Issue #200 – Three Sides of a Genre: The Invasion Story

 

the-battle-of-dorking-ka-662x1024Wolverines!

If that battle cry means anything to you, then you are familiar with the Invasion genre of fiction. Red Dawn is perhaps the most memorable cinematic example, but its roots go way back. Farther than you might think.

Though the genre can be traced back to the 1790s, it really took off in1871 with The Battle of Dorking, by George Tomkyns Chesney.

Told from the perspective of a member of the Royal Engineers fifty years later, the narrator starts off by lamenting the state of affairs in England that allowed his country to become a ripe target for Germany (though they are not named directly, the enemy speaks German). After much buildup and anticipation, the Royal Navy is destroyed by the enemy’s super weapon (never explained, but probably a kind of torpedo) and land in Essex. The English mobilize what they can from the public and converge outside Dorking, where they are soundly defeated.

Chensey himself was very concerned about the state of affairs in England, and had written the story when his letters and journalism on the matter failed to make an impact. The irony perhaps is that while his novella indeed made an impact, it was mostly in the sense of starting a new literary craze for entertainment. Hundreds of books were made before the start of the First World War.

The genre’s popularity was not limited to England. Invasion literature was a world wide craze and one author, William Le Queux, knew how to take advantage of it. Already a prolific invasion story writer, he made the canny move to change the ending of his most popular novel, The Invasion of 1910, depending on where it was published.

War-Worlds-Wells-GoreyWhile there were endless imitators, the genre was not without innovation, and branched out into SF. Most famously there was H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898).

Today we look at this book from the perspective of how it influenced science fiction, but I think it’s just as fascinating to realize that this was a product of the invasion genre of its time, and would never have been made had the genre not been so popular.

What makes The War of the Worlds work, and continue to work to this day, is the imagination Wells had about the aliens and how he blended it so seamlessly into a traditional invasion story. Had the aliens simply been Germans with a new super-tank it could have still worked, but Wells does much more than that. He drops tantalizing hints about the aliens, their physiology, their psychology, and their technology—even alluding to attempts to reverse-engineer their deadly weapons. The reader can’t help but imagine the world after the book.

TheSwoopOf course once any genre becomes popular, a parody can’t be far behind. Enter P.G. Wodehouse’s novella The Swoop! or How Clarence Saved England (1909). In this story, England isn’t just invaded by Germany, but also Russia, Turkey, Monaco, Morocco, Somaliland, China, the Swiss Navy (?!), and a fictional band of savage natives in war canoes, all at the same time.

Playing on the usual approach of England being woefully unprepared, it turns out the only line of defence the nation has left are the Boy Scouts. However, most of the country barely realizes they’re under attack, and are more interested in the cricket scores. Once they do take notice, they start taking bets on which nation will reach London first.

As you might expect, the fall of London would be the highlight of any good invasion story up to this point, and so I will give you one quick spoiler by transcribing this exciting chapter from The Swoop! in its complete form:

Chapter 6: The Bombardment of London

Thus was London bombarded. Fortunately it was August, and there was
nobody in town.
Otherwise there might have been a loss of life.

Wodehouse manages to make just about everything about the invasion ludicrous and hilarious; I think Douglas Adams would have handled the story in a similar fashion. Aside from a smidgen of unfortunate un-PC language (of the sort Mark Twain would get accused of, mind you) there’s nothing to keep any fan of English humour away from this story.

The appeal of invasion literature is simple: people like to tap into their fears, and a touch of believability makes those fears more real. The idea of new technology changing the battlefield is a big factor as well. In the 1790s, the hot-air balloon stimulated the imagination as a means of delivering troops. And in the 1870s, when the Prussians used breech-loading artillery and the railroad to bring down the French, those fears of a technologically superior invader were re-stoked.

Today the idea of any first world country being invaded seems unlikely (North Korea invading America? No wonder the Red Dawn remake tanked), and so the genre is mostly left to first person shooter video games, where reality can take a back seat.

But the fears are still there, though they manifest in different ways. Today fiction about terrorism, government conspiracies and hacking have supplanted invasion by overwhelming force. But the draw towards these stories remain the same, and it’s fair to say the genre still exists—only the players have changed.

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