RIP John Hurt
Previously on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging…
“Hello, my nephew,” he said. “I did not mean to be the cause of such consternation. I had decided that it was appropriate for me to make one more—and perhaps final—journey to Earth, and I brought along my loyal Woola merely as an experiment. I wished to ascertain if I could transport another living being with me across the dark, cold abyss of space that separates your Earth from my beloved Mars.”
“And you have succeeded, John Carter,” I replied. “Now, what new adventures have you to report?”
“Let us make ourselves comfortable,” he said, “and I will tell you of a most urgent and bloody conflict that recently engulfed all of Barsoom, a crisis that surpassed even the desperate rescue of that planet’s vital atmosphere plant, the harrowing tale of which I have already unfolded to you.”
I’ve never read any Burroughs. Is this sort of thing normal? This does not sound like it was written by a human being.
Yeah, so. George Alec Effinger. Mars: The Home Front. Edgar Rice Burroughs. Let’s go. Okay, so this is, on paper, the thing I’ve been saying I wanted. Like the previous story, it’s very much a “What if someone else wrote War of the Worlds,” story. And this time, it’s “What if Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote War of the Worlds as a Barsoom story?” And hey, fun fact: a couple of years after this anthology was published, Barbra Hambly and George Alec Effinger got married. I wonder if this is somehow related. Like, “Hey baby, if I were assembling an anthology, I’d put U and I next to each other.”
But if you can’t tell from my own style here, Effinger’s effort does not meet with my approval the same way Hambly’s did. Only partially his fault. Thing is, if you do a good job at imitating Kipling’s style, you end up sounding like Kipling. And if you imitate Burrough’s style, you end up sounding like Burroughs. I have not actually read any Burroughs, and he seems hugely influential and all. I did glance over a few pages of A Princess of Mars to get a taste for it. And… I mean, I know that he’s hugely influential and all, but man, it’s pulpy. And Effinger kind of ramps it up a little. It’s all “Lo, John Carter, you do well to fear them for it is you who shall be fed upon by they, our monstrous oppressors, being the most fearsome foes of the Barsoom, beneath the weak rays of the moons Thuria and Cluros, where you shall be sent to your gods, if you have any,” and I’m wishing I could just go back and read a bunch more of Ortheris’s, “Strewth sorr, cor blimey hit hain’t but naught,” instead. I mean, the writing is so turgid that if it goes on for more than four hours, you should consult a physician.
The story opens up with the “meta-narrator” Burroughs out on a fishing trip when he’s accosted by Woola, John Carter’s calot. According to Burrough’s framing device, he’s the Doyle-style literary agent for his “uncle”, an inexplicably immortal former Confederate soldier, who, having astrally projected himself to Mars, occasionally returns to Earth to regale his nephew with stories of his exploits. This time, he’s brought along his ten-legged alien pet just to determine whether or not it would work. The first time I read the story, in my general ignorance about the series, I assumed Woola’s name was meant as a winking reference to the “Ulla!” sounds made by Jeff Wayne’s version of the Martians.
Carter has returned to Earth to tell his nephew about, “A most urgent and bloody conflict that recently engulfed all of Barsoom.” His story opens with him attending a boring state function at the home of his father-in-law, “Mors Kajak, the father of the incomparable Dejah Thoris, the most beautiful woman on Barsoom or Earth, my wife and the mother of my son, Carthoris.” He’s not really into it, even though, “I know that stifling formality and tedious dialogues are the price of what we choose to call ‘civilization.'” Holy shit, it’s like he was paid by the word.
Anyway, after a while, John Carter (This is probably all old hat to anyone who’s actually read the Barsoom books, but I can’t get past the way that he’s only ever referred to as “John Carter”, even by Burroughs. Never just “John” or “Carter” or even “Sir”) notices that his wife isn’t around any more. And even though he assumes he’s just, “Creating vexations where none exist,” (Jesus. Christ.), him and his buddy Kantos Kan go looking for her. Their first clue that something is Up comes when they find a mortally wounded man in the courtyard, which is an unintentionally hilarious way to describe it. After a fruitless and unseemly interrogation of the dying man, John Carter and Kantos Kan head for the airship docks.
They get a lucky break in that one of the two raiding parties had been dispatched by the palace guard, and the GPS on their abandoned airship has already been set for the trip home. It carries them for half a Martian day to a remote region that neither John Carter nor Kantos Kan know much about, and passes a suspicious circular hole in the ground about thirty yards in diameter (That’s what she said).
