Monthly Archives: February 2017

Deep Ice: You do remember, you know, the opposite sex? (War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, Part 9: Jules Verne)

Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

When the Mars hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore

Well, it’s about damned time. When I told you, weeks and weeks ago now, that I was about to cover an anthology of short stories which recast The War of the Worlds as though witnessed by other literary and historical figures of the period, who was the first person you thought of? Okay, who’s the first person you thought of other than Edgar Rice Burroughs?

You’re damn right it’s Jules Verne time. Specifically, it’s Gregory Benford and David Brin with Paris Conquers All, the first of two Verne pieces they contributed. It’s a nice story. There’s a touch of romance to it, in more than one sense of the word. This is the story which, according to the Foreword, inspired a feud between Verne and Picasso. The stories really only contradict each other on one point, but it’s such an utterly key point, I can see why they’d be angry over it. I mean, aside from the fact that it’s straightforwardly impossible for both of them to be right and only the most cursory observation of the “real world” would reveal which. I suppose that makes this the “alternative history” not only in the classical sense, but also in the new Trump-era one as well.

The story itself is firmly in the “Historical person encounters Martians” mode rather than the “Alternative 19th century writer writes The War of the Worlds” one; it’s told in the first person by and about Jules Verne, and the basic concepts are Vernian, but the narrative style doesn’t strike me as especially distinctive in its Verne-ness. It’s not especially un-Vernian, to be sure, but maybe it’s just that I don’t tend to think of Verne as a writer whose personal style is the especially distinctive thing about his writing. I do think of Verne as being a bit more “romantic” than Wells, in the traditional sense, and much more interested in storytelling than in scientific rigor, and that’s certainly true of Paris Conquers All. It’s a bit ironic though, because when we get to the point where Verne slags off Wells (Oh yes. I do like when they take potshots at Wells), Verne’s main complaint is Wells’s lack of scientific rigor:

“His stories do not repose on a scientific basis. I make use of physics. He invents.”
“In this crisis—”
“I go to the moon in a cannonball. He goes in an airship, which he constructs of a metal which does away with the law of gravitation. Ça c’est très joli!—but show me this metal. Let him produce it!”

The story is set days into the invasion, which is a slightly surprising revelation, because it also starts with Verne taking a casual stroll through the streets of Paris with a friend named Beauchamp, on account of the Tripods haven’t gotten there yet.

The ensuing carnage, the raking fire, the sweeping flames— none of these horrors had yet reached the fair country above the river Loire . . . not yet. But reports all too vividly told of villages trampled, farmlands seared black, and hordes of refugees cut down as they fled.

It’s odd that it’s seen as odd, if you get my drift. Verne describes himself as “uncharacteristically dour,” in the face of an invasion by seeming-invincible invaders from another world. I mean, duh. I think that being cheerful in the face of invasion is actually the thing that would be “uncharacteristic”. He compares the current invasion to the Franco-Prussian war, which thirty years later still left, “Scars where Prussian firing squads tore moonlike craters out of plaster walls, mingling there the ochre life-blood of Comunards, royalists, and bourgeois alike,” which just makes it stranger that Verne comes off so casual about the advancing Martians.

He pauses to reflect on the Eiffel Tower. Like Picasso, he admires it as a symbol of modernism and human ingenuity, though unlike the Marcus story, Brin and Benford recall that the Tower was fantastically unpopular with Parisians at the time. Verne speculates, in the prophetic way that characters in historically-set stories do, that they may warm to it in time.

The next several pages are largely concerned with Verne speculating on the scientific principles behind the Martian technology and how — assuming they survive the fortnight — humanity could surely develop similar things by straightforward extrapolation from already-known scientific principles. The Martian fleet, for example, seems to have been launched by a mechanism similar to the one he’d already imagined for From the Earth to the Moon, though Verne concedes that his own design has some practical difficulties and proposes rocketry as an alternative.

When the tripods appear, cresting Monteparnasse, Verne is struck by the oddity of the aliens in a mathematical sense:

There is something in the human species which abhors oddity, the unnatural. We are double in arms, legs, eyes, ears, even nipples (if I may venture such an indelicate comparison; but remember, I am a man of science at all times). Twoness is fundamental to us, except when Nature dictates singularity—we have but one mouth, and one organ of regeneration. Such biological matters are fundamental. Thus, the instantaneous feelings of horror at first sight of the threeness of the invaders—which was apparent even in the external design of their machinery. I need not explain the revulsion to any denizen of our world. These were alien beings, in the worst sense of the word.

