Rise of the Machines: Why We Keep Coming Back to H.G. Wells’ Visions of a Dystopian Future

On the evening of Oct. 30, 1938, radio listeners in the greater New York area settled in for a broadcast of “Ramon Raquello” and his orchestra. Suddenly the performance was interrupted by the host, who explained that he had a special bulletin from “Intercontinental Radio News.” Perhaps a few listeners scratched their heads and wondered what Intercontinental Radio News was, but apparently not many. Mysterious explosions of “incandescent gas” had been observed on Mars through various telescopes, IRN reported.

Next a bulletin came in of strange aerial vehicles in various parts of the country and weird, creepy creatures popping out of them. Soon reports started coming in from everywhere of a Martian invasion of the planet. A huge panic set in. Newspapers received thousands of phone calls.

“I was really hysterical,” a woman who heard the broadcast as a teenager later remembered. “My two girl friends and I were crying and holding each other and everything seemed so unimportant in the face of death. We felt it was terrible we should die so young.”

Finally the man who had produced this radio drama came on. It was Halloween eve, and he had concocted the piece out of a novel written by a man born 145 years ago: H.G. Wells.

“This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen,” the actor and director soothingly announced, “out of character, to assure you that the War of the Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be, the Mercury Theater’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and shouting boo. You will be relieved to hear that we didn’t mean it.”

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