War of the Worlds: the pioneering work of science fiction inspired by Australian brutality

Fiona Gruber
·4-min read

War of the Worlds, arguably the first great alien invasion novel, has spawned dozens of adaptations, including musicals, for stage, screen and TV.

Most famously, Orson Welles’ 1938 adaptation for the CBS radio series Mercury Theatre on the Air was so realistic it had American radio listeners running into the streets.

The latest adaptation of the famous novel, an eight-part series from Fox/Canal Plus, premiered in Australia on SBS last week.

But while this tale of marauding Martians may be familiar, less well-known is the fact that the book and the radio play both have Australian antecedents.

It’s a dubious honour, but HG Wells’ 1898 piece of pioneering science fiction was inspired by British colonial treatment of Indigenous Tasmanians.

According to biographer Michael Foot in H.G. The History of Mr Wells (1995), it started with a conversation between the socialist novelist and his brother Frank: what would an alien invasion feel like? A terrifying disaster, they concluded – not unlike how Tasmanians must have felt when their island was invaded.

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The island doesn’t feature in the latest adaptation – this series transports the drama from late Victorian London to a 21st century European-wide setting – but an alien invasion that savagely and rapidly wipes out most of the world’s population is at its heart, as it was of the original novel.

Wells’ opening chapter spells out the parallels: don’t judge the Martians too harshly he says – they’re no more ruthless than our own species. Let’s consider the Indigenous Tasmanians, he continues, who were “swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants in the space of fifty years”.

And much like in Wells’ original, the aggression of the alien invaders is to be judged against humankind’s own inhumanity – our ability to render people as other, to dominate, control and destroy them.

“Any idea why they want to kill us?” asks one of the TV characters, as they flee for their lives. “Maybe for the same reasons we kill each other,” responds his companion.

The brutalities of British colonial rule were well known in Britain, including those that occurred in Tasmania in the 1820s and 30s. The “Black Line”, for example, was a military and civilian offensive in 1832 aimed at driving remaining Aboriginal people onto the Tasman Peninsula in the island’s southeast and confine them there. Many historians see the punitive actions of settlers as genocide.

The Australian connection with War of the Worlds – albeit tangentially – continued 40 years later, with Orson Welles’ 1938 radio adaptation. He was, probably unwittingly, following in the footsteps of a similar Australian radio prank, 11 years earlier.

On 30 June 1927, Adelaide radio station 5CL interrupted a seemingly genuine music program with the sound of bombs exploding, a singer screaming and a breathless announcement that the port of Adelaide was under attack.

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Like Welles’s broadcast, the spoof caused urgent calls to and from the police and panic among listeners. The play, entitled “The Imaginary Invasion” was reported in the New York Times, which noted that “many women and children became hysterical and even men were alarmed”.

It’s not known if Welles knew of this hoax, although he was familiar with a similar BBC radio ruse from 1926, courtesy of Catholic priest and broadcaster Ronald Knox, which interrupted a program on 18th century literature to claim that Big Ben had been toppled by trench mortars and the Savoy Hotel had been torched.

And finally, the much quoted claim that HG Wells wrote the first alien invasion sci-fi novel? In 1892, six years before War of the Worlds, an Anglican clergymen from Melbourne, Robert Potter, got there first with The Germ Growers, a tale of aliens secretly arriving on earth with the aim of destroying humanity through germ warfare. Fiction can be frighteningly realistic sometimes.

War of the Worlds is showing now on SBS On Demand