Recently a former student sent me an email with the subject line “Hello… and some thoughts about Martians“. Last year she took my course on “Antiquity in Science Fiction”; we also did an independent study course on “Queer Ecology and Petronius’ Satyricon” in which we read Lee Edelman’s No Future. Her thoughts about Martians combined aspects of these two courses in a quite original way: we did not read War of the Worlds in the science fiction course, nor did we discuss it in connection with Edelman. I asked if she would be interested in writing up her thoughts as a guest post for this blog, and she kindly agreed.
Here is what she has to say about herself: “My name is Ruby Trujillo, and I am a freshman studying Human Development at Cornell University. I had the great fortune of studying classics with Sam Cooper at Bard High School Early College Queens, where I received an Associate’s degree in 2020. My interests include science fiction, cognitive science, and teaching Shakespeare to middle schoolers.”
The anti-climatic climax of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds is a bit of a letdown to readers looking for an exciting sci-fi adventure, but it is consistent with the tone of the rest of the novel. Humans spend most of the invasion running away. They are not capable of defeating such a technologically advanced foe through technology, of fighting fire with fire. What saves humanity is instead a biological difference between human and Martian bodies: the former have developed resistance to bacteria present in the terrestrial environment, whereas the latter have not.
What is the significance of bacteria killing the Martians? One answer is that Wells is issuing a warning about the human, or perhaps white European, sense of superiority, given that the Martians behave in relation to humans much as European colonists behaved in relation to the people they colonized, and as humans generally have too often behaved in relation to other living beings. The Martians, with all their technology, ignored the microscopic creatures of the Earth who would be their undoing. Humans, then, should not allow their egos or technology to grow to a point where they forget their biological nature. We are not so special.
This is how the novel is typically read. But if we read it through the lens of sexuality, and in particular queer theory, other possible interpretations emerge. In exposing the vulnerability of his fictional Martians, Wells celebrates the biology of the technologically inferior humans, specifically human reproduction. The Martians reproduce asexually by budding. This, coupled with the fact that they have never encountered bacteria before, makes them weak in a way that even the humblest terrestrial animals that reproduce sexually are not. If the Martians were more genetically diverse, some of them might have survived. Humans on the other hand, “by virtue of this natural selection of our kind… have developed resisting power.” When the Martians are killed by bacteria, then, it is not just immunity or biodiversity winning, and it isn’t just Martian hubris losing. It is rather heterosexual reproduction, or plainly, heterosexuality winning in the face of non-gendered, asexual aliens. This implies that the Martians are not just a threat, but a queer threat.
What would it mean exactly to read Wells’ Martians as “queer”? In his 2004 book No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Lee Edelman develops the idea of sinthomosexuality. “Sinthomosexuality” is a coinage made of two existing words: “sinthome” (or “symptom”), which is a Lacanian psychoanalytic term for, simply put, what is going wrong in a person’s unconscious; and the word “homosexual.” Sinthomosexuals pose a threat to the future of humanity because they do not want to reproduce and do not value reproduction. As Edelman puts it, they oppose “reproductive futurism”: the assumption that politics, culture, and society must revolve around having children and building a better future for them.
Edelman’s exploration of the sinthomosexual as a cultural figure focuses not on people who are “queer” by any usual definition (e.g. those who express a preference for having sex with people of the same gender), but rather on queer coding. This broadens the scope of queerness considerably. It isn’t just humans who can be queer, nor just animals who practice same-sex sex. For example, Edelman interprets the birds in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds as representations of sinthomosexuals because of the symbolic imagery associated with them and the way they interfere with the smooth operation of happy heterosexual families. Like Hitchcock’s birds, Wells’ Martians disrupt humanity’s reproductive futurism. Hence we can see them as “queer” in Edelman’s sense of the term, and suddenly The War of the Worlds becomes a story about a heterosexual Couple (who represents hope for the future of humanity) fighting against a dangerous queer force.
Edelman argues provocatively that in order to oppose the reproductive futurism that excludes them, sinthomosexuals should embrace their role as society’s “death drive.” As he puts it, “the death drive names what the queer, in the order of the social, is called forth to figure: the negativity opposed to every form of social viability.” This description of the sinthomosexual as a threatening, inhuman force resonates with Wells’ Martians. Breaking apart marriages like those of the narrator and of the Elphinstones, and wreaking havoc on every area they traverse, the Martians certainly look like queer figures disrupting humanity’s “social viability.”
