Category Archives: War of the Worlds

Review and analysis of adaptations of HG Wells’s “The War of the Worlds”

Antithesis: Candle in the Night (War of the Worlds 2×15, Part 2)

Man, Eugene Levy aged a lot in the ’90s.

Previously on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging…

Blackwood baked a cake. Kincaid broke a window. Suzanne took up scrapbooking. Debi didn’t recognize obvious references to Mark Twain. Kincaid decorated a library with construction paper chains. The nerdy boy complained a lot. Julian Richings smiled.

Suzanne lures Debi to the library with the (accurate) claim that Kincaid needs them to bring him tools to repair his starter motor. They make an honest stab at turning “Everyone kept telling Kincaid not to put off fixing the starter motor” into a running gag, with Ralph, Suzanne, and Debi independently ribbing him about it, but it woulda worked better if they’d ever brought it up before the van broke down.

Y’know what woulda been better than writing this charismatic young actress as a series of one-note fat jokes? Literally anything else.

Debi is suitably impressed by the surprise party, doubly so by a chocolate cake. She gets to meet Gunther, Lisa gives her a bracelet hand-woven from stranded cat-5, and Nate, confessing to his actual circumstances, and gives Debi his copy of Tom Sawyer. Lisa, after begging off due to her diet, takes two pieces of cake anyway because fat people jokes, amirite? Suzanne surprises Debi with a prom dress. Possibly the same dress from that photo of herself from the album back at the other end of the episode. Why does Suzanne still have her dress from a dance she went to when she was fourteen, now, while she’s living in a sewer after the apocalypse? Because shut up. Having had his faith in humanity reaffirmed by the happiness of children, Gunther says his goodbyes and leaves, and while he doesn’t simply fade away as he dons his hat and coat and turns to the door, he does see a shooting star as he steps outside.

Or rather, he sees what is possibly the least convincing computer generated shooting star effect in the history of television. You know, the whole scene has this weird It’s a Wonderful Life feel to it that makes me wonder if they didn’t cast Sandy Webster partially because he bears a passing resemblance to Henry Travers.

It’s Zardip’s Search for Healthy Wellness / Come with him come along!

For contrast, we cut back one last time to the Morthren, who are so bent out of shape by watching Gunther decorate a cake that they are still complaining about how short-sighted and selfish humans are to celebrate birthdays. Yay! Recurring themes! Once again, the Morthren demonstrate that their ideology is based around collectivism that discredits individualism, and yet we see that the strength of humanity lies in the ability of individuals to come together and work toward a common cause.

Because of course everything about this episode screams from the rooftops that there is nothing selfish about celebrating Debi’s birthday. She emerges, looking all kinds of cute-awkward-teenager in her party dress, Lisa and Ralph put on an aggressively banal ’80s tune whose chorus is something like “Like a candle in the night / I’m watching over you / Burning with the night / For everything you do / Like an angel in your view.” Debi’s awkward dance with the cute boy she’s crushing on is immediately interrupted by her mother, who wants to take a group photo, so we can end on the camera pulling back to show the party photo affixed to the last page of Debi’s album.

I feel like Alan Thicke should be singing over this

Aww.

I wish I had more to say about this episode. It may come off feeling a bit thin, which is strange when you consider it. It’s a low-key, low-stakes episode, but it’s not like it’s a bottle episode or a clip show or one that gives the impression of being made on the cheap. I mean, we’ve got two major new sets, with Gunther’s shop and the library, both of which are large and detailed. Plus there’s several more minor sets as well, and a lot of outdoor location shooting. And on top of that, there’s a big guest cast, with four new one-off characters who all play significant roles, and a handful of other minor characters as well.

Plus they gave Debi a boyfriend. Nah, just kidding; we’ll never see or hear of Nate again.

Let’s talk about the guest cast. None of them are hugely well known. Most of the kids have significant resumes as voice actors in the ’80s and ’90s, but little on screen. In an interesting side-note, the nameless pitcher from the street baseball game is way better known than any of the other child actors. Pat Mastroianni would go on to be a staple of the Filmed In Canada scene, appearing in both Degrassi High and Degrassi The Next Generation, as well as appearing in the 2015 version of Beauty and the BeastDark MatterSaving Hope and The Good Witch. Noam Zylberman, who plays Nate, was in the animated versions of Garbage Pail Kids, Babar, Police Academy, and ALF; Gema Zamprogna (Sam) is probably the best known, going on to play Felicity King in Avonlea; Krista Houston’s only IMDB credit other than as Lisa is eight episodes of Degrassi High, a pity since she’s got a ton of charisma. But despite modest screen experience, the child actors in this one are pretty good. Possibly the best we’ve had all season — which is, surprisingly, saying a lot. It’s weird how many child-centric episodes there’s been. Debi’s friends are all one-trick ponies, but they’re well-developed one-trick ponies. They don’t just stroll on, announce their single trait, then fade into the background. Sure, they’re largely archetypes we’ve seen before — the smug, obnoxious geek; the jolly, food-obsessed fat girl; the streetwise tomboy — but there’s a good, simple, workmanlike competence in how those tropes are executed, and while that might not win the show any awards, it’s a pleasant change from the dead-eyed deer-in-headlights acting of some of the other child actors we’ve seen this season. Is this just good luck? I’m not sure. Remember, this is also the first time we’ve had child characters (Debi excepted) who are meant to be “normal”, and not aliens, clones, or soulless lab-created abominations. But it works out well for them, especially in the episode that is really the most human we’ve seen out of the series.

Continue reading

Antithesis: Candle in the Night (War of the Worlds 2×15, Part 1)

This article is dedicated to Sandy Webster, who played Gunther in tonight’s episode, and who passed away on March 22, 2017, just before I started writing this.

Sandy Webster was best known for playing a Victorian forensic scientist in the 1979 Canadian crime drama The Great Detective, essentially a Canadian mashup of Sherlock Holmes and Gunsmoke, from what I can tell.

It is April 9, 1990. While we’ve been away on hiatus, basically the whole world has changed. Lithuania has declared independence from the USSR. Estonia has declared itself independent as well. There are free elections in Yugoslavia and Hungary. Patricio Aylwin becomes the first democratically elected president of Chile since 1970. Fernando Collor de Mello becomes the first democratically elected president of Brazil since the ’60s. The Sandinistas lost the elections in Nicaragua, ousting Daniel Ortega in favor of Violetta Chamorro, Nicaragua’s first female president, who takes office later this month. Haiti also gets their first female president, Ertha Pascal-Trouillot, but she’ll be the second president to take office since last we spoke: three days after replacing Prosper Avril, Herard Abraham stepped down, becoming the first twentieth-century president of Haiti to leave office of his own accord. Mikhail Gorbachev was upgraded to President of the Soviet Union with the creation of the office. He is the only man ever to have held the title. Namibia becomes a country. Imelda Marcos goes on trial for crimes that were very vast and which the US media boiled down mostly to something to do with an exorbitant shoe collection. Also, the Nintendo World Championships happened, and The Ultimate Warrior beat Hulk Hogan in Wrestlemania. Skronk. Destrucity.

As if that weren’t enough of a kick in the major themes of this series, there’s another big event we missed from skipping March: the Secret Service raided Steve Jackson Games, a maker of pen-n-paper role playing games, under the belief that one of their games in development, GURPS Cyberpunk, was a legtimate handbook for committing real-world cyber-crime. Yes. They thought this game was real. This would lead to the creation of the EFF. In other news, Kristen Stewart was born today. Ryan White, the photogenic straight white boy who made straight white Americans finally start giving a fuck about the AIDS epidemic, died yesterday. He was 18.

