Deep Ice: The spirits know the insides of people (War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, Part 3: Henry James)

Previously on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

It’s September, 2003, five to seven days after the 17th. I’d recently finished up grad school (or washed out, depending on your point of view. I finished my Masters and just sort of petered out instead of finding an advisor to move on to a Doctoral program) and was looking for a job. Some time around now, I’d get one for two days as a temp at a car dealership, but it turned out that the requirements weren’t a match for my skills, and to this day still don’t know what exactly they wanted me to do. Something to do with their website, but not actually making or running it. The staffing agency would place me with a real estate company in January and I’d work there regularly for a year and then do some contract work for one of their agents a year later.

I’m in the waning days of what ought to be a major romantic relationship. We’ve rarely seen each other in person for several months, though we talk on the phone every night, except for when she disappears for a week at a time. She’d like me to propose, or maybe buy her a car, but she’d dissatisfied by my lack of employment. I am dissatisfied by the fact that we seem to be in a long-distance relationship despite living about ten miles apart. I have a strong feeling that I am being played, but I can’t figure out the angle exactly. I’ve basically checked out of the relationship by now, just sort of waiting for it to fizzle out. The fizzling will happen in December, kinda by accident.

None of this is directly relevant to me buying a copy of War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, I just thought you’d like some background. I read the book in the library of my two-bedroom rowhouse in Hampden, sipping white wine and sitting in the tan wing chair I’d bought from the Salvation Army for thirty bucks. Turns out that if you spill white wine on a keyboard, it stops working. I drink like two bottles of wine in six years, but I remember this one because in December, I sprain my back and am rendered so immobile that I am forced to use the empty bottle as an emergency latrine.

That abandoned NaNoWriMo I mentioned last week was a crime thriller about a teenage girl who suffers from severe cataplexy following a traumatic brain injury, with the gimmick that chapters alternated between the present-day with the heroine learning to cope with her condition and the past, showing the events leading up to it. I manage about ten thousand words and then get hit with a case of writer’s block that renders me unable to produce anything but Power Rangers fanfic for the next three years months.

By now, I feel like there’s a pattern emerging of there being pretty much two very different interpretations that the various contributors took for the prompt of this collection. Marcus, and Williams, and Anderson himself all approached the concept as the fairly straightforward, “Write a story about a historically significant person from the turn of the century getting involved in the events of The War of the Worlds.” And then there’s contributors like Resnick, or like our next author, Robert Silverberg. Rather than simply providing a narrative in which a historical person is a character, they took the tack of trying to tell the story of The War of the Worlds as though their viewpoint character were the one writing it.

Both approaches are fine, of course, but — and you may have guessed this if you’ve noticed that I’ve spent a year and a half doing more-or-less that on Saturdays — the second approach is somewhat more relevant to my interests. This, of course, limits what kind of historical figure you can interject: neither the Dowager Empress nor Pablo Picasso really work for that sort of thing. Heck, Teddy Roosevelt is a bit of a stretch for it. But this next one is more like it.

“The Martian Invasion Journals of Henry James” begins with a lengthy editor’s note giving the provenance of the following journals and explaining why they’ve never been published before (They’d gotten filed with the papers of James’s sister, and were nearly illegible due to James’s severe writer’s cramp at the time), namechecking the actual real-world definitive collections of James’s personal writings. It’s a touch that makes me think of the long tradition among “old school purists” that speculative fiction must always be framed in a way that grants plausible deniability to its fantastic elements so that we can, like a good Watsonian, engage in the great game of pretending that the events really happened despite the fact that it’s the sort of thing that really ought to have made the papers if it had. This is an especially odd conceit, though, for a writer to uphold while he’s about to deliberately rewrite history, not once, but twice.

