Category Archives: War of the Worlds

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

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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Deep Ice: I’m all for detente and glasnost (War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, Part 8: Leo Tolstoy)

Dillard’s Novelization isn’t as good, but it’s blessedly shorter

Previously on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

You may have noticed that last week’s essay expressed a certain, shall we say, frustration with the direction that this anthology was going. I may have been unduly harsh because I was writing that article, as I am writing this one, as all joy and hope drains out of the world forever, in the middle of a series of personal disappointments made worse by the catastrophic unstoppable clusterfuck that the country is going through and also my kids are sick. But also that John Carter story did seriously suck.

So when I turned the next page and found that what was up next was Mark W. Tiedemann’s Resurrection, featuring Leo Tolstoy, I came pretty close to just nope-ing the hell out of there and writing about the 1981 Polish film Wojna światów – następne stulecie instead, despite the fact that I have not seen it and can’t find a copy. But I found myself with a little bit of time I could not otherwise usefully occupy, so I gave in and reread the story.

This is the version of the poster without boobs.

And it turns out that it’s good. I had not had cause to think about it in the past twenty years (I am old), but as it turns out, I don’t have a problem with Tolstoy’s style. The only thing I had trouble with was the volume of it. What I remember of Anna Karenina was that the individual pages seemed to fly by, but I kept feeling lost because it took so damned long for anything to get around to happening. Tiedemann’s story is denser than a Russian novel, but it still does capture some of that feeling of having wandered away from the story to muse on human nature for what seems like a very long time before getting to the next bit of plot.

Tiedemann’s Resurrection is not “Leo Tolstoy’s War of the Worlds” to be sure. We’re back in the format of Resnik, Silverberg and Berliner, that of “Historical figure’s personal memoir of the Martian invasion, bookended by ‘editor’s notes’.” Unlike the previous examples, though, the framing story — an exchange of letters between archivists at Oxford and St. Petersburg University concerning the recently-discovered Tolstoy letter — give us quite a lot of subtle insight to the new track history has taken in a world that survived the Martian war. The first hint of this is very subltle indeed: the address on the opening note identifies St. Petersburg University as being in Tula, rather than, y’know, St. Petersburg.

The main body of the story is a letter to Vladimir Chertkov, Tolstoy’s friend and editor, who was living in exile in England at the turn of the century, running a little commune of Tolstoyists. The historical Chertkov would eventually return to Russia, ruin Tolstoy’s marriage, and kinda get him killed, by convincing him to leave his wife, secretly, in the middle of the night, in the dead of winter, whereupon the octogenarian caught pneumonia and died.

Tolstoy opens his letter uncertainly, as he has no way of knowing if England has survived the invasion. Right away, we learn that Moscow, Smolensk and St. Petersburg have all been razed. He promises, almost ironically, to be brief.

He had been in Moscow when the Martian cylinders landed, and had at first dismissed the reports of falling stars, since, “Stars do not fall […] One has to believe that the pale blue sky up there is a solid vault. Otherwise one would believe in revolution.” He’s present to see the aftermath, though, when one lands in the river, flooding its banks. Leaving his wife and younger daughters in Moscow to attend to the publication of his latest novel, Resurrection, he returns to his family estate, Yasnaya Polyana, taking up Major Yepishka Sekhim, an “educated Cossack” on leave.

As they near home, they encounter a group of peasant refugees, fleeing an invasion neither Tolstoy nor Sekhim have heard anything about. Sekhim assumes it’s the work of “anarchists and democrats,” but Tolstoy suspects a pogrom. The refugees themselves speak confusingly of fleeing veliki shtativii (“great tripods”), which Tolstoy assumes to be confused and unreliable information.

Major Sekhim, however, is able to confirm the information the next day, reporting sieges and destruction in the cities, and invaders armed with a teplovoy potok (“heat ray”). The Tsar has fled. Refugees flood into Yasnaya Polyana, recalling Tolstoy’s famine relief work a decade earlier.

The de facto leader of the refugees, Iosef Vissarionovich, organizes raiding parties to beg, borrow and steal food from the surrounding estates. I’m not going to tell you who Iosef is just yet, but I imagine you’ll figure it out. He doesn’t get along with Major Sekhim, but is able to maintain a cordial working relationship with Tolstoy, with each man admiring certain qualities in the other — Tolstoy’s radicalism, Iosef’s natural leadership skills — but disapproving of others.

As we saw before in the Picasso story, there’s a momentary impulse to blame the Germans for the invasion due to their, “intense love for things mechanical,” though it still seems like a stretch. Tolstoy and the others learn the true nature of the invaders when a “green comet” lands on the grounds of Yasnaya Polyana. Fortunately, the cylinder strikes a granite outcropping as it lands and is torn open on impact, mangling the Martians inside.

Iosef is able to work out the details due to a lucky quirk of his backstory: he’d recently been employed by the observatory in Tiflis, and had learned of the explosions on Mars. With his military inclinations, he recognized what the astronomers did not: that the giant gas plumes on the red planet were indicative of cannonfire.

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Deep Ice: A red disk swimming in a blue sea (War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, Part 7: Edgar Rice Burroughs, Joseph Pulitzer)

Previously on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

I woulda used the poster from that other movie adaptation of A Princess of Mars, but I didn’t want to get sued.

“Hello, my nephew,” he said. “I did not mean to be the cause of such consternation. I had decided that it was appropriate for me to make one more—and perhaps final—journey to Earth, and I brought along my loyal Woola merely as an experiment. I wished to ascertain if I could transport another living being with me across the dark, cold abyss of space that separates your Earth from my beloved Mars.”
“And you have succeeded, John Carter,” I replied. “Now, what new adventures have you to report?”
“Let us make ourselves comfortable,” he said, “and I will tell you of a most urgent and bloody conflict that recently engulfed all of Barsoom, a crisis that surpassed even the desperate rescue of that planet’s vital atmosphere plant, the harrowing tale of which I have already unfolded to you.”