Unfortunately for John Carter’s rescue plans, the attackers were expecting them and ambush the pair immediately, immobilizing both of them with an unfamiliar energy weapon. He recovers in a holding cell and meets Bas-ok, another captive, from the city of Gathol, who dutifully delivers all the exposition they need: their attackers are slaves of a race called the Sarmaks, who are similar to the canonical Kaldanes, a race of beings consisting of a head with spider-legs. The Sarmaks are both more intelligent, and further along in their evolution toward being disembodied brains, lacking even their own digestive system (In several places online, I see the claim that “In the Wold Newton Universe, Kaldanes are descended from mutated Sarmaks,” but no one ever sources this claim and it seems backwards to me). So they subsist through vampirism, enslaving Red Martians to bring them victims to eat. John Carter had been set up: the slaves are clever enough to leave an obvious trail on their kidnapping raids so that they can capture the rescue parties as well.
The big suspicious hole in the ground turns out to be a Verne Gun, a launcher for the invasion force they’re sending to Earth to go get them some yummy humans to eat. So between kidnapping his wife and threatening his home planet, John Carter decides to give these Sarmaks whatfor, and stages an escape that goes off with the sort of easy triviality that things usually go off for a white guy in a turn-of-the-century pulp adventure novel where the bad guys are not white men. He sets out to rescue Deja Thoris and sends Kantos Kan back to the city of Helium to fetch the cavalry…
And then the story just stops dead. We pop back out to the frame, where the meta-narrator gives us a quick rundown on the events that “must wait until another occasion”: John Carter finds Deja Thoris; Bas-ok betrays him somehow; John Carter destroys the space cannon at great personal risk; the various races of Mars join forces to defeat the Sarmaks. But who’d want to read a boring story like that when instead we could just focus on John Carter nodding off on a long airship ride, being paralyzed for a day, then listening to lots of exposition?
The Burroughs character does not bother filling us in on events on Earth, but John Carter alludes to them: his return to Earth to tell this story was specific in its motivation. He’s here to formally end the war. He wants Burroughs to publish this story for him, so that humanity will, “Understand that there is no longer any need for revenge and violence against Barsoom. The threat of the sarmaks is ended, and our worlds are again at peace.”
This is not for me, I’m afraid. Burroughs’s writing is hard enough to get through, but Effinger, intentionally or not, exaggerates it to the point that I’m just begging for it all to end. And yet, somehow it still manages to end too soon, basically doing all the boring setup and exposition, then bailing out at the moment the story actually gets interesting. It’s written like pulp, but it lacks the excitement of pulp. It’s like reading Power Rangers fanfic that gets the tone of early ’90s children’s TV dialogue right, but isn’t interested in any of that stuff with the spandex and the giant robots. Y’know, my entire creative output in the year 2004.
And what’s the deal with the framing story? I mean, not the bit at the end, that’s actually clever. But why does John Carter decide to bring his six-legged horse-sized hunting dog with him to Earth? Is this Effinger’s way of settling an argument with someone about whether or not Carter can bring stuff with him?
But maybe this is all just me being me again and it’s actually good. This is the second attempt in this anthology to bring Wells’s Martians into the Wold Newton universe, and it seems like this one had more influence. The Sarmaks are mentioned frequently in expanded-universe Barsoom reference stuff on the web, and apparently some people even like the idea of trying to match this story up with Alan Moore’s Barsoom/War of the Worlds crossover in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which apparently tells a similar story, but details the final battle and destruction of the space cannon. Me? I’m just glad it’s over. Moving on…
See also the rather fantastic LiarTownUSA.
When Gillian Anderson announced that she would be leaving Doctor Who, the obvious speculation was that, combined with a certain recent miniseries event on FOX in the US, this clearly meant that The X-Files was being revived on a permanent basis. The truth of the matter, as it turns out, was something at once stranger and more obvious…
(Yes, that is the actual name of a real Flemming story. Mainly I went with it because I am unconfident in my ability to spell or pronounce Risico)
Previously on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging…
Rudyard Kipling is a hard figure to get a handle on. On the one hand, you’ve got what seems to be a pretty straightforward old-school jingoistic imperialist, as evidenced by his poem The White Man’s Burden. On the other, you’ve got a man with a deep, but flawed respect for native cultures and a cynic who lamented the hypocrisy of how short imperial powers fell from their stated goals, as evidenced by his poem The White Man’s Burden.