This is interesting. The threeness of the aliens has always been implictly there, from Wells onward, but hardly anyone has ever really made a big deal out of it other than Barré Lyndon when he wrote George Pal’s 1953 adaptation (And, obviously, the TV series later). Beauchamp later even quotes a line from the movie, noting that, “Everything about them comes in threes.”

One particular feature of the story — one that comes off a little hackish, if I’m being honest — is the extent to which it revels in dropping names. Much of what paces the story out is Verne musing on the work of contemporary scientists. Having decided that human “mechanics” can not defeat the Tripods, he and Beauchamp muse on what other sciences could be brought to bear, even deigning to consider the, “lesser cousin in the family of science,” Biology. They ironically dismiss a solution based on the work of Pasteur, chuckling at the possibility of trying to trick a Martian into drinking contaminated milk. Darwin too, they mention, but reckon they don’t have time to evolve a natural defense against the invaders. They mention Hertz, discussing whether the heat rays are based on “Hertzian waves”: what we’d call electromagnetic waves. They later reference Boltzmann and his atomic theories. Also, at one point, Verne casually drops the fact that he’d visited Pissaro at home.

They’re joined by a group of scientists who arrive by car — Verne, of course, describes it as, “The type invented not long ago by Herr Benz.” I get the feeling that the four scientists — a brash American, stodgy Englishman, quiet Italian and brusque German — are meant to be future-celebrities as well, but I can’t match them to anyone. The American is given a first name, Ernst, and the German a last name, Fraunhofer, but these don’t seem to fit any real people. Fraunhofer seems like a near miss for Joseph von Fraunhofer, the German physicist who discovered the spectral absorption lines in the sun, but he died in 1826. Perhaps they’re not meant to be historical charaters, but just pastiches inspired by them, which might make “Ernst” a reference to Ernst Mach, the Austrian scientist for whom the speed of sound is named. In that case, the Italian might be intended to invoke Alessandro Volta, who’d get namechecked in due time himself, which just leaves the Englishman, who, frankly, could pretty much be anyone and sort of fades out of the narrative quickly. Faraday, maybe?

The German may well be intended to be some kind of resurrected Fraunhofer, because he’s measured the spectral lines of the heat ray and found them, remarkably, to consist of a single frequency of red, which a story purporting to be written by Jules Verne can’t explain because what it means is that the heat ray is a laser.

A detail introduced in this story — possibly originating here, since I’ve seen it elsewhere, but not in anything predating this — is that the tripods come in two sizes. While the smaller tripods ravage Paris, the three larger “command” tripods do something altogether stranger: they march up and down the Champ-de-Mars in a sort of dance around the Eiffel Tower.

To my amazement, the invaders had abruptly changed course, swerving from the direct route to the Seine. Instead they turned left and were stomping swiftly toward the part of town that Beauchamp and I had only just left, crushing buildings to dust as they hurried ahead. At the time, we shared a single thought. The commanders of the battle tripods must have spied the military camp on the Champ-de-Mars. Or else they planned to wipe out the nearby military academy. It even crossed my mind that their objective might be the tomb of humanity’s greatest general, to destroy that shrine, and with it our spirit to resist.
But no. Only much later did we realize the truth.
Here in Paris, our vanquishers suddenly had another kind of conquest in mind.

Continue reading

Deep Ice: I’m all for detente and glasnost (War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, Part 8: Leo Tolstoy)

Dillard’s Novelization isn’t as good, but it’s blessedly shorter

Previously on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

You may have noticed that last week’s essay expressed a certain, shall we say, frustration with the direction that this anthology was going. I may have been unduly harsh because I was writing that article, as I am writing this one, as all joy and hope drains out of the world forever, in the middle of a series of personal disappointments made worse by the catastrophic unstoppable clusterfuck that the country is going through and also my kids are sick. But also that John Carter story did seriously suck.

