The War of the Worlds: Fighting Machines for Imperialism

H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds begins when a Martian capsule lands on Horsell Common, nearing Woking. The Martians from the capsules are quite adverse to human contact and begin to build fighting-machines, which are armed with a heat ray and a poisonous black smoke, which they then use to decimate any threat that faces them. The novel switches between the viewpoint of the narrator and the narrator’s brother, as they both seek to evade the Martians, with the brother leaving England by ship, and the narrator travelling 20 miles to evade the Martians, hiding in a destroyed house before returning to London to discover that the Martians have been killed by Earth pathogens, to which they have no immunity. The narrator suffers a nervous breakdown and later returns home, where he finds his home still standing, and his wife, also recently returned and alive.

Colonialism and imperialism are two very closely related terms, but the two often work in tandem, and are both based on ideas of expansion and control. The easiest way to differentiate the two is that colonialism is a practice, comprised of “the acquisition and colonization by a nation of other territories and their peoples” (Dictionary of Geography “colonialism”), and imperialism is a policy “of extending a country’s influence over less powerful states” (Dictionary of World History “imperialism) that supports “unequal economic, cultural, and territorial relationships based on domination and subordination” (Dictionary of Geography “imperialism”) – one is an actual practice, the other a policy. Colonialism is often a tool of imperialism, and H. G. Wells employs it in this novel as a way not only to make clear the devastating effects of colonialism on native populations, but also to voice a critique of imperialist attitudes.

At the time of The War of the Worlds’ publication in 1898, Britain was the most powerful empire on Earth. British colonialism was in full swing, which Wells notes in the beginning of the novel when he writes that “the Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years” (Wells 5). The Martians’ invasion of Earth is “an experience of colonization in reverse” (Parrinder 75), which “combines comedy and irony with a ready understanding of the pain and humiliation we inflict on beings lower in the social and natural hierarchy than ourselves” (Parrinder 50). To impart the pain and humiliation of being colonized, when Wells describes the people being colonized, he often does so by comparing them to animals and to water. Wells compares English citizens to many different kinds of animals, including infusoria (a type of single-cell bacteria), monkeys, rats, lemurs, dodos, cows, frogs, bees, wasps, rabbits, rats, oxen, and ants. Wells’ decision to equate the English with animals enacts an automatic lowering of their status, reinforcing their deposition as the dominant beings on Earth once the Martians arrive. The particular types of animals that he chooses to compare the English to are also telling, because they can largely be split into two types: ‘dirty’ or stupid animals, like monkeys, dodos, rats, and frogs, and herd animals or animals that live in large groups, like cows, bees, wasps, and oxen. These comparisons are literally dehumanizing as they subjugate people to an animalistic role, as the narrator admits when he feels “a sense of dethronement, a persuasion that [he] was no longer a master, but an animal among the animals, under the Martian heel” (Wells 160), but are also metaphorically dehumanizing because the animals Wells compares humans to connote images of dirtiness, stupidity, and lack of individuality.

The image of humans as ants is notable because it reoccurs throughout the text, and is featured in a conversation between the narrator and the artilleryman in Book Two, Chapter Seven. In this comparison, Wells delivers a two-pronged critique that can apply to all imperial states, but specifically Britain in this text. On a textual level in the narrator and artilleryman’s conversation, Wells minimizes the importance of human society in the artilleryman’s description of men and ants, which parallels the relationship of the Martians and humans: “It’s just men and ants. There’s the ants builds their cities, live their lives, have wars, revolutions, until the men want them out of the way” (Wells 169). The movements and activities of humans are largely irrelevant to the Martians, and are often permitted only out of disinterest. Patrick Parrinder suggests a subtextual significance to Wells’ ant imagery, writing, “a colony or empire of ants is a society based on functional inequality. The class division between queens and worker ants would, if transferred to human society, threaten the survival of the communal organization” (Parrinder 75). So a society that is based on inequality and exploitation is not effective, nor is it destined to be long-lived. This is a pointed comment to make as a British citizen, because as previously mentioned, the British imperialist mindset is based on “unequal economic, cultural, and territorial relationships based on domination and subordination” (Dictionary of Geography “imperialism”).