I’ve read a little bit of Kipling. Bits of The Jungle Book and Just So Stories, and some of his poetry. I don’t have much familiarity with his military fiction, and as a result, I didn’t fully recognize what was going on in Barbara Hambly’s Soldier of the Queen. Though she’s got plenty of her own characters in her stable, Hambly is no stranger to working with existing characters either; she’s published works in both the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises, several Sherlock Holmes stories, and a series of historical mysteries starring Abigail Adams.
Soldier of the Queen is the first story in the collection to really properly be exactly the sort of thing I’ve been saying this anthology seems like it was meant to be: it’s not “Rudyard Kipling meets Martians”, but rather “Rudyard Kipling writes War of the Worlds“. Specifically, it’s War of the Worlds as a Soldiers Three story, an adventure of the “Three Musketeers”, Learoyd, Mulvaney and Ortheris, trouble-making soldiers serving in India at the turn of the century. The narrator is unnamed and never described in much detail, though he seems to be an authorial self-insert.
Hambly’s narration is much more dense than the Kipling I’ve read, but I took a quick glance at some of Plain Tales From the Hills, and it’s about par for the course. It’s hard to get past the great walls of Hambly faithfully recreating Kipling’s convention of rendering thick, stereotypical accents into text, which is really hard to do without becoming cumbersome. There’s only so many times you can read lines like, “Hit wiped ’em out, sir … Wiped ’em clean out, like ants frizzlin’ up on a griddle, hit did, wi’ a beam o’ light. Blast me for six if I ever saw such a thing,” before your eyes start to glaze over. Nothing against Hambly here; I think we might just be heading back into “Ross doesn’t really like 1890s British literature” territory.
The beginning of the story tacks surprisingly close to Walter Jon Williams’s Foreign Devils. A meteor has fallen near Fort Chopal, stirring up a great commotion. The narrator has heard of similar events occurring in England and the US. Just like in China, many among the native population have interpreted the meteors as a sign from the heavens, and the Martians are initially taken for a kind of demon sent to evict their British oppressors. Or, as Ortheris puts it:
Meself, I find it ’ard to b’lieve the ’igh-up god Shiva really up an’ sent a failin’ star down at Gorakhpur wi’ a load of demons to wipe out the gora-log just ’cause the local Brahmin got done out o’ two square feet of land and a cow by some Manchester bank.
Yeah. Sorry about that.
“Thugees, hunters, Pandies, and malcontents of all sorts whose dissatisfaction with the Queen’s rule and the Queen’s justice had been a slow-simmering constant since the days of Lucknow and Cawnpore,” try to take advantage of the soldiers’ distraction when the first tripod appears, and mount an assault on the fort. It soon falls under joint assault from Martian and Indian forces. Which is a weird sentence to have just written.
The narrator falls from a crumbling parapet and is knocked unconscious, and his recovery is one of the few passages where I properly enjoy, rather than simply appreciate the prose:
“Goad, sir, Ah’m glad you’re alive.”
I wasn’t. Nor was I sure I still lived, for the heat was theological, the stink of dust and blood suffocating, and my body an armature of pain.
Even the sound of that deep Yorkshire boom, or the light Cockney, “There, what’d Hi tell yer?” that followed, did not reassure me. Could I be assured of any facet of the afterlife, it would be the eventual downward destination of Mulvaney, Ortheris, and Learoyd.
The ragged remains of the unit retreat to Patna, then Calcutta. The narrator elides over most of the journey, accounts of which he claims have been documented elsewhere. Only three members of the unit receive any attention: Ortheris, Learoyd, and the highest-ranking surviving officer, Captain Sotheby. Mulvaney is not found after the fort collapses. The Martians stay mostly at arms’ length during the march. Their first appearance at the fort had emphasized how fast and how fluid in motion the tripods were, details that are only rarely emphasized. But after that, the presence of the Martians is conveyed primarily by their wake: buildings ruined by heat rays, fields blackened by soot from the black smoke, or choked by red weeds, “glowing sickly purple in the blackness”. Captain Southeby deduces that a wet cloth over the face offers some protection from the black smoke. His predictions about the state of Calcutta are less successful; no other military unit had survived there and the town is largely abandoned.
