Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging…
Tantalizing enough that it’s got me kind of interested in what would happen if you tried this experiment another way around. What if you didn’t try to match up a new story with Wells’s style, but rather tried to match up the same story with a different style. I wonder…
It is May 1, 1996. More or less. Australia is reeling from a shooting spree in Port Arthur two days ago. The deaths of thirty-five people will, inexplicably, shortly lead to heavy restrictions of private ownership of firearms in Australia. Of course, as we all know, banning guns has never succeeded in reducing shooting deaths, which means it must be a coincidence that in the following 20 years, there been no mass shootings in Australia. Maybe it’s because they ban violent video games. Former CIA Director William Colby will be found dead in a marshy riverbank in Maryland, victim of a boating accident, or maybe that’s just what they want you to think. The Keck II telescope in Hawaii is getting ready for its grand opening Saturday. Gerald Williams gets six hits in a single game, the first Yankee to do so since 1934.
New in theaters this week are Barb Wire and The Craft. Twister, Mission: Impossible, Spy Hard and Dragonheart will be out later this month. Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” is revived on Broadway. I think I actually see the touring company of this in Baltimore the next year. Howard Stern’s radio show will be premiering within a week. Nickelodeon spins off their “Nick-at-Nite” TV block in the form of the TVLand network. This week will see the finales of Nick Jr. series Allegra’s Window, NBC’s Sisters and Captain Planet and the Planeteers, whose cast will go on to great things, especially Hoggish Greedly, who will eventually be elected President of the United States of America. Later this month, we’ll see the end of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Nowhere Man, and seaQuest DSV. The Daily Show with Craig Killborn premiers in July.
TV is new this week. Roseanne. Coach. Frasier. The Drew Carey Show. Home Improvement. NYPD Blue. Wings. The Nanny. Murphy Brown. Grace Under Fire. Friends. Seinfeld. ER. Chicago Hope. This is like peak TV for me, but nothing really stands out. Star Trek: Voyager airs “The Thaw”, which I do not remember at all. It’s about VR and sounds pretty close to the plot of an episode of Stargate SG-1. Deep Space Nine airs “The Muse”, in which Sisko’s son Jake is preyed upon by a sort of muse-succubus, who inspires him to start the novel they’ve been foreshadowing him writing, but nearly kills him by sucking out his life force or whatever. Also, Majel Barrett Roddenberry makes her last appearance as Lwaxana Troi.
NBC’s got a miniseries of Peter Benchley’s The Beast, which I think is a sea monster movie, and I think next week one of the other networks does another sea monster miniseries. Fox will make jokes about this in their commercials, which is petty of them given that The X-Files this week, “Quagmire”, is also about a sea monster. I don’t get into Homicide: Life on the Street until years later, but my dad watched it whenever he managed to stay up that late. This week’s is “The Damage Done”, which introduces Luther Mahoney, a Baltimore drug dealer who becomes the closest the series ever has to a “big bad”. Sliders is “Post-Traumatic Slide Syndrome”, an episode which sets up the possibility that John Rhys-Davies’s character has been replaced by an unscrupulous doppleganger. This will never come up again. Power Rangers Zeo today is “The Puppet Blaster”. It’s about a brainwashing robotic children’s entertainer.
I’m a junior in high school. This is the year I take a ridiculous number of AP tests. US History, Calculus AB, and both sections of Physics C. I’m also the Editor-in-Chief of the school newspaper, a position I’ll hold for one more semester by convincing the school to invent a “Journalism IV” for me to take next year. My stamped, official high school transcript has a hand-written correction on it. This was fun to explain on college interviews. I also appear on television this spring, in the high school quiz bowl show It’s Academic. On our previous appearance, we’d killed it, utterly crushing our competitors, but this time, luck isn’t with us. Or at least, timing isn’t with us, because we get a perfect score on the timed round, but only managed to buzz in once in the other two rounds. It was weird. Also, Mac McGarry is the first person I ever met who tried to pronounce my last name the traditional Polish way. And that amazing, deep, imperial voice he had on the show? That was his real, normal, everyday voice.
I remember being very upset this week, because the cable kept going out. I realize that is a petty thing to be upset about, but when you’re a sixteen year old boy with no romantic prospects (I’ll get there eventually), it’s kind of a big deal that the cable comes back on literally like 5 minutes before a big event epsiode of Roseanne. Yeah, in two weeks ABC airs the episode of Roseanne where Dan has a heart attack and dies. I mean, he dies during the cliffhanger at the end of the episode, but we don’t find out about it until the series finale a year later, because it turns out that from the second season onward, the series has been an increasingly fictionalized version of the family portrayed in the early seasons drawn from Roseanne Connor’s short stories. Also, Fox’s Tuesday Night Movie, which “doesn’t star a giant Octopus”, is a US-made revival of Doctor Who, starring
Hugh Laurie, Marcia Gay Harden and Peter O’Toole. It doesn’t win its time slot thanks to Roseanne, but it does well enough to go to series in the fall and run for eight years Paul McGann, Daphne Ashbrook and Eric Roberts. It has some nice set pieces, but little in the way of a plot, and its middle-of-the-road ratings persuade Fox to go with the cheaper option of making a second season of Sliders instead of picking it up. Doctor Who does not return to television until 2005.
