s will to an alien parasite.

Heinlein’s work as a writer exhibited his ability to learn as he went along. More important, he seemed capable of revitalizing old ideas with new treatments. He would write the definitive treatment of more science fiction themes than any writer since Wells, and his stories often seemed to exhaust the possibilities implicit in their concepts.

Heinlein was fascinated by social history, the way in which our society will develop, particularly as it is affected by invention and technology. He felt that the most effective way to discuss social history is to describe societies in action and men and women in conflict with their societies or protecting them from outside assault.

The same basic technique had been used by Wells decades earlier, but Heinlein had to develop new ways of describing societies; readers were becoming weary of lengthy asides, either by an author or by one of his characters. Exposition had to be inserted in the midst of the story without slowing it down, particularly if the focus of the story was going to be on a character who was a part of his society, not a stranger to it.

The prominent science fiction editor John W. Campbell would describe the difference in a 1946 anthology:

In older science fiction—H. G. Wells and nearly all stories written before 1935—the author took time out to bring the reader up to date as to what had happened before his story opened. The best modern writers of science fiction have worked out some truly remarkable techniques for presenting a great deal of background and associated material without intruding into the flow of the story. This is no small feat, when a complete new world must be established at the same time a story is being presented.

Campbell was describing, more than anyone else, Heinlein. Heinlein could be said to have brought the techniques of naturalism to science fiction. He used sensory detail to establish a scene, but this scene was placed in the future and the details he used also established a society; the process created in the reader a feeling not of wonder but of reality. He convinced the reader that this was the future that lay ahead, else how could he evoke it so casually and describe it so minutely. And if this was the future, the reader was forced to take it seriously.

Both The War of the Worlds and The Puppet Masters took on the basic science fiction theme of “man and alien.” Like all great science fiction themes, “man and alien” stories incorporate a basic aspect of change—something new has been introduced into experience which makes things happen—because this is the nature of science fiction.

But their approaches to the themes differed sharply. While Wells postulated invasion from the outside, Heinlein imagined a more sinister, subtle invasion through the conquering of free will. While Wells wrote very much in the style of his time, often breaking the narration for long expository passages, Heinlein practiced a more modern style of narrative that slowly and almost imperceptibly provided the reader with necessary background information.

Writing Assignment 2
Consider some or all of the following questions and submit a brief (approximately 500-word-long) writing assignment. Your assignment need not be formal, but it should demonstrate comprehension of the required readings and a well-developed understanding of how this lesson's material relates to the development of the science fiction genre.

  • How does the detached observer of Wells’ novel compare with the first-person involved narrator of Heinlein’s work, and how does each influence the reader’s response to the events of the novel? What does this have to say about the milieu in which these novels were created?
  • Both novels attack various institutions and criticize their approaches to a crisis. What are the institutions, how do they differ, and what issues in the periods of their creation shape these social critiques?
  • In each novel, humanity is saved by bacteria. In what way is Heinlein commenting on Wells’ novel (and influenced by it), and how does his approach critique Wells’? Some scholars have criticized War of the Worlds for pulling bacteria out of the author’s hat to save the world, but how does Wells prepare the reader for that development? And how do the endings of the two novels differ in tone and consequence?
  • In Wells’ novel, the principal narrator is relatively unchanged by the events (humanity itself may have changed more), but The Puppet Masters can be read as a bildungsroman. How does Sam change and why, and how does the novel embody Heinlein’s theory of competence, the role and position of elders and their obligation to create competent successors, and how they accomplish this obligation?
  • How does Heinlein undercut the relationship of Sam to his boss and the actions of his boss in the critical scene in which Sam is forced into allowing his Master to once more control his mind?
  • How does the theme of being conquered and overwhelmed in War of the Worlds differ from that in The Puppet Masters, and why does this theme represent the ultimate horror to each author (note that Heinlein was a Libertarian)?

Submit your assignment following the email instructions.

Reminder: Do not submit this assignment until assignment 1 has been graded and returned to you.