Just another day living with COVID
When is this going to end? Will it ever truly be over? I certainly don’t know and I don’t know of anyone who does. Neither can I claim that I was prepared when the COVID era suddenly leaped out of the ground and threw itself at our throats like Ray Harryhausen’s murderous skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts, though I do like to think that we science fiction readers were taken just a little less by surprise than most folks were.
Before this happened, we’d at least spent time (in the literary sense) with people who have foreseen disasters like the one we’re living through. Perhaps no theme is more common to the genre, and any science fiction fan worth his or her salt has whole shelves full of books that describe the human race wrestling with apocalyptic attacks that come out of nowhere and change everything. (I know you were hoping the science fiction that would be realized during your lifetime would be contact with a benevolent alien civilization or antigravity cars or an endless power supply that you could carry in your pocket, not this. Me too.)
Maybe that’s why the opening of H.G. Wells’s great book (and the granddaddy of all such end-of-the-world nightmares), The War of the Worlds, has been much on my mind lately.
The War of the Worlds 1898 Edition
As every lover of science fiction knows, the novel begins with one of the most chilling passages in English literature:
No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. 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. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.
We are not beset by Martians, of course; we haven’t been laid low by “intelligences greater than man’s.” Quite the opposite. Where Wells imagined the world being attacked from above, we’re being attacked from below, as it were, which is – or should be – even more humbling, but aside from that there’s not a lot of difference. Wells has often been called a prophet, and he was never more prophetic than he was here, in his vision of human arrogance and pride laid low, in his awareness of how our refusal to acknowledge the precariousness of our position fatally endangers us. That restrained and deadly sentence, “with infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter” sums it all up, doesn’t it?
How serene and complacent we all were, as winter was ending and we were looking forward to the freedom of spring. Especially nice is the irony, which Wells no doubt would have appreciated, that whereas he contrived to have his Martian invaders defeated by a contagious sickness transmitted by “the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth” those microscopic conquerors are the very things that have thrown our technological civilization into such chaos, and that may yet bring about our own “great disillusionment.” Five or ten or twenty years from now, it will surely be “curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days”, days that can still be seen on the calendars that we optimistically hung up on January first, days that we thought would last forever.
1953 movie poster
If nothing else, it’s one more argument for reading old books, especially science fiction – and you’ll never have a better opportunity, especially since we really don’t know when this is going to end…
Thomas Parker is a native Southern Californian and a lifelong science fiction, fantasy, and mystery fan. When not corrupting the next generation as a fourth grade teacher, he collects Roger Corman movies, Silver Age comic books, Ace doubles, and despairing looks from his wife. His last article for us was Jetpacks and Bazookas: Jonny Quest.