Taylor Dayne leads the Billboard Hot 100 this week with “Love Will Lead You Back”. She unseats “Black Velvet” by Alannah Myles, who — Wait. I feel like I’ve gotten ahead of myself somehow. Never mind. Weird feeling of deja vu. By the week’s end, Tommy Page’s “I’ll Be Your Everything” will have unseated her. Phil Collins, Luther Vandross, Kiss, Lisa Stansfield and Sinead O’Connor are all in the top ten. In other music news, Gloria Estefan is badly hurt when her tour bus crashes during a snow storm. Her slow recovery will inspire her third number one single, next year’s “Coming Out of the Dark”.

Mission: Impossible, The Bradys, Mama’s Family, and ALF all ended their runs in the past few weeks. Baywatch was also canceled by NBC, which is the last we will ever hear of it unless somehow it gets brought back in first-run syndication to become the most popular television show of all time or something. But what are the odds that people would actually be interested in watching buxom women in swimsuits while David Hasselhoff consumes cheeseburgers?

Neither Star Trek nor Friday the 13th are back from Spring Break yet, but Alien Nation is new. So is MacGyver, after which airs the pilot movie for a Lloyd Bridges series, “Capital News”, a drama set at a fictionalized version of the Washington Post. It only lasts three episodes, proving that it takes more than a kickin’ Jan Hammer theme song to make it these days.

Won’t you light my candle…

This brings us around to “Candle in the Night”, which is a big, big change up from how the series has played out so far. It’s a low-key episode, really the only low-key episode. There’s no casualties on either side, no action scenes, and only very little interaction between the aliens and humans. It’s kind of pleasant. It doesn’t overreach, and it’s a rare chance to get a sense that this show might be capable of stretching itself to do a wider variety of episodes. Knowing, as I do, how few episodes we have left, it’s hard to get over the sense that the series is kind of spinning its wheels with this one, but if you bracket that knowledge and just take it for what it is, it’s just a nice episode. One that, for the most part, doesn’t suffer from asking more questions than it answers or from gaping plot holes, or from the gamut of missed opportunities we’ve so often seen in this series.

The plot has two tracks, and they bump into each other from time to time, but don’t really interact very much. In one, a Morthren probe malfunctions and goes walkabout, forcing Ardix and a one-off Morthren apparently named “Zeel” to track it down on foot. In the other, Blackwood, Suzanne, and Kincaid try, in the face of the general privation that comes from living rough in a crapsack world, to throw Debi a birthday party.

That’s it. No old friends of Kincaid’s who’ve stumbled onto an alien plot to grind up the homeless for food; no weird government experiments into making little girls that can vomit up mold monsters; just a birthday party and hunting down a lost drone.

Noam Zylberman

It was nice of Nate to take time off from bullying Ralphie and Flick to come to Debi’s birthday party.

So, you remember how they casually have videophones in this world? Don’t sweat it if you forgot. I keep forgetting too. It’s received a bit of an upgrade since last time, though, providing a black-and-white TV-quality signal rather than the 1-fps CIF image it did before. In any case, Debi is on the phone with her friend Nate, who she’s a little sweet on. He tells her all about his adventures out on his wealthy family’s big estate out in the country. Only he’s clearly lying because he’s dressed like a hobo same as everyone else, and I’m pretty sure his charming bucolic anecdote about spending three days sailing down the river on a home-made raft is just him remixing bits of Tom Sawyer, and he gets super cagey and suddenly has to go when Debi suggests she might some day go visit him and ride on his raft, if you know what I mean (I mean ride on his raft). Also, who goes rafting in the middle of winter?

Debi is down in the dumps because the writers keep forgetting she exists for weeks at a time despite her self-evidently being far and away the most interesting character. And also because tomorrow’s her birthday, which has made her want to actually spend time with her friends in person rather than via Skype.

You know what’s weird? No, not that Debi isn’t more upset about the fact that she lives in a hole in the ground, that her civilization appears to have pretty much collapsed, that she’s repeatedly had to fight for her life over the past few weeks, that the Earth is in the middle of an alien invasion, that a couple of months ago, she got mind-controlled into nearly murdering her mother, or that, oh yeah, her grandmother just died. But that we’re only a few months out of the eighties and the writers were willing to present a teenage girl who isn’t happy to interact with her friends in the form of monopolizing the telephone. “Man, teenage girls be making phone calls,” is one of the core dominant ’80s cliches, and they steered clear. I’m impressed.

While this is going on, Mana is showing off the new cloaking device they’ve slapped on a watcher drone, which allows them to easily penetrate, “The military’s much vaunted wall of security.” Why do they want to do that, when they’ve repeatedly demonstrated that the military not only fails to be a threat to them, but in fact seems to be actively working for them half the time? Never mind. As pretty much always happens on demo day, something goes wrong and the probe flies off on its own, which is bad because it’s full of important intelligence about the… unlabeled plain brown boxes in a nondescript army warehouse.

Boy, they sure can’t risk losing this highly valuable data about unmarked crates on shelves.

For her birthday, Suzanne gives Debi… A photo album. There isn’t much chance of me making it a whole paragraph through this thing without finding something that fails to make sense to me, is there? How did she do this? They live in an underground bomb shelter that they moved into because their previous home exploded. They’ve gone to ground and are, I think, maybe, possibly in hiding. Or are they? Did Suzanne get to settle her mother’s estate after “Night Moves”? Where did she get a collection of old family photos stretching back for decades? And why are all of her family photos in black and white?

They make a huge deal about how hard it is to get things like eggs. Where did Suzanne get those little fancy corner things you use to stick down photos into albums?

And Suzanne’s choices for this album don’t pass strict scrutiny either. Like, there’s a picture of the pony she got for her birthday when she was 8 or 9. Because God knows that the thing your lonely teenager who thinks her life is a craphole wants for her birthday is a picture of her mom getting a birthday present which is way better than some shitty photo album. And remember, the last time Debi had a significant role in an episode, it was when her grandmother died. And it didn’t occur to Suzanne that it might be a sore subject? She tells a thematically meaningful anecdote about how her mother always put a single candle on birthday cakes to “represent the light that children brought into the world.” But there’s absolutely nothing to convey the complexity of Suzanne’s relationship with her mother, which had been such a big deal in “Night Moves”.

Continue reading

Deep Ice: There’s a woman dying in front of me, and no one’s helping her (“Hermione Georgina Wells”‘s War of the Worlds Refought

So I know I said we were back on the TV series for a while, but April Fool’s Day was this past weekend, and I’ve got this tiny little divergence that came up while I was googling in the hopes of finding somewhere I could still buy a copy of Kevin Sorbo Presents The War of the Worlds: A Biblical Reading (Spoiler: There isn’t. I’m not sure I didn’t dream the whole thing). Since I’ve namechecked le poisson d’avril, let me assure you up front that this is an absolutely real thing which really exists.

Wait for it…

It is August 20, 2010. The last US combat troops have just left Iraq, so I guess that’ll finally put an end to US involvement in wars in the middle east.

 

Jack Horkheimer, director of the Miami Space Transit Planetarium, died of a lifelong respiratory ailment this morning. Horkheimer was best known as the host of the PBS series Jack Horkheimer: Star Gazer, or as I always knew it, “The astronomy show that comes on before Doctor Who.” It has originally been called Star Hustler, until the internet became a thing and people started to worry about kids googling “Star Hustler”. His epitaph reads, “‘Keep Looking Up’ was my life’s admonition; I can do little else in my present position.”

