Science fiction presents contemporary concerns through surrealist and fantastical metaphors. Stories of aliens and warfare, of technology and advancement, of utopia and fallibility hardly describe visions of pure fantasy. Instead, these plots reconcile existing strife, or at the very least, anticipate the pains that lay in the future if current trajectories are left unencumbered.
The original version of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds manifests an alien invasion at the heart of the British Empire. Superficially, the tale was not out of the ordinary. Popular literature of the day envisioned the foreign powers attacking European homelands, and public perceptions swayed with these narratives. Fears of coming war were well-founded, and in many ways, the tripods’ attacks on southern England forecast the gruesomeness of the next century.
Yet, science fiction’s grandeur also provides cover, enabling authors to subtly consider ideas that are even less palatable to the masses than global warfare. “And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races,” wrote Wells in the novel’s opening pages. Albeit racist, the passage casts moral judgment on imperial genocide, as Wells pondered atrocities committed by the English on aboriginal Tasmanians. He continued, “Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”
Unfortunately, metaphors are easy to commandeer, and the direction of allegory can easily change with a few edits. In the last century, popular media has presented aliens attacking New Jersey with their heat rays no less than two times. CBS Radio’s 1938 dramatization supposedly sparked national hysteria, but the Slate article by Jefferson Pooley and Michael J. Socolow exposes this panic as a falsehood, pushed by newspapers hoping to snuff out on-air competitors.
In a 2005 movie, otherworldly lighting strikes in Jersey City, snapping a rough and tumble Tom Cruise into action. Steven Spielberg, the director, tells a story of others destroying American life at the geographical heart of September 11’s trauma. By the film’s opening weekend, the United States had waged four years of war in Afghanistan and two in Iraq, yet the blockbuster only shows America, the beautiful, under attack. In its first act, the youngest and most panic-stricken character—who is uncoincidentally female—screeches, asking if these extraterrestrial adversaries are terrorists. Later, as fruitful plains burn, Cruise’s prodigal son demands that his father let him go to war and stop the breach of liberty. Ultimately, this male teenager, a bad-boy turned hero, returns unscathed to his father, an imperfect man who also rises to the occasion. Such masculine displays of heroism ensure America’s triumph and sovereignty, even if, all the while, the defenseless girl screams.
These retellings are fry cries from Well’s original check on imperialism and military technology. At its core, science fiction is popular. Every story, whether original or reimagined, reflects the thought of the moment and the moralities of its teller. These narratives, filled with wonder, are easy to enjoy, yet their virtues must be considered within the context and against the authorship of history.