Stories of Interplanetary warfare usually presuppose earthlings who are all heroes and enemies across space who are all villains. The supposition is also made that earth is fighting to defend its honor or its people from a predatory race from another world.The idea of an interplanetary war certainly wasn't new in 1931. HG Wells started it off in 1898 with the War of the Worlds, in which the invaders were inhuman, squid-like beings. Future wars between humans go back even further to novellas like George Tomkyns Chesney's "The Battle of Dorking" (1871), where England is invaded by thinly disguised Germans, and even Hugo Gernsback's own classic publication of Philip Francis Nowlan's "Armageddon 2419" that featured the Asiatic Hans who conquer America. Gernsback's competitor, the Clayton Astounding, presented numerous examples of stories in this fashion, with brave Americans beating evil invaders. So Wellman is writing within an SF tradition, but it is what he does within that tradition that is surprising.
Despite Gernsback's applause that the story is different, much of it is not. He claims that the hero is not so heroic. This is untrue. Jack Stillwell, our earthling who loves Mars and in particular the Martian girl Yann, promises her he will fight for his side with honor. This involves him going single-handed to the moon to locate a secret base of Martian raiders. Once he finds it, he decides it is too big for a fleet of earth ships to destroy, so he sneaks inside as a saboteur. Fortunately, he runs into Yann's brother Nalo and the Martian naively allows him to have run of the ship. Betraying his friend, he blows up the super-ship, killing Nalo in the process. Torn with feelings of guilt, he still joins the Earth fleet that engages the superior Martian armada and wins. This part of the story is filled with radio-controlled bombs and destructor rays little different than Raymond Z Gallun's "The Crystal Ray" or even John W Campbell's "The Ultimate Weapon" five years later. The middle part of this tale is well-written, but nothing new.
This psychology is not at all new. It is the favorite in our wars on earth, and the propaganda each nation pit out in 1914-18 in the form of books, lectures and motion pictures showed it as a just, peaceable nation defending only its right to existence.
With the perspective of nearly fifteen years behind us, we are able to realize that seldom is any nation solely a villain and another solely a hero. Wars, we have learned, are the work of professional war makers, and are fought by men who kill those they might be friendly with, were they permitted to be. The present story is splendid for the picturization of an interplanetary war, that shows both sides of the picture.
One of the reasons that Wellman could write such a story as “When Planets Clashed” was his unusual upbringing. He began life, not in America - world of hot dogs and baseball - but in Uganda, the child of missionary parents. Manly’s first companions were very unlike himself, allowing him to see the universality in different cultures rather than the differences. It is this perspective that does not allow him to paint the Martians as villains. Wellman would rely on this sensitivity again in his numerous historical works, especially those with Native American people such as The Last Mammoth (1953).
GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.