Deep Ice: Standing firm between them, there lay Thunder Child (CA Powell’s The Last Days of Thunder Child)

It is December 28, 2013. Dylan just turned two, and we just celebrated his third Christmas. I think this is the year I somehow damaged my leg to the point where for the next three months, every time I stood up, ten seconds later, I’d get a crippling pain like I’d been shot through my calf. I think most of the rest of my family had a good Christmas. Dylan’s fairly verbal now. A couple of weeks ago we had a cute little incident over some candy and a boo-boo.

Wars continue in Syria and Afghanistan, and there’s continued protests in Egypt following the coup d’etat and the ouster of President Morsi. And, of course, Iraq. Police in Newton, Connecticut release a batch of information about the Sandy Hook Massacre a year earlier. All chance of meaningful reform of our gun laws dies forever when we decide that even the murders of a score of children by a 20-year-old man-child is just something we all have to live with in order to avoid cutting into the profit margins of gun manufacturers or the racial paranoia of white people. Yes, I am angry. This will probably be a theme whenever we drift too close to the present.

James Avery, best known as Uncle Phil on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and as the voice of the Shredder in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, will die this week. Ronda Rousey will retain the UFC middleweight championship title by defeating Miesha Tate. Ice prevented the Chinese ship Xuě Lóng from rescuing the Russian research vessel Akademik Shokalskiy, which has been icebound in Antarctica since Christmas. Xuě Lóng would become trapped in the ice itself during rescue attempts, but both vessels would eventually break free on January 7.

Eminem and Rhianna hold the top spot on the Billboard charts for the second week with “The Monster”. Also in the top ten are Pittbull and Ke&dollarsign;ha with “Timber”, OneRepublic with “Counting Stars”, A Great Big World and Christina Aguilera with “Say Something”, and Lorde with “Royals”.

Chris Pine just became the fourth Jack Ryan in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. It’s probably the most interesting thing to happen in the world of film this week, unless you’re one of the people who liked The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Chrismas, you know. Not a lot going on. Final Fantasy III comes out for Windows Phone. Good Morning America host Robin Roberts comes out of the closet. Bryant Gumbel and Jane Pauley return to Today this week, and Soapnet goes off-the-air. Nikita, the fourth or fifth adaptation of the 1990 French spy-action thriller La Femme Nikita, ends its run. Power Rangers Megaforce aired its last episode, “The Robo Knight Before Christmas” a couple of weeks ago. It’s one of two seasonal episodes that aired after the proper season finale because Nickelodeon wanted Halloween and Christmas episodes. And, yeah, can’t let it go unmentioned, Matt Smith bowed out of Doctor Who in “Time of the Doctor”, an episode that I haven’t actually watched yet, here on December 28, 2013. I’m putting it off because I’m afraid of what it will do to me if this thing which has always given me joy in my life when I needed to have something to look forward to and feel better no longer brings me any joy. (Spoiler: it doesn’t).

But enough of that. We’re here now because of the first book I ever bought for the Kindle, on account of it wasn’t in print at the time. The Last Days of Thunder Child (Victorian Britain in Chaos!) is yet another retelling of Wells’s story, this time from the point of view of the crew of HMS Thunder Child, the torpedo ram which succeeded in providing one of humanity’s few victories against the Martians.

We begin with this oddly-phrased preface:

June 1898:

They really came and this is the alternative history of that coming. Let us join the crew of H.M.S. Thunder Child as she prepares to embark upon her doomed voyage—before her demise and courageous battle with three Martian tripods at the River Blackwater in the county of Essex, England.

The obvious problem with this endeavor is that the Thunder Child incident in the novel is… Pretty brief. Even the song’s not that long. The Thunder Child shows up, shoots one Tripod, rams another, then gets sunk. Thunder Child actually can’t get involved until the very end of its story. You may be predicting that this book is going to be pretty slow getting started.