“Love The Way You Lie” by Eminem and Rhianna holds the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100. Because it’s a year starting with 201, Katy Perry is on the top ten twice (“California Gurls” and “Teenage Dream”), but remarkably, Taylor Swift is only on there once, with “Mine”. Mike Posner’s “Cooler Than Me” is also in the top ten, a really fun little song except that I’m pretty sure the whole point of it is to neg a girl into dating the narrator, and that’s fucked up.

Everything’s in reruns, obviously, and it’s Friday so Jon Stewart isn’t even on tonight, and this is the gap year for Power Rangers so there’s not even that to talk about. About the only new thing on television is the Melissa Joan Hart/Joey Lawrence vehicle Melissa and Joey, a sitcom in a vaguely retro mold in which an up-and-coming local politician has to take in her brother’s kids when he flees the country after a Bernie Madoff-style scam, then hires a disgraced day-trader as a nanny. I am told it gets better after the first season, which I kept wanting to like but found unspeakably awful. The final episode of At the Movies, formerly hosted by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, aired this past week. Out in theaters, I am not making this up, is The Room.

The War of the Worlds Refought by “Hermione Georgina Wells” is part of a series of literary remixes by Jekkara Press which all follow roughly the same premise: Let’s take a classic work of fiction and swap all the genders. Other works in the line include The Hound of the Baskervilles Retrained, The Three Musketeers For All, Frankenstein Remade, and Tarzan of the Apes ahem Reswung.

Well that’s an interesting idea, sure, but we’re not talking about Jane Austen here, or even Sherlock Holmes. H. G. Wells is not exactly known for his richly drawn characters. So what would it look like to gender-swap all the characters in The War of the Worlds?

Turns out it would look like someone ran a simple search-and-replace over the text of the novel. That’s it. Seriously. Just the full text of The War of the Worlds with such changes as replacing every instance of the word “he” with “she”, “man” with “woman”, “wife” with “husband”, and soforth.

This isn’t as big of a change as it must be in the other books in the series. Victor Frankenstein has to become Victoria; Sherlock Holmes becomes, rather inexplicably, “Shylock Holmes”, and Lady Greystoke calls herself “Tarzyn”. But Wells was never much for names. Ogilvy is still Ogilvy, even as a female astronomer; the Curate is still a curate; the artilleryman becomes an artillerywoman (Though in an oversight which I am guessing is due to capitalization, her chapter is still called “The Man on Putney Hill”). If you thought War of the Worlds Plus Blood, Guts and Zombies was a cheap trick to make a buck with the minimum possible effort (And, okay, it was, but there was more to it than that), it’s got nothing on The War of the Worlds Refought.

But okay. Y’know what? Maybe we can still get something out of this. One element of note is the rigorous consistency with which the transformation has been done, chapter titles notwithstanding. “Man” becomes “woman” even in the abstract. It’s shrieking men who run past the narrator, or who foolishly dismiss the first reports of fighting. It’s womankind she fears has been purged from existence by the Martians (Reminding me of the fun fact that etymologically, “man” once was legitimately genderless, and only became de facto male by replacing an older word. Which is why the etymologically correct name for a lady werewolf is a “wifewolf”, though there is a certain charm in the more cumbersome “wolfmannic woman”). And most interestingly, as the Curate descends into madness, she is said to be, “He was as lacking in restraint as a silly man.”

That’s something we can think about. The changes to the text are simple, mechanical. There’s no discretion to them, and one thing that means is that the choice of any individual change isn’t subjective: it’s determined according to a rigorous set of rules. If there’s an agenda in what’s been changed, the details of that agenda are bracketed away behind the rules. What that means is that if we want to talk about the psychological effect the changes have on the reader, we can start from the position that it’s the reader’s own subjectivity that produces those effects, rather than the reader being manipulated into them by the author/editor’s machinations. (Or, rather, if you do want to insist that you’re being manipulated by some trick the author/editor is pulling, you can only do it by confessing that you view “just systematically include women in spaces that were previously male” as a form of emotional manipulation. And that position is not going to win you any friends outside of the executive branch of the US government.)

So how does it make us feel? We’ll leave aside anyone who just throws up their hands and shouts about everything being ruined by “political correctness run amok” to have women with agency in a Victorian science fiction adventure and focus on something else instead. The word “woman” appears eighteen times in the original text of The War of the Worlds. Three of the occurrences are some form of the phrase, “a woman shrieked,” two are, “a woman screamed.” These aren’t the only occurrences of people shrieking or screaming, but they do stand out at least insofar as they are singular and personal, rather than the more common “I heard a shriek” or “Screams reached me from the crowd.” (Both the narrator and his brother do “scream”, but “shrieks” are generally collective). Wells’s go-to images of human horror also tend to be gendered. One scene builds an escallating sense of the refugee crisis by showing first two men, then a, “dirty woman, carrying a heavy bundle,” and finally a lost dog.

There is, of course, the matter of women appearing almost exclusively in the particular, while men appear vastly more often in general: the narrator frequently mentions “men” futilely attacking or fleeing the Martians, his chaotic scenes are always full of men being shoved, pushed, trampled as they try to escape; women appear almost exclusively in the particular, as a special case where the narrative is calling attention to a particular instance of human misery. This means that the gender balance is actually much better than you might at first expect when we are talking about characters of significance. Among characters with dialogue, women are within a standard deviation or two of men. Among characters with names, they do even better. But in general? The word “man” appears at least 89 times in the text, “men” over a hundred. To paraphrase Sam Spade, maybe they’re not all important characters, but look at the number of them. Flipping the genders makes the disparity painfully obvious, especially in how many contexts are male dominated purely as a linguistic default.

But what of the major characters? The narrator, the Curate, the Artilleryman? You might, for instance, find that gender-swapping the narrator inclines you to look for a deeper emotional connection in her quest to reunite with her husband, imagine this as a stronger theme in the story. But even with the gender swap, Wells’s writing precludes this with its dry, analytical style. A more interesting case is the curate, whose breakdown is explicitly called, “Like a silly woman,” in the original text. The gender-swap puts the lie to this, because it makes us more aware of how the curate compares to other characters. Those “shreiking” women mentioned elsewhere in the original story are all reacting in the heat of the moment to immediately impending danger, not at all like the curate’s slow breakdown under days of continuous stress.

There is one scene in the original book where a woman’s reaction to the Martians might be called “silly”, though: immediately after the battle of Horsell Common, the narrator encounters a mixed-gender group who laugh off his tales of murderous Martians, and the woman takes a notable lead in dismissing his claims — the “silliness” of dismissing the danger, rather than the curate’s descent into panic. It’s becomes clear that Wells threw out the “silly woman” accusation purely because “Like a silly woman” was a standard way to dismiss someone for being irrational, without any consideration for how actual women were depicted in the rest of the book.

That just leaves the Artillerywoman. And here, I have to admit, the simple act of changing he to she does make a big impact on how I relate to the character. Namely, it completely destoys any sense of that “strange charisma” the Artilleryman seems to convey. I’ve always had a bit of trouble empathizing with that aspect of the character, but I do acknowledge it, that people like the narrator can listen to him and find themselves drawn to go along with his ridiculous, unworkable plans.

I’m an anti-authoritarian; I don’t go in for the whole, “This guy sounds confident as he makes angry noises about which people we should kill! I respect this as strength and good leadership!” But I live in 2017. I can’t exactly pretend that I don’t believe that kind of pitch would work perfectly well with a certain percentage of the audience. And I already know as a matter of absolute fact that the traits of ambition, of unyielding confidence, of bullying bluster might be enough to win a man the highest office in the land, but in a woman, they’re universally derided as being “shrill” and “arrogant” and “bitchy”. The Artillerywoman doesn’t feel quite right to me because I know as an absolute matter of fact that she’s wrong, and even if she were right in her desire to create a quasi-fascist populist utopia where everyone eats peas with their knives, nine out of ten people would hear that and dismiss her as a shrill, angry bitch who shouts too much. And what about her emails?

