What if the Martian invasion was not entirely the product of H.G. Wells's vivid imagination? What if Wells witnessed something that spurred him to write The War of the Worlds as a warning?
From drafty London flats to the hot Sahara, to the surface of the moon and beyond, Mr. Wells & the Martians takes the reader on an exhilarating journey with H.G. Wells and his companions.
"Wells and Anderson fans should be delighted."– Booklist
"The author captures the spirit of the age in these linked tales that serve as seasonal witnesses to an age of invention and literary imagination."– Library Journal
"Ingenious . . . a tight, brisk tale that fits nicely into the mold established by the pulp writers of a century ago. . . . A worthwhile supplement to the renewed fascination in one of science fiction's founding fathers."– Amazon Review
Mr. Wells and Professor Huxley
Observe the Leonids
In chill November, the nights were as dark as the stars were bright. Young Wells followed his professor up rarely used wooden stairs to the labyrinthine rooftop of the university hall. When he politely opened the access door for the older man, the damp air threatened fog or, worse, obscuring clouds. Yet he saw that the sky overhead was mercifully clear: a canvas on which to paint glorious streaks of light.
"The meteors will begin falling soon, Wells." The old biology professor looked just as eager as his student.
The minarets and gables of London's Normal School of Science provided a maze of nooks, gutters, and eaves interspersed with sooty chimneypots and loose tiles. Daring students could climb out on ledges and hold secret meetings, even arrange assignations with willing girls from the poorer sections of South Kensington who could be sweet-talked with pleasant and cultured words.
Wells doubted that any of his classmates had ever climbed out for such a lofty purpose as his own.
T.H. Huxley's creaking bones and aching limbs forced him to move with painstaking care along the precarious shingles, yet the famous man had a grace and surety about him. Wells knew better than to offer the professor any assistance. Although Thomas Henry Huxley was now an old man with yellowish skin and gray hair, the bright little brown eyes in his square face still held a gaze as sharp as a hunting falcon's. In his youth, he had spent years as a surgeon and naturalist aboard a sailing ship, the Rattlesnake, collecting and documenting biological specimens from around the world, much as his revered colleague Charles Darwin had done. Huxley had been through storms and hostile landscapes, surviving harsh climates and unfriendly natives; he could certainly negotiate a rooftop, even one slick with moss and mist.
With a weary sigh, the professor eased himself down beside a grimy brick chimney, adjusting his black wool coat. Leaning back, he propped his head against a chimney and scratched his bushy white sideburns.
"Is this your first meteor shower, Mr. Wells? The Leonids are a good place to start." Huxley's booming voice was startlingly loud on the rooftop.
"I've seen shooting stars before, sir, but never actually … studied them. Even in my youth, I spent more time with my nose stuck in a book than looking up at the sky." The old man gave a wheezing laugh. "Exactly as I expected." Huxley's private conversational tone wasn't much softer than the forceful oratory for which he had become famous. Whether he was lecturing students or shouting in vehement debate with pigheaded bishops, his confident delivery, wit, and obvious intelligence won him many friends, and created as many enemies.
A flash in Wells's peripheral vision took him completely by surprise. "There, sir!" He gestured so rapidly that he nearly lost his precarious balance on the slanted roof. A streak of white light shot overhead then evaporated, so transient it seemed barely an afterimage on his eyes.
"Ah, our first meteor of the night, and you spotted it, Wells. Of course, your eyes are younger than mine."
"But your eyes have seen more things, sir." Limber enough at eighteen, Wells arranged his legs into an awkward squat, propping his worn shoes against a gutter for balance.
"Don't flatter me, Wells. I won't tolerate it." "Sorry, sir." Wells would have accepted any number of rebukes in exchange for the insights he received during the professor's biology lectures. Here at the university, his mind had been opened to a whole universe that dwarfed the dreary lower- middle-class existence to which his mother and brothers had resigned themselves.
Wells's dour mother had resisted the idea of an "unnecessary education," afraid her boy Herbert might put on airs above his social station. But the young man wanted to be a teacher, not a tradesman like the rest of his family.
When only seventeen, Wells had taken matters into his own hands by talking his way into a modest position as an assistant student teacher at the Midhurst School. Anxious to be free of his draper's apprenticeship, he had written a beseeching letter to the schoolmaster, Horace Byatt, begging for any post. The letter was embarrassingly manipulative, but at the time Wells had been young and desperate.