And now, the conclusion…
Before we begin, I just want to point out that in certain parts of the US, large, herbivorous freshwater river turtles of the genus Pseudemys are referred to as “cooters”. This is just a fact of life and not funny at all. Cooter.
Let us for a moment hop back a little. It is December 8, 1983. Space Shuttle Mission Columbia-6 lands at Edwards Airforce Base. Two jets crashed into each other on the runway at Madrid Airport, killing 93. France tested a nuclear bomb at Muruora Island yesterday; the US will test one in Nevada tomorrow. Also tomorrow, Ed Meese, basically Ronald Reagan’s Steve Bannon, claims that people go to soup kitchens because, “Food is free and that’s easier than paying,” showing the trademark compassion that made the Reagan era so egalitarian. Or, as we’ll soon be thinking of it, “Back when our leaders were really compassionate toward the poor.” Saturday, Raul Alfonsin will become Argentina’s first civilian president. Lech Walesa, who we’ve run into before thanks to his role in Poland’s evolution during the Cold War, won the Nobel Peace Prize back in October. Fearing he wouldn’t be allowed back in the country if he left, his wife receives it on his behalf Saturday. William Golding picks his Literature prize up in person.
In video gaming news, Nintendo releases Donkey Kong Jr. Math for the Famicom. and Namco releases Pole Position II in the arcade this month. Hudson Soft will also release Bomberman for the Famicom in a week or so. Silly Japanese, thinking that home video games will ever catch on. Everyone knows that home video games are dead dead dead and will never return. On Yugoslavian newsstands, the January 1984 edition of popular science magazine Galaksija includes instructions for a personal computer which could be built entirely from off-the-shelf parts.
This week’s Knight Rider is “Ring of Fire”, in which Michael and KITT rescue a Cajun woman from her husband, a dangerous escaped criminal. KITT’s one-off new technological feature which is coincidentally introduced in this episode right before it becomes useful is “pyroclastic lamination”, which allows KITT and Michael to drive through a swamp fire unscathed. It will never be seen again, and roughly the same feature will be “newly” added two seasons later to let them drive through lava in “Knight Flight to Freedom”, which I was like this close to confusing with this episode. Shows are new this week, including such well-known series as One Day at a Time (The show whose running gag is “The landlord keeps perving on his tenant and her teenage daughters”), Newhart, Happy Days, The A-Team, Remmington Steele, Three’s Company, St. Elsewhere, Cheers, and The Dukes of Hazzard. Benson and Webster are repeats this week for some reason. We’re also into Christmas Special season, though it’s all repeats this week: Filmation’s A Snow White Christmas; Ziggy’s Gift; Christmas Comes to Pac-Land, The Smurfs’ Christmas Special and A Chipmunk Christmas. Tom and Dick Smothers hosted Saturday Night Live last week with musical guest Big Country. Flip Wilson and Stevie Nicks are on this coming Saturday.
Lionel Ritchie’s “All Night Long” cedes the top spot on the charts to “Say Say Say”, a collaboration between Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson — who, for what it’s worth, has his historic music video for “Thriller” aired on prime-time TV aired in the coming week. Also charting this week are Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl”, Hall and Oates’s “Say it isn’t So”, and Quiet Riot’s “Cum on Feel The Noize”.
Opening in theaters tomorrow are Scarface, Christine and Sudden Impact. And the film world loses classic western actor Slim Pickens. Which is why we’ve hopped back here: it is to his memory that Howard Waldrop dedicated a short-story first published in the April 1987 issue of Omni. That story, reprinted here in Global Dispatches, pits the Texas Ranger Division against Martians. And it’s called, ahem, “Night of the Cooters”. Cooters.
Actually, that’s not quite right; the Texas Rangers don’t exactly show up. The story is really just pitting the local police in a small Texas town against the Martians; though summoned, the Rangers don’t show up before the story ends. Stylistically, it’s a bit of a Wild West Theme Park thing. It’s funny. Not over-the-top laugh-out-loud funny in the style of modern parody, but more of a broadly-affectionate stylistic caricature of the down-homey western lawman genre. If you compare Gunsmoke to Danger Man, imagine Wild Wild West as Get Smart, then Night of the Cooters would be somewhere around The Man From UNCLE. Sorry. That made more sense in my head.
