Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging…
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.
Verne, Beauchamp, and the dead early-nineteenth-century scientists fall in with a military camp near the Louvre, where the army is keeping a small number of captured Martians prisoner. In a moment of sloppiness, Benford and Brin are so busy dropping names and referencing nineteenth century science that I don’t think they actually introduce the idea of the French Army having captured some Martians. It’s just kinda there. These Martians, like the ones Tolstoy had seen, had suffered the bad luck of having their cylinder hit something hard and break open on impact, leaving the unarmed occupants to the mercy of the army. Beauchamp makes the key discovery: while the Martians had been universally described as triune in their biology, he points out that one of the prisoners, slightly larger than the others, and seemingly being protected by its comrades, is a quadruped.
“With what lies within our”—and here I thought of the pun, a glittering word soaring up from the shadowy subconscious— “within our capacitance.”Verne puts it all together, and with the help of Beauchamp and the scientists, rallies the military and other refugees to enact a plan. For the purposes of suspense, we get halfway through the plan before he explains his logic, but I don’t have patience for it, so here’s the bottom line up front: the Martian invaders are an advance military party, not a colonization force. They set out from their home planet leaving their families behind, and, because this is a Victorian-era story and it would be unthinkable otherwise, the advance force is overwhelmingly (though not quite exclusively, based on the prisoners) male. And it’s only the Martian males who are triune.
Upon first seeing the tripods converge on the Champ-de-Mars, Verne had feared they might have planned to destroy the Eiffel Tower, as they had in the George Pal film, and as they did in the Picasso story earlier. But, “Here in Paris, our vanquishers suddenly had another kind of conquest in mind.” Oh yes. Really. They’re going there.
The Martians stroked its base, clasped the thick parts of the tower’s curving thigh—and commenced slowly to climb.
Beauchamp smirked at the English scholar, perhaps with a light touch of malice. “I expect you would not understand, sir. It is not in your national character to fathom this, ah, ritual.”
“Humph!” Unwisely, the Englishman used Beauchamp’s teasing as cause to take offense. “I’ll wager that we give these Martians a whipping before your lot does!”
“Ah yes,” Beauchamp remarked. “Whipping is more along the lines of the English, I believe.” The Martians mean to gang-bang the Eiffel Tower.
Don’t worry, I’ll still be here when you get back from wetting yourself with laughter.
The defenders of Paris quickly scavange the area for silver and copper and zinc and acids to build a massive array of Volta batteries, connecting them up with salvaged cables terminating at the tower. At dawn, the tripods climb the tower, “manifestly amorous”. Once they’re about a third of the way up, Verne gives the order to simultaneously discharge all the batteries. The command tripods are destroyed, and the smaller ones, directionless, are quickly defeated. Presumably, the rest of the world is eventually saved in the same manner it always is, when the Martians are felled by disease, but not, ironically, “The French Disease”. The invaders of France, like so many others, “Die passionately in Paris of a fatal love.”
As a reward for his ingenuity, Verne asks that the Champ de Mars be renamed in honor of Aphrodite.
I’ve often said that classic golden-age-style science fiction often reads more like a joke than a story, and my God does this one ever meet the requirement. And let’s face it: having the Martians die because they mistook an electrified Eiffel Tower for a sexy lady Martian is, as jokes go, pretty funny. Funny enough that I really want to overlook just how little sense this story actually makes.
I mean come on: the central conceit is pretty much a Bugs Bunny plot, just swapping Martians, Verne, a bunch of batteries and the Eiffel Tower for Elmer, Bugs, and a bunch of sticks of dynamite in a sundress. There’s so much bullshit that you have to be willing to just nod your way through to make it remotely plausible, the least of which being that the Martians have an almost completely gender-segregated military.
Or that a professional military of an advanced race would, en masse, be so consumed by horniness that they’d get distracted in the middle of battle to hump a sexy wrought iron lattice. Don’t get me wrong; I know that sexual assault is something real armies all over the world struggle to prevent even to this day with increasing but incomplete success. But you never hear about a tank crew suddenly wandering off in the middle of battle because they saw an M1 Abrams in a short skirt.
I guess if you really wanted to press it, Wells did describe the various Martian vehicles as being more like purpose-built bodies that the Martians more sort of “wore” than “drove”, so it’s not utterly implausible the aliens might have special giant city-smashing mechs specifically for bangin’, but (a) this is not a Gedanken I care to explore, and (b) they are kind of in the middle of razing Paris right now. The most plausible interpretation I can think of here is that they saw the Tower and assumed that their leaders back home mailed them the Martian equivalent of a RealDoll to help with morale.
The other big problem with the story is just how much of it is basically pointless. The bulk of the story is Verne and Beauchamp walking around Paris mentioning all the famous scientists of the period whose work they’ve read about. It’s not until the last third of the story that anything happens to steer us in the general direction of the resolution. This isn’t really down to a Vernian style, either: Verne wrote adventure stories. This is just all just writers-showing-off-their-research stuff. The actual adventurous bits, the execution of the plan, which must have involved some pretty daring “Run up to the Eiffel Tower and hook wires to it while horny Martians are doing their mating dance all around you” is consigned to off-stage summary.
There’s the four scientists as well. I’m not sure what the point of them is. I kinda like the possibility that they’re meant to be resurrected versions of Fraunhofer, Volta, and Faraday, but I can’t fit the American into that paradigm. Likening him to Mach doesn’t make sense in that context, and I’m not aware of any American scientists of the period who fit the scant traces of description (Red-haired, wearing a Stetson, somewhat vulgar and using Wild West slang). Would have been a clever idea to use Ben Franklin here, to match with Faraday and Volta’s electricity work, and also because of his considerable experience with having sex in France. But if the point were to resurrect dead scientists to contribute to inspiring the solution, Fraunhofer’s a weak fit, since his contribution is to not-quite-manage to identify the heat ray as a laser, which is interesting but not strictly relevant. And besides, “Science Ghosts appear to Jules Verne to help him kill horny Martians” is an idea that, if used deliberately, really ought to have some sort of payoff in the narrative, which this does not.
When you get down to it, the four scientists, like the musing stroll of Verne and Beauchamp, don’t really add much; they’re just there to slow the story down so that it actually qualifies as a short story and not just “Hey, what if the Martians tried to bang the Eiffel Tower?” It makes the story read like an Onion article in reverse: a pretty clever joke at the end which justifies the existence of some not-very-interesting padding up front (Your typical article in The Onion is basically a very clever headline followed by an article which pads the joke out until it isn’t funny any more).
Benford and Brin are just lucky that it’s such a damned clever joke I’m willing to forgive them.
- War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches is available from amazon.