So when I turned the next page and found that what was up next was Mark W. Tiedemann’s Resurrection, featuring Leo Tolstoy, I came pretty close to just nope-ing the hell out of there and writing about the 1981 Polish film Wojna światów – następne stulecie instead, despite the fact that I have not seen it and can’t find a copy. But I found myself with a little bit of time I could not otherwise usefully occupy, so I gave in and reread the story.

This is the version of the poster without boobs.

And it turns out that it’s good. I had not had cause to think about it in the past twenty years (I am old), but as it turns out, I don’t have a problem with Tolstoy’s style. The only thing I had trouble with was the volume of it. What I remember of Anna Karenina was that the individual pages seemed to fly by, but I kept feeling lost because it took so damned long for anything to get around to happening. Tiedemann’s story is denser than a Russian novel, but it still does capture some of that feeling of having wandered away from the story to muse on human nature for what seems like a very long time before getting to the next bit of plot.

Tiedemann’s Resurrection is not “Leo Tolstoy’s War of the Worlds” to be sure. We’re back in the format of Resnik, Silverberg and Berliner, that of “Historical figure’s personal memoir of the Martian invasion, bookended by ‘editor’s notes’.” Unlike the previous examples, though, the framing story — an exchange of letters between archivists at Oxford and St. Petersburg University concerning the recently-discovered Tolstoy letter — give us quite a lot of subtle insight to the new track history has taken in a world that survived the Martian war. The first hint of this is very subltle indeed: the address on the opening note identifies St. Petersburg University as being in Tula, rather than, y’know, St. Petersburg.

The main body of the story is a letter to Vladimir Chertkov, Tolstoy’s friend and editor, who was living in exile in England at the turn of the century, running a little commune of Tolstoyists. The historical Chertkov would eventually return to Russia, ruin Tolstoy’s marriage, and kinda get him killed, by convincing him to leave his wife, secretly, in the middle of the night, in the dead of winter, whereupon the octogenarian caught pneumonia and died.

Tolstoy opens his letter uncertainly, as he has no way of knowing if England has survived the invasion. Right away, we learn that Moscow, Smolensk and St. Petersburg have all been razed. He promises, almost ironically, to be brief.

He had been in Moscow when the Martian cylinders landed, and had at first dismissed the reports of falling stars, since, “Stars do not fall […] One has to believe that the pale blue sky up there is a solid vault. Otherwise one would believe in revolution.” He’s present to see the aftermath, though, when one lands in the river, flooding its banks. Leaving his wife and younger daughters in Moscow to attend to the publication of his latest novel, Resurrection, he returns to his family estate, Yasnaya Polyana, taking up Major Yepishka Sekhim, an “educated Cossack” on leave.

As they near home, they encounter a group of peasant refugees, fleeing an invasion neither Tolstoy nor Sekhim have heard anything about. Sekhim assumes it’s the work of “anarchists and democrats,” but Tolstoy suspects a pogrom. The refugees themselves speak confusingly of fleeing veliki shtativii (“great tripods”), which Tolstoy assumes to be confused and unreliable information.

Major Sekhim, however, is able to confirm the information the next day, reporting sieges and destruction in the cities, and invaders armed with a teplovoy potok (“heat ray”). The Tsar has fled. Refugees flood into Yasnaya Polyana, recalling Tolstoy’s famine relief work a decade earlier.

The de facto leader of the refugees, Iosef Vissarionovich, organizes raiding parties to beg, borrow and steal food from the surrounding estates. I’m not going to tell you who Iosef is just yet, but I imagine you’ll figure it out. He doesn’t get along with Major Sekhim, but is able to maintain a cordial working relationship with Tolstoy, with each man admiring certain qualities in the other — Tolstoy’s radicalism, Iosef’s natural leadership skills — but disapproving of others.

As we saw before in the Picasso story, there’s a momentary impulse to blame the Germans for the invasion due to their, “intense love for things mechanical,” though it still seems like a stretch. Tolstoy and the others learn the true nature of the invaders when a “green comet” lands on the grounds of Yasnaya Polyana. Fortunately, the cylinder strikes a granite outcropping as it lands and is torn open on impact, mangling the Martians inside.