Byatt had found him an enthusiastic and dedicated pupil. In order to advance himself, Wells crammed immense amounts of knowledge into his hungry brain; he spent a great deal of time in school libraries or rifling through volumes in the Uppark manor library, while his mother worked. Each time Wells, or any one of his students, earned a high mark on special exams provided by the government, the Midhurst School received a financial reward. And young H.G. Wells was very profitable to schoolmaster Byatt. In fact, he did so well that he was admitted to the prestigious Normal School of Science, much to Byatt's disappointment (and loss of income).
There, Wells had met T.H. Huxley.
Although his mother sent him only a few shillings a week to pay for his schooling, Wells would rather have starved than return to his former terrible apprenticeship to a draper. He was destined to become a learned man. Huxley always said, "Ideas make mankind superior to other creatures … and superior men have superior ideas."
With a lean face and hollowed eyes, Wells was scrawny—even cadaverous, according to his roommate and friend, A.V. Jennings. Sometimes, taking pity on him, Jennings would fill him with beefsteak and beer so they could return replenished to the workbench in Huxley's laboratory. As the son of a doctor, Jennings received a small weekly stipend, but even he could little afford such generosity.
Wells shivered. But though his garments, a thin coat and an old shirt, were insufficient to combat the chill, he had no desire to go back inside when he could be out here with the professor. He wiggled his foot, fidgeted his hands, always moving, trying to get warm, as he continued watching.
Around them, a miasma of nighttime noises rose from the streets of London. Horsecarts and hansom cabs clopped by; prostitutes flounced into dim alleys or waited under the gas street lamps. Across the park, in the boarding house at Westbourne Grove where he and Jennings shared a room, the residents would be engaged in their nightly carousing, brawls, singing and drinking. Here, high above it all, Wells enjoyed the relative peace.
A second meteor appeared overhead like a line drawn with a pen of fire, eerie in its total silence. "Another!"
Bright in the western ecliptic, the ruddy point of Mars hung like a baleful eye. Mentally tracing the meteor's fiery line back to its origin, Wells saw that it radiated from a point in the sky not far from Mars itself, as if the red planet were launching them like sparks from a grinding wheel.
"Do you ever imagine, Professor, that these meteors might be signals of a kind? Even ships that have crossed the gulf of space?" Wells often spoke his odd speculations aloud, sometimes to the entertainment of others, sometimes to their annoyance.
Huxley's eyes held a bold challenge, as did his tone. "Ships? And from whence would they come?"
"Why not … Mars, for instance?" He indicated the orange- red pinpoint. "If Laplace's nebular hypothesis of planetary formation is correct, and Mars cooled long before Earth, then intelligent life could have evolved there much sooner than any such spark occurred here. Therefore, the Martian race would be more ancient, and presumably more advanced. Their minds would be immeasurably superior to our own—certainly capable of launching ships into the realm of space."
A third shooting star passed overhead, as if to emphasize Wells's point.
Huxley took up the mental challenge, as Wells had known he would. "Ah, Martians … interesting. And what do you suppose such beings would look like? Would their bodies be formed like our own?"
Wells resisted making a quick reply. Huxley did not tolerate glib answers. "Natural selection would ultimately shape a superior being into a creature with a huge head and eyes. Its body would be composed almost entirely of brain. It would have delicate hands for manipulating tools—but its mentality would be its greatest tool."
Huxley leaned forward from the chimney. "But why would Martians want to come to our green Earth? What would be their motive?"
Again Wells paused to think. "Conquest. Mars is a dry planet, sir—cold and drained of resources. Our world is younger, fresher. Perhaps even now the Martians are regarding this Earth with envious eyes."
"Ah, a war of the worlds?" Huxley actually chuckled at this. "And you believe that such superior minds would engage in an exercise as … primitive as military conquest? You must not consider them so evolved after all."
Wells kept his thoughts to himself, for he suddenly wondered if perhaps T.H. Huxley might be a bit … naive. He might be a font of knowledge about varied species and their adaptations to the environment, but if the professor could see no reason why Martians would want to invade the Earth, then Huxley did not understand the ambitions of those in control. A hierarchy existed between powerful and powerless. As with bees in a hive or wolves in a pack, social castes were part of the natural order.