The connections between Edelman’s ideas and The War of the Worlds do not end there. In No Future Edelman explores how sinthomosexuals are associated with bacteria, specifically bacterial reproduction. He dissects an essay by Jean Baudrillard, who argues that “the human species is confronting a life and death crisis around the question of reproduction, more specifically, around its determination by way of sameness or difference.” Here “sameness” refers to bacterial reproduction and “difference” to sexual reproduction. Baudrillard touts the “fight for death” of individual sexed beings against the death drive, which he views as a state of immortal sameness. In fighting for “difference” (but, as Edelman points out, only the difference involved in sexual reproduction, not the difference of nonreproductive sex) Baudrillard “celebrates the triumph of sexed reproduction” over the genetic duplication of bacteria.
Wells’ narrator seems to agree with Baudrillard that the mortality of sexed beings makes them superior to asexual beings, at least on Earth: “By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers; it would still be his were the Martians ten times as mighty as they are. For neither do men live nor die in vain.” Baudrillard expresses a strikingly similar sentiment: “In evolutionary terms, the victory goes to beings that are mortal and distinct from one another: the victory goes to us.” Edelman responds to this from the standpoint of the sinthomosexual: “Or goes to ‘us’ so long as ‘we’ don’t identify—or get identified by others—with the regressive ‘order of the virus,’ of immortal sameness or repetition, that threatens ‘us’ with the sort of death Baudrillard refuses to embrace (a death through viral replication like that associated with what was referred to, twenty years ago, as ‘the gay plague’).”
The relation between Wells’ asexual Martians and the pathogens that kill them resembles how the heteronormative cultural imaginary has viewed the relation between queer people and HIV. Just as, in Wells’ novel, a bacterial infection saves a heteronormative human species that is otherwise powerless to stop the Martians, so in reality “the gay plague” has provided biological justification for a homophobic outlook that views AIDS as God’s vengeful weapon against the homosexual threat to civilization. As Gary Bauer so horrifically put it, “those who practice homosexuality embrace a culture of death.”
Controversially, Edelman argues that sinthomosexuals need to do exactly as Gary Bauer says. But is this what Wells’ Martians do? Certainly they embrace human death, but they are also invested in ensuring their own futurity; it is with this aim, after all, that they invade Earth in the first place. While they may not oppose all futurism, then, they do oppose a futurism based on heterosexual reproduction, and it is this that aligns them with Edelman’s idea of sinthomosexuality. Edelman said in an interview that No Future “could not answer the question of what a world might be in the absence of reproductive futurism.” Wells, likewise, cannot or does not answer the question of what a Martian Earth free of human heteronormativity might look like.
If the Martians represent sinthomosexuals who figure the death drive, what does that make the Wells’ narrator? In Edelman’s paradigm, the death drive is always opposed by the figures of the Child or the Couple. Wells’ narrator and his wife constitute such a Couple. His journey (unsuccessful for most of the novel) aims at reunion with her. This interpretation of their relationship illuminates some apparently odd aspects of it. After fleeing the Martians at the River Thames, the narrator finds he feels resentment towards his wife: “It is a curious thing that I felt angry with my wife; I cannot account for it, but my impotent desire to reach Leatherhead worried me excessively.” He never uncovers the reason behind this anger, but we can interpret it as a symptom of the Couple under duress. The word “impotent” highlights the humiliation this man feels because he is helpless before the asexual aliens. He has lost his power both as an individual and as a symbol of reproductive futurism. The sintomosexual Martians have disrupted the bond of the heterosexual human Couple. The narrator, like myriad straight men in myriad situations, redirects this frustration with his own impotence onto his female “other half”.
The magical reunion of the Couple after the defeat of the Martians echoes the magical quality of reproductive futurism. Through symbols of the Couple and the Child, reproductive futurism creates linearity out of chaos. Throughout the novel, as the narrator runs around England, the only constant factor in his decision-making is his desire to find his wife. Their reunion at the end of the novel marks the return of heterosexual normalcy. When they return at last to their old home, his wife, in a cliché performance of femininity, faints and falls into his arms: “And there, amazed and afraid, even as I stood amazed and afraid, were my cousin and my wife—my wife white and tearless. She gave a faint cry. ‘I came,’ she said. ‘I knew—knew——’ She put her hand to her throat—swayed. I made a step forward, and caught her in my arms.” What did she “know?” She knew her husband was alive, and that against all odds, the Couple would succeed. The magic of their reunion returns us to what Wells assumes his readers regard as familiar, good, and just: the triumph of the Couple over the chaos wrought by the sinthomosexuals.