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.
It’s not a wash though, as it’s in Calcutta that we are reunited with Private Mulvaney. He had been captured by the Martians and caged along with captured Indians, including, “a little skinny slip of a babu lawyer in spectacles.” Who turns out to be Mohandas Gandhi, because of course he is. Exactly as in China, the Indians quickly learned that the Martians did not care any more for the local populations than for the Europeans. But one of the captured hunters is able to escape his cage and free the others — one said to have been raised by wolves and able to talk to animals (Though Mulvaney says that half the hunters in India make the same claim about themselves). The hunter, who is of course named Mowgli, becomes Mulvaney’s guide.
There’s a rare mention of the Martian embankment machine. Kipling’s version is a strip-mining machine which produces aluminum. Mowgli disables the parked tripods by dumping bauxite residue from the mining operation into their joints, a technique that the group is able to employ at least two more times. The escapees form a resistance under the leadership of a woman named Padmini (If she’s meant to be someone from actual history or from Kipling’s other stories, I’m afraid my ignorance is showing here), and have sent Mulvaney to make contact with his old unit in the hope that Sotheby will give them the locations of British ammunition caches in Calcutta, to use in traps for the main force of tripods approaching the city.
Sotheby makes a show of indignation, being asked to betray British military secrets to Indian partisans — or as Mulvaney describes it, “To join human bein’s, as other human bein’s, to fight what’ll kill us all if we go on each hidin’ in our own hole. Sorr.” But once Mulvaney has reasserted that he still considers himself a “soldier of the Queen”, Sotheby’s honor is placated, and he not only agrees to Padmini’s request, but offers his services as a military advisor.
In a scene that would be prescient were it written by the actual Kipling, Mulvaney speculates that, though they clearly can’t match the Martians in military might, if they simply make enough of a nuisance of themselves, “Sooner or later, the rate-payers back on Mars’ll say, ‘Bugger this … Let ’em invade Venus instead.'” Sotheby seems to make the implicit connection to their own situation as an occupying force in India, though he points out that the Martians likely had desperate need to justify the invasion in the first place, and, “One cannot discount the possibility that they, too, have their national pride.” I think I’ve complained before about lines like this being maybe a bit too on-the-nose and twee, but Hambly handles it well here, slotting it into Kipling’s complicated and conflicted views on empire. Far more explicitly than in Wells’s original story, there’s a strong sense throughout of the British slowly realizing what being colonized by the Empire looks like from the point-of-view of the conquerees. Mulvaney himself doesn’t agree with the partisans, but after his experiences, he can see where they’re coming from.
The Martians are already starting to fall into disarray when they reach Calcutta: the tripods show battle damage and some are limping. One Martian seems to go mad with “fever”, stumbling about the jungle before finally collapsing, predicting their final end. Many tripods are destroyed by the traps set around the city by Padmini’s partisans. Observing the battle, Sotheby declares that they might not be able to beat the tripods in a frontal assault, but they can pick them off one at a time. Gandhi wryly reflects that this is roughly the same thing the partisans have been doing to the British for years, and Sotheby finds himself unable to formulate a response to that.
The rest of the Martians, as always, are wiped out by disease. Sotheby realizes that the home government will have better things to do for a while than send reinforcements, but he assumes they will quickly move to reestablish contact. Padmini very gently explains that, “We are now the home government … We are now the government of this, our home.”
Sotheby does not concede the point, but is diplomatic on the matter. Over the protests of some of the other chiefs, Padmini is magnanimous in victory, though, offering to let the surviving British soldiers and colonists remain as partners in building a new, independent India, particularly in light of the fact that it will be some time before travel will be a practical option anyway.
It takes half a year for England to get its act together enough to pester India, and what’s implied for China in Foreign Devils is explicit for India here: India has set up its own functional government in the interim, and Great Britain is far too weak in the wake of the Martian War to retake the country by force. It’s the rest of a year before there’s enough of a Royal Navy to retrieve any of the soldiers.