Growing up in a poor family, Wells had witnessed the gross divisions of the upper and lower classes, how each fought against the others for dominance. As a miserable apprentice, he had labored as a virtual slave. After escaping that fate through calculated incompetence, Wells had lived with his mother, who was the head domestic servant in a large manor, Uppark. His lackluster father had once been a gardener, then halfheartedly ran a china shop, but for years had found no better employment than occasional cricket playing ….
Wells answered his professor carefully. "It is survival of the fittest, sir. If the Martians are a dying race, they would see Earth as ripe for conquest, full of resources they need, and humans as inferior as cattle."
Huxley shifted back to his former position, where he watched for further Leonids. "Well, then, we must hope your mythical Martians do not invade us after all. How would we ever resist them?"
The two sat in silence, looking into the clear sky. Wells shivered, partially from the cold, partially from his own thoughts.
They watched the stars fall as the malevolent eye of Mars blinked at them.
Fighting the feverish pounding in his head, Wells tried to concentrate in the noisy biology laboratory. He wondered if he had caught a chill from the previous night's meteor vigil. His constitution had always been weak, aggravated by poor nutrition; he suffered from coughs and was never surprised to find a spark of scarlet in his phlegm.
Eventually, though, he became absorbed in setting up microscopes, coverslips, eyedroppers of specimens, and experimental apparatus. His preoccupied mind flowed along with the sound of clacking beakers, the chatter of fellow students, the smell of chemical experiments and alcohol burners.
One of Huxley's Irish assistants—a copper-haired demonstrator who delivered occasional lectures when the professor felt too ill to speak—prepared the day's laboratory activity. The Irishman wore a wool jacket and a maroon tie, far too fine for real analytical work, since he would not deign to step down from his podium and wade in amongst the experimenters. As if he were a prize-winning French chef, the demonstrator presented a pot in which he had prepared an infusion of local weeds and pond water. The resulting murky concoction was infested with numerous fascinating microbes.
Jennings set up their shared microscope on a narrow table against the windows, while Wells went forward with his glass slide to receive a beer-colored droplet of the infusion, as if it were some scientific communion. He slid a coverslip on top and returned to his workbench partner.
Under watery light that shone through gray clouds, Wells focused and refocused the microscope. On his sketchpad, he recorded the odd creatures: protozoans of all types, alien shapes with whipping flagellae, hairlike cilia vibrating in a blur, blobby amoebas, strains of algae. As Wells scrutinized the exotic creatures swarming and multiplying in the tiny universe, he felt like a titan looming above them.
Jennings tugged at his elbow. Blinking up from the eyepiece, Wells realized that the other students had stopped their conversations and stood at attention, as if a royal presence had entered the room. Professor T.H. Huxley—who rarely saw students outside the cavernous lecture hall—had come to visit his laboratory.
The intimidating, acerbic old man strode around the workbenches where his students diligently studied the infinitesimal creatures on their microscope slides. Huxley nodded and made quiet sounds, but offered little conversation as he moved from station to station.
When the great man came to where Wells stood proudly beside his apparatus, Huxley bent over to study the slide and adjusted the focus ever so slightly as if it were his due to man the instrument. "Ah, lovely euglena you have here under the light." He made another noncommittal sound, then moved on. Jennings ducked to peer down at the slide, rushing to complete his sketches.
Wells stared after his mentor, disappointed. Huxley had made no mention of their shared experience with the meteor shower, their lively conversation. The old man had come for no purpose other than to scrutinize his insignificant students … in the same way that Wells and Jennings studied the microbes.
His cheeks flushed, Wells perspired, and a feverish chill swept over him. His head pounded with ideas, but he had trouble focusing his thoughts. What if other powerful beings were scrutinizing Earth in the same manner, curious about the buzzing and swarming colony of London?
The hair on the back of his neck prickled, as if he could sense those probing eyes watching from afar. His vision became blurred, distorted. Wells found it difficult to keep his balance.
Jennings regarded him oddly. "You don't look at all well, Herbert." With practiced ease he reached over and touched Wells's forehead. "You're burning up! You stayed out all night in the damp cold just to gawk at shooting stars, and now look what's happened. You should go home and rest before this grows more serious."
The fever caught hold of him with nightmarish strength. Wells fell into a trap of delirium fed by his own imagination.
He saw meteors falling and falling, huge cylinders accomp- anied by green fire that blazed across the sky. Explosions. Flames.