And you’re right. In fact, for the first couple of chapters, it looks for all the world like this book is going to spend the overwhelming majority of its length just being a litany of the abuses heaped upon Boy Seamen in the Victorian-era Royal Navy, with all the rum and sodomy that implies. I was all set to write a scathing article about the book being a dull slog that was mostly about the author showing off his historical acumen (Powell is the author of four books, all of them historical adventures) But as it goes on, an actual story does develop.

But not, curiously, on the Thunder Child. See, Powell’s solution to the conundrum set up by the plot constraints is to alternate chapters between Thunder Child and ashore. Thunder Child spends most of the book hanging out off the coast, doing boring slice-of-life nineteenth century Royal Navy stuff, while on shore, a mid-level government man wanders up the coast having narrow escapes from the Martians in a way that sort of mimics the structure of Wells’s novel, though with quite a bit more excitement.

The downside to this approach is that the actual meat of the book is largely segregated from the thing the book is actually about. It’s not a complete tangent, though. The Thunder Child‘s last stand was made in defense of civilian steamers fleeing with refugees. So as we follow Thunder Child on its slow march toward destiny, the other half of the story is bringing us into position on one of those civilian ships, and that’s an ultimately clever move in that it gives us a very personal attachment to the people that the Thunder Child is going to ultimately die for. Possibly too strong an attachment; I ended up caring much less about the men sacrificing their lives than for those who were saved. The characters from the two halves of the plot only interact in the epilogue.

Mister Albert Stanley, of the Ministry of Defense, comes off at first as a bit of an officious windbag. His physical description makes me think of one of those awful fathers in British fiction who ends up getting thrown out by his son in the end, or blown up by touching a piece of evil or something. He’s balding and pinkish and big-nosed, and described as always imagining, “There was another him lavishing praise upon himself, while in the background, his proud old mother looked on with the appropriate smile.

But he shapes up quickly once he’s thrown into it, and its his side of the plot that is the more interesting bit. I should qualify that by saying that it’s the most interesting bit for me. Because the other half of the book, I think, isn’t bad or anything, but it’s targeting an audience that I’m not a part of. The main characters — though we end up spending a lot of time away from them and with the Captain instead — are a pair of young seamen, Perry and Jolly. They’re kind of wet and the first third of the book or so is about them being a pair of fuckups who spend a lot of time making the Quartermaster angry and getting in trouble. But they’ve got an arc to them, and their side of the book is mostly structured around them getting dumps of exposition about why things are the way they are in the Navy, and finding their respective places where they can grow and thrive. And it’s well-written, but it’s the sort of thing that’s very sharply targeting a naval history buff, which I am not.

He watched the surf erupt over the descending bow, drenching the deck’s capstans and anchor chains with slithering white foam that rushed out through hawse pipes and spilt over the side as the forecastle lifted again. […] Walking to the next stairway that descended from the main deck to the quarterdeck, he paused, thinking the vessel was most odd indeed. Almost like a Devastation class in looks, but too small. If she had one funnel, then she might be a Cyclops class, though he had to admit—her layout was more like that of a miniature H.M.S. Devastation…

Later on, Perry has a long infodump with Fancourt (a gunner who the narrative treats as important though he’s barely in the thing. I think. Confession: most of the Thunder Child crew kinda blend together for me) about the Thunder Child‘s unusual design and history. I think this section is probably easier to comprehend by someone more versed in Royal Navy history, but what I gather is that Powell’s version of Thunder Child was built during the transitional period between sail and steam, when ship-builders were trying out a lot of new designs and trying to work out what was best for this new generation of iron-clad steam-powered ships. I mentioned some time ago that torpedo rams turned out to be popular in the public consciousness, but never really caught on as practical ships of war in the real world. Powell uses this by having the Thunder Child be a bit of an unwanted stepchild of the Royal Navy for largely political reasons. He attributes large parts of its design to Cowper Phipps Coles, a real-world ship designer who’d pushed through some unpopular design concepts against the misgivings of some of his contemporaries on the HMS Captain, which subsequently capsized, taking Coles with it. Powell posits that Thunder Child had incorporated some of Coles’s designs, and that there had been a bit of a resulting embarrassment when it came out that one of the people who’d approved the design had previously spoken out against him over the Captain, so if anything had ever gone wrong with Thunder Child, there would have been a scandal over the Royal Navy having knowingly built a ship based on the flawed designs of a discredited designer. The ship is described as a “compromise” between the designs of the Captain, and the more famous and successful HMS Devastation, designed by Edward James Reed. The historical Reed had resigned in protest when Coles’s design for the Captain was funded over his protest.  So Thunder Child had spent her career on low-key duties and out of harm’s way, and staffed with officers who were similarly kind of embarrassing to the Admiralty despite not having done anything wrong enough to get court-martialed (One example is Commander Scott, who is said to have made enemies by pushing for better gun training and discipline to the point of insulting the general state of the navy’s gunnery). Though not the captain. They make a point of Captain McIntosh not knowing what he could possibly have done to get stuck on Thunder Child.