The Three Musketeers all elect to remain in India. Learoyd plans to go into construction, which he reckons will be a brisk business either in India or York, but prefers not to witness the devastation in his hometown firsthand. Ortheris has married a local girl and is learning her family business as a brewer. There’s a hint that the narrator himself had planned to remain as well, until news came that his family back home had survived the invasion. Mulvaney does not give any specific reasons for staying, but has taken a job as a bartender. Even Sotheby seems content to remain in India, as a liaison between the governments. He entrusts the narrator with a set of petitions to the Foreign Office proposing, “Our government’s reopening of negotiations to take back the Indian colonies under our wing.” I’m not sure I fully understand this bit, whether Sotheby is meant to still be desperately trying to restore the Empire Proper, or if he’s proposing something akin to the more modern Commonwealth of Nations. In any case, everyone seems utterly neutral on the matter, supportive of Sotheby’s efforts, but not especially interested in his chances of success.
I keep comparing this story to Foreign Devils. It’s not just the overarching plot. It also prompted many of the same reactions in me. The first time I read it, I couldn’t really get into it. The over-the-top dialect and imitation of Kipling’s dense style put me off in much the same way that the stilted, courtly language of Williams’s story did. And since I didn’t have the experience with Kipling’s military stories, the extent to which the narrative style differs from the Kipling I remembered belied just how good a job Hambly did of recreating the feel of Learoyd, Ortheris and Mulvaney.
There’s also a number of cute small touches to both Kipling and Wells. I imagine I even missed a few. In addition to Mowgli, Padmini’s second-in-command is identified as “Kim”, the eponymous lead of one of Kipling’s best-loved novels. A brief mention of his backstory suggests he is meant to be the same character, though this Kim is implied to be Indian, not Irish (Though it’s never said outright, and the canonical Kim is often assumed to be Indian due to his upbringing). Beyond the rare emphasis on the agility of the tripods and the other sorts of Martian vehicles, Hambly includes another small point from the original novel: the last mention of Gandhi has him pushing a bill through Parliament banning experimentation with salvaged Martian technology, due to the tendency of the heat rays to explode when fiddled with. She also includes speculation on Martian biology and technology much as Wells did. She integrates it more cleanly, though, framing it as practical concerns for a military mounting an insurgency. The fact that the Martians have no sense of smell, for example, allows the soldiers to smoke freely, a small mercy under harsh conditions. Sotheby speculates that the black smoke can only be deployed in fixed quantities (Enough to subdue a city, he imagines), meaning that they can count on the Martians not to waste their supplies on small groups. Her depiction of the battle-damaged tripods approaching Calcutta is something unique in all the spin-offs and adaptations I’ve read; while several have picked up on the idea of humans scoring the odd victory against a tripod, the only other mention I can think of where a tripod is damaged but not destroyed is a single line in the radio play where one tripod stops to repair another.
I think there’s a lot here for Kipling fans to like. It’s maybe an idealistic view of Kipling in the extent to which the narrative clearly views Indian independence and the end of an imperial Britain as a good thing. But it does still preserve much of the ambiguity we see in Kipling’s writing. Strictly speaking, the narrative is shockingly neutral on the matter of independence: no character expresses any sort of value judgment positive or negative; we don’t hear anything about celebrations or resistance. When the story is mentioned in the Wikipedia article on the anthology, it claims that, as part of the story, Kipling resigns himself to the end of the empire, and that seems to be reading more into the story that’s really there: the narrator never really takes a stand on the matter. The narrative goes to pains to make us like and empathize with the British soldiers, and introduces the Indian partisans by having them take advantage of the Martian invasion to attack the people we’ve been getting to like. So you’ve got your a priori knowledge that, yeah, empire is bad and the partisans are right counterbalanced by the fact that your personal sympathies are supposed to be with these scrappy privates. And if Mulvaney finds that maybe he doesn’t agree with a colonized people throwing off their colonial oppressors, he can at least see where they’re coming from, then the reader can perhaps find that while we don’t agree with European powers conquering and subjugating the native populations of foreign lands, we can at least see that a handful of jobbing soldiers who don’t really have any say in politics probably don’t deserve this shit either.
- War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches is available from amazon.