Deep Ice: Definitely a nutcase (War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, Part 13: Emily Dickinson)

Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

Kudos to anyone who actually understands this reference.

Well, despite it having been kinda the thing I said I was looking for, I think I need a little bit of a pick-me-up after that last one. Now, this anthology has had a few memoirs, and a few epistolary stories, and a few traditional narratives. It’s had stories that are grim, and stories that are hopeful, and a couple that have turned on a punchline. But what it hasn’t had, yet, is a story that just goes full-on balls-to-the-wall outright bonkers. So here, right at the end, let’s go mad.

Enter Connie Willis. She’s one of the most decorated authors in this anthology, with seven Nebulas, four Locuses (Loci?), the impressively-titled Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement, and eleven Hugo awards, including the 1997 award for best short story, for this piece, the also impressively-titled The Soul Selects Her Own Society: Invasion and Repulsion: A Chronological Reinterpretation of Two of Emily Dickinson’s Poems: A Wellsian Perspective. And it is full-on balls-to-the-wall outright bonkers. Whee.

The first thing about this story that sets it apart from the others is that— no, wait. The other first thing about this story that sets it apart— Okay, the three first things about this story which… I’ll come in again.

The first thing about this story which sets it apart from the others is its style. Namely, it’s not presented as a traditional narrative, or indeed a narrative of any sort. There’s no per se story here. Rather, it’s written in the form of a journal article by a young academic, presenting a controversial new theory about the provenance of two recently discovered Emily Dickinson poems, despite the fact that the poems are heavily implied to be counterfeit by a reference to a fictitious Desperation and Discovery: The Unusual Number of Lost Manuscripts Located by Doctoral Candidates in a footnote.
The first thing about this story which sets it apart from the others is its subject, which is Emily Dickinson. If you’re not overly familiar with the biographies of influential female poets of the nineteenth century, the reason this is an unusual choice for this anthology is that, like most of the writers in the anthology, Willis dates the Martian invasion to 1900 (A footnote refers to Wells’s 1898 novel as the definitive account of the matter, giving you some idea what we’re in for). And that’s all well and good, except that Emily Dickinson died in 1886. So the protagonist of this story, if this were a story and had a protagonist, is not merely Emily Dickinson, but zombie Emily Dickinson.
The first thing about this story which sets it apart from the others, the thing you notice by just looking at the first page of it without even getting as far as reading the words, is the unusual number of footnotes. I mentioned that A Letter From St. Louis contained about a third of the book’s footnotes. Almost all of the rest are in this one, as befits its style as an academic paper. These footnotes often include citations to other fictional research works, such as a reference to Emily Dickinson’s Effect on the Palmer Method on the matter of Dickinson’s famously bad penmanship, Emily Dickinson: The Billabong Connection, which suggests that Dickinson had a crush on Mel Gibson, or Halfwits and Imbeciles: Poetic Evidence of Emily Dickinson’s Opinion of Her Neighbors. *

*Others are simply comic asides, including a footnote referencing the inability of the public to tell the difference between HG Wells and Orson Welles, and how this confirmed Dickinson’s opinion of her neighbors, or, slightly later, a reference to readers missing parts of Wells’s book because they’d turned off their radios and fled into the streets screaming “The Martians are coming!”. Or a note when something is described as “cigar-shaped” reading only, “See Freud”.

The setup for the article is the premise that two previously unknown Emily Dickinson poems were discovered under a hedge in Amherst by a desperate doctoral candidate a few years earlier. And though the poems are obvious forgeries, apparently written with a felt-tipped pen on 1990s paper stock and artificially aged by dipping them in tea and sticking them in the oven the way we did to make imitation parchment paper for a class project when I was in grade school, the author, who was herself also a desperate doctoral student at the time, takes them at face value, but reinterprets their historical context.

She recognizes the word-fragment “ulla” on a damaged part of the page, and immediately recognizes it as the death-cries of Wells’s Martians (She notes other landings, in Texas, Paris (Where Jules Verne, coincidentally, “had been working on his dissertation” at the time) and Missouri), and concludes that Dickinson had herself met the Martians. She admits that this is an “improbable scenario”, due to Dickinson’s infamous reclusiveness (Due possibly, say scholars, to an unhappy love affair, eye problems, bad skin, or the fact that her neighbors were morons) and also that she had been dead for a decade and a half by then.

Further, the author admits that history holds no record of the aliens visiting Amherst, though are references to “unusually loud thunderstorms” in diaries of the time, including this snippet from Louisa May Alcott, in nearby Concord:

Wakened suddenly last night by a loud noise to the west. Couldn’t get back to sleep for worrying. Should have had Jo marry Laurie. To Do: Write sequel in which Amy dies. Serve her right for burning manuscript.