Also, Thunder Child is one of the last ships to still have muzzle-loading guns. This must be really important and interesting to naval history buffs, because they bring it up about a dozen times, with excruciating detail about how muzzle-loading guns work and how all the other ships on the Island of Sodor look down on poor little Thunder Child for having those nasty old-fashioned and quite possibly working-class muzzle loaders instead of proper modern English breech-loaders from respectable families in semi-detached houses. (Seriously, did you ever notice just how racist the engines are in Thomas the Tank Engine?).

Powell’s backstory for Thunder Child does a lot to justify the inclusion of this slightly weird technological dead-end  in Wells’s accounting, a justification more diagetic than “Wells clearly just thought torpedo rams were cool.” And it gives some justification for Thunder Child having a story in the war that keeps them at arm’s length until the critical moment.

What works less well is that we — well, me at least — never really get a fully clear idea of what Thunder Child‘s actual mission is or why it’s on it. Thunder Child spends the opening phase of the war patrolling up the coast, meeting with foreign ships, and wildly speculating, specifically ordered not to engage the enemy. Now sure, a ship with Thunder Child‘s provenance wouldn’t be the first line of attack, but why would one of the Royal Navy’s private embarrassments merit being sent out to liaise with foreign navies, or be given secret hand-delivered orders? There’s repeated references to Thunder Child being here because she’s considered expendable, but at the same time, her orders seem to be very specifically to stay out of harm’s way. The very explanation that justifies Thunder Child being away from the front precludes the sense of weighty destiny — characters even talk about this, that they sense that Thunder Child has some important fate in the stars for it — the narrative wants it to have.

This rough spot in Powell’s backstory also extends to the Albert Stanley side of the plot. On both sides of the plot, people ponder on the fact that Great Britain is disadvantaged here because so much of her strength is in her navy, which is largely irrelevant in the context of an invasion that literally drops down in the middle of the country from outer space. So why is the Ministry sending Albert Stanley — a minor paper-pusher — on a special mission to hand-deliver special orders to a slightly embarrassing ship that’s on its way to the scrapyard on the eve of an invasion? The question is raised, but never answered. And more, there’s a distinct sense that the government is taking action from an early stage, takes the Martian threat seriously, and is well-plugged-in to what’s going on. And this… Is a hard fit with Wells’s novel. As I’ve mentioned in the past, one sense I got from the original novel that rarely carries over to adaptations is that the Martians’ advantage came less from them being outright invincible, and more from the defenders being hampered by the sheer unthinkability of being attacked on their native soil by a technologically superior invader: a real sense that had the British been prepared and been quicker on the uptake, they might not have been able to defeat the invaders outright, but they could have at least avoided the utter rout they faced. Here, though, it seems like the government understood the scale of the danger early, and was taking proactive steps to prepare for it, and were just straightforwardly outmatched.So in the A-plot, Jolly and Perry get in trouble with the quartermaster for being fuckups, as I said, and while on a punishment detail, they overhear something they shouldn’t from the officers about the Thunder Child‘s mission, and end up basically being isolated from the rest of the crew for a few days to keep them from gossiping. And then, I wasn’t really clear on why, Jolly and Perry get in a fight. They lie transparently about it to the officers, Jolly claiming to have walked into a doorknob or something. But this, weirdly enough, actually ingratiates them, I think in that it it displays that the pair are starting to “get it” about life in the navy.