For maximum down-home folksiness, we meet our main character, Sheriff Lindley, as he’s having a cool dream about being a teenage Aztec sports star. While asleep on the toilet at work. He’s interrupted when the local asshole rich guy demands that he come arrest a couple of local poor children for stealing peaches, because this is just about the most adorably folksy western lawman pastiche I have ever read. “I seem to remember that most of the fellers who wrote the Constitution were pretty well off, but some of the other rich people thought they had funny ideas. But they were really pretty smart. One of the things they were smart about was the Bill of Rights. You know, Mr. De Spain, the reason they put in the Bill of Rights wasn’t to give all the little people without jobs or money a lot of breaks with the law. Why they put that in there was for if the people without jobs or money ever got upset and turned on them, they could ask for the same justice everybody else got.”He responds to the rich asshole’s blustering about property rights with a pretty pitch-perfect Marshall Dillon speech about equality under the law which is maybe just a hair Marxist for a former Confederate. Then he adorably threatens the kids with forcing them to attend school until age twelve if they don’t straighten up and fly right.
The invasion proper occurs around dinner time, and Sheriff Lindley at first mistakes impact of the cylinder for the crazy old local prospector screwing around with dynamite again, which isn’t just down-home folksiness but foreshadowing. News of the explosions on Mars had already reached the local paper, but he quite reasonably doesn’t connect the two even when a local boy (with a twin brother, I gather, since there’s a running gag about the Sheriff confusing him for his brother) shows up with frantic news about a tree and some cows having been crushed by a meteor.
The Martians emerge while Lindley is on his way back to take a second look at the cylinder the next morning, attacking many of the gathered onlookers and vaporizing the Sheriff’s horse. By now, you’re probably tired of me reminding you that there’s a heavy implication in the original novel that the rapidity of the Martian’s success was in part due to a lack of preparation and slowness to appreciate the scale of the problem by the locals. It’s a big theme here, to the point that it’s called out explicitly. The local fancy-college-boy contacts the university, which “Thinks it’s wonderful,” and even Percival Lowell gets namechecked as having sent inquiries from his observatory. But the down-home folksy Sheriff Lindley will have none of it: “This won’t do. These things done attacked citizens in my jurisdiction, and they killed my horse.” So he gets another old-timer, a former sniper from the “War for Southern Independence,” to take a few shots at the Martians in their pit with his sniper rifle, possibly killing one. He dies “off-screen” when the Martians assemble their first tripod. The description of the tripod is the only place where I think the folksiness pushes a little too far. It’s described as looking like a water tower, which is a perfectly good description, and really spot-on if you’re working from the 1906 Corréa illustrations. But it continues: “It had a thing like a teacher’s desk bell on top of it, and something that looked like a Kodak roll-film camera in front of that,” and it sort of becomes a mess.
Lindley conscripts Elmer, the aforementioned crazy old prospector and his load of unstable, sweaty dynamite, and blows the hell out of the Martians in the pit before they can assemble a second tripod. The action takes place annoyingly off-screen, but Lindley relates the details later. “We threw in the dynamite and blew most of them up. One was in a machine like a steam tractor. We shot up what was left while they was hootin’ and a-hollerin’. There was some other things in there, live things maybe, but they was too blowed up to put back together to be sure what they was, all bleached out and pale. We fed everything there a diet of buckshot till there wasn’t nothin’ left. Then we hightailed it back here on horses, left the wagon sitting.”
The assembled tripod is able to disrupt the train service, knock down the telegraph lines, and set fire to much of the town. But it’s brought down by a single (massively overpowered, as Lindley’s goofy deputy uses five times too much powder) shot from the town’s courthouse cannon. It had been introduced early in the story, a mostly-ceremonial piece fired off on three times a year to mark their most important civic holidays: July 4, March 2 and January 19. Lindley is forced to sacrifice his beloved Stetson to use as wadding. The tripod remains comical even in death.
All six of the tentacles of the machine shot straight up into the air, and it took off like a man running with his arms above his head. It staggered, as fast as a freight train could go, through one side of a house and out the other, and ran partway up Park Street. One of its three legs went higher than its top. It hopped around like a crazy man on crutches before its feet got tangled in a horse-pasture fence, and it went over backward with a shudder. A great cloud of steam came out of it and hung in the air.
