The War of the Worlds, Part A: The Panic Broadcast


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Sometimes life conspires to keep us from sitting at a computer to talk about HG Wells' The War of the Worlds. To hold you over, here is the famous 1938 radio drama that sent a not-zero number of people screaming into the night. Think of it as homework. [ 1:02:05 || 30.0 MB ]

To listen, click here:

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No problem, I was curious to whether you would mention the radio broadcast or not.

Radiolab did an episode about the radio broadcast which helped me understand why it happened.

There are so many incarnations of the story I often forget it is a victorian fantasy. I guess that is why my favorites include the version told by Alan More in "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" and the book by Manly Wade Wellman where the discovery is made with the help of Sherlock Holmes and Watson.

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Here are the three parts to a TV special about the broadcast, hosted by James Cameron. It has interviews with people who were alive during the broadcast and does a great job breaking down what made it so effective.

Also, Orson Welles apologizing for the panic the broadcast caused.

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When I listened to it again. I remembered hearing that people were not afraid of martian invasions. The majority who panicked thought it was an attack from the Nazis. It sounds silly now but I remember in 2001 being afraid. How many people hesitated to go to the mall that halloween?

When George Bush announced that America was going to war with Iraq, my aunt who was living with us at the time, suggested we should go through bomb drills. I remember being very upset at that idea, partially because we lived in the new development and it barely holds up against rain. But the idea of being attacked again was the biggest part that shook me up.

Suddenly their fear does not seem so far fetched.

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A couple things strike me about this fairly old sci fi tale:

1. The hard science in the story (both book and radio play) is really nice for me.... clinical and curious about how the alien tech works. The concept of microorganisms being responsible for killing the invaders is spot on for the science of the time, not 30 years or so since Pasteur's discovery of the "putrefactory" effect of microbes and Koch's isolation of the anthrax bacterium, a 1micron size football shaped ball that can kill a cow with its disease. (incidentally, those discoveries changed food, medical and sanitary science in a huge way and changed people's perceptions of disease and the means of transmission. For a book and play of similar time period that would demonstrate how disease can move through all classes of society see Schnitzler's "Reigen", or "La Ronde." Not sci fi, but controversial in showing how "intimate diseases" can be transmitted.) Oh, and much later the concept of an "andromeda strain" would come about in both fiction and in scientific circles, something that seems unlikely given our modern knowledge of host/virus etc biology. Sorry for the diversion from Sci fi, I'm big on my "bugs." ;)

2. The reference to state militia on the broadcast.... I looked it up and apparently some states, like New York have their own state guard units that are run by the states. NY has both state army and naval guard, while New Jersey has only state naval guard (at least currently, according to wikipedia). I found the use of the term to be odd, and had to look into it. I just thought to kick it out there for anyone who was curious, like I was.

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I have a copy of some of the TNG cast doing the War of World's broadcast. It's really a good listen with nice performances from Brent Spiner, Leonard Nimoy, and Gates McFadden. Other Trek regulars are in it but I do have a harder time picking up their voices. John DeLancy is in it but for the love of me I can figure out who he plays.

War of the Worlds is one of my favorite classic stories, will give the podcast a listen when the time comes.

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