This is something interesting about the general arc of the naval stuff. It would have been easy enough to just depict the navy as straightforwardly hellish to the crew, full of abuse and sadism and the aforementioned rum and sodomy. It was the Victorian era, when being really unspeakably awful to people below your station was basically what powered the empire. But there’s something more subtle here. Now, I have no truck with the philosophy of forging bonds through abuse, but I can certainly accept it as a historically accurate thing for people to have believed. And heck, I went to my high school reunions, and I understand now that the distinction between victimizing abuse and fraternal hazing aren’t always clear-cut, particularly to the people on the receiving end. Powell moves his characters through a world where, yes, it’s par for the course for the new men to be abused by the old timers, but regardless of whether it’s right or fair, they do it under the belief that what they are doing to them is indoctrinating them into a family.

Quartermaster Middleton visibly warms to Boy Seaman (I’m never going to get used to that title) Perry in particular after his falling out with Jolly, and Perry spends most of the rest of the book finding his place assisting the signalmen (which, conveniently, lets the narrative stick with him and pick up the news as it is relayed by semaphore along the coast. Jolly, for his part, becomes closer with Boatswain Pickles and finds his place in the engine room.

While all this is going on, Albert Stanley’s trip back to London after delivering orders to Captain McIntosh is interrupted by the whole “invasion from Mars” thing. His train derails, and he’s knocked unconscious, which saves him from the black smoke, as he remains in the comparative shelter of the overturned carriage instead of trying to flee. He emerges into the thinning smoke, which is enough to sting his lungs, and he meets a surviving railwayman, who shows him how to fashion a crude gas mask from a wet rag and coal spilled from the engine. There’s a very nice bit at the end of the chapter where the railwayman is afraid of legal consequences if he leaves the scene of the crash to face the invasion with his family, and Albert writes him an official government commission ordering him home on Ministry letterhead.

Albert Stanley recognizes that he was sent on his task because he’s considered “expendable” — more important people have more important things to do. That’s really the main thing that makes his story belong in this book. Albert and the Thunder Child are thematically linked, both undistinguished, sort of frumpy, past their prime, and eminently “expendable”. But both seem to have been marked by fate and both will, finally having been tested, rise to the occasion. Albert Stanley is an eminently British sort of hero, and he fits well in a novel that’s deliberately trying to evoke a Victorian-era feel. Though he’s not an especially Victorian sort of hero: he’s not a polymath super-human who solves problems by virtue of his inherent White Male Superiority. No, he’s much more a postwar sort of British hero: a Keep Calm And Carry On sort of guy who’s nothing special, and ultimately prevails because, faced with calamity, he keeps his head about him and just keeps on doing the best he can.

Albert hooks up with some Royal Navy signalmen and makes his way to a lighthouse, where there’s a brief exposition-heavy bit about lighthouse operations and the apprenticeship program for lighthouse keepers. The principal lighthouse keeper and the supernumerary assistant keeper assume Albert’s having them on, but humor him, assuming that “We’re being invaded by Martians” is “Dry middle class British sense of humor” for “It’s none of your damn business why we’re here and what urgent message we’re sending to the ship off the coast that’s meeting with a pair of foreign ships.”

The lighthouse keepers are disabused of their mistake when a tripod attacks the lighthouse. We get our first close look at the tripods, which aren’t described in too much detail, but Powell does mention that “Either side had green compound windows, like the eyes of a fly,” possibly a direct reference to the Jeff Wayne version. The keepers escape, though the principal is badly burned. Albert loses several of his companions.

Thunder Child meets up with the French Ship Courbet and the German Konig Wilhelm, taking aboard liaison officers from each for a briefing. The former is described as, “impressive but extraordinary-looking.” Both are real ships; they mention an actual incident in which the Wilhelm accidentally rammed and sank another German ship.