Wells also compares the human exodus from the areas the Martians have invaded in various forms of water imagery: the exodus is “a boiling stream of people,” and the “stream of flight [rises] to a torrent,” turning into a “foaming tumult” (Wells 154, 144), and he describes eddys and whorls in the current as people try to stop or change direction on the road out of town. This description has much the same effect as describing people as herd animals: it diminishes their individuality and their humanity in portraying their movement as single-minded, forceful, and unstoppable.

The War of the Worlds does not mark the first or last time that H. G. Wells uses the man-into-animal image – it appears in numerous other works, including The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Time Machine. In The War of the Worlds, it communicates Wells’ viewpoints on various issues related to imperialism and colonialism: by comparing people to animals, he attempts to express the experience of colonization and control, and by comparing them specifically to ants, he comments on the inequality and precarious nature of an imperialist nation. As he diminishes people and attacks any sense of superiority the British people in the novel may hold, he questions their right to rule over other nations and peoples. The narrator presents this sentiment at the very beginning of the novel when he reminds the reader that “before we judge [the Martians] too harshly, we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals [ …], but upon its own inferior races” (Wells 7).

The War of the Worlds is uniquely situated as the first piece of science fiction that incorporates a tradition of invasion literature. Invasion literature is exactly what it sounds like: they are texts focused on stories of Britain being invaded, often by France or Germany, their main industrial and economic competition, and expand on the worry that “this competition would become outright war” (Danahay 22). Wells includes many facets of typical invasion literature, including his use of a first-person narrator who is a survivor of the conflict, well-known English locales, and the destruction of London, which is a symbol for the heart of the British Empire and all of its culture, assets, and strength (Danahay 22-23). However, Wells alters the form by heightening the fear of superior technology, making it Martian and otherworldly to achieve a higher level of anxiety. Although he focuses his text specifically on England’s destruction, the threat the Martians pose is global; it is all of humankind that faces potential colonization or destruction, not just England. However, in attacking England, Wells can again focus on the British Empire and its weaknesses, and quickly it could fall, given a foreign threat. By incorporating invasion literature into his writings, Wells shapes an overt political commentary and his “notions of imperialism […] have deeply affected every subsequent writer in the tradition of galactic imperialism” (Parrinder 66).

Wells’ description of the Martians in The War of the Worlds is also quite telling about his views of imperialism: the Martians do not have digestive systems, so in order to survive they “[take] the fresh, living blood of other creatures, and injected it into their own veins” (Wells 200). In invasion literature, the nations who force imperialism upon the invaded are vampiric in the sense that they consume the economic and cultural capital of the invaded nation; Wells makes this cultural vampirism literal as the Martians suck the blood out of English citizens in order to fuel themselves. The notion of vampiric colonizers is also a critique of imperialism, because it demonstrates the same draining of resources and wealth – the introduction from my copy of The War of the Worlds includes the statement that the Martians “were vampires, but their very vampirism was a sign of their greater ‘civilization’” (Gunn xvii). By describing the Martians as vampiric in nature, Wells makes his negative views of colonization and the imperialist mindset that motivates it very clear.

As a work of speculative fiction, The War of the Worlds literally images what would happen if Earth were to be invaded by Martians. Allegorically, it speculates on the rise and collapse of a modern imperialist state. H. G. Wells’ perspective on imperialism and colonialism is presented to the reader via three main avenues: his repeated human-animal comparisons, his incorporation of invasion literature structures, and how he describes the Martians as vampires. With these methods, Wells forces the reader to experience a hostile colonization through the narrator, including the dehumanization and loss of self that it imparts, and suggests that imperialism is a precarious and vampiric system. Written in a period of intense colonialism, Wells’ criticism is well founded, and he ensures it is present in the mind of the reader as they begin and end the novel – he asks them to remember the extermination of the Tasmanian people, and the cost of colonialism, writing that “by the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth” (Wells 273). The War of the Worlds exists in a tradition of politically critical speculative fiction, like Gulliver’s Travels, and it encourages its readers to take on a critical perspective when it transposes their circumstances to a Martian-human conflict, allowing them a critical distance. This novel continues to be a pertinent source of critique, as concerns about invasion, belief in national superiority, and the destructive influence of imperialism all remain relevant today.