Iosef is able to work out the details due to a lucky quirk of his backstory: he’d recently been employed by the observatory in Tiflis, and had learned of the explosions on Mars. With his military inclinations, he recognized what the astronomers did not: that the giant gas plumes on the red planet were indicative of cannonfire.

Continue reading

Tales from /lost+found 98: Same as the old boss…

So this concludes my ridiculous attempt to churn out an entire fake season in real time. After this week, I’m going to switch gears a bit to reduce the amount of work I have to do to keep making this happen once a week. Will I try this again in the fall? I don’t know. This whole project has been a lot of work without a lot of payoff. But who knows. If the Chibnall era ends up being a disappointment, maybe I’ll step things up a bit.

Robert Carlyle as Doctor Who

Click to Embiggen

Misspent Youth: Robinson Nature Center

Robinson Nature CenterOne of my minor disappointments living in the planned town of Columbia, Maryland, is that while it’s an exceedingly nice place to live, it’s sort of… Characterless. Like, if you were writing a nondescript mid-atlantic medium-large semi-urban community to use as a setting for a TV show, and you didn’t want anything too distinctive or quirky that might make take your audience out of the vague sense of familiarity with the setting. You’d basically be writing Columbia, except for the fact that it might come off a little too generic without any specific named points of interest to send the characters to. I mean, we’ve got just about every chain restaurant you can think of, but hardly any non-chain restaurants. And we’ve got a Wal-Mart and a Target and multiple GameStops and a Pier One and Home Depot and a Lowes, but I can’t think of a single mom-n-pop store. The town was built with a deliberation that “normal” towns aren’t, so it largely lacks the character that comes from a long history of piecemeal development and redevelopment. And it’s only about ten years older than I am, so it doesn’t really have much history of any other sort either. I know this sounds like the whitest white guy complaint in the history of white guys complaining about things that aren’t coal mining jobs, but that’s part of the problem. Columbia is the khaki-wearing white guy of towns. Not that it isn’t a racially diverse community in the literal sense, but in the sense of being a projection of our dominant cultural image of what “generic normal entity with no distinctive features or rough edges” looks like (This is not an endorsement of “white guy in khakis” being or dominant cultural image of what “default human” looks like. Again, it’s part of the problem). Even the whimsy (there’s part of town where all the streets are named for things out of Tolkien) feels manufactured.You know how some cities have “Keep [city] Weird” bumper stickers? You’d never see a “Keep Columbia Weird” bumper sticker. I think the last Columbia-themed bumper sticker I saw bore the legend “Choose Civility”.

I should probably also moderate myself a bit by pointing out that Columbia does pretty well in terms of cultural events. Mostly at Symphony Woods. But there’s plenty of concerts and local theater and wine festivals and art festivals. And this is great, but it’s also very temporally bound, and that can be a big burden when you’re a parent with a full time job and basically have the time you have, and also kinda hate people as a class and are more interested in the experience of place rather than event. This is why I’m glad that a couple of weeks ago, the dad of one of Dylan’s friends tipped me off about the James and Anne Robinson Nature Center. “Nature Center” maybe isn’t something I’d naturally seek out on my own, having memories of boring field trips to the local wildlife refuge to see local trees and fauna which, being local, I could already see by going to my back yard.

That is, I think, part of what the Robinson Nature Center is about. It’s got nature trails and gardens and tree planting projects and scenic overlooks the Middle Patuxent River, and oyster shell recycling, and an area where they demonstrate compost. But in addition to all that, there’s also this big L-shaped building right at the center, and that’s the part that made this a thing I wanted to do with my son.

The indoor part of the Nature Center is essentially a small nature museum. It’s kinda like they just ripped the nature room out of a really good science center and plopped it down in the middle of a park. The indoor exhibition is small, but it’s really well done. As you enter, there’s a small gift shop on your left next to the admissions desk. We didn’t stop at the gift shop on this trip because I was pretty much letting Dylan drive and he didn’t notice it. To the left is a sort of small reading room, cozy and softly lit, lined with bookshelves, with a fireplace and comfy chairs. Reminds me of the first floor lounge in the Humanities building back at Loyola, in the part of the building that still retains its original Tudor stylings from when it was the Jesuit residences half a century ago.

Robinson Nature Center

He’s in the middle of making a new friend out-of-frame to the right.

