Deep Ice: Do you not find it cold, lonely and sterile? (War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, Part 2: Empress Dowager Cixi, Pablo Picasso)

Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches

Less shiny, but I think it gives a better sense of the scope of the book.

I do not remember the circumstances that led to me knowing this anthology existed. But I do remember buying my copy. It was September 17, 2003, and the book was out of print, so I was excited to see a used copy on Amazon for a reasonable price. I also bought two books about crime writing in preparation for my first failed attempt at NaNoWriMo. Also bought a copy of The Vagina Monologues and a couple of memoirs by some bohemians. This is the period where Amazon became convinced I was a drug-addicted lesbian spy.

Estonia decided to join the EU last Sunday, and Latvia will do the same on Saturday. Today is also the day that President George W. Bush publicly concedes that Saddam Hussein wasn’t involved in the 9/11 attacks. Good thing we didn’t go invading that c— oh. Right. We’re still mourning Johnny Cash, who died last Friday, and John Ritter, who passed a day before. Warren Zevon (You you probably know as “The Werewolves of London Guy”) died a few days earlier, and it’s weird how quaint it seems for a mere three beloved celebrities to die within a few days of each other now.

Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy is out for your Windows-based PCs. Steam just released its first stable version. The big movie out this week is Lost in Translation. Beyonce holds two spots on the top ten, though “Shake Ya Tailfeather”, a collaboration between Nelly, P. Diddy and Murphy Lee holds the top spot. Matchbox Twenty is in the tenth spot, which makes me feel like I clicked on the wrong link and flipped back three years.

Jon’s guest on The Daily Show is Charlie Sheen. Enterprise tonight is “Anomaly”. Part of season three’s Xindi Superweapon arc, the Enterprise is crippled by the unusual properties of the Expanse, then attacked by pirates, but end up acquiring a crucial Xindi database and discovering the first of a network of alien spheres connected to the interdimensional aliens who are manipulating the Xindi. Next week, the series will give up on this whole “It’s not really Star Trek yet; it’s something new and exciting,” and switch to calling itself Star Trek: Enterprise. Most everything else is in repeats this week, but Saturday’s Power Rangers Ninja Storm is new. “The Wild Wipeout” sends blue ranger Tori to an evil mirror universe where she has to team up with the series big bad to defeat the counterparts of her teammates.

One week from today, the BBC will announce that a revival of Doctor Who is in development. The Telegraph notes that “purists” might be worried by the choice of Russell T. Davies to head the project, on account of he’s gay, and in 2003 you could still say things like “Are we sure we’re comfortable with letter a gay man run a television show?”, especially if you forget that Doctor Who had already been helmed by a gay man for all of the 1980s. (Yes, okay, it turned out he was a sexual predator. Shut up.)

I know basically nothing about the political history of China in the late 1800s. I can’t really speak to the historical parity of Walter Jon Williams’s “Foreign Devils”, the next story in the anthology, told from the perspective of Empress Dowager Cixi. Even if I were more familiar with the facts, the style of the story is heavily inflected with a kind of mystical air with heavy reliance on figurative language and euphemism, which adds an extra layer of unreality. I’m not even familiar enough to know whether the style is influenced more by the conventions of nineteenth-century court manners in the Forbidden City or by a western author’s romanticized notions of what things are supposed to “feel” like in the Mystical Land of China.

What I do know is that “Foreign Devils” is primarily a political intrigue. Set around the time of the Boxer Rebellion, the Guangxu Emperor (Referred to here using the archaic Wade-Giles Romanization “Kuang-hsu”) has been reduced to puppet status, under de facto house arrest following the Hundred Days’ Reforms. His aunt, the Dowager Empress had sided against the Emperor during the reforms, and history generally characterizes her as despotic and reactionary, the real power behind the throne. Williams is kinder in his take, depicting the Dowager Empress largely as a pawn of her own circumstances, regretful over the betrayal, and motivated by a sometimes-misguided desire to protect the young Emperor. (Williams wouldn’t have known that in 2008, forensic tests would suggest that the Dowager Empress probably murdered the Guangxu Emperor. She herself died the next day and some theorize her goal was specifically to outlive him). The Emperor himself is weak, frail, and prone to, ahem, spontaneous orgasms. This is not mentioned in his Wikipedia article.

The real power lies in Prince Tuan (Duan), leader of the Boxers, whose private army is “protecting” the Emperor. The Emperor isn’t quite powerless at first, but he’s too weak to mount an effective defense against Tuan’s machinations. With China basically being steamrolled by Europe and Japan, Tuan wants to expel or execute the “Foreign Devils” and crack down on the “Secondary Foreign Devils” — Chinese Christians and other locals who’ve been heavily influenced by European culture.

