The Germ Growers

Are you in interested in reading a book published in 1892 which is said to be the first novel portraying an alien invasion of Earth, released six years before H. G. Well’s The War of the Worlds? Then download it from gutenberg.org and come back after reading. Why? Because I am about to spoil the main surprises contained in the story by explaining WHY IT IS NOT THE FIRST ALIEN INVASION NOVEL. So, in my opinion, if it is the only candidate to challenge Well’s book, this will remain as the absolute and uncontested pioneer in a groundbreaking territory (a very appropriate expression to use here, if we take into account the Martians destructive operations).

The next paragraph comes from Wikipedia (I have always loved cyclopedias, and an online one under permanent construction and revision is a treasure I sometimes contribute to by giving a little money or even writing an article):

“In 1892 Robert Potter, an Australian clergyman, published The Germ Growers in London. It describes a covert invasion by aliens who take on the appearance of human beings and attempt to develop a virulent disease to assist in their plans for global conquest. It was not widely read, and consequently Wells’s vastly more successful novel is generally credited as the seminal alien invasion story.”


Likewise, the Science Fiction Encyclopedia summarises the plot this way:

“A race of discarnate beings, denizens of the interplanetary “ether” capable of assuming human form, mind-controlling humans, and able to Teleport, invades Earth and sets up beachheads where they cultivate plague germs to be used on humanity”. Nevertheless, at the end of the entry we are warned that “the element of Christian allegory (fallen angels confronted by a good angel) leaves its sf potential not fully realized.”

Well, if you ask me (which probably you will not, but I will tell you anyway) there is no allegory in Potter’s story. The aliens are actual spiritual creatures, good or bad, that is, what the Bible calls angels, and the book is an attempt to harmonise a scientific explanation of the universe with the Christian worldview where the classic notion of ether or aether had already found its way in relation to heaven, outer space, angelic beings and so on. This idea at the core of the plot is plainly more original than any allegory. The “world” where these “invaders” come from is actually in the same place as ours. Today we would call it “other dimension” or something of the like.

Robert Potter resorts to the notion of aether, not as “the fifth element” of ancient Greece, but as a scientific concept still prevalent in his time, making it converge with the “ethereal” qualities of angels and souls and the subtle matter (should we call it energy?) where they abide. This subtle matter that pervades everything and is the origin of every other kind of substance in the Universe is what the spirit is made of and where the “aliens” of the story come from. To pass into our world of coarse objects the angels of the book must “materialise”, and they can do it without any problem, but once they turn into human beings, they are subject to all the laws of Nature that govern ours. Here is where the science fiction part is most prominent. For, being extremely wise and learned, the rebel legions that come to Earth to sow disease in bodies and souls use machines that, when seen by the protagonists, seem to them the product of a very advanced technology and a highly technological civilisation. They also use their deep knowledge of biology to grow germs in secret plantations, germs which are deadly mutations obtained from harmless ones through extensive experiments. These they spread by means of their invisible “flying cars” to push humankind into despair and rebellion.

The “teleportation” the Sci Fi Encyclopedia mentions is only what happens when one of the incarnate angels gets killed, or when they decide of their own accord to go back to the aether where they came from in the first place, and then they come back, taking again the matter and form of the human body.
I have found Mr. Potter’s musings very amusing, even though he spends too much time describing some of the contraptions used by the malevolent creatures that hide in a remote and concealed valley in Australia. These contraptions we may find a little funny today. We must, of course, consider the time when the novel was written. Also this is essential to understand the narrator’s flaws and prejudices, which are very characteristic of the century he lived in.

Of course, the title of the novel caught my eye in these days when a virus is keeping us humans at bay. In the first part of the book, before telling the story of his Australian adventures, the narrator recalls part of his youth memories, which include an epidemic and some other facts that he believes are connected though apparently it is not the case. After knowing everything about his Australian discoveries, we do see clearly that he was right: invisible connections certainly linked the events that took place in Wales when he was a boy. This first part of the book is still my favourite after getting the conclusive hints. With those loose events apparently glued together only by mystery and the suggestions that folkloric tales throw into the bargain, it reminds me of the supernatural aura that grows around common facts and places in the works of Arthur Machen.

Published by Mary Wolfhouse

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

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