The basic premise of the narrative, told as a series of excerpts from James’s diary, is that while, in the summer of 1900, Henry James was visiting his friend Herbert Wells (With cameos by Samuel Clemens, Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, and references to the recent passing of Stephen Crane), when Martians landed in Woking and started invading England. Wells, cutely, admits to having outlined a novel along those lines, which he’d now have to abandon. On seeing the Martians themselves, there’s a really wonderful juxtaposition that you could predict from the differences in style between the writers. For a refresher, here’s how Wells described the alien:

Two large dark-coloured eyes were regarding me steadfastly. The mass that framed them, the head of the thing, was rounded, and had, one might say, a face. There was a mouth under the eyes, the lipless brim of which quivered and panted, and dropped saliva. The whole creature heaved and pulsated convulsively […] Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of its appearance. The peculiar V-shaped mouth with its pointed upper lip, the absence of brow ridges, the absence of a chin beneath the wedgelike lower lip, the incessant quivering of this mouth, the Gorgon group of tentacles […] THere was something fungoid in the oily brown skin, something in the clumsy deliberation of the tedious movements unspeakably nasty. Even at this first encounter, this first glimpse, I was overcome with disgust and dread.

Even though I usually find Henry James’s prose overly dry and dense (I will cop to it: I seem not to like turn-of-the-century writers very much), but one thing I always did like is his romantic view toward strangeness. Here’s how Silverberg has James describes that same first look at the Martian:

What we see is a bulky ungainly thing; two huge eyes, great as saucers; tentacles of some sort; a strange quivering mouth — yes, yesm and alien being senza dubbio, preturnaturally other.
Wells, unexpectedly, is disgusted […] For my part I am altogether fasciated. I tell him that I see rare beauty in the Martian’s strangeness, not the beauty of a Greek vase or of a ceiling by Tiepolo, of course, but beauty of a distinct kind all the same. In this, I think, my perceptions are the superior of Wells’s. There is beauty in the squirming octopus dangling from the hand of some grinning fisherman at the shore of Capri; there is beauty in the terrifant bas-reliefs of winged bulls from the palaces of Nineveh; and there is beauty of a sort, I maintain, in this Martian also.

Even when the killing begins, James is reluctant to believe it, insisting that it must be some sort of misunderstanding, that the Martians were frightened and mistook their victims for a threat.

And there’s a very James moment when his reaction is contrasted with that of Wells, who immediately recognizes this as a, “War between worlds”:

Wells gives me a condescending glance. That one withering look places our relationship, otherwise so cordial, in its proper context. He is the hardheaded man of realities who has clawed his way up from poverty and ignorance; I am the moneyed and comfortable and overly gentle literary artist, the connoisseur of the life of the leisured classes.

The passage rings very true to James’s class- and culture-consciousness. I had initially planned to say that it seemed like a bad choice to frame this story as journal excerpts rather than as a James-authored narrative, but I won’t do it now, because this framing, as an unpolished, personal reflection not intended for publication feels very true to what Henry James was about in his writing, but carries an intimacy and casual air that I always struggled to find in James’s actual published work. It’s kinda like I’m reading a “secret” Henry James who isn’t constrained by the literary conventions and trends that keep me from being a fan of this period in literary history.

Also, I like that James quickly becomes bored with Wells’s endless and unprompted lectures about Mars and speculations on the comparative biology of its inhabitants. And just as James alternates between admiration and frustration with the cool and analytical Wells (He will eventually count himself lucky to be stuck with Wells rather than, say, Conrad), he also alternates between terror and exhilaration at their precarious circumstances. Having for the first time in his life been really tested in a life-or-death struggle for survival, he is surprised at the extent to which he rises to the challenge. “At last I am fully living! My heart weeps for the destruction I see all about me, but yet—I will not deny it—I am invigorated far beyond my considerable years by the constant peril, by the demands placed upon my formerly coddled body, above all, by the sheer strangeness of everything within my ken.”

The climax of the story comes in an entry with a guessed date of June 23 (James had lost track of the exact date a week into the invasion). Having found and appropriated a motorcar, Wells and James are heading for London. I’ve mentioned in some of my comments on other adaptations that the narrator’s reasons for going to London in the original text are unsatisfying vague. Silverberg has Wells, in his typical expository style, justify the choice: of the places they can reach without crossing the battle lines, it’s the only one liable to have been abandoned with ample food and supplies left behind for scavenging. They are stopped by the sight of a motionless tripod, apparently unoccupied. Abandoning their vehicle, they approach on foot to find the Martian pilot has climbed down, for reasons of its own, to study a small stream, “Peering reflectively toward the water for all the world as though it were considering passing the next hour with a bit of angling.”

