War of the Worlds and African Colonization...
...or how science fiction can be subversive. The following below is a very chopped up version (for brevity) of a paper I wrote for a science fiction class this past semester. I was also taking an African history class at the time, and was struck by the parallels between, War of the Worlds and African colonization. Science fiction originally began as a form of social critique (think Frankenstein, Fahrenheit 451, etc).
Maybe that's why I like science fiction so much :)
It is difficult to overemphasize the effects of technology, and the Industrial Revolution had on European motivations and justifications for colonizing Africa. Written in 1898, H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds was a social critique of the ways in which Europeans linked technological superiority to intellectual and racial superiority.
In War of the Worlds, Martian technology is used as a manifest representation of their intellectual superiority. The Martians bring mysterious weapons that resemble modern military armaments, including poison gas and heat rays. These weapons enable them to assert virtually unlimited power over the halpless humans whose weapons are useless against them. Because of their technology, the Martians act without fear of human reprisal.
Similarly, European technological superiority went virtually unchallenged in nineteenth century Africa. Reflecting the twin ages of industrialization and imperialism in which War of the Worlds was written, the connection between intelligence, technology, and racial superiority was intrinsically linked to justifications of imperialism. In the late 18th and 19th century, Britain’s society was transformed from an agricultural economy to one of manufacturing. Part of this revolution was made possible by technological innovations such as steam engines and factory machines. The increased efficiency in manufacturing allowed countries like Great Britain to dominate the globe economically, culturally and militarily.
At the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, various countries of Europe divided and appropriated the African continent for its resources. In War of the Worlds, the Martians come to earth for the some of the same reasons that Europeans went to Africa: raw materials and natural resources (other reasons were to be beyond comprehension for humans). In War of the Worlds, the Martians use human blood, taken by force to sustain themselves, mimicking European nations who built their empires and economies on slavery. In similar fashion, as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution, the high demands for rubber led to brutal exploitation of the peoples in the Congo area.
Although the advanced intelligence of the Martians is shown through their technology, Martian technology is also used as a way to challenge conventional nineteenth century definitions equating technological superiority with intellectual superiority. When discussing the tall tentacled Martian handling machines, the narrator remarks upon alien machines complete lack of wheel technology. Wells utilized the advanced Martian technology to challenge European concepts linking wheel production to technological progress. In contrast to the widespread idea that the wheel was intrinsically tied to technological progress, the advanced and highly intelligent Martians in novel did not use the wheel.
The aliens’ lack of the wheel can be seen as an attack at imperialist and racist judgments against Africans during the era of imperialism. One of the rationalizations used for the conquest of Africa was the fact that sub-Saharan Africans were intellectually inferior due to their lack of the wheel. As the wheel was considered the basis of all human technology, the Africans’ failure to use the wheel was seen as a deficit of progress and intelligence. However, as European colonists soon found themselves, the frequent rains of the tropical environment made wheel useless in sub-Saharan Africa.
In an allegory of past European efforts to penetrate Africa, the Martians are not defeated by humans, but by tiny bacteria. One of the major factors that had previously limited European expansion into Africa was unfamiliar diseases. However, advances in medicine and technology helped Europeans arrive, and stay in Africa. Written at the dawning of this scientific revolution, Wells’ social critique via allegory of foreign invasion in the era of European expansion, was a cautionary tale.