Questions

If the Martians’ death at the end of the novel is an allegory for the death of colonialism, what then do we make of the fact that they were killed by bacteria? What do they represent?

If The War of the Worlds took place today, would imperialism and colonialism still be the issues that Wells would be critiquing? Would it still be set in England?

Could this novel also be read as a Darwinian text? Will the cycle of colonization and exploitation will continue ad infinitum because of the survival of the fittest and continual evolution toward superiority?


Sources & Resources

The Broadview Edition of the text, with an excellent introduction.

Patrick Parrinder’s “Shadows of the Future: H.G. Wells, Science Fiction, and Prophecy” – Chapter 5 is most relevant.

Historical context of the novel’s inspiration and reception.

An article linking sci-fi and colonialism, offering reasons the two are often paired.


Associated Materials

Orson Welles’ (In)Famous Radio Performance of ‘The War of the Worlds’

 

 

The trailer for ‘Independence Day,’ a film adaptation of ‘The War of the Worlds’

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A 1898 illustration for a magazine publication of The War of the Worlds

 

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A poster for the 1953 film adaptation of The War of the Worlds

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A sculpture of the Martian tripod, erected in Woking, where part of the novel takes place, and where Wells lived for a time. 

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Gulliver’s Travels, Book III

Book Three of Gulliver’s Travels seems to be, as a whole, a satirical attack on how we gather knowledge: history and historical studies are criticized at Luggnagg, logic and philosophy at Laputa, scientific research at Balnibarbi.

This book of Gulliver’s Travels is my favourite by far, partly just for the ridiculous imagery and variety of ways Swift finds to ridicule excessive reason (inflating a dog with air? People have to be smacked in the face with a bladder to remember to listen and speak?). The image of the Struldbruggs is particularly striking, as Swift attacks experience as a route to knowledge. The Struldbruggs, although they live forever, lose most of their faculties and memory after the age of forty, and lose their personhood after the age of eighty. Gulliver imagines immortality as a gift and an opportunity for many academic and artistic endeavours, but the Struldbruggs are nonverbal, non-mobile, and devoid of memory before they reach the age of one hundred years.

My struggle, at the end of Book Three, is to see what Swift expects people to depend on for knowledge and advancement. Not experience, not science, not the humanities . . . where are we meant to look? But I think, if he is attacking modern thinking, then he intends for us to look backward. Ancient philosophy and knowledge has endured till the time of his writing, so it must hold some merit.

Swift’s distaste for scientific progress and experimentation makes sense, given the explosion of scientific advancements taking place during the Enlightenment. However, I wonder if it stems from a distaste at the church of science that was developing, or because it placed too much emphasis on the scientific, logical aspects of humanity and overlooked the . . . humanity within us, the irrational, emotional, or illogical.

 

The Big Friendly Giant(s)

In Gulliver’s Travels, the Brobdingnagians are massive beings well over sixty feet tall, who tower over Gulliver and stand in stark contrast (literally) to the Lilliputians he encountered previously. Among the Lilliputians, Gulliver was a giant physically, but also in a more practical sense: he displayed a level of clarity and expediency that the Lilliputians lacked, and often got caught up in impractical methods and approaches.

Among the Brobdingnagians, Gulliver is dwarfed by them not only physically, but morally. Brobdingnagian society functions with a level of clarity, straightforwardness, and morality that casts English society in an unflattering light in comparison. The King of Brobdingnag comments that the English, based on Gulliver’s descriptions, seem to be “the most pernicious race of odious little vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.” It is here that the reader begins to see that Gulliver is quite proud, and the King points to issues in English society that Gulliver accepts as normal, posing them to the reader and leaving them to mull over these issues.