So maybe that’s the point of this little project. By simply swapping the genders and leaving everything else alone, the book becomes a mirror to help us see some of the gendered assumptions we make without even thinking about it. How the words “man” and “men” occur about twenty times as often as “woman”; that a book with three major male characters and only a few minor female ones doesn’t “feel” overly masculine in the same way it might feel especially feminine with the ratios reversed. That the selfsame traits that make a male character charismatic make a female one reviled. Maybe this is a book whose purpose is ultimately to just “feel wrong” — to not work quite as well as the original, specifically so that you’ll question why it doesn’t, only to find that the reasons — how we as readers have been trained to think about male and female characters — don’t come from the text. They come from ourselves.

At least, that’s what I would have said, if I hadn’t seen the cover. Because guess what the cover of this book looks like…

Continue reading

Thesis: The Last Supper (1×18, Part 2)

Previously on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

There’s something just a bit Ionesco about the swanky conference table and chairs in the middle of a high school gym.

Why do these scientists need to be reminded that an alien invasion occurred in the 1950s? Why wasn’t the basic concept of alien possession covered in their briefing kits? What are they even doing here if they don’t already know the basic ground rules?

The parts about alien biology, sure, that makes sense to present. They’re presenting the findings of Suzanne’s research. But when Harrison takes over on the subject of alien possession, he spends thirty seconds rattling off a list of the sort of people aliens might take over, complete with montage: “Soldiers… Waitresses… Bikers… The homeless… Paramedics…” Imagine you were listening to that, in that room, without the accompanying archive footage. Do you imagine a photographer from Christchurch is sitting there thinking, “Whoa, even waitresses?” (And, not to lay too fine a point on it, but the waitress thing happened in the opening scene of “The Good Samaritan”, and the Blackwood team didn’t get involved with it until much later, and never knew about the waitresses anyway). The other issue if you imagine the representatives listening to this speech without the accompanying montage is the pacing. Without the archive footage, Harrison just trails off for five to ten seconds after every sentence to let the clip play out. Even if we grant the basic conceit that Harrison is trying to stress the seriousness of the situation rather than give them actionable intelligence, wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on threats like, “They could strategically replace people in key government positions,” or “They could replace your mom and you wouldn’t know until it was too late, unless this is one of those episodes where the aliens can’t act remotely human long enough to avoid blowing their cover.” Or maybe mention that the aliens actually did manage to briefly infiltrate the Blackwood team. Actually, they probably don’t want to advertise that.

The end table with reading lamp is a nice touch.

During dinner, Argochev, for the only time in the episode, decides to be charming and flirts with Suzanne. She mentions that his government-provided dossier didn’t really explain what his job was, just in case we missed the fact that we’re meant to be suspicious of him. Harrison buttonholes Soo Tak, and asks, very bizarrely, if the aliens in China are the same aliens they’ve been fighting stateside (They are). Dr. Tak considers it “most curious” that his people have been unable to open a dialogue with the aliens, suggesting that maybe he nodded off when Harrison explained how the aliens were space-Nazis who didn’t give a crap about humans. Harrison just nods and says that the aliens are “very intractable.” When Harrison asks about their numbers, Tak estimates that there are about 10,000 aliens in China, surprising Harrison leading to James Hong’s one really properly good line, and the best line in the episode to my mind: “We have a big country, sir.”

Back to the Land of the Lost, where one of the Advocates muses on how much he enjoys watching his industrial manufacturing show. I always liked the segments on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood where they showed us the production line at a factory too. Especially that one about how crayons are made. Dylan got to visit the Crayola factory where they made that once. Anyway, nothing new here; “The humans are meeting. Should we do something?” “We should do something!” Their agents have narrowed down the location of the conference to Philadelphia. I don’t believe there are any establishing shots of Toronto which directly contradict this.

War of the Worlds - Philadelphia City Hall

In fact, I’m pretty sure that is a legit shot of Philadelphia city hall from the 200 block of North Broad Street. Which means that they did a location shoot. For their clip show.

We only get one presentation from the other representatives, which is a real shame. Fortunately, it has some meat to it. Morales claims that they’ve seen no evidence of an active alien presence in Peru, but he’s brought some national geographic footage of an unusual clay object found in a recently excavated Andean crypt. He’s brought a black plastic tetrahedron with him, found inside the object. Looks a bit like the big brother of the weird alien sex crystal Harrison found back in “The Second Seal”, which makes it weird that they don’t explicitly reference that episode, nor do they mention the alien control crystal found in a Native American headdress in “Dust to Dust”, another really obvious parallel. The tetrahedron emits a low level of X-rays, as well as a percussive sound outside the range of human hearing, which Morales claims bears similarities to alien transmissions the Blackwood team had forwarded to him ahead of the conference.

The worst is when you go downstairs in the middle of the night for a glass of milk and step on it.

After the technology presentation, Ironhorse comes in with the news that someone left an anonymous note at the front desk accusing Morales of faking his presentation. Everyone is instantly offended and distrustful, and Harrison all but directly accuses Argochev of being behind it. This is interesting in two ways. First, it’s Harrison and not Ironhorse who’s instinctively suspicious of the Russian. In fact, Ironhorse only makes one negative comment about Argochev in the entire episode, and honestly, he doesn’t seem like his heart is really in it. Could this be Ironhorse showing character growth after the events of “Epiphany”? Hard to tell, since this show won’t commit to going all-in on character development. It’s strange that “Epiphany” doesn’t come up at all in this episode. There’s a reasonable argument to be made that having come so close to nuclear armageddon might be something the higher-ups don’t want them discussing with the international committee, especially since the attendees don’t exactly represent the US’s closest international partners. But given the randomness of the assortment of countries involved in the conference, there’s a suggestion that Harrison had a hard time getting buy-in from the international community. All due respect to our international neighbors, but when one is setting up an international coalition against a world-ending threat, inviting China and the USSR seems pretty straightforward, inviting Peru, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and “Unspecified African Nation” less so. Invoking “Epiphany” could have been helpful here to explain that it was the influence of Dr. Rhodan that got Soviet buy-in.

The other odd thing about Harrison’s implicit accusation of Argochev… Is right. Argochev is deliberately undermining the conference for reasons which will become clear right after we cut over to the Advocates and back. “Should we do something? We should do something!” (Oh, also, they confirm that they’ve got an agent at the conference who they’re expecting to report in with important information soon). But it’s still a dumb reason. When they reconvene, Argochev admits to having made the baseless accusation against Morales, and explains that he did it because Soviet intelligence has reason to believe one of the representatives has been replaced by an alien.

What a twist. Is it weird that they’d have reason to believe that without knowing who it is? Maybe. It’s certainly easier to imagine whatever sources they were using could distinguish between New Zealand, Peru, Sri Lanka and “Africa”, but who knows. Maybe they picked up an alien transmission. Or a known alien they were tracking switched hosts at the airport. But like I said, the field was already down to two, and presumably it’s not the guy who just alerted them to the alien threat. I mean, unless that is itself a diversion. I mean, if their primary goal is to break up the conference, this is a good way to do it. No one ever expresses any skepticism at Argochev’s claims. And frankly, what’s the point of Argochev causing so much trouble anyway? The aliens are trying to disrupt the conference, so he… Disrupts the conference for them? It’s not like the alien is liable to blow its cover because Argochev is being a jerk. I guess maybe it might make sense if you assume that Argochev is just trying to slow things down in the hopes of sussing out the alien before the conference gets around to actually making plans for fighting the aliens. That might explain why he comes clean now — since accusing Morales didn’t work, he’s out of time, and wants his cards on the table because Ironhorse’s presentation is next. Remember that Argochev specifically objected early on that he wanted a say in the agenda? Perhaps he legitimately wanted to make sure that the presentations specifically about successes in combating the aliens went last.

