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…
I have sadly little to say about Allen Steele’s A Letter From St. Louis. It’s a perfectly good story, but it’s very straightforward and workmanlike. It’s one of the straighter adaptations of the original story to make it into the anthology. Told in the form of a letter to his sister, Arthur Barnett, a St. Louis newspaperman, tells the story of the Martian invasion, following the same basic outline as the novel. No, not just the novel. The outline is close to that of the radio play. And being a story told by a journalist in the year 1900, the narrative style has substantial similarities as well. Also, it features about one third of the footnotes in the anthology.
We’re spared a lengthy repetition of the story we already know, thankfully, since Barnett assumes his sister, along with probably everyone else in the world, knows the basic story already. News has already reached them of the landing in Woking. Barnett doesn’t get to witness the first appearance of the Martians himself; he’s on a deadline for another story and his editor assigns someone else. But when the tripods emerge, (He mentions having heard them described as looking like “milking stools” and “three-legged boilers”. Always milking stools. Hey, have you ever seen a milking stool in person? I assume that in the year 1900, this would just be something everyone saw on a regular basis. Like how anvils used to be common enough that you could just stick one in a children’s cartoon about three feet over Wile E. Coyote’s head and the kids would understand it) and the first reporter sent to the scene never reports back, Barnett is dispatched to compile a report for a special edition, under orders from Joseph Pulitzer himself. Before he sets out, Barnett’s editor gives him the cryptic instruction to seek out a particular Pullman car at Union Station and ask for “Andes” if he’s unable to return to the office.
Barnett relates the battle of East St. Louis in journalistic style. There’s an interesting implication that the tripods, as in the George Pal movie, have some kind of force field, since, “Strange as it seems, it appeared that artillery shells detonated in midair only a few feet from their mark.” But the military is nonetheless able to destroy a single tripod as the Martians cross the Mississippi, not unlike the battle at Byfleet in the novel. But once again, even this victory is short-lived in the face of the Martian response:
I had just ducked into the open doorway of a warehouse behind me and was reaching for my notebook and pen when the true horror began.
Although I’m a writer by trade, I still cannot find words to describe all that happened next. It almost seems like a madman’s hallucination, such was the insane extent of the violence which occurred around me. If I tried to describe all that I saw, I fear I might go mad myself.
Within the next minute, I watched hundreds of men die, although they courageously . . . .
No . . . this is a lie. This was no Charge of the Light Brigade, and I am no Lord Tennyson. There was no honor or glory in the way that they fought, for the massacre was so swift that it left no room for such human qualities.
The truth of the matter, dear Rachel, is that these brave men were burned alive, screaming and writhing in mortal agony as their weapons exploded in their hands.
That’s one of the most chilling passages I’ve read in this entire project, and I read a book with zombies in it. Barnett flees the scene, realizes that his offices are far too close to the front line, and makes for Union Station. The Pinkertons guarding the special Pullman car allow him entry when he drops the “Andes” name, which turns out to be Joseph Pulitzer’s code-name. Oh yes, this story’s conceit is that it’s the intersection of Pulitzer and War of the Worlds. Pulitzer has Barnett give his own report. Pulitzer also reveals that he’s gone blind, a fact that was not publicly known at the time.
Pulitzer compliments Barnett for his reporting, and laments that he no longer has any newspapers to publish it in. His private train had rescued some of New York’s power-players when the city was destroyed, taking his World paper with it. Aboard the train are the Vanderbilts, JP Morgan, and even his rival Hearst. Pulitzer rather unceremoniously kicks Barnett out when it’s time to leave: “Only the wealthy and important would ride with Mr. Pulitzer on his westward flight.”
Barnett, like the original narrator, and like Richard Pearson, and like Clayton Forrester, makes his way to a farmhouse outside of town and holes up there. But here, his story takes a turn for the worse. Unlike his more fortunate counterparts, he does not make it back to civilization. An end note reveals that the letter was found in his pocket when his body was discovered after the invasion. On the bright side, his sister in San Francisco does survive, and goes on to live until 1947. Joseph Pulitzer and his entourage are never seen again.
I kinda think this story would have worked better earlier in the book. After so many fresh takes, a very traditional story like this is something of a letdown, even though it’s entirely competent and a pleasant read. If I’d gone into it without the fatigue of having read this damned story about eighteen billion times by now, I’m sure I’d have more to say about it.
As it stands, the lack of anything really distinctive, good or bad, makes this story a little forgettable, but there’s nothing at all wrong with it. A few nice turns of phrase, and, I suppose, a bit of perverse satisfaction at killing off Pulitzer and Hearst in a Martian invasion they can’t cover in their newspapers after the two of them caused the Spanish-American war in order to boost sales.
I wonder what Hearst’s last words were…
- War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches is available from amazon.