It is in Gulliver and the King’s discussion of gunpowder that their differing moral standards are made clear: Gulliver (and by extension, the English) promotes gunpowder on the belief that it represents progress, and power, and offers its recipe to the King. The Brobdingnagian King, after hearing what gunpowder is for, rejects this offer completely: he is not tempted by the power it offers, nor does he think it should be shared. The Brobdingnags, though they are physical and moral giants to Gulliver, are not therefore perfect: they treat Gulliver as a plaything and a non-human (which is not to say that they are unkind to him), children and the deformed can still be evil, and they do not trust Gulliver.

Swift’s presentation of the Brobdingnagians exposes the readers to a more critical reading of Gulliver, and to general issues and inconsistencies within English society, politics, and philosophy.

Margaret Cavendish’s ‘The Blazing World’

Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World describes another world inhabited by bird-men, bear-men, fish-men, and many other sorts of anthropomorphized people. This world is seemingly utopian in nature, and establishes a precedent as the first utopia outlined by a female writer. As a utopia, the Blazing World presents a feminine view of an ideal world, and Cavendish puts forth a world notable for its scientific endeavours.

My first instinct when reading this work and noting that it has previously been qualified as a utopia was to disagree with this classification, for a few reasons. In terms of minor disagreements, it struck me as unlikely that Cavendish’s ideal world was one inhabited by walking, talking insects and animals who argue over philosophy and science. In terms of larger disagreements, it seemed even more unlikely to me that Cavendish, who was very vocal and assertive about her rights as a woman, would advocate for a utopia where women are excluded from religious life and sequestered away in closets for their prayers.

My initial disagreements can be easily addressed, however: the animal-men exist as a way of distancing the Blazing World from Cavendish’s world, allowing her more space from reality with which she can alter and create a world to her liking; the sequestering of women in closets while they pray is part of a larger satirical commentary on the nature of religion.

The primary ways Cavendish’s tale shines as a utopia are in its political and scientific aspects. Politically, Cavendish can safely advocate for monarchical government as an ideal system of rule, using body politic to support her views, and the popularity of monotheistic religion to prove that it’s a system that works. Scientifically, Cavendish can portray her ideal dynamic: a gender-neutral discussion of scientific approaches, equipment, and ideas. As a whole, Cavendish creates a world that is her utopia – it provides freedom where she lacks it, and advocates for her preferences in rule and discussion.

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Francis Godwin’s “The Man in the Moone”

Francis Godwin’s “The Man in the Moone” seems to be a wildly original work at first glance, but upon further inspection, it shares a number of ideas are derived from other works. I didn’t find the genre of the text too easy to define, because it functions as travel literature, as a picaresque novella, and potentially as science fiction. Godwin’s text borrows broadly, pulling ideas from various other texts to create his own image. Notably, his view of the Lunar society, and of their language, is clearly borrowed from elsewhere.

Godwin’s Lunar society functions as a kind of utopia: it is similar to earth, but with some improvements. It is seemingly Christian, very peaceful, long-lived, and largely devoid of troublemakers (who get sent to Earth in their infancy). In this way, as with most utopias, the Lunar society serves as a critique of the writer’s society – it is somewhat removed from the society in question (this ‘somewhat’ is apparently a twelve-day journey by goose) and is a safe platform from which to voice societal criticism. In this case, Godwin can comment in a roundabout way on religion: the Lunars recognize the ‘Jesu’ part of Gonsales’ “Jesu Maria!” exclamation, but not the ‘Maria’ part, implying that they are not Catholic, as Gonsales is. In this way, Godwin aligns the Lunars with Protestantism and thereby the English.

The language the Lunars use is described as musical and tonal, where the pitch determines the meaning. Because of these similarities, it seems to be like Chinese, which Gonsales encounters after returning to Earth. It’s tonal, like Chinese is, and it is transposed in a way that is like English in that it’s transposed sound by sound, rather than symbolically where one mark equals one concept.

Although “The Main in the Moone” borrows from numerous other works, it does so in an act of synthesis and manages to create a wholly new and original story.

A look inside a period copy of “The Man in the Moone!”