The top ten is full of things I don’t recognize. I mean, Mariah Carey is at the top with “Always Be My Baby”, Celine Dion is behind her with “Because You Loved Me”, and Alanis Morissette is hanging out at number 4 with “Ironic”, but there’s a whole lot of stuff I don’t remember at all. The top 20 is more my speed, featuring Everything But The Girl, Tracy Chapman, The Bodeans, and Jann Arden.
Popular books of 1996 include A Game of Thrones, The Notebook, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Fight Club, and Angela’s Ashes. Doing okay for itself, but not quite to that level, is this.
It is rare for adaptations and remakes and even discussion of the original novel The War of the Worlds to bring up a strange matter of geography. I mean, except when it’s me doing the discussion, because I’ve personally said it a bunch of times. Wells all but states outright that the Martian invasion was limited to England. Most people ignore this, for reasons such as: 1. It’s pretty stupid. Delightfully English, to proceed from the assumption that an advanced alien race would decide that invading just specifically England was the right way to conquer the Earth (“Naturally. The rest were all foreigners,” Doctor Who), but intensely stupid.
Come 1996, prolific science fiction author Kevin J. Anderson decided to ignore this delightful stupidity when he had (according to the acknowledgements page, while hiking in the redwood forests of California) the idea to compile an anthology of short stories about the Martian invasion across the globe. But not just across the globe, really. Because every story in War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches is told from the point-of-view of a literary or historical figure belonging to the time and place where the story is set (more or less. I’ll explain later). That, I think, elevates this anthology above being just a globalized retelling of the original story. We don’t just have “Basically Wells’s story but set in New Jersey,” or “Basically Wells’s story but set in San Francisco”. We’ve got “Jack London’s War of the Worlds in Alaska” and “Mark Twain’s War of the Worlds in New Orleans”.
This isn’t just wonderful in its own right, too. The addition of these big personalities helps smooth out the fact that there is absolutely no thematic, structural, or story continuity between the various writers. They contradict Wells. They contradict each other. They contradict the backstories of their own characters. And that’s fine, because it’s not like you were expecting Teddy Roosevelt to provide an account of fighting the Martians in Cuba and not make it all about himself. Anderson gives it a wink and a nod in his forward, as told by Wells, noting that Picasso and Verne aren’t on speaking terms over the differences in their accounts of the sack of Paris, and sniping that he doesn’t recall Henry James taking notes at the time. Anderson dedicates the book to Wells, and also to George Pal and Jeff Wayne. Sam and Greg Strangis get no love.
Right out of the gate, we go pretty far afield from virtually all of the adaptations we’ve seen so far with Mike Resnick’s The Roosevelt Dispatches. A series of letters written by the Rough Rider in the summer of 1898 document an encounter with a Martian in Cuba. It’s far enough afield from anything else we’ve seen of the Martians that, were you to take it outside of this anthology, you could easily miss what they’re meant to be. Roosevelt himself doesn’t even take the creatures to be otherworldly: he does refer to them as “alien” once, but only in the sense of his being unable to fit them into his understanding of evolutionary process. There are no tripods to be seen, and no news of an invasion reaches him during the course of the story, so my read of it is that his encounter is with an advance scouting party.
The outward appearance of the alien is similar to Wells’s description, to a word in places. They’re still cephalopods, they still lack both sex and digestive systems, they’re comparable in size to a bear, and have a V-shaped mouth. But unlike the frail, slow-moving creatures of the novel, the Martian Roosevelt encounters is strong enough to uproot trees with a fail of its tentacle and is bulletproof, unharmed even by shots into its eye and mouth. Roosevelt is only able to survive when a lucky shot causes it to drop its hand-held heat ray (Roosevelt refers to it as a “sword of light”) and accidentally shoots itself in the face.
Resnick draws on a lot of the elements of Roosevelt’s public persona. Most particularly, his interest in nature and status as a kind of proto-environmentalist. After the detailed description of his encounter are a series of letters to his contacts at the American Museum of Natural History asking about the plausibility of the biology he observed in the creature. This series of letters culminates with an excerpt from his monograph detailing his attempt to autopsy/taxidermy the creature. Though he consistently describes it as an animal, he recognizes from the size of the brain and its use of tools that, “What we have here is a species of intelligence at least equal to, and probably greater than, our own.”
