Book Review: Aliens Are Coming!

Aliens Are Coming!:  The True Account Of The 1938 War Of The Worlds Radio Broadcast, by Meghan McCarthy

Despite not having a great deal of interest in aliens or literature about aliens [1], I have a great deal of interest in stories that relate to literature about aliens, and one of the most dramatic incidents was the panic that was inspired by the 1938 radio broadcast of a revised version of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds by Orson Welles.  Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of this which the author reveals is that H.G. Wells was not originally a fan of Welles’ adaptation, at least until it helped increase the sales of his own novel, at which point he became much more in favor of it.  Given Orson Welles’ later reputation as an enfant terrible within Hollywood for the damage he did to himself with Citizen Kane, it is little surprise that he caused a great deal of trouble in radio before doing so in film, and although the story is well-known to those who are students of entertainment history, this is a worthy introduction of the radio broadcast to children who may not have studied that much history yet before reading this book.

The story told here is a straightforward one.  Beginning with the context that radio was once the main entertainment option of American families, the author sets up the Halloween prank of Welles’ adaptation of War Of The Worlds that faced news bulletins about a martian alien invasion that led to actual panic among many listeners.  The author gives the words and vivid details used by Welles’ and explains why it is that Welles wanted to play that prank as a way of showing the power of radio.  It was only at the very end of the broadcast that Welles’ revealed that it was all a prank, and it was a little bit late by then to avoid causing problems, given that there had been UFO sightings (which the author clever suggests was a water tower), police involvement and even worried calls to Ivy League professors.  The author does a great job here at illustrating paranoia and fear, and showing how it is that the media can feed into fear by acting serious, a lesson taken to heart by many other abusers of the media that would do their work in World War II and beyond.

Indeed, there is both a jokey and serious takeaway that one can get from this book.  The author jokes about aliens, and it is hard to tell whether the author’s interest is sincere or a joke, rather like the original prank in that regard.  The portrayal of the aliens of the newscast is not seriously done, but is rather something that one would see out of Men In Black or some other clear example of alien entertainment with a high degree of cheese.  That said, there is something serious to gain out of this book as well, and that is the way that the press can stir up fear in ordinary people by producing in a deadpan fashion.  So long as the press takes something seriously, then there are at least some people who will take it seriously.  This is clearly a lesson that was mastered by Hitler’s regime in the period of this radio broadcast and afterward, and is used by the New York Times and Washington Post at present to deliver similarly fictional panic-inducing information about the legitimacy of our present government.  Sadly, the knowledge that people were gullible when it comes to the media was not used as a way of educating this tendency out of readers or listeners or viewers but was rather exploited by those who wanted to cause panic in others.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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