Albert and his escort arrive in the town of Herne Bay, where he meets Mrs. Daisy Wade, a sheltered and somewhat naive widow, whose roof he borrows for sending signals. Fate will keep the two together, and as you might guess, they end up falling in love. It’s one of the most subtle and slow-moving romances I’ve seen in an adventure story, and it’s kind of lovely. Albert very quickly develops a protective instinct toward her, but the blossoming of it into love isn’t done in the form of a few discreet incidents or any sort of mad passion. They’re both very British about it: two middle-aged people who are comforted by each other’s company and watch each other develop as human beings as they are forced by circumstance to deal with challenges unlike what their quiet and cloistered existences had thrown at them before.

Along with a pair of sailors, Albert and Daisy survive a Martian assault on the town. There were families lying scattered about—dead children cuddling into parents, who had been desperately clinging to each other during their final agony—desperate for the one final thing they had left at the bitter end—their unyielding and undying love.After the Martians have passed, they discover a single surviving baby in the carnage who, “Pursed her lips sadly, the way infants do when they realise they can’t have what they would like, but are willing to take what is on offer.” Though she’s described as an infant, she can communicate enough to refer to herself as “Jojo”, and we all know where this is going, right?

They eventually make it to a paddle steamer, the Southend Belle, which takes on refugees at Southend. The Martians attack the docks, interested apparently on keeping their livestock from escaping, but not interested in pursuing the warships further out. Thunder Child watches the carnage, but is under orders not to engage, and is too far away to make a difference anyway, more likely to hit the refugees themselves than to do any damage to the Martians. The best they can do is lay down a smokescreen to help the steamers escape. The Southend Belle makes it into the cloud, but another steamer isn’t as lucky.

The refugees are transferred off the Belle, but Daisy can’t bear the thought of leaving England, so she, Albert and Jojo stow away. Daisy was smiling back at him and said, “We will survive, Albert, because God wouldn’t let me find someone as wonderful as you and take him away. We’re too old to have children of our own, but we would make wonderful parents. Do you not think so?”
His heart leapt with joy—how wonderful she was. “Indeed I do, Daisy. Let us make a vow that we will come through this and always be together and raise little Jojo as our daughter. Daisy, will you marry me?” He stopped and looked away—suddenly embarrassed at his overexcitement. What if she refused him?
“Yes, Albert, I will. I don’t ever want to be without you.” Her sublime voice engulfed him in rapture—a soft aura that smothered him with a wonderful belonging. He looked back at her and there were happy tears in each other’s eyes. She leaned forward and gently kissed him. As she stood back smiling, she said, “Despite everything, I wouldn’t change things for the world—not for an entire war of the world, Albert.”
“Never in a million years,” he agreed.
There’s a tense moment when they’re found by a crewman, but Albert remembers that he’s From The Government, and is able to bluff that he’s remaining aboard in his official capacity.

Thunder Child and Southend Belle are ordered toward their destiny at Blackwater to pick up a French professor who’s been “studying germs”. I know what you’re thinking, and don’t worry. They’re not going to pull an H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds and have the Martians deliberately infected by an act of human heroism: the professor remains off-screen and the story ends before he does anything. Honestly, he kinda seems like a remnant of an earlier draft or something. I’m not sure how I feel about the implication that the powers that be are already thinking about a bacterological solution at this point. On the one hand, I feel like the ultimate resolution to the war ought to sort of come out of the blue, and even having humanity think about it is too much. On the other, Wells’s epilogue does give the impression that it didn’t take long for humanity to work out what had done the aliens in, so perhaps there ought to be something to foreshadow it.

At Blackwater, the professor is taken aboard the Southend Belle, but the Martians arrive before it can make its escape. This interrupts more exposition back on Thunder Child about nineteenth century gun technology, and forces them to go ahead and have the climax already. While Stanley and Daisy prepare to jump for it with Jojo if needs be, Captain McIntosh is faced with a hard decision:

Dark memories of the pier at Southend returned. It haunted them all. They had obeyed orders. Should they do it again? All took another look at the helpless women and children packed on the open deck of the fleeing paddle steamer, allowing the sight of terrified parents cuddling their crying infants to burn deep into each sailor’s conscience.
Not this time.