Harrison claims that they can’t detect aliens by visual inspection, forgetting that they’ve been here for three days now and alien host bodies rot and are radioactive. He proposes letting Suzanne do a blood test, but all the delegates balk for unspecified reasons, and Dr. Menathong asks to contact her embassy first, breaking the communications blackout. Everyone else hops on the “Let’s call home first” train, and Ironhorse is forced to go off and figure out a way to make it happen. Now, Menathong wanting to call home first makes perfect sense, in light of her being the one who’s secretly an alien, as hinted at by the fact that she’s the only one who hasn’t said anything since her introduction. The others making the same demand seems on first blush to serve no real purpose, but if you think about it for a few minutes, you can sort of put together the idea that they’re all worried that they’ll be set up and falsely accused, and want their governments to be ready for it if they don’t come home.

While that’s going on, alien agents in Philadelphia have somehow narrowed down the location of the conference to Cheltenham (a real-world Philadelphia suburb), but the Advocacy already has the address, having been called by their agent on the inside. They make preparations to storm the place.

Despite pushback against the blood test, Harrison makes the case for carrying on anyway, insisting that they’ll figure out who the alien is before the end of the conference, and it might even be useful for an alien to learn about how hard humans are willing to fight. Ironhorse has to bow out of his presentation, so Harrison presents the final montage in his stead. This one’s about the team’s successes in fighting aliens. This presentation is the weakest as part of the narrative framing story, but at the same time, it’s probably the most successful as a visual montage: it’s all about the team, mostly Ironhorse, shooting aliens and watching them melt. So it’s full of cool shots of aliens getting shot — though disappointingly, not the one of Harv getting blown up in “Eye for an Eye”, or the really good slow-mo dissolving alien scene from “A Multitude of Idols”. But the content is basically, “Good news: the aliens’ one weakness is bullets.” Harrison calls particular attention to their success in the pilot at blowing up the alien war machines. He ends on a sombre note, though, revealing that they’ve already lost a member of their team. I assume they’re talking about Kensington, though calling him a “member of the team” feels like a cheat, since he’d only appeared in two or three scenes before they killed him off. Makes me wish they’d kept Reynolds around to have him die a few episodes in. He felt more like a full character in his handful of scenes in the pilot than Kensington did. Harrison also gives a nod to the “many soldiers” they’d lost in combat (though really not all that many after the pilot), and the innocent civilians.

Continue reading

Thesis: The Last Supper (1×18, Part 1)

We should surrender to the aliens. We have no other choice.

I’ve summoned you all to the accusing parlor, so you can watch while I gradually solve the crime.

It is March 6, 1989. Since the last episode of War of the Worlds aired, nine people aboard US Airlines flight 811 out of Honolulu were lost when a cargo door failed, causing the aircraft to experience explosive decompression. Icelandic Prohibition ended after almost 80 years (though only strong beer was still banned by this point). Time and Warner have announced their impending merger. The Berne Convention was ratified by the US, making international copyright law a settled issue that totally won’t ever come up again. The Satanic Verses controversy comes to a head with Iran placing a three million dollar bounty on Salman Rushdie. Tomorrow, they will sever diplomatic ties with the UK over the affair. Venezuela is hit by a series of riots and protests over rising gas and transportation costs known as the Caracazo. Future strongman Hugo Chavez was unable to participate, being sick that day, but would later describe the event as a turning point that made the 1992 coup attempt inevitable. In cold war news, Estonia, which had been quietly resisting Soviet rule for almost two years by now, flew their own flag at Toompea Castle, next to the Estonian Parliament building, for the first time since Soviet annexation.

Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” made its debut in a Pepsi commercial during last Thursday’s The Cosby Show, another big part of my childhood which seems like a parallel universe now because a lot of people were up in arms about how inappropriate it was to expose innocent children to Madonna, especially a song that was sexy and possibly a little blasphemous, and worse, to do it in the middle of something totally family-friendly and not-at-all-scandalous-especially-in-any-kind-of-sex-related-way like Bill Cosby. Reality doesn’t make a lot of sense any more. Not a lot of changes to the Billboard charts. New in the top ten this week is Milli Vanilli’s “Girl You Know It’s True”. The album will hit the stores tomorrow.

ABC debuted Coach last week. CBS presented us with Hard Time on Planet Earth, one of those high-concept sitcoms I’m always going on about, this time about an alien warrior whose rehabilitation after being convicted of war crimes is to go be an ’80s Walking the Earth action-adventure hero, only as a sitcom rather than an ’80s action-adventure series. I do not recall this series; it is by all accounts terrible. The Disney Afternoon evolved into its imperial phase with the debut of Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers. Tomorrow, ABC will premiere Anything But Love, which is surprisingly close to running out of 1980s for a show I remember almost exclusively for being “a very ’80s thing I didn’t pay much attention to.”

TV is a mix of old and new this week. ABC’s TGIF Friday lineup is repeats, though their Tuesday lineup is new. Yesterday, they aired a Debbie Allen special and followed it up with a thriller starring Robin Givens, Robert Guillaume, and, strangely, David Hewlitt, who must have been awfully young. NBC counters by airing the 1986 William Petersen film Manhunter, the oft-overlooked first film adaptation of the Hannibal Lecter novel Red Dragon. CBS also did a movie, this one a docudrama about the invention of the atomic bomb, featuring Hal Holbrook. MacGyver is a repeat this week, but last week they aired “The Challenge”, one of those charmingly ’80s “White Action Adventure Hero Meets and Uplifts Underprivileged Black Youths and Saves Their Community Center” episodes. The basic problem of the premise is the worst thing about it; it’s otherwise pretty much okay and holds up better than any of the twice-a-season “Sam solves racism” episodes of Quantum Leap.

I bring up Quantum Leap because it is due to premiere in a couple of weeks and I have a note in my big spreadsheet of when things happened relative to each other to mention Quantum Leap here, and I have very little to say other than, “Wow, these ‘Sam solves racism’ episodes have not aged well.” Not that the show isn’t great or that Bakula isn’t a national treasure and we were lucky to have him in a recurring role as the villain for one season of Doctor Who how the hell did he manage to kill Star Trek? I just don’t have anything interesting to say about it. Oh, except that have you ever noticed how similar the theme song to Quantum Leap is to the theme song to MacGyver?

Now, if War of the Worlds had done a musical episode, maybe they’d have gotten renewed.