The author further justifies her assertion of an alien landing in Amherst by suggesting that Orson Welles’s 1938 radio play had been set in New Jersey due to the common conflation of Amherst with Lakehurst. The “newly discovered” poem describes the event thus: “I scarce was settled in the grave— When came—unwelcome guests— Who pounded on my coffin lid— Intruders—in the dust—” (The excessive use of dashes is taken by the author as evidence of the poem’s authenticity).

While Wells assumed the Martians, having evolved away their base desires and feelings along with most of their bodies, “Would become ‘selfish and cruel’ and take up mathematics,” the author believes that their enlarged neocortexes would instead lead them to take up poetry.

Like the notion of the Martians having literally woke the dead, she recognizes that there might be some objections to this theory, such as the fact that trying to wipe out humanity with heat rays and black smoke doesn’t sound like a very poety thing to do. But on the other hand, some poets are assholes:

Take Shelley, for instance, who went off and left his first wife to drown herself in the Serpentine so he could marry a woman who wrote monster movies. Or Byron. The only people who had a kind word to say about him were his dogs. Take Robert Frost*.

*(Yes, I know that isn’t what Mending Wall is about, and that “Good fences make good neighbors,” is actually the opposite of the sentiment he was trying to express. And I’m guessing Willis knows this too, just as she probably knows that Mary Shelley didn’t write monster movies and that Byron’s Don Juan is not actually a paean to his dog.)

In any case, in the author’s view, it was not Earth bacteria that ended the invasion: bacteria would take weeks to do the job, and even Wells admits that the bacteriological explanation is widely-accepted theory, but not entirely proven. No, Willis submits, the Martians abandoned their invasion because of the poetry of Emily Dickinson.

I wrote a letter—to the fiends—
And bade them all be—gone—
In simple words—writ plain and clear—
‘I vant to be alone.’

Fictional colleagues have proposed theories as to the mechanism by which this might work. Perhaps Dickinson’s penmanship had proved repulsive to Martian eyes. Or her abuse of punctuation and capitalization had offended their cold, analytical minds. One academic suggested they had panicked upon discovering that all of her poems could be read to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas — surely a reference to their defeat in Night of the Cooters.

However, the theory which author finds most compelling is that the Martians were unable to tolerate Dickinson’s use of near-rhymes. The stanzas she quotes pair “bomb” with “tomb” and “gone” with “alone”, and she mentions other pairings like “mat/gate”, “tune/sun”, “guest/dust”, and “balm/hermaphrodite”. She further suggests that London faced the brunt of the Martian attacks due to its association with Tennyson.

The paper closes with the author proposing that the new poems be reclassified from Dickinson’s “Only Slightly Eccentric” period to her “Very Late or Deconstructionist” period, and renumbered as 1775 and 1776, which she assumes is intentional symbolism on the part of Dickinson, as the latter clearly represents (remember, this book came out in 1996) an Independence Day from the Martian threat. A final footnote suggests this undocumented landing in New England was followed up some years later by one in Long Island, as she intends to explore in her next paper, The Green Light at the End of the Dock: Evidence of Martian Invasion in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

(She’s up for tenure.)

There was really no other place for this than right at the end, because come on, how do you follow up on something like that? It’s mad and wonderful and hilarious. I have a thing, you will have noticed, for non-narrative storytelling and false documents. What I like the best is the tension between how completely earnest it is, taken on a literal level, with how farcical it is on any other. Not simply that the high concept of “The Martian Invasion caused Emily Dickinson to rise from the grave and defeat them with poetry,” because on top of that, even if you bracket everything else and try to read it as a serious academic paper, the fictional sources are all but explicitly called out as forgeries and the references aren’t simply fictitious, but ridiculous. There’s layers on layers to the unreality here, because the snippets of “Dickinson” poetry quoted in the story are, of course, not by Emily Dickinson, but by a fictional doctoral candidate by Nathan Fleece. But of course, Fleece himself isn’t real either; he’s an invention of Connie Willis, who is the same person writing the story. So by the time you get to the actual poetry, you’re reading Connie Willis, emulating not Emily Dickinson-in-fact, but Emily Dickinson-as-emulated-by-doctoral-candidate-Nathan-Fleece, being quoted by another young academic who is of course, Connie Willis herself not being a young postdoc in 19th century American poetry, another fictional character with her own distinct style, agenda and narrative frame.

And now, the conclusion…

Benford and Brin come back at the end to get the last word in. The collection ends with an afterword presented from their version of Jules Verne. Just a capstone, really. The point of it is to show off that thing that few of the stories did: a little sneak-peak of what future would unfold on an Earth that had known this kind of invasion. Writing this in 1996, I imagine that Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century was large in the minds of Bedford and Brin. It was a “lost” Verne, put away in a safe back in the 1860s and forgotten about until one of Verne’s descendants found it in 1989. It had only been published for the first time in 1994, and while the novel is awfully pessimistic and not a lot of fun, an 1860s novel about the 1960s that no one got to read until the 1990s is like a plot straight out of a bad History Channel special. It basically begs you to ooh and aah over how presciently Verne had foreseen with utter accuracy how the world would evolve a century into the future. Verne foresaw such innovations as fax machines, pneumatic tubes, skyscrapers, electric lights, networked computers, department stores, synth music, mutually assured destruction, the death of art, food cubes, feminism making women unattractive, and the European ice age of 1961. Just like Carnac the Magnificent he was.

