It is December 28, 2013. Dylan just turned two, and we just celebrated his third Christmas. I think this is the year I somehow damaged my leg to the point where for the next three months, every time I stood up, ten seconds later, I’d get a crippling pain like I’d been shot through my calf. I think most of the rest of my family had a good Christmas. Dylan’s fairly verbal now. A couple of weeks ago we had a cute little incident over some candy and a boo-boo.
Wars continue in Syria and Afghanistan, and there’s continued protests in Egypt following the coup d’etat and the ouster of President Morsi. And, of course, Iraq. Police in Newton, Connecticut release a batch of information about the Sandy Hook Massacre a year earlier. All chance of meaningful reform of our gun laws dies forever when we decide that even the murders of a score of children by a 20-year-old man-child is just something we all have to live with in order to avoid cutting into the profit margins of gun manufacturers or the racial paranoia of white people. Yes, I am angry. This will probably be a theme whenever we drift too close to the present.
James Avery, best known as Uncle Phil on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and as the voice of the Shredder in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, will die this week. Ronda Rousey will retain the UFC middleweight championship title by defeating Miesha Tate. Ice prevented the Chinese ship Xuě Lóng from rescuing the Russian research vessel Akademik Shokalskiy, which has been icebound in Antarctica since Christmas. Xuě Lóng would become trapped in the ice itself during rescue attempts, but both vessels would eventually break free on January 7.
Eminem and Rhianna hold the top spot on the Billboard charts for the second week with “The Monster”. Also in the top ten are Pittbull and Ke&dollarsign;ha with “Timber”, OneRepublic with “Counting Stars”, A Great Big World and Christina Aguilera with “Say Something”, and Lorde with “Royals”.
Chris Pine just became the fourth Jack Ryan in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. It’s probably the most interesting thing to happen in the world of film this week, unless you’re one of the people who liked The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Chrismas, you know. Not a lot going on. Final Fantasy III comes out for Windows Phone. Good Morning America host Robin Roberts comes out of the closet. Bryant Gumbel and Jane Pauley return to Today this week, and Soapnet goes off-the-air. Nikita, the fourth or fifth adaptation of the 1990 French spy-action thriller La Femme Nikita, ends its run. Power Rangers Megaforce aired its last episode, “The Robo Knight Before Christmas” a couple of weeks ago. It’s one of two seasonal episodes that aired after the proper season finale because Nickelodeon wanted Halloween and Christmas episodes. And, yeah, can’t let it go unmentioned, Matt Smith bowed out of Doctor Who in “Time of the Doctor”, an episode that I haven’t actually watched yet, here on December 28, 2013. I’m putting it off because I’m afraid of what it will do to me if this thing which has always given me joy in my life when I needed to have something to look forward to and feel better no longer brings me any joy. (Spoiler: it doesn’t).
But enough of that. We’re here now because of the first book I ever bought for the Kindle, on account of it wasn’t in print at the time. The Last Days of Thunder Child (Victorian Britain in Chaos!) is yet another retelling of Wells’s story, this time from the point of view of the crew of HMS Thunder Child, the torpedo ram which succeeded in providing one of humanity’s few victories against the Martians.
We begin with this oddly-phrased preface:
From HG Wells WAR OF THE WORLDS
They really came and this is the alternative history of that coming. Let us join the crew of H.M.S. Thunder Child as she prepares to embark upon her doomed voyage—before her demise and courageous battle with three Martian tripods at the River Blackwater in the county of Essex, England.
The obvious problem with this endeavor is that the Thunder Child incident in the novel is… Pretty brief. Even the song’s not that long. The Thunder Child shows up, shoots one Tripod, rams another, then gets sunk. Thunder Child actually can’t get involved until the very end of its story. You may be predicting that this book is going to be pretty slow getting started.
And you’re right. In fact, for the first couple of chapters, it looks for all the world like this book is going to spend the overwhelming majority of its length just being a litany of the abuses heaped upon Boy Seamen in the Victorian-era Royal Navy, with all the rum and sodomy that implies. I was all set to write a scathing article about the book being a dull slog that was mostly about the author showing off his historical acumen (Powell is the author of four books, all of them historical adventures) But as it goes on, an actual story does develop.
But not, curiously, on the Thunder Child. See, Powell’s solution to the conundrum set up by the plot constraints is to alternate chapters between Thunder Child and ashore. Thunder Child spends most of the book hanging out off the coast, doing boring slice-of-life nineteenth century Royal Navy stuff, while on shore, a mid-level government man wanders up the coast having narrow escapes from the Martians in a way that sort of mimics the structure of Wells’s novel, though with quite a bit more excitement.
