HG Wells on the Partnership Between Viruses and Humans

By Peter Earle

The tension between man and nature is always, everywhere, taut. It is particularly easy to forget that, particularly in urban environs — given the preponderance of concrete, steel, and glass amid commerce and social engagement. But even in midtown Manhattan, one of the most heavily trod places on earth: isolate a small area of pavement for a few days and sprigs soon appear from the edges. In just a few months, frail plants with leaves thinner than paper have wrest modernity back to the primordial: splitting asphalt, invading neighboring areas, and inexorably pushing toward the sky.

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic has come so differently than most other collisions between human beings and the natural world — natural disasters and extreme weather, usually — that it seems to have leapt to an existential status.

At AIER we have written at length about historical analogues to the pandemic, about the need to maintain our humanity. Not so much the need as the requirement to not sacrifice the things that make us human — commerce, social interaction, creative association — in the wake of a new microbe.

HG Wells’ “War of the Worlds” (1898) carries a bevy of allegories, from colonialism and militarism to primitivism, Social Darwinism, and war. The nameless narrator (“Narrator”) survives the onslaught of a brutal Martian invasion. Amid the invasion, as he makes his way from Woking, England to London, he finds that many of his formerly rational countrymen have descended into bizarre behaviors and views. With citizens creeping around to avoid detection, a clergyman begins bellowing about the Apocalypse, leading to his death. Another suggests abandoning the surface of earth to restart civilization in subterranean caverns. Hysteria leads to the demise of untold numbers of people.

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