 

Lorenzo Reading: Heather O’Neill’s Daydreams of Angels

Last Thursday November 24th, I had the opportunity to attend Heather O’Neill’s Lorenzo reading for her collection of short stories, Daydreams of Angels. It was only about halfway through her reading that I made the connection that I’d previously read her novel Lullabies for Little Criminals!

Though I didn’t have the opportunity to read Heather’s book in advance, I did hear all about it from Rachel, especially about the story that Heather chose to read: “Where Babies Come From.” As Rachel had said, the story was very sweet and had the evocative poetic imagery I associate with her writing, an element she explain was a holdover from her beginnings as a poet before she became a novelist.

After reading “Where Babies Come From,” Heather took questions – some very general and relating to her other works, some about the specific stylings of the stories in her new collection. No matter the length of the question, she usually has no problem formulating a quite lengthy response. Following that, she read from her upcoming novel, The Lonely Hearts Hotel. Her voice when writing is so distinctive that it seems to me that her works almost blend together, especially Thursday night, when everything she read ran in a similar sort of vein of magic realism.

When having dinner with Heather and the rest of the Lorenzo members afterward, it was intriguing to hear her talk about Montreal and her undergrad, and a fun conclusion to a lovely reading.

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Pretty Boy Crossover

Pat Cadigan’s “Pretty Boy Crossover” is almost irritatingly non-political, despite all the ways it sets up the possibility for political commentary. The story illustrates a parable for prostitution, constructs an oppressive political system, and brainwashing, but refuses to comment on any of these elements directly.

The entire story can be read as a parable for prostitution, but Cadigan is carefully neutral about the whole affair – the protagonist and Billy both thrive on attention, but Billy caves to the promise of more and more attention and uploads his consciousness. The narrator resists and turns down all like offers, but is fully aware of and strongly tempted by Billy’s fate. Cadigan balances the appeal and the flaws of this ‘uploading,’ she remains distant from any sort of moral judgement.

Cadigan also evades any kind of political engagement with the oppressive system that she constructs within the story. Though she makes it clear that the system is indeed oppressive, she doesn’t condemn it directly. The narrator literally refuses to engage with it – he just walks away whenever they extend an offer to him. Although she tries to avoid engaging with that system at all, she fails simply by including it in her story – she can’t present an entirely unbiased perspective, it’s not possible. Though unwilling, Cadigan does engage with the oppressive system on some level, because she must describe it somehow, must emphasize that it is indeed oppressive somehow, so some kind of moral judgement must take place, which necessitates some kind of engagement.

Cadigan also mentions the Noise, which is a omnipresent form of brainwashing that prevents people from thinking coherently. Despite the fact that this is clearly not a morally ambiguous invention, Cadigan downplays this fact and focuses on the narrator’s ability to think around the Noise. The narrator is similarly resistant to actively condemn the system around him: he still seeks their interest for self-validation, and although he is dissatisfied with their existence, won’t act against them in any kind of proactive way.

I find it difficult to explain away Cadigan’s seeming political apathy in this story. What’s the point of constructing a story containing these structures, create a narrator that engages with them, but avoid commenting on them in any negative way?

 

Raptor Porn and ‘Good Storytelling’

I’d heard about the debacle around the Hugos, but hadn’t looked into it before because it seemed to be sort of issue that is always cropping up in media: the push (sometimes successful) for better representation in [insert media type here], and the inevitable backlash from people who say that such changes would be to the detriment of the media itself. It always seems to be a ridiculous issue to me, and reading articles about what was actually happening with the Hugo Awards seemed to solidify that opinion.

First of all: it just seems ridiculous to not want progress in a genre that is often very concerned with the progress and development of humanity. Or, even silly, thinking that you should be the one to control the progress of the genre and how it changes (both sides of this issue seems to be at fault with this particular issue – though I feel more inclined to pardon any non-Puppies, as they generally seem to be promoting more inclusive, positive visions of SF).