The downside to this approach is that the actual meat of the book is largely segregated from the thing the book is actually about. It’s not a complete tangent, though. The Thunder Child‘s last stand was made in defense of civilian steamers fleeing with refugees. So as we follow Thunder Child on its slow march toward destiny, the other half of the story is bringing us into position on one of those civilian ships, and that’s an ultimately clever move in that it gives us a very personal attachment to the people that the Thunder Child is going to ultimately die for. Possibly too strong an attachment; I ended up caring much less about the men sacrificing their lives than for those who were saved. The characters from the two halves of the plot only interact in the epilogue.
Mister Albert Stanley, of the Ministry of Defense, comes off at first as a bit of an officious windbag. His physical description makes me think of one of those awful fathers in British fiction who ends up getting thrown out by his son in the end, or blown up by touching a piece of evil or something. He’s balding and pinkish and big-nosed, and described as always imagining, “There was another him lavishing praise upon himself, while in the background, his proud old mother looked on with the appropriate smile.“
But he shapes up quickly once he’s thrown into it, and its his side of the plot that is the more interesting bit. I should qualify that by saying that it’s the most interesting bit for me. Because the other half of the book, I think, isn’t bad or anything, but it’s targeting an audience that I’m not a part of. The main characters — though we end up spending a lot of time away from them and with the Captain instead — are a pair of young seamen, Perry and Jolly. They’re kind of wet and the first third of the book or so is about them being a pair of fuckups who spend a lot of time making the Quartermaster angry and getting in trouble. But they’ve got an arc to them, and their side of the book is mostly structured around them getting dumps of exposition about why things are the way they are in the Navy, and finding their respective places where they can grow and thrive. And it’s well-written, but it’s the sort of thing that’s very sharply targeting a naval history buff, which I am not.
He watched the surf erupt over the descending bow, drenching the deck’s capstans and anchor chains with slithering white foam that rushed out through hawse pipes and spilt over the side as the forecastle lifted again. […] Walking to the next stairway that descended from the main deck to the quarterdeck, he paused, thinking the vessel was most odd indeed. Almost like a Devastation class in looks, but too small. If she had one funnel, then she might be a Cyclops class, though he had to admit—her layout was more like that of a miniature H.M.S. Devastation…
Later on, Perry has a long infodump with Fancourt (a gunner who the narrative treats as important though he’s barely in the thing. I think. Confession: most of the Thunder Child crew kinda blend together for me) about the Thunder Child‘s unusual design and history. I think this section is probably easier to comprehend by someone more versed in Royal Navy history, but what I gather is that Powell’s version of Thunder Child was built during the transitional period between sail and steam, when ship-builders were trying out a lot of new designs and trying to work out what was best for this new generation of iron-clad steam-powered ships. I mentioned some time ago that torpedo rams turned out to be popular in the public consciousness, but never really caught on as practical ships of war in the real world. Powell uses this by having the Thunder Child be a bit of an unwanted stepchild of the Royal Navy for largely political reasons. He attributes large parts of its design to Cowper Phipps Coles, a real-world ship designer who’d pushed through some unpopular design concepts against the misgivings of some of his contemporaries on the HMS Captain, which subsequently capsized, taking Coles with it. Powell posits that Thunder Child had incorporated some of Coles’s designs, and that there had been a bit of a resulting embarrassment when it came out that one of the people who’d approved the design had previously spoken out against him over the Captain, so if anything had ever gone wrong with Thunder Child, there would have been a scandal over the Royal Navy having knowingly built a ship based on the flawed designs of a discredited designer. The ship is described as a “compromise” between the designs of the Captain, and the more famous and successful HMS Devastation, designed by Edward James Reed. The historical Reed had resigned in protest when Coles’s design for the Captain was funded over his protest. So Thunder Child had spent her career on low-key duties and out of harm’s way, and staffed with officers who were similarly kind of embarrassing to the Admiralty despite not having done anything wrong enough to get court-martialed (One example is Commander Scott, who is said to have made enemies by pushing for better gun training and discipline to the point of insulting the general state of the navy’s gunnery). Though not the captain. They make a point of Captain McIntosh not knowing what he could possibly have done to get stuck on Thunder Child.