The Emperor and Dowager Empress can do little other than play for time, and even that breaks down with the coming of the “meteors” from Mars. Tuan interprets these as a sign from Heaven, and strongarms the Emperor into granting permission for him to raise an army to drive out the “white ghosts” from Europe and “dwarf-theives” from Japan. When the meteors disgorge “Falling Star Giants” that attack foreign-controlled cities across China, Tuan is sufficiently emboldened to seize power outright, issuing his own edicts under the Emperor’s seal.

But things go south as it becomes increasingly clear that the Falling Star Giants are not agents of heaven, but just a new kind of Foreign Devil, attacking Chinese and European populations alike. The Emperor, despite his precarious position, proves more capable than he’d seemed, and is able to take advantage of the invasion to decimate his enemies both foreign and domestic: Tuan might be able to issue orders in the Emperor’s name, and laugh off the Emperor’s own orders to kill himself, but actually leaving the divinely-appointed Emperor to die at the hands of the aliens is out of the question. Tuan is compelled therefore to commit his own forces to defend against the approaching Falling Star Giants, and weaken his own position by evacuating the imperial family from the Forbidden City, leaving behind the all the power structures of the court and the princes and the eunuchs (I feel like there’s a couple of words in this story that get used a lot which carry additional connotations in context I am not strictly familiar with). The impression I get of the imperial court during this period is that they basically existed to obstruct the Emperor: by interposing themselves as intermediaries, they could make sure that if the Emperor ever tried to give an order they didn’t like, it wouldn’t make it far enough to be acted upon.

Prince Tuan is obvious relieved when the news comes that the invaders have died of unknown causes, and lets his guard down despite the decimation of the Righteous Harmony Fists (Boxers) and his Tiger-Hunt Marksmen. At the celebration of their victory, under the pretext of teaching Tuan’s son — currently the heir to the throne — an advanced sword technique, the Emperor kills Tuan, his son, and several of their allies. Leaderless, the forces loyal to Tuan are quickly overcome by those loyal to the Emperor. With the Dowager Empress at his side, the Emperor pledges to continue the reforms of the Hundred Days, and, with Europe occupied by its own rebuilding efforts, bring China into the twentieth century as a world power, free of foreign domination.

This is the first story in the anthology to really seriously fit the mold of “alternate history”, and it’s an interesting take. There’s broad similarities to the outcome of the real-world Boxer Rebellion. The idea of Empress Dowager Cixi becoming a reformer despite having been a reactionary a few years earlier is consistent with what actually happened in the wake of the rebellion. Even the flight of the Emperor from Beijing mirrors the similar evacuation to Xi’an during the Battle of Beijing. The major difference, of course, is that unlike the Eight-Nation Alliance, the Martians conveniently all die off at the end, meaning that the conflict can go mostly the same way straight up to the last minute, but the fallout is completely different, with China coming out of it far stronger and more stable. The story does not reveal whether the Guangxu Emperor is successful in his plans, but the implication is that the Qing Dynasty doesn’t go on to collapse in 1911, and China becomes a major player on the world stage decades early.

Practically speaking, the largest deviation from real history seems to be in the character of the Emperor and Dowager Empress. The view of Dowager Empress Cixi as subject to forces beyond her control and just trying to maintain the stability of the empire isn’t exactly out of left-field; plenty of historians dispute her characterization as a reactionary despot as biased. But it certainly seems based on my minimal reading that she was a formidable force in her own right. The character depicted by Williams is much more a victim of circumstance. The entire theme of her character is that she is more position than person: her actions predetermined by her place in society. This is clear from the opening paragraph, which claims that she’s been known exclusively by titles and regnal names for so long that no living person even knows her birth-name anymore.

While I like the sympathetic depiction of the Dowager Empress, I’m certainly bothered by what comes off as the reduction of a powerful and influential woman to the role of a powerless pawn. I think I’d have liked it better if there had been a stronger narrative presence. Though the story is told in the third person, the use of archaic transliterations and the mythologizing tone of the language implies things about the viewpoint from which the story is told. The structure of the anthology implies that the viewpoint for this story is that of the Dowager Empress, but the narrative style of the story still keeps us a step removed from her, so if we had some character more intimately associated with the narrative, say, one of the Dowager Empress’s servants, that subjectivity would allow for some more ambiguity over the characters of the Emperor and Dowager Empress. Still, it’s a neat look at a non-Eurocentric take on the Martian invasion. Even in science fiction, it’s rare for an English-language story to exclusively depict characters whose attitudes, behaviors and ways of thinking aren’t informed by the cultural history of Europe, and this story does it without being hugely patronizing. This story won Williams the 1996 Sidewise Award for Alternative History.