The concern mentioned in one of the articles that we were linked to mentioned that Puppies feel Hugo nominations “have strayed from the larger body of fans.” I don’t think the speaker meant the majority of fans when he said that, I think he meant his idea of who fans of SF/F are. IMO, this feeds into the idea of traditional fans. The idea that science fiction is a boy’s genre is not true (and has never been, at least for authors), and even if it were, genres and their audiences change. On top of that, it doesn’t seem conducive to just have SF/F appeal to just a small group of people if it wants to survive. Diversifying is guaranteed to draw more people into the genre, and ensure that it grows and changes.

One of the ideas that annoyed me was that a concern of the Sad Puppies that good storytelling had been put to the side in favour of just willy-nilly inclusion and diversity. Their intentions seem to be less than pure and that concern with good storytelling seem to be slightly undermined if they’re making joke nominations like Chuck Tingle, and nominating one of their own, in the case of Vox Day. Their concern about storytelling seems to be a safe way to explain away their wish to keep SF/F free of any sort of discussion or exploration of issues of race, gender, sexuality, or religion that deviate from their norm.

Besides, if the Sad Puppies are truly concerned with the quality of storytelling, they would give it time. There is a progression that I’ve seen in fandom (and in taking this class, that I’ve seen in the short stories we’ve read as well), where ideas can sometimes be a step and a half ahead of good writing. There are pieces like The Man Who Evolved by Edmond Hamilton where the idea is what gives a story impetus – the writing itself may be clunky or the characters two-dimensional, but the idea is there. If the Sad Puppies care, they would give it time. The ideas are there, clearly, there have been stories cropping up left, right, and centre about issues and re-imaginings of race, gender, sexuality, and religion in SF/F, so give it time if the storytelling isn’t up to par. Right now, those ideas might be what is giving those pieces life, but ‘good storytelling’ will catch up soon, if that was really the concern here. (I think, for what it’s worth, that ‘good storytelling’ and looking into social issues in SF/F already overlap and the Puppies concern with this is nonsense.)

You Thought You Knew What Was Going On? LOL No: Frederik Pohl’s “Day Million”

Frederik Pohl’s “Day Million” toyed with me when I read it. Much of this story is about messing with our assumptions about people, gender, and sexuality – it gives us a very simple prompt at the the beginning: “There will be a boy, a girl, and a love story” (p. 380). The rest of the story aims to systematically destroy all of the preconceived notions we assigned to that simple sentence.

Right off the bat, gender and physical appearance are divorced from biological sex, and any assumptions you may have made about appearance dictating one’s gender, sex, or humanity are pushed to the side. Our idea of marriage is booted out the way with one sentence – “Of course, they never set eyes on each other again” (p. 383). In the second-to-last paragraph, our ideas of monogamy are thoroughly dismissed.

I like the stories for this week quite a bit – it seems a little silly to me that humanity might evolve to the point where we’re visiting other galaxies or chatting with aliens thousands of years in the future, but we’re still stuck with outdated ideas about gender, sexuality, and relationships. If our technology, civilization, and view of our world and others is changing, why shouldn’t our views of ourselves and how we interact with others change as well?

This story reminded me of Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, particularly the section of the novel where the protagonist lives off-planet and experiment with body modification for a while, and the unearthly female artist he falls in love with. Both works manage to look at this kind of progression in our understanding of self-expression and relationships with a fair degree of fluidity.

The narrator of this story pokes at the reader throughout, and by evoking confusion, constantly makes us aware of how small and constricted our worldview is. We’re mocked a little bit for our confusion, and pushed toward accepting what’s presented to us in order to understand this very simple love story. To me, in the end, this piece is one that has a holistic view of the future. It won’t only be the machines that we’re using that will change, or the things we encounter, we will too, and if we take the idea of spaceship, alien civilizations, or exploring other galaxies seriously, then we should take the idea of exploring our future relationships and personhood seriously as well.

 

C. L. Moore’s “Shambleau”

C. L. Moore is one of the pen names of Catherine Lucille Moore, one of the early female speculative fiction and fantasy writers. “Shambleau” was her first published story and her most popular. The impact of this story at the time of its publication was quite profound, but Lester Del Rey manages to neatly sum it up: “The influences of that story were and are tremendous. Here, for the first time in the field, we find mood, feeling, and colour. In ‘Shambleau’ we also experience as never before both the horror at what we may find in space and the romance of space itself” (p. 2).