Also, Thunder Child is one of the last ships to still have muzzle-loading guns. This must be really important and interesting to naval history buffs, because they bring it up about a dozen times, with excruciating detail about how muzzle-loading guns work and how all the other ships on the Island of Sodor look down on poor little Thunder Child for having those nasty old-fashioned and quite possibly working-class muzzle loaders instead of proper modern English breech-loaders from respectable families in semi-detached houses. (Seriously, did you ever notice just how racist the engines are in Thomas the Tank Engine?).
Powell’s backstory for Thunder Child does a lot to justify the inclusion of this slightly weird technological dead-end in Wells’s accounting, a justification more diagetic than “Wells clearly just thought torpedo rams were cool.” And it gives some justification for Thunder Child having a story in the war that keeps them at arm’s length until the critical moment.
What works less well is that we — well, me at least — never really get a fully clear idea of what Thunder Child‘s actual mission is or why it’s on it. Thunder Child spends the opening phase of the war patrolling up the coast, meeting with foreign ships, and wildly speculating, specifically ordered not to engage the enemy. Now sure, a ship with Thunder Child‘s provenance wouldn’t be the first line of attack, but why would one of the Royal Navy’s private embarrassments merit being sent out to liaise with foreign navies, or be given secret hand-delivered orders? There’s repeated references to Thunder Child being here because she’s considered expendable, but at the same time, her orders seem to be very specifically to stay out of harm’s way. The very explanation that justifies Thunder Child being away from the front precludes the sense of weighty destiny — characters even talk about this, that they sense that Thunder Child has some important fate in the stars for it — the narrative wants it to have.
This rough spot in Powell’s backstory also extends to the Albert Stanley side of the plot. On both sides of the plot, people ponder on the fact that Great Britain is disadvantaged here because so much of her strength is in her navy, which is largely irrelevant in the context of an invasion that literally drops down in the middle of the country from outer space. So why is the Ministry sending Albert Stanley — a minor paper-pusher — on a special mission to hand-deliver special orders to a slightly embarrassing ship that’s on its way to the scrapyard on the eve of an invasion? The question is raised, but never answered. And more, there’s a distinct sense that the government is taking action from an early stage, takes the Martian threat seriously, and is well-plugged-in to what’s going on. And this… Is a hard fit with Wells’s novel. As I’ve mentioned in the past, one sense I got from the original novel that rarely carries over to adaptations is that the Martians’ advantage came less from them being outright invincible, and more from the defenders being hampered by the sheer unthinkability of being attacked on their native soil by a technologically superior invader: a real sense that had the British been prepared and been quicker on the uptake, they might not have been able to defeat the invaders outright, but they could have at least avoided the utter rout they faced. Here, though, it seems like the government understood the scale of the danger early, and was taking proactive steps to prepare for it, and were just straightforwardly outmatched.So in the A-plot, Jolly and Perry get in trouble with the quartermaster for being fuckups, as I said, and while on a punishment detail, they overhear something they shouldn’t from the officers about the Thunder Child‘s mission, and end up basically being isolated from the rest of the crew for a few days to keep them from gossiping. And then, I wasn’t really clear on why, Jolly and Perry get in a fight. They lie transparently about it to the officers, Jolly claiming to have walked into a doorknob or something. But this, weirdly enough, actually ingratiates them, I think in that it it displays that the pair are starting to “get it” about life in the navy.
This is something interesting about the general arc of the naval stuff. It would have been easy enough to just depict the navy as straightforwardly hellish to the crew, full of abuse and sadism and the aforementioned rum and sodomy. It was the Victorian era, when being really unspeakably awful to people below your station was basically what powered the empire. But there’s something more subtle here. Now, I have no truck with the philosophy of forging bonds through abuse, but I can certainly accept it as a historically accurate thing for people to have believed. And heck, I went to my high school reunions, and I understand now that the distinction between victimizing abuse and fraternal hazing aren’t always clear-cut, particularly to the people on the receiving end. Powell moves his characters through a world where, yes, it’s par for the course for the new men to be abused by the old timers, but regardless of whether it’s right or fair, they do it under the belief that what they are doing to them is indoctrinating them into a family.
Quartermaster Middleton visibly warms to Boy Seaman (I’m never going to get used to that title) Perry in particular after his falling out with Jolly, and Perry spends most of the rest of the book finding his place assisting the signalmen (which, conveniently, lets the narrative stick with him and pick up the news as it is relayed by semaphore along the coast. Jolly, for his part, becomes closer with Boatswain Pickles and finds his place in the engine room.