Two more cylinders fall near Pachuco City, and are dispatched by the heavily-armed townsfolk before they can unpack their heat rays. The third cylinder has a rough landing and the Martians emerge in obvious distress, suggesting their eventual fate in England. This does not give Lindley and company any pause before shooting them. The college boy deduces that the third cylinder is liable to be the last, based on news reports from England and local observatories — ten launches on Mars, and seven daily landings in England. It’s against his protests that Lindley orders the rest of Elmer’s dynamite be used to destroy the remaining Martian machinery while the Sheriff takes a well-earned nap.
Postscript to come…
Silverberg’s story is based on the strangely complicated narrative frame of not being “Henry James’s War of the Worlds“, but rather the backstory to James’s War of the Worlds. There’s all manner of interesting metafictional contradiction going on in that notion: we first grant that it’s Henry James, rather than H. G. Wells, who writes The War of the Worlds. But rather than tell that story, we instead grant the second notion, that The War of the Worlds is not speculative fiction, but rather a fictionalized version of then-current true-life events. It’s a 1901 novel about an alien invasion that was published in a world where writing about aliens is no more speculative than writing about — just to pull a random example out of my hat — the Second Boer War. So what we’ve got is something different from just “What if Henry James wrote it?”, because Wells wasn’t writing a true-life war novel. In fact, that’s the basic justification for Wells giving James his blessing to do it: true-life war novels aren’t Wells’s thing. So the implied text is rather “What if Henry James wrote it and also it really happened.” And yet, the bookending editor’s notes force us to grant a third part of this metafiction. Because those editor’s notes don’t, especially, seem to be from a world where alien invasions are a fact of life that humanity has had a century to contemplate. James’s novel is referred to as the definitive book on the subject, when James himself namechecks a half-dozen other authors who surely would have written about the war themselves (several of them will even turn up later in this anthology).
Not that a brief note by a Henry James scholar ninety years later should be expected to digress at any particular length to let us know how their world is different from ours, of course. But the presence of that implied external frame heightens our awareness of the fact that all of these stories start from the same two conceits: that the Martian Invasion of Wells’s novel was real, and that these various historical persons had some intimate connection to the events. Yet not one of the stories has so far touched at all on how the world would be changed by such events. The strongest thing we get is an implication that the Qing dynasty will survive longer. James’s final journal entry mirrors the worries of Wells’s narrator in the epilogue, that perhaps Earth has received only a reprieve and that the Martians or some other extraterrestrial foe will attack again in the future. The existence of the contemporary editor suggests the answer is either “no” or at least, “not successfully”. There’s an obvious missed opportunity here for the editor to at the least comment that James’s fears proved baseless. Or heck, instead of the vague mention that Wells’s style was influenced by his experiences, say that he did go on to write a book about the second invasion in the 1930s.
This is hardly a unique omission to Global Dispatches (and it is not universal even in Global Dispatches, but we’ll get to that later). In fact, it’s been one of the strange recurring themes as we’ve been wading through the deep ice: even when telling the story of the War as a historical event, the “present” shown or implied is curiously unchanged from our own. The Great Martian War showed us many glimpses of a modern world whose pan-European war of the early 20th century was fought against aliens, and it looks much like our own. Even when mentioning the extent to which captured Martian technology had been integrated into our society, they don’t show us any concrete examples. The television series holds that aliens invaded twice in the twentieth century, yet there’s no discernible impact to it in the modern day, and most people have literally forgotten it (The second season is, of course, different, but the connection between the societal collapse and the invasion 35 years previous is tenuous).
It’s a very Watsonian instinct, to recast a work of fiction as a kind of secret history. But for whatever reason, The War of the Worlds consistently lacks the scholarly rigor of what Sherlockians call “The Great Game”: the systematic attempt to explain how it could simultaneously be true that the greatest detective the world has ever known worked on dozens of high-profile cases in the late nineteenth century, and yet the only direct references to him and his work come from a single literary agent publishing his sidekick’s journals. All we get is “And the aliens were defeated and I guess that’s the end of it.”
In “The True Tale of the Final Battle of Umslopogaas the Zulu”, Janet Berliner takes a similar approach to Silverberg, but adds yet another metafictional layer, which is starting to make me wonder how we avoided an Italo Calvino story in this collection. Her story uses the same basic conceits as “The Martian Invasion Journals of Henry James”: it is told as a memoir giving the backstory for a hypothetical version of The War of the Worlds which is based on true events, by a different author, in her case, H. Rider Haggard. But she diverges from Silverberg in that the narrator of the memoir is not Haggard, but rather, of all people, Winston Churchill.