There have been attempts to compare C. L. Moore with the Shambleau, notably by Lester Del Rey, who attempts to bring the two together by looking at the response to “Shambleau” the story and Shambleau the creature. The quote from Del Rey I mentioned earlier said that with “Shambleau” there was an introduction of “mood, feeling, and colour” into the science fiction scene that had not been prevalent before. Thomas A. Bredehoft writes “the publication of ‘Shambleau’ is [ . . . ] a sort of ‘original sin:’ the introduction of sex, feeling, and emotion into the ‘mechanistic and unemotional’ masculinist Eden of pre-’Shambleau’ science fiction.” “Shambleau” had a strong draw for readers who had never come across science fiction quite like this before – much like how the Shambleau captures Northwest Smith’s interest. Just as Smith is drawn to and repulsed by the Shambleau, we as readers are attracted to and disgusted by the content of this story.

Firstly, I’d like to take a step back and consider aliens in general as a literary device, and how that works in “Shambleau.” To put it simply, aliens in literature often signify elements of society that are foreign, ignored, repressed, or marginalized. They allow us to take issues or sometimes-unpleasant elements of society and effectively ‘other’ them to examine them in a more removed way. One of the two main themes of “Shambleau” is presented to us in this way, as a repressed element: Sexuality. The Shambleau personifies sex and sexuality, and the fact that C. L. Moore has chosen this to be the Shambleau’s representative element and the way the other people in Lakkdarol, who have full knowledge of what she really is, react to her, gives us a sense of attitudes toward sex at the time the story was written. We don’t have any other women in the story for comparison, but the fact that we have to remove ourselves from the human sphere completely to openly depict a blatantly sexual female being is very telling. “Shambleau” also disrupts any kind of expected gender hierarchy: the idea of men being more the active pursuers and women being the passive pursued ones is dispelled, Northwest Smith is in “a blind abyss of submission” (p. 126) while the Shambleau is enclosing him in her tentacles. It’s not just the gender hierarchy that is flipped on its head, heterosexuality is as well if we consider “the root-deep ecstasy” (p. 127) that Smith takes from the Shambleau’s (fairly phallic) tentacles. Essentially, C. L. Moore uses aliens as a literary device to investigate attitudes toward sex and alter gender hierarchies.

Moore’s description of addiction in “Shambleau” is presented in a familiar way –vampirism is a common metaphor for addiction, and the vampire’s addiction is usually passed on to the victim. C. L. Moore makes this very clear in how she portrays Smith, the victim of this vampire: Smith, when Yarol first sees him clearly, is an addict: “his face was that of some creature beyond humanity – dead-alive, fixed in a grey stare, and the look of terrible ecstasy that overspread it seemed to come from somewhere far within” (p. 129). He’s not just affected physically, however – he can’t quite promise Yarol that he will kill any Shambleau he comes across, and his speech has changed too, the Shambleau has left its mark on him: his speech is disjointed, with plenty of awkward pauses, just like how the Shambleau spoke. The power of Shambleau is made evident toward the end of the story, where the narrative viewpoint shifts away from Smith when he succumbs to the Shambleau to Yarol, then equally to both in about the last page and a half as they both try to process what just happened to them. This leaves it up to the reader to decide which viewpoint to adopt, Smith’s or Yarol’s – but we tend to slide toward Smith, because we can more easily understand his uncertain rejection of the Shambleau, because we know all too well how compelling it can be.

