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.