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.
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.
As the refugee camp swells, news arrives of the fall of Moscow and St. Petersburg, and of the black smoke. The red weed, described as a fungus by Tolstoy, arrives at Yasnaya Polyana and is beat back by the refugees before it dies on its own a week later.
Tensions grow between Major Sekhim and Iosef over his illegal foraging, to the point that Tolstoy fears it will come to violence as the Major becomes increasingly desperate to exercise some degree of control over his increasingly chaotic world. Tolstoy finally says what they’ve been hinting at: Iosef is a revolutionary. “Not anymore […] And neither are you, dvoryantsvo. We are all overthrown.”
Iosef and the major never get the chance to resort to violence, though: his next foraging mission returns early with the news that two shtativii are wandering the countryside, heading in the general direction of Yasnaya Polyana. Against Iosef’s warnings at the futility, Major Sekhim promises to meet the giants in battle. Iosef and his inner circle depart ahead of the Martians and are never heard from again.
The shtativii do arrive, and Sekhim mounts a cavalry charge against them. This doesn’t go the way we’d normally expect, though, as the Martians conveniently choose that exact moment to die. News trickles in of the invaders dying all over Russia, and survivors flock to Yasnaya Polyana — the end note mentions that the estate becomes the largest community in Russia for a time. In the aftermath, Tolstoy burns the manuscript to Resurrection, its themes of man’s barbarity toward itself seeming pointless in this new world.
The end note engages in some awkward “As you know, Bob,” about the unfolding of history from this point. The letter is, of course, very exciting to historians, as it’s the only firsthand account of Tolstoy’s involvement in “the war” (He calls it “the war”, just “the war”. This is relevant.), and because of the rare reference to what is, in this history, Tolstoy’s “lost” novel.
In this history, Tolstoy dies seven years early, exhausted by his efforts for the “Global Cooperative Movement”. Major Sekhim becomes a governor, and later is the first Georgan elected to the duma. Tolstoy’s wife and daughters perished in the destruction of Moscow, as, presumably, does his son Mikhail, who had set out to contact a neighboring estate early in the invasion and never returned. Tolstoy’s eldest son, Sergey, a composer in our history, instead goes into politics. The Tsar is not overthrown, and instead Russia becomes a constitutional monarchy, with Sergey as its first president.
Most puzzling to the historians, though, is the revolutionary Iosef Vissarionovich. Mentions in the letter of him having washed out of seminary and later worked for an observatory allow them to identify him from official records in Tbilisi, but he disappears from history after leaving Yanaya Polyana, either a victim of the Martians, or simply faded into obscurity. Have you figured out who he is yet? Would it help if I told you he’s described as having a big bushy mustache?
So, it’s a very different Russia that emerges in the twentieth century: Josef Stalin never becomes anyone of importance — he never even becomes “Stalin”. The Tsar and his family seem to live out a natural lifespan. Russia, like the alternate version of China, becomes a democratic state under a constitutional monarch. There is no USSR. The note ends with the Russian archivist looking forward to collaborating with his British counterpart at an upcoming “Conference on Global Synergism” in Constantinople — not, if you’ll forgive me, Istanbul. Does this imply that the Ottoman Empire never fell? Maybe. References to “the war” might well imply that there was no big pan-European war in the twentieth century that would prompt disambiguation. But on the other hand, it could just be a matter of a historian being a bit stodgy and using the obsolete name — I’ve actually heard real-life anecdotes about Turkish historians getting into fights with other historians (usually Greek ones, for, ahem, historical reasons) over which of the city’s several archaic names they use depending on context. More telling, though, is his offhand reference to the previous year’s conference in Dresden.
Why is that telling? Because then he signs off. With the date. 1943. There are conferences on global synergism in Dresden in 1942 and Istanbul in 1943. It’s 1943, and a pair of academics in Britain and Russia are casually exchanging notes about Leo Tolstoy.
What a wonderful little story. We’ve got this really pleasant Tolstoy piece, rich in characters and themes, with enough kisses to history to send me scrambling around Wikipedia trying to work out who’s real and who isn’t (and Russian names seem specifically designed to make this complicated). Then on top of it, we’ve got this great framing story that is all full of that thing I’ve mentioned missing this whole time: a sense of how world history goes in the wake of the Martians from a more distant perspective. While Foreign Devils, Soldier of the Queen, and to a lesser extent, A Letter From St. Louis give us a sense of the immediate aftermath of the war, none of the stories have so far given us a longer view on it. We don’t actually know if the Guangxu Emperor’s reforms were ultimately successful, or how the British Empire fared with the loss of India. Henry James meeting Martians seems not to have had any notable effect on anyone other than Henry James.
But here, we’ve got a little glimpse into a different history. And not even something as straightforward as showing our time, a century on (though that would certainly be interesting). Rather, we get this little glimpse of perfectly ordinary academic work going on when history says Europe should be getting its war on for the second time in the first half of the twentieth century. The talk of a “Global Cooperative Movement” and conferences on “Global Synergism” point to an idea that seems popular, but we haven’t actually seen in this anthology so far: that the cataclysmic events of the Martian invasion could serve to show humanity, as it showed Tolstoy, at the cost of his last novel, how small and unimportant the disputes among humans were when compared against our common humanity set against inhuman death from the stars. It’s basically the plot of Watchmen, after all.
Not that I wouldn’t be interested in seeing someone take a different tack. The futures hinted at in these stories give a very optimistic view, starting from the assumption that the invasion would kick off “modernity” for a very particular definition of “modernity”, one based around the idea of the modern era as a story of increased liberty and democratization, with violent revolutions and subsequent authoritarian states replaced by the peaceful evolution of the old empires into something akin to the modern UK. We’re not going to see any stories — the closest we’ve ever come is Goliath — where the aftermath of dumping a pile of alien technology on a world whose power structures have just been radically upset leads to a mad scramble to consolidate the remnants of power. Recent history has shown that it only takes about sixty years for people to forget things like “Fascism is bad,” so you could just as plausibly get to, “Since we didn’t address the underlying causes, the world wars happen anyway, only with heat rays,” a la Goliath. These days, I find, “Massive destruction of infrastructure and loss of life leads to humanity recoiling from the horrors of war and creating a more egalitarian society,” to be sort of a quaint and naive fantasy compared to “Massive destruction of infrastructure and loss of life leads to humanity becoming easy prey for strongman dictators who stoke fear and old animosities in order to gain power.”
- War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches is available from amazon.