Bedford and Brin skip the pessimism. In keeping with the greater themes of the story, Verne’s afterword is set in an optimistic early-twentieth-century, where humanity has emerged from the war more united and stronger. Verne calls the events of that “terrible year” (cautiously not committing to a specific date, given what’s happened in the anthology) the “pivot of modernity”, leading to a world he explicitly calls far better than the one that might have come about had the tripods never come.

Certainly better for Verne himself: the afterword is dated to 1928, two weeks before Verne’s hundredth birthday, almost a quarter century after the real Verne died.

This is a world without the Great War: “The Martians deflected our festering nationalist energies, which had seemed aimed toward a Twentieth Century in which our finest tools would be used for beastly ends.” Instead, humanity has come together in pursuit of common cause. They have built a world of “palatial floating airships”, “gothic tourist-submersibles”, “steam-busses” and of course pneumatic tubes. Who doesn’t love pneumatic tubes?

The space race has also been greatly accelerated: at least a decade ahead of real-life, Cape Canaveral is now the site of a Verne Cannon (I assume they call them something else in this reality), as are Sumatra, Kourou (real-life site of the Ghana Space Center) and Kenya. And they’re not just limited to running the intercontinental mirror-semaphore system: Verne’s afterword is written on the occasion of the first footage of the Martian surface, relayed by Hertzian Wave, from the advance scouts of the human flotilla now in orbit around the red planet.

But though humanity believes that they now possess the capability to avenge themselves on their would-be invaders, the general sentiment of the people of 1928 is a great reluctance to exercise “the genocidal option”. Humanity is prepared to end the Martians, if it proves necessary, but time and study has given humanity some measure of empathy for the invaders. “There are even fetishists, small in number but leaders in recent fashion, who seek to emulate the styles, speech, and even the eerie ways of thought that some interpolate from salvaged Martian records.” That’s right. Martian Furries. Leatheries, I guess.

Having themselves learned the lesson that oppressive imperial powers are, in fact, not as awesome as they’d previously believed, Verne hopes that humanity can recognize the Martians as suffering under the same delusion, and that, “If it is possible to cure them of this mortal flaw, it will only happen if youthful, flexible humankind manages to meet them more than halfway.”

Which is basically the culmination of this anthology’s often-recurring theme: if an invasion from Mars could convince the great powers of old Europe that, hey, violent conquest, genocide and repression of the indigenous peoples of the world to steal their land, resources, and very blood is not a nice thing to do, then just possibly, they could teach that lesson even to the Martians.

In the oblique manner of lived history, we must now grasp that it is better to contemplate eventual reconciliation, world linked to world. The Western world must reach out, here, to the rest. And so it must come in parallel, on Mars.

So that’s War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches. As I said early on, there’s not much holding it together past the basic premise of “Famous turn-of-the-century-people fight the War of the Worlds,” and even that’s a stretch for stories like Night of the Cooters and A Letter From St. Louis.

This is generally a pretty good anthology. There’s a few stories I don’t care for, particularly Anderson and Effinger’s contribution. And a few others that were fine but didn’t make much of an impression on me. Several where I liked the concept or the twist, but was only neutral on the implementation, and a handful that I genuinely liked. But most of my complaints are just matters of personal taste; none of them are are really outright bad in a defensibly objective way. Since the internet likes these things, here’s my personal ranking, best to worst:

  1. The Soul Selects Her Own Society: Invasion And Repulsion: A Chronological Reinterpretation of Two of Emily Dickinson’s Poems: A Wellsian Perspective
  2. Resurrection
  3. After a Lean Winter
  4. To See the World End
  5. Paris Conquers All
  6. Soldier of the Queen
  7. Roughing It During the Martian Invasion
  8. Night of the Cooters
  9. To Mars and Providence
  10. The True Tale of the Final Battle of Umslopogaas the Zulu
  11. The Roosevelt Dispatches
  12. Determinism and the Martian War, With Relativistic Corrections
  13. The Martian Invasion Journals of Henry James
  14. Foreign Devils
  15. A Letter From St. Louis
  16. Blue Period
  17. Canals in the Sand
  18. Mars: The Homefront

So after this exceptionally long detour, let’s head back to the early ’90s next week for some more of War of the Worlds: The Series. I’d originally hoped to polish off all the remaining other sorts of adaptation before diving into the last block of episodes of the TV series, but it turned out that I had a lot more to cover, and if I’m going to take on the remaining adaptations I’ve come across… Well, let’s just say I’m going to need to take a little time to build up my sanity points first…

  • War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches is available from amazon.

One thought on “Deep Ice: Definitely a nutcase (War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, Part 13: Emily Dickinson)

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