The War of the Worlds - science fiction and Surrey
- Credit: Various
Science fiction has Surrey roots. Here Steve Gibbs investigates how this unlikely scenario came about...
The chances of Surrey being the home of science fiction may seem about as likely as, well, a martian in Woking High Street, but nevertheless, two of the genre’s most influential writers still brought alien invasion to its rural Victorian neighbourhoods.
Woking already celebrates one of its most famous residents, Herbert George Wells, and his terrifying dystopian tales of Tripods setting Horsell Common ablaze in The War of the Worlds, but the roots of this multi-billion-dollar industry lie even deeper in the fabric of our county.
Regarded by many as the precursor to alien invasion literature, British Army General Sir George Tomkyns Chesney also chose Surrey as the frontline of his literary battleground between Great Britain and its invaders – and now a new exhibition at The Lightbox in Woking, running until January 19, puts Surrey right at the dark mechanical heart of our endless fear of the unknown.
As Hamish MacGillivray, guest curator of Alien Invasion, explains, Chesney’s 1871 short story The Battle of Dorking sparked a particularly entertaining space race.
“Chesney was way ahead of his time. He is regarded by most science fiction historians as the man who invented the ‘future war’ genre,” notes MacGillivray of the fictitious conquest, inspired by the real events of the Prussian Army’s siege of Paris in 1870-71, which played upon typically British insecurity and foretold the demise of the Empire.
“His template is then developed by a certain HG Wells, but instead of thinking about the Prussians it was aliens. Wells basically created the template that is later used by other authors. What HG Wells started has influenced so much.”
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“Wells’ influence is huge,” agrees Andy Sawyer, Science Fiction Collections Librarian at the University of Liverpool and one of the world’s foremost experts on the genre. “I don’t think there’s a major science fiction theme that isn’t in his work. He modernised the language and was the first major British writer to have been educated as a scientist. He could draw on contemporary science in a way that his peers weren’t able to.”
Trouble in paradise
The locations chosen by both Chesney and Wells were more than coincidental, argues Sawyer. “Both Dorking and Woking are archetypes of the Home Counties and relatively prosperous suburbia,” he points out. “It was a good idea for these invading forces to defeat the British army in small towns on their way to the seat of government and the great pride of London.
“It made the story a bit more pointed when the middle-class readership could see areas around where they lived being destroyed.”
“Even by 1896, Surrey was already a good commuter route,” suggests MacGillivray. “For people who were fed up with the foggy, smoggy conditions in London, this was a healthier area. And into those sedate, leafy lanes comes this contrast of the Tripods.”
Living for a short time on Maybury Road, Wells was encouraged to cycle around the area to improve his health; this he did, accompanied by his second wife Jane and followed by the incessant chirrup of neighbourly gossip about his string of extra-marital affairs.
These bicycle journeys allowed Wells to plan the route his invaders would take towards London, and also research the characters to be killed by the Tripods. The more virulent the gossiper, the more likely they were to die, as Wells had his revenge in print.
“I think Chesney and Wells would be surprised,” surmises MacGillivray of their worldwide legacy, which continues to be felt in Hollywood’s appropriation of the theme in blockbusters such as Independence Day, plus the pioneering Space Invaders computer game. “But even The Battle of Dorking sold over 100,000 pamphlets in a couple of years. That’s a big print run for its time, and it obviously had a big political impact too. It was even used in American military training establishments, as a study in how civilians would deal with an invasion.”
Not that the impact of the stories was confined to Surrey. Retellings of varying skill and subtlety were created across the Western world – including the infamous 1938 radio play starring Orson Welles that sparked panic across America – as propaganda against Jewish immigrants, Nazis and Communists. One even pitted Thomas Edison in a victorious fight against invaders from Mars.
“There are some interesting similarities between the language used in the media in the 1890’s and 2013,” argues MacGillivray, who thinks that Wells himself had several subtexts in mind.
“He was quite political, a working-class boy from Bromley with a big chip on his shoulder. Some people think The War of the Worlds is an allegory for how the West trampled across third world countries. The Wells brothers had heard about how the Aborigines in Tasmania were being exterminated (by British colonialists) during the Black War.
“Howard Koch (writer of the 1938 adaptation) thought that politicians could say anything and some people would believe it if they wanted to believe it. It was playing on that heightened tension, something that is also relevant today.”
The science-fiction genre will doubtless continue its rapacious quest for our hearts, minds and disposable income long into the future. Its origins, though, will always lie in Surrey.
“There are five HG Wells books that form the basis for most science fiction plotlines,” concludes MacGillivray. “The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds and The War in the Air. Between 1895 and 1907, he had already worked out the plotlines for most of the TV and movie industry in the 20th and 21st centuries.
“Whether it be genetic engineering or personality changes, alien invasions or time travel, Wells is the grandfather of all these ideas. He managed to distil them into something hugely readable for an educated working-class and middle-class market who were desperate for interesting books.
“His ideas are timeless. If you read The Time Machine, that could be anybody stepping into it. And the equipment described in The Time Machine is the equipment you will find on a bicycle.”
Brave new county…
Surrey’s science fiction links don’t end with Wells either. Here’s a few more…
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1897): Hindhead
Resident of Undershaw, Hindhead, from 1987 to 1907, the fully-qualified doctor Conan Doyle wrote science fiction as well as the adventures of the world’s greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1931): Godalming and Guildford
Godalming-born Aldous Huxley transformed the area around his hometown into the World State utopia of the year 632 AF (After Ford). Puttenham became ‘a modest little village nine stories high, with silos, a poultry farm, and a small vitamin-D factory’, whilst ‘On the north the view was bounded by the long chalk ridge of the Hog’s Back, from behind whose eastern extremity rose the towers of the seven skyscrapers which constituted Guildford’.
Chocky by John Wyndham (1963): Hindmere
Matthew, a 12-year-old resident of the fictional Surrey village of Hindmere, starts arguing with Chocky about life, the universe and everything. Chocky is just a voice in Matthew’s head but soon his parents realise that his friend is far from imaginary, and their son may be the unwitting conduit for aliens looking to colonise the planet.
Doctor Who (from 1963 to date): Various locations across Surrey
The Doctor has been transported to many locations across Surrey during his 50 years of travels through space and time, including Godalming High Street, Milford Chest Hospital, RHS Wisley, Kenley Aerodrome and the Royal Alexander and Albert School in Merstham.
The Earth Dies Screaming (1965): Shere
A film shot on location in the picturesque village of Shere that follows the survivors of a gas attack launched by aliens intent on invading Earth. Robots roam the streets, killing humans with a single touch and then bringing them back to life as zombie minions.