Thunder Child surprises the Martians by charging them, and, as you might recall, sensing victory was nearing, thinking fortune must have smiled, the people started cheering: Come on Thunder Child!

The muzzle-loaded guns prove themselves by destroying one tripod. The surviving tripods return fire, badly damaging the bow of the ship. Perry sees one man decapitated by a snapping stress wire before being knocked unconscious.

The Thunder Child‘s fate is sealed at this point, but she’s still got fight left in her. Below decks, Jolly witnesses the death of the boatswain as they evacuate the engine room after holding the dying ship on course long enough to ram the second tripod (the order of the attack is reversed from the original novel, for what it’s worth). Fancourt, having survived the destruction of the forward gun turret, is helped to a lifeboat by the French and German envoys. Perry recovers, and disobeys the injured quartermaster’s orders to leave him behind. They swim for it, the quartermaster believing the last tripod would target the lifeboats. Against his will, though, he’s dragged aboard one that they pass, where he’s proved right by a heat ray. It’s the remaining tripod’s last shot before succumbing to the damage inflicted by the final shot from Thunder Child‘s aft gun turret.

The narrative flits over to Albert and Daisy briefly, to affirm that the Southend Belle has escaped. The tone here diverges greatly from interpretations we’ve seen before, though. In the original novel, and most especially in Jeff Wayne’s musical, the destruction of the Thunder Child is the middle of the story, the low point at which all hope of humanity prevailing seems lost. But we’re at the end of this story. And it’s a hopeful note. Far from being dejected, on shore, the people are still cheering the Thunder Child, and Daisy takes heart in having seen first hand that, however powerful the Martians may be, they can die. The sacrifice was great, but the battle was won and the Martian air of invincibility has been shattered.

We skip ahead for an epilogue in 1903. Jojo, now seven, along with her adopted parents, attend a banquet, I assume to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the war’s end. They reunite with Lawrence, the sailor who’d accompanied Albert when he first met Daisy. He, in turn, introduces them to Fancourt, Perry and Jolly, now seasoned sailors.

I liked this book way more than I was expecting. It’s got its share of clunky patches — the invaders are called “Martins” once, and the exposition gets rammed in there pretty hard in places, there’s the French scholar who goes nowhere, and it sort of peters out at the end with an epilogue that adds nothing of real value (Though the book would feel incomplete without it). And there’s places where it feels like the characters are being driven forward in a kind of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead “They do it because they’ve read ahead and know where their story is going,” sort of way. But it’s a solidly-written story.

There’s a wonderful thematic parallelism between Albert Stanley coming into his own and Thunder Child at last making good. The story with Albert, his journey, his growing romance, his desire to protect his de facto family, is a good read. The Thunder Child side of the plot is weaker for me personally, but only because as a Victorian Naval Procedural, it’s not the sort of story that really interests me. But I can appreciate it as being well-written. If I’m a little disappointed that the Thunder Child is the least interesting part of the book about the Thunder Child, it makes up for it by still being a good read.

If you’re a naval history buff, this book is absolutely for you. If you’re not, there’s still enough in there to keep you interested. It’s less dry than Wells’s novel, with a good deal more action, but it’s still fairly subdued. The Martians are kept at arms’ length for almost all of the story. Albert’s story is more parallel to Wells’s journalist, but unlike the journalist, Albert is never alone for extended periods. It’s a much more personal story, with characters you can care about. This is true in the Thunder Child scenes as well, even if it doesn’t work as well for me.

So I’m glad I read this. It’s nice, especially after struggling my way through War of the Worlds II, to find something actually good for a change. And the Thunder Child is a piece of the story that’s so brief in the book, yet so compelling. I wanted to hear more about its story, despite the fact that, in retrospect, I really ought to have known up front that the backstory of a Victorian Warship wasn’t really going to be my thing.

2 thoughts on “Deep Ice: Standing firm between them, there lay Thunder Child (CA Powell’s The Last Days of Thunder Child)

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