We’re kind of hit over the head repeatedly with the Medusa motif in this story, C. L. Moore is not at all subtle about making sure we notice it. It’s brought up in the prologue: “The myth of the Medusa, for instance can never have had its roots in the soil of Earth. That tale of the snake-haired Gorgon whose gaze turned the gazer to stone never originated about any creature that Earth nourished. And those ancient Greeks who told the story must have remembered, dimly and half-believing, a tale of antiquity about some strange being from one of the outlying planets their remotest ancestors once trod” (p. 111). Having this image of Medusa already in our minds from the very outset of the story puts us on high alert and as a result, we pick up on the very first hint of the Shambleau’s nature before Northwest Smith does, when “the thick lock of crimson moved, squirmed itself against her cheek” (p. 119). When Smith does realize though, Medusa is brought up again. “… in starting waves back from her forehead and down about her in a hideous background writhed the snaky wetness of her living tresses. And Smith knew that he looked upon Medusa” (p. 126). And just in case any of this was slipping by us, Moore really hammers it home at the end of the story, where Yarol kills the Shambleau the same way Perseus killed Medusa, and then explicitly links the two, saying that the Shambleau must have been in Greece three thousand years ago, or humans must have encountered one around that time.

But so what? Yes, there is this recurring Medusa motif, but what purpose does it serve? In relation to “Shambleau,” Thomas A. Bredehoft wrote, “Medusa’s head is very much a representation of the terrifying ‘Other.’” Moore suggesting that an alien is the inspiration behind the Medusa myth makes the “other” element very literal, as the Shambleau is about as ‘other’ as you can get: not from this planet, with a distinctly non-human appearance and style of predatory behaviour. On top of that, Moore’s physical description of the Shambleau alters the traditional image of Medusa. Typically Medusa was very ugly and had snakes for hair, and sometimes, green skin, but other than that, was generally humanoid. The Shambleau, however, is distinctly non-human even before we know about the tentacles on her head: she looks even less human than Medusa – four fingers on each hand, all clawed, a cat-like tongue, and feline eyes. All of this adds up to the image of something that is even more terrifyingly ‘other’ than Medusa. As Yarol makes clear, the Shambleau certainly explains why Medusa was considered such a terrifying monster to the Greeks.

And why does Moore phrase this retelling of Medusa’s story as she does? Why doesn’t the Shambleau have actual snakes growing from her head, why doesn’t she turn people to stone, why, WHY, is it set on Mars? At this point in time, after thousands of years of retelling, Medusa’s story doesn’t immediately provoke terror in readers. We accept the description of Medusa as monstrous, but it is such a familiar, pervasive image that it doesn’t immediately terrify us – kind of like how Twilight thoroughly toned down the scare factor of vampires. Common cultural tropes lose their effectiveness over time and through overexposure, so Moore manages to reinvigorate Medusa’s story by synthesizing a new sort of Medusa from elements of the traditional story and vampiric behaviours to bring the unfamiliar and therefore more effective visions of Shambleau to mind. Moore setting the story in a city on Mars is another way for her to introduce this sort of novelty and to highlight the alien aspects of this story. I think it’s a fairly effective way to make these sorts of creatures scary again.

C. L. Moore shaped the Shambleau to be as other as possible: alien, addict, animalistic, and disruptive of gender hierarchies: she may look human at first glance but she is anything but. Moore not only introduced readers to a colourful, emotional version of science fiction, she also made them face familiar but ignored concepts like sexuality and addiction.

Thomas A. Bredehoft’s article

Lester Del Rey’s introduction to The Best of C. L. Moore

Some helpful background information about Medusa and the Medusa myth

And beside that, some fun tidbits that I couldn’t fit into my presentation:

  • It’s fairly commonly accepted that Northwest Smith had some influence over the construction of Han Solo as a character, or at the very least had a strong contribution to the Space Cowboy trope.
  • “Shambleau” also influenced “Queen of Blood,” a 1966 film that tells the story of another female vampiric alien.
  • The song Northwest Smith is whistling, “The Green Hills of Earth,” inspired the title of Robert Heinlein’s story of the same name: listen to it here, if you wish!

Just a thought to consider: between the description of the Shambleau and the nature of Northwest Smith’s addiction, which do you think is more frightening, and why?

And lastly, some images of the Shambleau, which are useful so you can actually see the visual similarities between the Shambleau and Medusa:

shambleau-cover-3shambleau4

shambleau_by_jujugonzo-d6060ko