Our World Is Increasingly Like a Science-Fiction Novel
by Tom Engelhardt
Who knew that Martians, inside monstrous tripodal machines taller than many buildings, actually ululated, that they made eerily haunting “ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla” sounds? Well, let me tell you that they do — or rather did when they were devastating London.
I know that because I recently reread H.G. Wells’s 1898 novel War of the Worlds, while revisiting an early moment in my own life. Admittedly, I wasn’t in London when those Martian machines, hooting away, stalked boldly into that city, hungry in the most literal fashion imaginable for human blood. No surprise there, since that was almost a century and a quarter ago. Still, at 77, thanks to that book, I was at least able to revisit a moment that had been mine long enough ago to seem almost like fiction.
Yes, all those years back I had been reading that very same novel for the very first time under the covers by flashlight. I still remember being gripped, thrilled, and scared, at a time when my parents thought I was asleep. And believe me, if you do that at perhaps age 12 or 13, you really do feel as if you’ve been plunged into a futuristic world from hell, ululations and all.
But of course, scary as it might have been, alone in the dark, to secretly live through the Martian desolation of parts of England and the slaughter of countless human beings at their hands (actually, more like the tentacles of octopi), as if they were no more than irritating bugs, I was always aware of another reality as well. After all, there was still the morning (guaranteed to come), my breakfast, my dog Jeff, my bus trip to school with my friend Jim, my anything-but-exciting ordinary life, and my sense, in the ascendant Cold War America of the 1950s, of a future extending to the distant horizon that looked boring as hell, without even a stray Martian in sight. (How wrong I would turn out to be from the Vietnam War years on!)
I felt that I needed some Martians then. I needed something, anything, to shake up that life of mine, but the sad truth is that I don’t need them now, nor do the rest of us. Yet, in so many ways, in an America anything but ascendant, on a planet that looks like it’s in a distinctly War-of-the-Worlds-style version of danger, the reality is that they’re already here.
And sadly enough, we Americans and humanity in general seem little more effective against the various Martian stand-ins of today than the human beings Wells wrote about were then. Remember that his Martians finally went down, but not at the hands of humanity. They were taken out, “after all man’s devices had failed,” as the novelist expressed it then, “by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.” The conquerors of those otherwise triumphant Martians were, he reported, “the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared.”
If only we were so lucky in our own Wellsian, or do I mean Trumptopian (as in dystopian, not utopian) world?
Living in a Science-Fiction (or Science-Fact) Novel?
In the 1950s, I went on to read, among other books, John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids (about giant killer plants taking humanity apart), Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy which sent me into distant galaxies. And that was before, in 1966, I boarded the USS Enterprise with Captain James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock to head for deep space in person — at least via my TV screen in that pre-Meta era.
Today, space is evidently something left to billionaires, but in the 1950s and 1960s the terror of invading aliens or plants with a taste for human flesh (even if they had perhaps been bioengineered in the all-too-Earthbound Soviet Union) had a certain strange appeal for the bored boy I was then. The future, it seemed, needed a Martian or two or a Triffid or two. Had I known, it wouldn’t have mattered in the least to me then that Wells had evidently created those Martians, in part, to give his British readers some sense of what it must have felt like for the Tasmanians, living on an island off the coast of Australia, to be conquered and essentially eradicated by British colonists early in the nineteenth century.
So, yes, I was indeed then fascinated by often horrific futures, by what was coming to be known as science fiction. But honestly, if you had told me that, as a grownup, I would find myself living in a science-fiction (or do I mean science-fact?) novel called perhaps Trumptopia, or The Day of the Heat Dome, or something similar, I would have laughed you out of the room. Truly, I never expected to find myself in such a world without either those covers or that flashlight as protection.
As president, Donald Trump would prove to be both a Martian and a Triffid. He would, in fact, be the self-appointed and elected stand-in for what turned out to be little short of madness personified. When a pandemic struck humanity, he would, as in that fictional England of 1898, take on the very role of a Martian, an alien ready to murder on a mass scale. Though few like to think of it that way, we spent almost two years after the Covid-19 pandemic began here being governed (to use a word that now sounds far too polite) by a man who, like his supporters and like various Republican governors today, was ready to slaughter Americans in staggering numbers.
As Trump’s former White House Covid-19 response coordinator Deborah Birx recently testified, by rejecting everything from masking to social distancing in the early months of the pandemic (not to speak of personally hosting mass superspreader events at the White House and elsewhere), he would prove an all-too-literal murderer — though Birx was far too polite to use such a word. In the midst of a pandemic that has, by now, killed an estimated 17 million people globally and perhaps more than a million Americans, he would, she believed, be responsible for at least 130,000 of those early deaths. That’s already slaughter on a monumental scale. (Keep in mind that, in the Trumpian tradition, from Florida’s Ron DeSantis to Texas’s Greg Abbott, Republican governors have continued in that distinctly murderous tradition to this very moment.)
And when it came to slaughter, the Trumpian/Republican response to Covid-19 will likely prove to be the milder kind of destruction they represented. As a climate denialist (it was a Chinese hoax!) and a major supporter of the fossil-fuel industry (no wonder the Saudis adored him!), The Donald would prove all too ready to all-too-literally boost the means to destroy this planet.
And wouldn’t you say that the various Trump supporters who now make up what’s still, for reasons unknown, called the Republican Party are ululating all too often these days, as they hover over dead and dying Americans, or at least those they would be perfectly willing to see wiped off this planet?
Lights Off, Flashlights On?