No new Friday the 13th this week, and no new Star Trek either, but there will be something weird instead: Michael Dorn will guest star on the series finale of the sitcom Webster, in character as Lt. Worf. I have no memory of this happening, it’s not out on DVD, and I can’t find a copy on-line to verify any of this. I did watch Webster, though, at least the first few seasons. I probably lost track when it fell off ABC and moved to first-run syndication. Let’s hop over to a sidebar…

Webster is one of those shows that dropped off of a lot of people’s radar because of the extent to which it sounds like a complete rip-off. On paper, it’s essentially a clone of Diff’rent Strokes: a show about a short black child being raised by a wealthy white family. The biggest difference is that unlike Gary Coleman’s Arnold Drummond, Emmanuel Lewis’s Webster Long is super-adorable rather than mouthy. It’s not exactly the show they were aiming to make when they pitched it. Susan Clark and Alex Karras had been developing a romantic comedy series under the name Another Ballgame for ABC at the time. Clark was a more accomplished actor than Karras (Probably best known for Mongo in Blazing Saddles), but their real-life romantic chemistry translated incredibly well to the screen. But ABC was desperate to get Emmanuel Lewis on the screen as soon as possible in case he stopped being marketably adorable as he aged, so they pushed him on Karras and Clark and the rest… Is more complicated than any of you care about in this article about alien invasions. But it’ll be relevant, I promise! Anyway, after five seasons on ABC, the ratings slumped so they canned it, and Paramount exercised an option to keep making the show for syndication. I’m guessing I didn’t see it past this point, because nothing in the capsule summaries rings a bell. I’ve got plenty of memories of the show, but only three are especially specific. I remember needing some parental guidance to help cope after being especially terrified when Webster burns down the family’s apartment while playing with a chemistry set in the second-season episode “Burn Out”. I think this is one of those times my parents tried to teach a life lesson in a way that involved some knife-twisting by implying that I myself might similarly destroy our family home if I didn’t learn to straighten up and fly right and not play with chemistry sets without parental supervision. The second one I recall specifically is the third season episode “Chained”, in which bad luck haunts the family after failing to forward a chain letter. I remember this just well enough to identify it as one of those episodes that’s at odds with itself, because of course the moral is going to be that you shouldn’t forward chain mail and postal fraud does not have magical powers to manipulate fate… Except that TV is always disposed to pander to those who want to believe we live in a magical, daemon-haunted world, so 90% of the episode, up to and including the final freeze-frame gag at the end will be based on assuming or at least leaving open the possibility that, yes, the chain letter really does have magical powers. The third one I remember is one where Webster discovers a hidden room behind a secret passage in the cool Victorian house they inhabit for the bulk of the series and gets trapped in there. Typically, the premise of being trapped in a confined space is used as an excuse for a season-finale clip show. Webster did have one season finale cliffhanger, unusual for a sitcom, but the majority of its seasons ended with the much more traditional sitcom season finale clip show…

The reason that the series finale for Webster guest stars everyone’s favorite Klingon — I mean, other than as a treat for Emmanuel Lewis — is that young Webster dreams himself onto the Enterprise via the popular sitcom conceit of nodding off while playing video games. The Enterprise’s security chief apparently wants to learn how to be more human, because the writers couldn’t figure out a new plot when someone explained to them which one was Michael Dorn. So Webster, George and Ma’am teach Worf a very important lesson about the concept of feelings and familial emotion via a clip show, because God knows you can’t end a long-running sitcom without a clip show.

I hate clip shows.

We’ve talked about my hate of clip shows before. And I know you can make a solid argument for them, especially back in an era when television was deliberately ephemeral, without home recordings and only limited reruns, and I don’t care. They suck. There is something kinda interesting, though, in having Star Trek collide with an obscure ’80s sitcom a few months ahead of their one and only clip show, the upcoming season 2 finale “Shades of Gray”, which will see Dr. Pulaski inducing a clip show as an experimental medical treatment for Commander Riker after he gets stabbed by a poisonous thorn.

So after that very long diversion, do you want to guess what this week’s episode of War of the Worlds is?

Okay, it’s not as bad as all that. The “clip show” is limited to a handful of montages interspersed in an episode that still has a full plot. But yeah, this is our recap episode. I realize it’s been a long time due to my decision to meander off on a very long tangent, but do you remember a few episodes back when John Colicos paid us a visit? Harrison’s adventure with the original Baltar was framed by preparations for an important presentation by the Blackwood team to the UN. Well, imagine you took the last scene there of them actually presenting their work to the international community, and you stretched that out to a full episode. That’s what “The Last Supper” is. Under conditions of the utmost security, Ironhorse and the Omega squad have locked down a private school that is trying its darnedest to look like it is not in Toronto, and is hosting an international conference on the alien invasion.

Why are they holding this high-security international conference in a high school and not one of the US Government’s many high-security installations? Because shut up. Okay, there’s some gestures here toward the notion that the risk of discovery and infiltration by the aliens is so high that they can’t protect the conference if they involve anyone outside of Ironhorse’s direct chain of command, including their own government, because of the risk that anyone at any level might have been replaced by a soulless monster with no capacity for empathy toward humanity and wouldn’t bat an eyelash at condemning millions of innocent lives to suffering and death in the name of achieving their own selfish goals and GOD DAMN IT these articles were a lot easier to write before Trump got elected. Here I was about to explain how it’s basically nonsense to suggest that the federal government is so malicious and/or incompetent that they can’t be trusted not to sell out the human race for extermination and yet the Blackwood team is still somehow able to operate at all, let alone host a security conference to establish an international military coalition involving two communist countries and one that’s in the middle of a civil war. But then I realize that I live in a world where the single best chance we have at preventing the total collapse of our civilization lies in the actions of rogue park rangers and renegade NOAA employees. So I can’t make a joke about the setup for this being completely ridiculous because it turns out that the fate of the world resting in five visiting scientists put up in a school gymnasium while Ironhorse complains about how he only has half as many men as he needs may actually not be ridiculous enough to be realistic. I liked writing about the ’80s better when they were safely in the past.

Continue reading

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.)

Continue reading

Deep Ice: Common bacteria stopped the aliens, but it didn’t kill them (War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, Part 12: Jack London)

Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

Okay. Home stretch here. I didn’t really expect it to take this long when I started in on Global Dispatches.

I think I like Jack London. I’m not sure. Every time I try to summon up a memory of having read anything by him, it turns out I’m actually remembering My Side of the Mountain by Jean George. So, my dodgy memory notwithstanding, I’m pretty sure that Dave Wolverton manages to do a fair job of evoking London’s style with After a Lean Winter, a story which was nominated for the 1997 Nebula Award for best Novelette.

This is one of the few stories in this anthology where I really genuinely enjoyed the storytelling itself, not just the story or the premise or the twist or the historical insight. The story finds London anachronistically in the Yukon on January 13, 1900. The real-world London had left Alaska in 1898. The fictional version, along with his girlfriend Elizabeth “Bessie” Maddern (the two would marry in April in the real world, but divorce four years later), had returned months earlier, hoping to escape the Martian invasion. Most of the stories we’ve read so far date the invasion to 1900, which is kind of weird, since Wells dates the invasion to “Early in the twentieth century,” and technically, 1900 isn’t in the twentieth century. (And yes, that’s hugely popular layman mistake, but these are science fiction writers we’re talking about, a group known for loving that sort of pedantry). Wolverton sets the invasion a bit earlier, but, unusually, sets the story later.

Fleeing northward turns out to have been a bad move for London. He may have anticipated that the sparsely populated and inhospitable north might escaped attack, but the Martians were creatures native to an icy world. In a major departure from every other story, Martians in the arctic do not expire quickly from Earth disease: they survive and thrive many months later, more comfortable in weather which is outright balmy by Martian standards, and where the thinner atmosphere and greater UV radiation reduced the amount of airborne bacteria. Even the sluggish clumsiness of the Martians’ bodies, recounted by many of the authors (other than Mike Resnick), turns out to be more a matter of them being oppressed by the weather rather than the gravity, as those in the arctic have acclimatized, and some fear that the colony in Alaska will in time acclimatize themselves to Earth bacteria as well, allowing their invasion to be renewed.

