Bacteria and Martians

“God is not an insurance agent!”

exclaims the Narrator addressing the curate in H.G. Wells’ Novel The War of the Worlds. The curate’s sanity is compromised by this situation he cannot understand, he cannot endure. The Narrator gets truly annoyed at his shivering impulsiveness. But we must admit that, at least, his ravings are consistent with the beliefs that have lent sense to his past life.

To him the martians are Angels of Death, envoys from the Other World, the shear wrath of God. What he cannot concede is their being a species superior to humans. What he cannot understand is Man being abandoned by God (that is, white, western Man, especially British and especially those who are part of a religious institution).
In Wells’ days there was a continuous talk of superior species and inferior races. The novel shows the hunter hunted, the king of creation dethroned: beings from other planet come to take the crown.
The idea that something similar to the facts narrated in the book could come to happen was inconceivable not only to the curate, but also to the reader of the  XIXth Century, in both senses: an invasion from Mars, of course, was seen as merely fictional, but Wells’ reader regarded the possibility of a civilization and a power superior to the British Empire as merely fictional too. A century and a half later (more or less) the British Empire is a memory (there is another one in it’s place) and we have been subject to so many fictional alien invasions that we could believe there has been an actual invasion at some moment of our lives (something we do not remember very well, maybe because it was too traumatic).
It has been Wells’ merit (or maybe his fault) that all visitors from outer space were Martians for a long while since his book came out in 1897. Today we know  there is no life on Mars’ surface. We know it is very improbable that ours is the sole species endowed with language, technology and civilization among all the existing creatures and worlds. We know it is almost impossible to contact an intelligent alien species, intelligent in the way we call ourselves intelligent, because, though surely it must exist somewhere and sometime, the universe is too vast and things in it are too scattered across its immense distances. But the same characteristics that make so difficult for us to find alien life or even habitable planets makes it impossible for the universe not to shelter life: it is huge, maybe endless, its components and features are repeated along those colossal ranges containing hundreds of billions of galaxies. Back in 2013, analyzing data from the Kepler Space mission astronomers were able to calculate the existence of about 40 billion earth sized planets orbiting inside the habitable  orbits of stars… Only in the Milky Way! So there is got to be someone out there but we are not going to see them. Too many light years keep us apart.
Anyway, the contact hypothesis has probably  been raised in all possible ways. In Wells’ novel it is a conquest war. All human means of defense and attack prove to be worthless before the invaders’ superiority. And then, the most unexpected thing happens: the poor Martians die of sepsis. They lack an  immune system. Be aware, Wells is telling his readers, for the humblest of all creatures has a place in God’s plan. Bacteria are the immune system of Earth.
But what if the Martians (or maybe I should say the “extraterrestrial beings”) were bacteria? Well, then we would have something like Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain.
In this novel written by the famous best-selling author in 1969, the bacteria  are the aliens or, more exactly, the aliens are bacteria or, to be even more accurate, they are some kind of microorganism. It does not became clear if the form of life which is given the code name “Andromeda” can be called a bacteria, a virus or is something totally different.
When it comes to the relationship between the fictional and the real world, the hypothesis displayed by the plot of The Andromeda Strain is quite plausible. If one day we get in touch (be it for good or bad) with some kind of extraterrestrial life,  it will be some sort of microorganism, something small and simple, for, if the laws we can observe on our planet are also valid out of it, simple, small living things the like of bacteria and viruses are far more abundant than complex, big organisms. All this, by the way, is well explained in the book. In The War of the Worlds the relations between the real world and the one depicted in it are of a different kind, more philosophical.
All alien invasion novels describe a relation among three elements: the  planet Earth, humans and what we could call “the invasive species”. In The day the Earth Stood Still the defense of the planet comes from other planet, the ” intelligent” indigenous form of life is the menace to it, and once more the fictional and real worlds are connected, this time by an element which is partly an hypothesis, partly a process we can test every day just by keeping our eyes open: auto destruction.
The film is based upon Harry Bates’ story “Farewell to the Master” (1940) where the pending menace is a nuclear war. This has not been dispelled in our time but largely enriched with a variety of means for the progressive destruction of our environment and climate balance. Such means  provide a thorough and at the same time general effectiveness. This more complex auto destructive scenario appears in the 2008 film also titled The Day the Earth Stood Still, directed by Scott Derrikson and featuring Keanu Reeves as Klatu.

For the moment, to interpret the global pandemic that keeps us shut at home as a defense mechanism of the planet is irresistible though probably inappropriate. Bacteria are Earth’s mechanism of defense in Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Ideas about immunity and ecology were not so popular at the time so as to make Wells’ readers think of the Martian invaders as an infection against which the planet reacted by using it’s antibodies. War provided a much a more common pattern of thought.
Today it is not very difficult for us to regard the spread of different pandemics (the last of which is not
just hurting the health of human population but also the world economy) as a response of the immune system of Earth against the infection that we, humans, represent. We are not from Mars but indeed we are the main risk for life in this planet.

Published by Mary Wolfhouse

Writer and freelance journalist. Mary Wolfhouse is a pen name and also an Internet avatar.

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