Accompanied by his hot thoughts of delirium, he watched visions of invading ships that crashed to Earth, pummeling the British Empire like quail shot, and there wasn't a thing Queen Victoria could do about it. Fire, blood, slavery. In powerful war machines, the belligerent aliens trounced Russia, America, France, and Prussia. A red tidal wave crashed across civilization.
Conquerors. Slave masters. Even the most insignificant of these creatures had a military intellect superior to the combined genius of Napoléon, Agamemnon, and Alexander the Great. The clanking destructive devices surpassed even the imagination of Leonardo da Vinci.
And they had come to conquer the Earth.
Wells saw men, women, and children corralled, kept as food, their blood drained as they screamed. Infernal machines strode across the English landscape, equipped with weapons that dwarfed all human mechanisms of destruction, powerful heat rays that burned everything in sight. Flashes of light. Incinerating fire.
Hot like Wells's fever.
And overhead the meteors continued falling, falling ….
When the fever finally broke, Wells awoke in his narrow, lumpy bed to find Jennings laying a cool rag on his forehead. A patch of bright sunlight spilled through the window, warming his skin.
Wells croaked, and his normally high voice was uncooperative. "Are you practicing to become a doctor like your father, Jennings?"
The other man's eyes were red-rimmed, as if he hadn't gotten much sleep. "You've had quite a time of it, Herbert. Been feverish for days, haven't swallowed a thing but a bit of broth and some beer."
"Worse, you've missed three of my lectures," said a stentorian voice, as if the affront was too much to bear. "Excellent ones, too, I might add."
Wells managed to prop himself up on shaky arms to see Huxley in the small, stuffy room. "Since you are one of only three students who have proved worthy of a first-class passing grade, Mr. Wells, I wanted to see why you had been so rude as to abandon my class. Do you believe you've learned everything already?"
"I'm sure Mr. Jennings took good notes for me, sir."
His roommate smiled. "I even considered storing dissection specimens in your chest of drawers, Herbert. Best be careful when you go rummaging for a clean pair of socks."
It embarrassed Wells that the professor was seeing the squalid conditions in which his student lived. He supposed many students lived similarly, but he wanted to appear better than those others, for Huxley was a great man. Boarders came in drunk at all hours, and brutish noises carried through the walls. The air was cold—no one had brought up coal for some time—and smelled rank from unemptied chamberpots in the hall. It gave him little comfort to think that Huxley had endured worse conditions aboard the Rattlesnake in the South Seas.
The professor maintained a mock stern expression. "I should have been quite disappointed had you died, Wells. Though you are only eighteen, I see great potential in you. Please don't crawl into a moist grave until you have accomplished something worthwhile." The older man paced the room as if searching for significant words. "Ah, quite humbling, isn't it? A superior creature such as yourself, highly evolved and possessed of a grand intellect—laid low by something as crude and insignificant as a germ."
Wells gave a wan smile in response. "I'm sorry, sir. Henceforth, I shall try to prove my evolutionary superiority."
Huxley paused at the room's warped door, ready to leave. "You may wish to know, Wells, that this will be my last semester teaching at the university."
In his alarm, Wells managed to struggle his way into a half-sitting position. "But, sir, there's so much more we can learn from you!"
"Ah, I have wasted far too much time and energy in debates over Darwinism. I've explored the world, furthered the cause of science, and taught countless students, many of whom will use their knowledge for nothing more interesting than to add to lively chat at the pub. I have earned myself a quiet retirement."
"You have made an impact on many of us, sir," Wells said, swallowing back the lump that was rising in his throat. "Indeed, you are the greatest man I should ever hope to meet."
"Then you must continue to meet other men in hopes of proving yourself wrong." The professor's dark eyes twinkled. He tugged open the door, adjusted his hat, and frowned back at his sick student. "With your imagination, Wells, I expect you to make something of yourself. Don't disappoint me."
After Huxley left, Wells collapsed back on his bed. Jennings stared at him in awe. Neither man could believe what he had just heard. "That was quite a benediction, Herbert."
Wells closed his blue eyes, dizzy with residual weakness from the fever, but his mind was already spinning with a thousand thoughts, ideas, ambitions, and challenges for himself. "I'll rest for a bit, Jennings. I have to regain my health before I can begin my life's work."