The remainder of the letters cover Roosevelt’s preparations to lead an expedition find and eliminate the Martians. He contacts Winchester rifles to commission a hunting rifle capable of bringing down a thick-skinned animal of “remarkable vitality”, and contacts first President McKinley, and then War Secretary Russell Alger, warning them of the threat and requesting that the Rough Riders be sent back into the Cuban jungle. They’re slow to believe him, but some unspecified news from England — we, of course, know the content — wins him the backing he needs to raise a force for, “This greatest of adventures.” We end on two letters dated August 5, 1898, one to his children and the other to his wife. Roosevelt to the end, he expresses no fear or misgiving, but instead gives his sons words of encouragement (Even going as far as to say, roughly, “You’d better pay attention in school and get all your exercise in, because otherwise, you might get killed by an alien.”) and speaks of the coming adventure as, “The greatest hunt of my life.” The story ends without revealing the fate of the expedition, but there’s a hint: in his final letter to his wife, Roosevelt complains about a cold. “It will take a lot more than a strange beast and a runny nose to bring a true American to his knees. The coming days should be just bully!”
It’s a cute little story and a fun read. But the removal of the tripods in favor of a markedly more formidable Martian makes this an odd fit for The War of the Worlds. If you were a sane person who hadn’t spent a year and a half of his life consuming adaptations of The War of the Worlds, you could be forgiven for missing the point. The story goes out of its way to make the connections to Wells’s work oblique, given as little winks and nods. Teddy Roosevelt versus Cryptids is an idea that’s got legs, or at least tentacles, but as I read this, I kept thinking it’d kinda be more fun if this had been tied not to The War of the Worlds but Tremors, with Roosevelt bagging himself a Grabboid.
Anderson contributes the second story in the anthology, “Canals in the Sand”. It’s told from the perspective of Percival Lowell, founder of the Lowell Observatory and cartographer of the “canals” on Mars. Anderson’s Lowell is a “blustery” man, kind of unpleasant, and comes off with a hint of Republic Movie Serial Mad Scientist, constantly raging about how the press and “respectable” scientists failed to give his work the respect it deserved, but he’d show them.
And accordingly, the story tells of him carrying off a mad, ambitious plan that would show them all. The travel time from Mars to Earth is lengthened considerably from the original novel. In 1894, Lowell observes the green flashes on Mars which indicate the launch of their cylinder ships. As in the novel, the fictional English astronomer Ogilvy confirms his observation, and is among the small number of astronomers won over to Lowell’s cause. Wells is mentioned as a journalist who’d asked to tag along, but was refused due to Lowell’s previous bad experiences with the press. They meet with the aging and now nearly-blind Giovanni Schiaparelli, who’d first documented what came to be known as the Martian canals.
True to history, Schiaparelli explains that he’d only ever meant to describe natural dark features on the planetary surface — the Italian word “canali” didn’t carry the same connotation of being an artificially-created structure. All the same, he’s convinced by Lowell’s theories that Mars is covered with an intricate network of irrigation canals, created by an ancient and advanced race in a desperate attempt to cope with increasingly inhospitable conditions as their planet slowly died.
Convinced now that the Martians were on their way to Earth, looking to salvage their own desperate situation, Lowell sinks his considerable personal fortune into constructing his own canals. Temporary structures in the Sahara desert which, at the moment he predicted the best view, he has filled with kerosene and set ablaze, creating a geometrical pattern he hopes will be visible to the Martian fleet, and serve as a landing beacon. Despite earning the nickname “Lowell’s Folly”, the project comes off, and a Martian cylinder lands nearby. After some impatient waiting as the cylinder cools, Lowell approaches to see both the Martians themselves, and a partially-assembled tripod. Even moreso than Resnick’s story, Anderson leaves the ending in suspense, with Lowell rushing forward to greet what he takes to be a diplomatic envoy from Mars.
There’s some nice imagery in this one, but the storytelling is clumsy. The story seems to jump around a lot for such a short piece, with tangents that serve no real purpose other than to dump some exposition. There’s a lot of biographical detail about Lowell — his time in Japan, his family history, and the like — but none of it seems especially relevant to the story. Also, the basic concept of “Guy hastily digs a large symbol in the desert to be spotted by passing aliens” is, I think, the plot to an episode of Voltron [Episode 44: Voltron vs Voltron]. Anderson would later expand this story to form the prologue of his 2006 book The Martian War: A Thrilling Eyewitness Account of the Recent Invasion As Reported by Mr. H.G. Wells, which I guess I’m going to have to cover at some point, and I am not really looking forward to it because I am a damned fool for lumping all the books together at the end, since carving out the time to read a book when you’ve got two children under five (Dylan will no longer be “under five” by the time you read this, but still) is no small feat.
To Be Continued…
- War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches is available from amazon.