Sadly enough, however, you can’t just blame Donald Trump and the Republicans for our increasingly endangered planet. After all, who needs giant Martians or monstrous human-destroying plants when carbon dioxide and methane will, in the long run, do the trick? Who needs aliens like Martians and Triffids, given the global fossil-fuel industry?
Keep in mind that more representatives of that crew were accredited as delegates at the recent Glasgow climate-change talks than of any country on the planet. That industry’s CEOs have long been all too cognizant of climate change and how it could ravage this world of ours. They have also been all too willing to ignore it or even to put significant funds into climate-denial outfits. If, in 2200, there are still historians left to write about this world of ours, I have little doubt that they’ll view those CEOs as the greatest criminals in what has been a sordid tale of human history.
Nor, sadly enough, when it comes to this country, can you leave the Democrats out of the picture of global destruction either. Consider this, for instance: after the recent talks in Glasgow, President Biden returned home reasonably triumphant, swearing he would “lead by example” when it came to climate-change innovation. He was, of course, leaving behind in Scotland visions of a future world where, according to recent calculations, the temperature later in this century could hit 2.4 to 2.7 degrees Celsius (4.32 to 4.86 degrees Fahrenheit) above that of the pre-industrial age. That, of course, would be a formula for destruction on a devastating scale.
Just to consider the first leading “example” around, four days after Glasgow ended, the Biden administration began auctioning off to oil and gas companies leases for drilling rights to 80 million acres of public waters in the Gulf of Mexico. And that, after all, is an administration headed by a president who actually seems committed to doing something about climate change, as in his ever-shrinking Build Back Better bill. But that bill is, of course, being Manchinized right now by a senator who made almost half a million dollars last year off a coal brokerage firm he founded (and that his son now runs). In fact, it may never pass the Senate with its climate-change elements faintly intact. Keep in mind as well that Manchin is hardly alone. One in four senators reportedly still have fossil-fuel investments and the households of at least 28 of them from both parties “hold a combined minimum of $3.7 million and as much as $12.6 million in fossil-fuel investments.”
Take one small story, if you want to grasp where this country seems headed right now. As you may remember, the Trump administration worked assiduously to infringe upon national parks and indigenous lands to produce yet more fossil fuels. Recently, President Biden announced that his administration, having already approved a much-protested $9 billion pipeline to carry significant amounts of oil through tribal lands in Minnesota, would take one small but meaningful remedial step. As the New York Times described it, the administration would move “to block new federal oil and gas leasing within a 10-mile radius around Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, one of the nation’s oldest and most culturally significant Native American sites.”
I know you won’t be shocked by what followed, sadly enough. The response was predictable. As the Times put it, that modest move “generated significant pushback from Republicans and from New Mexico’s oil and gas industry.” Natch! And that, of course, is but the smallest of stories at a time when we have a White House at least officially committed to dealing in some reasonable fashion with the overheating of this planet.
Now, imagine that the Republicans win the House and Senate in the 2022 elections and Donald Trump (or some younger version of the same) takes the 2024 presidential election in a country in which Republican state legislators have already rejiggered so many voting laws and gerrymandered so many voting districts that the results could be devastating. You would then, of course, have a party controlling the White House and Congress that’s filled with climate-change denialists and fossil-fuel enthusiasts of the first order. (Who cares that this country is already being battered by fire, flood, and heat in a devastating fashion?) To grasp what that would mean, all you have to do is expand the ten-mile radius of that New Mexican story to the country as a whole — and then the planet.
And at that point, in all honesty, you could turn off the lights, flick on that old flashlight of mine, and be guaranteed that you, your children, and your grandchildren will experience something in your everyday lives that should have been left under the covers. As almost happened in The War of the Worlds, it’s possible that we could, in essence, kiss this planet goodbye and if that’s not science fiction transformed into fact of the first order, what is?
The Martians Have Arrived
You know, H.G. Wells wasn’t such a dope when it came to the future. After all, his tripodal Martian machines had a “kind of arm [that] carried a complicated metallic case, about which green flashes scintillated, and out of the funnel of this there smoked the Heat-Ray.” In 1898, he was already thinking about how heat of a certain sort could potentially destroy humanity. Today, the “Martians” stepping out of those space capsules happen to be human beings and they, too, are emerging with devastating heat rays.
Just ask my friend journalist Jane Braxton Little, whose town, Greenville, largely burned down in California’s record-breaking Dixie Fire this fall, a climate-change-influenced inferno so vast and fierce that it proved capable of creating its own weather. Imagine that for our future.
Of course, in another sense, you could say that we’ve been living in a science-fiction novel since August 6, 1945, when that first American nuclear bomb devastated Hiroshima. Until then, we humans could do many terrible things, but of one thing we were incapable: the destruction of this world. In the nearly eight decades that followed, however, the Martians have indeed arrived and we human beings have taken over a role once left to the gods: the ability to create Armageddon.
Still, the truth is that we don’t know how our own sci-fi tale will end. As in War of the Worlds, will some equivalent of those bacteria that took down the Martians arrive on the scene, perhaps some scientific discovery about how to deal so much better with the greenhouse gases eternally heading into our atmosphere? Will humanity, Greta Thunberg-style, come together in some new, more powerful way to stop this world from destroying itself? Will some brilliant invention, some remarkable development in alternative energy use, make all the difference in the world? Will the United States, China, and other key fossil-fuel burners finally come together in a way now hardly imaginable?
Or will we truly find ourselves living in Trumptopia?