Like Silverberg, Berliner frames the memoir with an editor’s note, though hers is more personal. She (I will assume the editor is intended to be based on Berliner herself) tells how she’d become a fan of Haggard during her youth in South Africa. Researching a novel (not, it appears, one Berliner would go on to write in reality), she’d planned to visit one of the real tribes that had inspired Haggard’s She. Participating in a traditional exchange of gifts in preparation for the trip, she received a manuscript addressed to H. Rider Haggard by a young Winston Churchill.
The story Churchill tells is a secret alternate history set during the time that history records him as having been taken prisoner during the Boer war. While Churchill maintains the accuracy of his account, he presumes that the official history would consider his story a delusion brought on by his injuries from the Boer assault.
Prior to the assault, Churchill, a war correspondent at this point in his life, had hoped to seek out the Zu-Vendi tribe described in Haggard’s Alan Quartermain, in hope of learning the true story of Quartermain’s companion, Umslopogaas. Umslopogaas is fictional in the real world, but there’s some anecdotal evidence that he might have had a real-world inspiration. In Alan Quartermain, the old warrior, mortally wounded, had, as his last act, destroyed the sacred stone of the Zu-Vendis. This act, according to prophesy, would lead to an “alien” king reigning over the land, which is fulfilled when one of Quartermain’s English companions marries the queen.
‘One more stroke, only one! A good stroke! a straight stroke! a strong stroke!’ and, drawing himself to his full height, with a wild heart-shaking shout, he with both hands began to whirl the axe round his head till it looked like a circle of flaming steel. Then, suddenly, with awful force he brought it down straight on to the crown of the mass of sacred stone. A shower of sparks flew up, and such was the almost superhuman strength of the blow, that the massive marble split with a rending sound into a score of pieces, whilst of Inkosi-kaas there remained but some fragments of steel and a fibrous rope of shattered horn that had been the handle. Down with a crash on to the pavement fell the fragments of the holy stone, and down with a crash on to them, still grasping the knob of Inkosi-kaas, fell the brave old Zulu—dead.
Churchill explains that, rereading the book as an adult, he found it dissatisfying that a noble warrior’s dying act would be to desecrate the holiest artifact of his allies. And positioning it as a justification for Sir Henry’s ascension to power by marrying the queen was a blatant deus ex machina. So he writes a letter to Haggard one night, unable to sleep after the excitement of seeing the green fireball of a meteor that we in the audience should damned well recognize the significance of by now.
Churchill is captured by the Boers and imprisoned, says history, at the Pretoria High School for Girls. According to the memoir, his capture is occasioned when his train derails due to the impact of a Martian cylinder. It’s then that he encounters, “A mechanical being […] looking as if it had been constructed out of the combined nightmares of Messrs Wells and Verne. He survives the tripod, thanks to having dropped his gun and therefore not being overwhelmed by the desire to mount a futile counterattack, but is captured shortly thereafter by Louis Botha himself.
Berliner’s Churchill gives a highly abbreviated account of his escape and subsequent rejoining of the army which is true to history as far as it goes, and Churchill promises to publish a fuller account if he survives the war. But the punch-line of the story comes some time later when Winston has another encounter with a Martian tripod and is saved by Umslopogaas himself.
Sadly, though, we don’t actually get the climax of the story in Churchill’s words. He finishes his letter before the actual reveal. He realizes, as I’m sure you have as well, that the coming of the Martians is the true fulfillment of the prophecy. Umslopogaas, or perhaps his ghost, it’s not quite clear, brings Churchill to the Zu-Vendis temple where he means to make amends for his dying act by slaying the alien king.
This hastily scribbled note, written in the semi-darkness of the cavity beneath the Temple’s white marble stairs, will doubtless be my final entry in this chronicle. There is no coffer here containing the embalmed body of Umslopogaas. Above me, he stands with battle-axe raised, facing an enemy such as he nor anyone else can know how to vanquish.
The story ends with a second author’s note. She summarizes a correspondence from a minister of the queen that explains the provenance of the Churchill memoir. Umslopogaas had indeed slain the alien, his axe cutting through the alien’s armor even as the Zulu was incinerated by heat-ray. The dying alien gave off noxious fumes which overcame Winston, and he was returned to his own people by the Zu-Vendis. We can conclude for ourselves that Winston either decided the entire incident was indeed a hallucination or at least decided it was better to keep it to himself.