Daniel Marcus’s “Blue Period” places the Martians in Paris, in January, 1901. I can place this story pretty exactly despite the date not coming up in the text because Pablo Picasso’s living in Paris and Carlos Casegamas hasn’t died yet. I’m underwhelmed by the story. Picasso comes off as a stereotypical arrogant young artist — whether or not at 19, Picasso was a stereotypical arrogant young artist I’ve no idea, but there’s nothing in Marcus’s depiction to elevate him above cliche. He complains about French women being “heavy-breasted cows,” and that Monet, “should have been smothered as a child,” pledging to, ahem, “Show those symbolist faggots what a real artist could do.”

When the Martians land in the Seine, he tracks down his friend Casegamas, and promptly insults his date, Germaine Pichot (She’d later be one of the models for Picasso’s Les demoiselles d’Avignon) by making lewd comments about her, not realizing she could speak Spanish. Casegamas assumes the cylinder is a new German superweapon, kicking off World War I a little early. Picasso persuades the couple to come take a look at the “Gargoyles” from Mars, and the trio arrive in time to witness the destruction of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame by heat ray.

Afterward, Picasso and his companions part ways. Germaine has family in Versailles, and Casegemas accompanies her there despite Picasso’s conviction that Versailles would be no safer than Paris. We don’t hear what happens to them. In real history, Casegamas would commit suicide in February after Germaine rejected him, but in this history, maybe they’d end up together. Or maybe they both get zapped by a heat ray on the way to Versailles. The narrative, in either case, sticks with Picasso, who’s determined to save his portfolio, since even in the apocalypse, “Survival is nothing without art. Otherwise, we are no better than dogs pissing in the street.” Like I said, cliche asshole artist. Nothing new to see here.

There’s nothing new to see in Picasso’s trek back to his studio, either. Vaguely sketched scenes of human suffering, a note that a single tripod had been destroyed by artillery, and, ultimately, the destruction of the Eiffel Tower. This gets a bit more detail than the rest of the trip, as you’d expect just because it’s the Eiffel Tower, with the additional justification that to Pablo, “The fluid curvature and implacable Cartesian logic epitomized for him Mankind’s emergence into the new century.” Maybe it’s just me, but that sentence feels sort of tortured.

Picasso’s studio is undamaged in the attack — the Martians can hardly be expected to personally demolish every single building, after all. Once there, he’s strangely compelled to finish a crucifixion scene he’d been doing on commission. “He used oil, thick, viscous gobs of it. At first he applied it with a knife, but before long he was using his hands, his fingers, the end of a smock, anything that would serve the image emerging onto the canvas.” The finished product, I gather, fuses influences from the rest of the story. At the beginning, he’d been sketching, “A woman in the market giving an apple to her half-wit son,” trying and failing to capture, “some measure of divinity [that] lay in him.” Mixed with this, I think, are elements of a man being consumed by a heat ray.

There, the vacant idiot eyes and glistening lips. Slack-jawed, full of grace and pain. Behind Him, Judgment rose above the smooth, tawny hills of Calvary on spindly tripod legs.

It seems like it ought to be really obvious to compare this hypothetical crucifixion scene to Guernica, and initially I thought there was something there, because I imagined the painting as black-and-white, linking it mentally to the opening paragraph of the story, where Picasso obsesses over charcoal as a drawing material. But that word “tawney” suggests otherwise, and there isn’t anything in the description to really link the two. It’s certainly, as described less abstract and more straightforward in its symbolism than Guernica. If this is meant to suggest that he invents Cubism early, there’s nothing in the description of the painting to explain that. Maybe the idea here is that Picasso finds a way to tap into something during his early period that he historically didn’t, and therefore his style evolved along modernist lines rather than toward Cubism, but again, there’s just not enough detail to know. The description of tripod legs as “spindly” puts me in mind of his Don Quixote, but maybe that’s just me.

This story just doesn’t work for me. For a story about one of the most famous artists of the twentieth century, it’s strangely heavy on the telling and not so much on the showing. Of course, there’s an intrinsic difficulty in trying to write fiction involving a fictional work of art by a real and incredibly talented artist, but this is just way too thin. Especially with an artist who’s known for having worked in several very distinct styles, there’s absolutely no discussion of the style of the painting that is supposed to be representative of a major shift in the direction of Picasso’s work. There’s references to Picasso becoming “hyperaware” of his surroundings, but nothing to convey what that hyperawareness is like. And Marcus is so successful in portraying him as an unlikeable asshole cliche of an arrogant artistic genius that it’s almost impossible to empathize with him or think anything other than, “I hope the Martians get you, asshole,” when he pays off the hamfisted foreshadowing (He looks back before he leaves, suddenly worried that he’s forgotten something important) earlier in the story by rushing home to save his paintings.

There’s an interesting concept here, but this story ought to be very visual, and it’s not told in an especially visual way. Probably would have worked better in a visual medium. I could see this making a pretty solid episode of Night Gallery.

To Be Continued…

  • War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches is available from amazon.

4 thoughts on “Deep Ice: Do you not find it cold, lonely and sterile? (War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, Part 2: Empress Dowager Cixi, Pablo Picasso)

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