Colony, yes. The cylinders which attacked the rest of the world were only an advanced force. A far larger ship landed near Juneau months after the initial invasion, cultivated a “jungle” of native Martian plants that rendered travel southward impossible.

Another oddity: this story is the only one I’ve ever read to mention and expand upon the humanoid creatures the Martians used as livestock on their homeworld. The creatures are mentioned only in a single sentence of the novel, none of them having survived the impacts of the cylinder-ships. The creatures were able to survive the much gentler landing of the colony ship, though, and serve as slaves for the Martians, hunting any humans who try to cross the “Great Northern Martian Jungle”.

Only the cover of a coming snowstorm allows London and the others in the area to meet up at a lodge by Tichen Creek on that January night. None of them are in a good way, but while the gold miners have been able to simply hole up in their mines and work through the invasion in relative safety, the trappers have been hit hardest, unable to ply their trade under the threat of attack. One such trapper is Pierre Jelenc, a man of “almost legendary repute,” now sorely embittered to have lost a year’s earnings, and down to only two dogs after losing five of them in an ill-advised prize fight. He arrives at Hidden Lodge with a large and foreshadowy bundle lashed to his sled, and brings news that the Martians have wiped out Anchorage.

He also brings news that the Martians are building a great walking city:

 “Twelve days now,” Pierre said. “Dere is a jungle growing around Anchorawge now—very thick—and de Marshawns live dere, smelting de ore day and night to build dere machine ceety. Dere ceety—how shall I say?—is magnificent, by gar! Eet stands five hundred feet tall, and can walk about on eets three legs like a walking stool. But is not a small stool—is huge, by gar, a mile across!
“On de top of de table is huge glass bowl, alive with shimmering work-lights, more varied and magnificent dan de lights of Paris! And under dis dome, de Marshawns building dere home.”

Once the storm is fully upon them, bringing cover from patrols of Martian flying machines (Another minor element of the book rarely retained in adaptation), Pierre reveals what’s brought him to the conclave for the first time in months: “By gar, your dogs weel fait mah beast tonait!”

He repeats it a few times, even as the others remind him that he’s down to his last two dogs, before he tires of toying with them and elaborates: the best trapper in the Yukon has captured a live Martian, and will let the assemblage pit their dogs against it. The crowd is immediately consumed by such bloodlust that the local doctor is cold-cocked when he dares suggest they let him study it instead of killing it. Even London himself, noted in the real-world for his animal activism, is drawn in:

 I found myself screaming to be heard, “How much? How much?” And though I have never been one to engage in the savage sport of dogfighting, I thought of my own sled dogs out in front of the lodge, and I considered how much I’d be willing to pay to watch them tear apart a Martian. The answer was simple:
I’d pay everything I owned.

Continue reading

Deep Ice: Imagine being here with poor gloomy tormented Conrad (War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, Part 11: Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad)

Mark TwainOkay, we’ve got Verne out of the way, we’ve got Lovecraft out of the way, and we’ve got Burroughs out of the way. Who else would you like to see take on the Martians? We’re closing on on the last few stories here, and I think one might feel a little cheated when one got to the end of an anthology like this if Daniel Keys Morgan and his sister Jodi hadn’t gifted us with a piece from the point of view of Mark Twain.

Roughing It During The Martian Invasion finds Samuel Clemens and his family on the steamship Minnehaha, bound for New York out of London when the Martians arrive. Twain himself misses their first appearance, but they’re spotted by his wife, and also by fellow traveler Francois Maitroit, a Cajun dwarf cardsharp who’d been passing himself off as French to better con the British. I had, through much of the long ocean journey, suspected that the small man was some kind of con man—but by God, what was wrong with being an American con man?
“It’s the British.” The dwarf shrugged. ‘One makes far more money, dealing with the British, presenting oneself as a gentleman of noble French extraction, than one makes as a banjo-playing Louisianian dwarf—I’ve tried both routes.”

The Minnehaha arrives at New York just in time to witness the rout of the US Navy by Martian “Walkers”, and is able to retreat back to safe water. Captain Davis ironically laments that they ought to have remained in the safety of England. At this stage, of course, they don’t know the nature of their attackers: Captain Davis imagines they might be Spanish, the Spanish-American war still being a recent memory at this point (Twain’s age and the weather suggest this story is set in the summer of 1900), while Francois suspects, like many others before him at this point, the Germans. Twain accuses the French, though I’m not sure whether he really means it, or if it’s just the Morgans’ interesting choice to keep playing up Twain’s curmudgeonly hate-boner for the French in general (He noticeably warms to Francois when he learns he’s actually Cajun, though continues to rib him for his French descent). On seeing a Walker up-close, though, he later concedes that Francois has the better theory, “Not that the French would be above this; this is precisely the sort of crime those malignant little soldiers delight in; but the science behind this — the skill — it reeks of German engineering.”

The Minnehaha makes its way down the coast, looking for a safe place to put to port, but keep getting chased back to sea until they reach New Orleans. “The French Quarter stank. It always stinks, to give it its due justice, but this was a new stink, a different stink and highly improved; of decay and death, rather than the stench of perfume and rotting food.” The city has been partially demolished, abandoned, and is choked by red weed, but isn’t under active siege by the Martians at the moment, so, with the ship low on food and fuel, they decide to risk it. The first mate goes ashore, along with Twain, who’d flouted his celebrity to be allowed to basically do whatever he liked, and Francois, who conned his way in.

They soon encounter a Walker, which bisects the first officer, while Twain and Francois are pulled into a cellar by a small, motley group of adorably diverse survivors. Twain reflects on how lucky he is that his wife didn’t come with them, since she’d have surely taken a liking to them. It’s from this survivor group that Twain learns the nature of the attackers. A Gypsy girl also relates that the invasion had been predicted by a “psychic pinhead” five years earlier, though, “Metallic monsters won’t really take over for another few decades. And they’ll come from Detroit, not Mars.”

The cellar turns out to be a “hotbed of resistance,” as explained by an Irish man with a “fierce mustache”, between complaints about how much he hates the English. They’ve managed to bring down three Walkers, using pit traps and buried explosives.

While they wait for night to fall before returning to the ship, Francois and Twain discus the nature of the invaders. Francois reckons, after “adjusting” for the presumed exaggerations of their hosts, that the creatures inside the tripods are, “more frightening than a Christian Scientist,” and, “Uglier than a Capitalist.” The first of these, Twain dismisses as plainly impossible, while the second seems just at the very edge of plausibility. Francois proposes that they catch a breeding pair to exploit for profit, and Twain is instantly sold on the idea.

I couldn’t help thinking that it sounded like the setup for a joke, probably a poor one—what do you get when a Negro, two Irish, a Gypsy, a dwarf, and a world-famous writer go out for a nighttime stroll?

Twain, Francois, and the gang of survivors return to the Minnehaha to find the captain drunk and the crew fled for Alabama in the lifeboats. Twain correctly concludes that they will eventually discover that being in Alabama is not preferable to death at the hands of the Martians. They return the next day.

As it becomes increasingly apparent that the Martians are getting sick — the Walkers have started stumbling about erratically — everyone is easily persuaded to sign on to Francois’s plan to capture some for revenge and profit.

While they’re unable to settle on a plan — Twain favors digging a pit trap, while everyone else prefers the idea of snaring a Walker with an anchor-chain, Battle of Hoth-style — it turns out not to be a big deal as the Martians are by now too sick to keep their Walkers upright, and the Minnehaha crew is able to capture eight surviving Martians from fallen tripods around the French Quarter.