The temporary exhibits are beyond. Currently, they’re exhibiting some mixed media photographics by local artist Denée Barr. There’s also a large wooden tractor on loan from Port Discovery for the kids to climb on as part of the “Here We Grow” exhibit, running until July. The rest of that exhibit, downstairs, consists of a beanbag toss game based on Maryland agriculture, and a collection of wooden parts and plastic connectors with which children can try to invent their own novel piece of farm equipment. Other agriculture-themed displays line the downstairs hallway.

Robinson Nature CenterThe first permanent exhibit you come to is on the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The main feature is one of those tilt-table displays where you tilt the table to control a helicopter as it flies around the Chesapeake Bay area, hovering over points of historical and ecological interest to bring up little information screens. I think this maybe could have used an audio component for younger visitors, but Dylan had plenty of fun just flying the helicopter around even if he didn’t care to hold it still long enough for me to read him the text about the fate of watermen or the dangers of agricultural runoff.

An alcove to the left houses the “Changing Lives, Changing Landscapes” exhibit, showing, I think, the history of human inhabitants in the Howard County area. Dylan pulled me through too fast for me to get a good look. It’s pretty brief, close as I could tell, basically just one panel on Native Americans, and then a somewhat larger one about European settlers. A reproduction flintlock rifle and ax are mounted to the wall, but I didn’t get a chance to read the text. It was kinda similar to the first part of the Chester River room at the Chesapeake Heritage and Visitor Center, but a lot more abbreviated. It also contains an animatronic model of an 18th century grist mill, which Dylan liked a lot, but not enough to stand still for the entire length of time it took me to explain the process of grinding wheat into flour. You turn a big wall-mounted wheel to set the thing off and watch elevators and archimedes screws and grinding stones all move and turn and it’s kinda cool and I wish I knew of a nearby museum that was all just this kind of exhibit.

Robinson Nature CenterThe real centerpiece of the collection is the “Life of the Forest” exhibit, though. This is a big section all about the various things that live in different parts of the forest environment. It’s subdivided into three distinct sections. The upper gallery is this large, open, naturally-lit room where images of forest life appear on leaf-shaped tiles hanging from display trees. Information panels describe life in the treetops, with buttons scattered about that activate birdsongs. Binoculars mounted in places give you a chance to look out into the surrounding woods to see the local inhabitants firsthand. Dylan grew increasingly excited as we proceeded through this section, almost enough that we didn’t really get to see much as his anticipation kept driving him onward.

Robinson Nature Center

No lie: I asked Dylan if what he could see in the forest, and he told me he couldn’t see anything because of all the trees in the way.

You descend down a long ramp to the lower gallery which focuses on the forest floor. This was probably my favorite part, and Dylan lingered here longer than anywhere else as well. The upper gallery is very beautiful, but the lower one is very dense and full of lots of individual things to look at. Dylan was, for reasons of his own, really excited by the sticks. Because there were sticks. I mean, duh.

Robinson Nature Center

I do not wish to show you the dead deer, so here is a gratuitous beaver shot instead.

One word of caution here: when you reach the bottom of the ramp, the very first thing you will see on entering the forest floor is a dead deer being eaten by buzzards. It’s under a sign bearing the legend, “Nature’s Recycling”, or words to that effect, explaining the whole circle of life thing, and it’s a good and important exhibit and very well-made, but I don’t know what they were thinking making it what they chose to lead off on. In this section, mounted flashlights illuminate messages carved into tree trunks about nature. Spring-loaded panels can be pulled out from below the displays to read information about the animals.

I was particularly impressed by the quality of the water displays. Lucite-filled cavities in the simulated forest floor give you a cross-sectional look into shallow pools and rivers. There’s a small pond prominently displaying stages of amphibian life, with frogs and salamanders frozen in various stages of development, and a larger section displaying beavers hard at work building a dam. There’s a hollowed out log in which one lizard protects its eggs as its mate loses a fight to a snake, and a hollow tree trunk you can step inside to see baby bats asleep on the ceiling. All the animals are models, just in case you were concerned. I’m sure a place like this would only have used ethically taxidermied animals if they were real, but the use of models removes any worries about that.

Continue reading