This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
"Slowly a humped shape rose out of the pit, and the ghost of a beam of light seemed to flicker out from it. Forthwith flashes of actual flame, a bright glare leaping from one to another, sprang from the scattered group of men. It was as if some invisible jet impinged upon them and flashed into white flame. It was as if each man were suddenly and momentarily turned to fire.
"Then, by the light of their own destruction, I saw them staggering and falling, and their supporters turning to run…"
That, as H.G. Wells imagined it in 1898, was first contact with a technologically superior and implacable alien race from space, five years before humanity took to the air in anything but balloons. And that was how the Martians, landing in their "cylinders," those spaceships from a dying planet, ready to take over ours, responded to a delegation of humans advancing on them waving a flag of peace and ready to parlay. As everyone knows who has read The War of the Worlds, or heard the 1938 Orson Welles radio show version that terrified New Jersey, or watched the 1953 movie or the Stephen Spielberg 2005 remake, those Martians went on to level cities, slaughter masses of humanity using heat-rays and poison gas and threaten world domination before being felled by the germs for which they were unprepared.
Germs aside, Wells’s Martians did little more than what earthly powers would do to each other and various "lesser" peoples in the 112 years that followed the publication of his book. Now, a group of scientists writing in an "extraterrestrial-themed edition" of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A in Great Britain warn us that we should ready ourselves for the possibility of alien contact. We should, in fact, "prepare for the worst," which, according to contributor Simon Conway Morris, could be summed up this way: thanks to neo-Darwinian laws of evolution assumedly operative anywhere, such aliens, should they exist, would probably be more or less like us.
Long before Morris, Wells understood that the most dangerous aliens weren’t in space but right here on planet Earth, and concluded that he lived among them. When he wrote his ur-alien-invasion novel, he was evidently using the British "war of extermination" against the Tasmanians as his model.
Of course, we in the United States have few doubts about who the aliens on this planet are: Them! (the title of a classic 1954 sci-fi movie about monstrous mutant ants that infest the sewer system of Los Angeles). In my childhood, "them" was "the commies," of course. Now, it’s certainly Muslims or jihadists or Islamo-fascists.