They watch the Martian dip its tentacles into the water, “In evident satisfaction, as though it were a Frenchman and this was a river of the finest claret.” James and Wells are transfixed by this “encounter with the other“, until the Martian looks up and notices them:

Yet it simply studied us, dispassionately, as one might stufy a badger or a mole that has wandered out of the woods. It was a magical moment, of a sort: beings of two disparate worlds face-to-face (so to speak) and eye-to-eye, and no hostile action taken on either side.

They flee when the Martian returns to its machine, fearing for their lives, but the Martian simple walks on. “Perhaps it too had felt the magic of our little encounter; or it may be that we were deemed to insignificant to be worth slaughtering.”

A cute moment ensues when the pair reach dead London. Wells, in a cute and humanizing scene, wants to visit the abandoned British Museum, where he belts out Ozymandias in the Egyptian hall, “in what I suppose he thinks is a mighty and terrible voice.” The first London entry does make a stylistic concession in the name of narrative by burying the lede about their discovery of a dead Martian until after anecdotes about their adventures in the dead city, including a tense moment when James lost track of his companion.

The next day, the rest of the Martians are dead as well. Wells crows about having predicted it, though James notes that he hadn’t previously mentioned it. The last entry, written in July upon his homecoming, has James reflect on man’s new place in the universe, saved from the Martians, but now aware that of the possibility of invasion either from “fortified” Martians, or indeed from aliens of other sorts. The entry ends by relating one final conversation with Wells before they parted company. As a tale of alien invasion would now be “reportage”, rather than Wells’s “usual kind of fantastic fiction,” James receives his blessing to author a novel about the invasion, Wells graciously ceding the claim implicit in his earlier reference to having an outline.

The story ends with a second editor’s note, revealing that Henry James wrote The War of the Worlds between July 28 and November 17, 1900, and that it (rather than The Ambassadors, whose writing, in this history, he puts off until later) becomes his most successful and well-received work. The fictional publication history draws on elements of the real-world publication of both War of the Worlds and The Ambassadors: it’s printed first as a serial in The Atlantic (Pearsons, perhaps, had not finished rebuilding after the invasion), finishing in December 1901, then published as a novel in the UK and US in March and April of the following year. Macmillan is given as the UK publisher, which is kind of interesting because near as I can tell, none of James’s works of that period were published by them. Pan Macmillan’s current headquarters is in Basingstoke, so maybe their business recovered faster than the London-based Methuen. The editor notes that three film adaptations were made, which is, of course, more than the real-world produced until 2005. There is no mention whether it inspired a short-lived TV series or a prog rock concept album. Wells did not write his own account in this history, though the events are said to have had a profound effect on his later work.

Profound, but unspecified. This is three artists (four, if we romantically assume Carlos Castegemas survives) in two stories now whose style is implied to be heavily altered by an encounter with aliens, and, frustratingly, we never really get to see what that change is. I’d have loved to see that final editor’s note give just a hint more detail about James’s future. Though his last entry mentions his now-delayed plans to write The Ambassadors, you’ve got to imagine that a book about Americans being charmed by Europe would turn out differently, written in a world where extraterrestrial invasion is a fact of life. Perhaps the footnote might mention, offhandedly, that James never did get around to writing the book in this timeline.

But beyond that small disappointment, this story is great. Close though its plot stays to the raw outline of Wells’s novel, it’s completely different, and it’s different in all the ways that I find Wells frustrating. The ceaseless exposition is mostly omitted, and it’s a far more interior story. And James’s tendency to find beauty in the experience of otherness gives a soul to the story. I even like Silverberg’s version of Henry James’s version of Wells a lot better as a character than the nameless authorial self-insert of the original novel. I would totally read Henry James’s The War of the Worlds, and while this isn’t quite that, it’s close enough.

To Be Continued…


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

One thought on “Deep Ice: The spirits know the insides of people (War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, Part 3: Henry James)

  1. Pingback: Deep Ice: He went into the desert for one moon (War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, Part 4: Winston Churchill) | A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

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