This story is a pleasant read. There’s a section that I think gets a little slow in the middle, but it’s generally pretty solid. There’s a particularly cute bit where, offering up his narrative to Haggard as the basis for a future book, he notes that the story is more up Wells’s alley, but the two aren’t on good terms since Churchill had panned Russia in the Shadows. I am a sucker for people slagging off Wells.
It’s a different take on the War from any we’ve seen before, possibly excepting the Roosevelt piece. Despite being as formidable as ever, it appears that the Martians don’t manage to make any sort of impression on the global stage. Perhaps the idea here is that the invasion was limited to South Africa, just as Wells’s invasion was limited to England. And with the confusion of the war that was already going on, it seems like they were entirely overlooked. Which is a hard pill to swallow, but this is also a story which features an undead fictional Zulu.
And to top it off, there’s a lovely and subtle bit of irony buried in here that I’m sure Berliner did on purpose, but was clever enough not to call attention to it. Because what else was The War of the Worlds but an analogy for Great Britain’s colonial interests. So there’s a hidden meaning in relocating the Martian invasion to a British colony. And another hidden meaning in relocating it to a British colony during one of the biggest colonial wars of the period. And yet another when a story which predicted the horrors of mechanized warfare is relocated to a war that in many ways presaged the new technologies and tactics that would feature in World War I. And we’re not even done with layers of meaning, because who do they choose for the point-of-view character? The British Bulldog, a man who, to anyone whose knowledge of the man extends beyond the fact that he was one of the good guys in World War II, is pretty well known for being one of the last staunch defenders of Britain’s exploitative imperial ambitions. And then — and then. What defeats the Martians? Not the overwhelming might of the British Empire. Not the tactical brilliance of the British Bulldog. Not even the littlest thing that God in his wisdom put upon the Earth. The aliens are defeated by Umslopogaas the Zulu, one of those “noble savages” that the British liked to tell themselves they were uplifting through benign conquest, chopping their leader in half with an axe despite being dead at the time.
There is some intentionally sloppy logic here too, which is weird. Churchill himself points out that, while these events do provide a different resolution to that prophecy from Allan Quartermain, it still doesn’t actually explain the plot hole that was Churchill’s initial motivation. We still never find out why, seemingly on impulse, Umslopogaas decides with his dying act to destroy the black stone. We also, of course, never find out what he’s doing being alive, if indeed he is. The story has a strong sense of the cliche “It was all just a dream… Or was it?” structure, set up with an implied ending where Churchill wakes up back in civilization with a head wound and no proof. But the structure of the story doesn’t allow for that, and the result is a story that exists in a liminal space, with many of its best ideas implied rather than stated outright.
That liminal quality makes it a more interesting concept than the preceding stories in the anthology— I don’t think it’s outright better than “The Martian Invasion Journal of Henry James”, but it’s more interesting at a conceptual level. I mean, look at the attribution: this is Winston Churchill and H. Rider Haggard’s War of the Worlds allegedly. But is it? Where the Henry James story gives the backstory to a hypothetical War of the Worlds written by James, this story is framed as the backstory to a hypothetical War of the Worlds written by Haggard. Only Haggard doesn’t end up writing War of the Worlds: Churchill never manages to deliver his memoir to him. Haggard doesn’t actually appear in the story. It’s only H. Rider Haggard’s War of the Worlds insofar as it presumes that Allan Quartermain had a stronger basis in fact (though interestingly, not that it is entirely nonfictional; Winston himself takes for granted that Haggard’s version does not give an accurate account of the death of Umslopogaas, and the opening author’s note says only that the tribe inspired Haggard’s). The story only slightly incorporates Haggard itself; rather, it attempts to incorporate The War of the Worlds into the “mythos” of Haggard’s Quartermain novels. It may be, in fact, an attempt not to bring Haggard to the War, but rather to drag the War of the Worlds into the Wold Newton family, which makes it just a little sad that Philip Jose Farmer isn’t going to turn up in this anthology. That idea of dragging War of the Worlds into someone else’s mythos is going to crop up again, but not really with the same panache.
To Be Continued…
- War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches is available from amazon.
New Year’s Special? It’s happened before.