It was my first sight of the Martians themselves—a thing no human who saw them, while they were still alive, is likely to forget. They were as ugly as their reputations—ugly as a Capitalist, and a sight uglier than Jo-Jo the Horse-Faced Boy had ever been. They have been described frequently enough since then, by a variety of word scribblers; I shall not waste time on it here, except in brief; grayish-green, with two sets of tentacles beneath the mouth; each of them was somewhat larger than a man.
I will mention their eyes at somewhat greater length. They were large and expressive; they seemed somehow both mournful and calculating, as though figuring the statistics on their situation. They were not human eyes, but there was no doubt in me that they were the eyes of sapient creatures, of creatures as intelligent as any man, including perhaps myself. When I met the eyes of the first of our captured Martians, I had the sense that I was meeting the gaze of a being wiser, and older, and colder, than any bishop who had ever lived.

The captured Martians die over the course of the next couple of days, but one party of sailors brings news that some apparently healthy Martians have escaped up the Mississippi in some sort of alien watercraft, possibly a submarine. Watching the aliens succumb to disease, Twain and Francois realize that their plan to breed Martians in captivity isn’t going to pan out, not least of all because they don’t actually know whether any combination of their captives constitutes a Martian breeding pair.

“Man is the Reasoning Animal,” I said. “Such is the claim—I find it open to dispute, though. Any cursory reading of history will show that he is the Unreasoning Animal. It seems plain to me that whatever Man is he is not a reasoning animal. His record is the fantastic record of a maniac. These poor monsters had no chance—if the gravity and heat and disease had not killed them, we would have done it ourselves, I think.”

Francois has heard reports of an abandoned riverboat a few miles upriver with only minor battle damage. He wants to arm the boat with the guns from the Minnehaha and follow the Martians upriver. Twain, still nostalgic after all these years for the life of a riverboat pilot, agrees to join him.

It isn’t, I hope you understand by now, the ambition of all the writers in this anthology to try to recreate the literary style of their various viewpoint characters. But some of them, quite obviously, are, and this story in particular does just about the best job of it I can think of. What’s really surprising, as a Mark Twain pastiche, is how subdued it is. Most of the time, when a modern writer decides to include Twain as a character, they go way over the top. They try to compress a whole lifetime of wit into their running length, sometimes making him speak almost entirely by quoting himself, the way Christian writers sometimes make biblical characters speak only in bible quotes to avoid accidentally committing blasphemy. I’ve often felt this treatment made Twain seem like a bit of a boor. Well, a bit more of one, anyway, repeating the same once-clever quotes over and over to show off his wit. There’s none of that here. Not even that “Rumors of my death” line which I think is actually Hal Holbrook. It takes a lot of dedication to not find an excuse to have Samuel Clemens tell someone that the rumors of his death have been greatly exaggerated in a story where he has to literally flee from his life from aliens with heat rays. Way to not go for the low-hanging fruit, Morgans.

There is still a lot of humor in the dialogue, but it’s decidedly low-key, and much more in keeping with the humor-density of Twain’s actual writing than the condensed Greatest Hits-versions we usually see when Twain is borrowed as a character. There’s a digression during the first conference on the boat about the Martian threat where Twain and Francois argue about the cheapness of the captain’s cigars, for example.

The story doesn’t really go anywhere in particular. It seems for a time like there’s going to be a daring attack on the Walkers, like the collaboration between British and native forces in India back in Hambly’s story, but instead the aliens all keel over while the crew of the Minnehaha is still arguing over a plan. Clemens and Francois muse over breeding Martians for profit, but it doesn’t go anywhere, and the end of the story, with them setting out to salvage a riverboat to chase the Martians up the Mississippi doesn’t feel like it’s going to come to much either: Twain certainly seems to be on board less out of faith they’ll accomplish their goals and more because, having just watched civilization collapse, he likes the idea of being a riverboat pilot and wants to do something fun. But not going anywhere in particular is classically Twain in its own way. And if it’s a little troubling that Twain’s wife and daughters go below deck once they leave New York and the story never bothers to mention them again, well, persons attempting to find continuity will be heat-rayed. Continue reading

Deep Ice: A perfect example of the alien logic systems (War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, Part 10: H.P. Lovecraft)

Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

From Three Panel Soul by Matthew Boyd and Ian McConville

I think it’s remiss to talk about H.P. Lovecraft without dealing with the incredibly racist elephant in the room right from the get-go. Howard Lovecraft was an incredibly racist elephant. And not in the “Oh, you’ve got to understand, it was a different time back then… ” sort of way: he was pretty damned racist even for a turn-of-the-century New England WASP, and he got only a very little bit less racist as the culture around him evolved. And this doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t enjoy his stories anyway, but you’ve really got to take into account, when you’re enjoying his depictions of the madness-inducing experience of the uncanny from encountering eldritch beings from beyond the stars whose nature is so utterly alien as to inflict permanent damage on the minds of men, that the reaction his characters have to squid-faced aliens is basically the same reaction that Howard himself had to the notion of interracial marriage. Or ladyparts. I’ve always kinda wanted to see a modern take on Cthulhu mythos where modern people encounter elder gods and are expecting to be driven mad by the revelation, but turn out to be totally fine, because they’re modern, progressive people, and it turns out that the eldritch horrors were only so scary to traditional Lovecraftian heroes because they were backward racists with body-anxiety issues.

Don Webb addresses the elephant right up front in To Mars and Providence. At least, I hope that’s what he’s doing. I live in 2017 so I’m not sure any more when I see someone present over-the-top racism in an asshole character whether the author is trying to mock their racist views or celebrate them. Also, speaking, as we recently were, of “The French Disease”, that first paragraph also dates these events to, “Exactly twenty-nine days after his father had died of general paresis—that is to say, syphilis.” If you’re keeping score, that sets the story in 1898, when The War of the Worlds was published, rather than the 1900 date most often used for the setting. The very first paragraph of this outing posits that young Howard was drawn to make a personal investigation of the Martian cylinder that lands on Federal Hill in Providence, Rhode Island because the eight-year-old was, “A gentleman of pure Yankee stock, and the true chalk-white Nordic type.” Webb’s young Lovecraft is kind of an asshole. You know who he reminds me of? Artemis Fowl, in the first book of the series. Only, a version of Artemis who isn’t really as intelligent and hypercompetent as he thinks he is.

Young Howard sneaks off on his bicycle to see the Martians in person, and witnesses the opening of their cylinder from the bell-tower of the adjacent church. He sees a Martian, “whose terrible three-lobed pupils spoke of the being’s nonTerran evolution,” and promptly faints when the Martian pulls out a “lightning” weapon to subdue the crowd.

He wakes up three days later in his own bed, tended to by his mother, who seems to have gone a bit peculiar in the face of the invasion. “There was something in his mother’s eyes that wasn’t right. Perhaps the ‘Martian’ invasion had unhinged her highly strung nervous system.” She explains that after killing the rest of the onlookers, the Martians had taken the unconscious Lovecraft into their ship, and then left him there when they set out to join up with the occupants of a second cylinder. “I suppose it thought you were one of their own,” his mother speculates, “You are a very ugly child, Howard, people cannot bear to look upon your awful face.” I feel like maybe if he hadn’t gone into writing, Howard would have ended up running the Bates Motel.

By the time Howard is awake, Providence is largely abandoned, with only himself and his mother remaining behind, “Until Grandfather Whipple comes for us.” Howard recognizes that his mother’s hopes are unjustified (and catches the implication that his aunts are dead), as the Martians would surely have destroyed rail, road and telecommunications infrastructure. Through his telescope, he sees a tripod (the only glimpse we get of them in this story) place a small golden box in the bell-tower, and feels himself drawn to return to the landing site.

Continue reading

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