I’ve never read any Burroughs. Is this sort of thing normal? This does not sound like it was written by a human being.

Yeah, so. George Alec Effinger. Mars: The Home Front. Edgar Rice Burroughs. Let’s go. Okay, so this is, on paper, the thing I’ve been saying I wanted. Like the previous story, it’s very much a “What if someone else wrote War of the Worlds,” story. And this time, it’s “What if Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote War of the Worlds as a Barsoom story?” And hey, fun fact: a couple of years after this anthology was published, Barbra Hambly and George Alec Effinger got married. I wonder if this is somehow related. Like, “Hey baby, if I were assembling an anthology, I’d put U and I next to each other.”

But if you can’t tell from my own style here, Effinger’s effort does not meet with my approval the same way Hambly’s did. Only partially his fault. Thing is, if you do a good job at imitating Kipling’s style, you end up sounding like Kipling. And if you imitate Burrough’s style, you end up sounding like Burroughs. I have not actually read any Burroughs, and he seems hugely influential and all. I did glance over a few pages of A Princess of Mars to get a taste for it. And… I mean, I know that he’s hugely influential and all, but man, it’s pulpy. And Effinger kind of ramps it up a little. It’s all “Lo, John Carter, you do well to fear them for it is you who shall be fed upon by they, our monstrous oppressors, being the most fearsome foes of the Barsoom, beneath the weak rays of the moons Thuria and Cluros, where you shall be sent to your gods, if you have any,” and I’m wishing I could just go back and read a bunch more of Ortheris’s, “Strewth sorr, cor blimey hit hain’t but naught,” instead. I mean, the writing is so turgid that if it goes on for more than four hours, you should consult a physician.

The story opens up with the “meta-narrator” Burroughs out on a fishing trip when he’s accosted by Woola, John Carter’s calot. According to Burrough’s framing device, he’s the Doyle-style literary agent for his “uncle”, an inexplicably immortal former Confederate soldier, who, having astrally projected himself to Mars, occasionally returns to Earth to regale his nephew with stories of his exploits. This time, he’s brought along his ten-legged alien pet just to determine whether or not it would work. The first time I read the story, in my general ignorance about the series, I assumed Woola’s name was meant as a winking reference to the “Ulla!” sounds made by Jeff Wayne’s version of the Martians.

Carter has returned to Earth to tell his nephew about, “A most urgent and bloody conflict that recently engulfed all of Barsoom.” His story opens with him attending a boring state function at the home of his father-in-law, “Mors Kajak, the father of the incomparable Dejah Thoris, the most beautiful woman on Barsoom or Earth, my wife and the mother of my son, Carthoris.” He’s not really into it, even though, “I know that stifling formality and tedious dialogues are the price of what we choose to call ‘civilization.'” Holy shit, it’s like he was paid by the word.

Anyway, after a while, John Carter (This is probably all old hat to anyone who’s actually read the Barsoom books, but I can’t get past the way that he’s only ever referred to as “John Carter”, even by Burroughs. Never just “John” or “Carter” or even “Sir”) notices that his wife isn’t around any more. And even though he assumes he’s just, “Creating vexations where none exist,” (Jesus. Christ.), him and his buddy Kantos Kan go looking for her. Their first clue that something is Up comes when they find a mortally wounded man in the courtyard, which is an unintentionally hilarious way to describe it. After a fruitless and unseemly interrogation of the dying man, John Carter and Kantos Kan head for the airship docks.

They get a lucky break in that one of the two raiding parties had been dispatched by the palace guard, and the GPS on their abandoned airship has already been set for the trip home. It carries them for half a Martian day to a remote region that neither John Carter nor Kantos Kan know much about, and passes a suspicious circular hole in the ground about thirty yards in diameter (That’s what she said).

Unfortunately for John Carter’s rescue plans, the attackers were expecting them and ambush the pair immediately, immobilizing both of them with an unfamiliar energy weapon. He recovers in a holding cell and meets Bas-ok, another captive, from the city of Gathol, who dutifully delivers all the exposition they need: their attackers are slaves of a race called the Sarmaks, who are similar to the canonical Kaldanes, a race of beings consisting of a head with spider-legs. The Sarmaks are both more intelligent, and further along in their evolution toward being disembodied brains, lacking even their own digestive system (In several places online, I see the claim that “In the Wold Newton Universe, Kaldanes are descended from mutated Sarmaks,” but no one ever sources this claim and it seems backwards to me). So they subsist through vampirism, enslaving Red Martians to bring them victims to eat. John Carter had been set up: the slaves are clever enough to leave an obvious trail on their kidnapping raids so that they can capture the rescue parties as well.

The big suspicious hole in the ground turns out to be a Verne Gun, a launcher for the invasion force they’re sending to Earth to go get them some yummy humans to eat. So between kidnapping his wife and threatening his home planet, John Carter decides to give these Sarmaks whatfor, and stages an escape that goes off with the sort of easy triviality that things usually go off for a white guy in a turn-of-the-century pulp adventure novel where the bad guys are not white men. He sets out to rescue Deja Thoris and sends Kantos Kan back to the city of Helium to fetch the cavalry…

And then the story just stops dead. We pop back out to the frame, where the meta-narrator gives us a quick rundown on the events that “must wait until another occasion”: John Carter finds Deja Thoris; Bas-ok betrays him somehow; John Carter destroys the space cannon at great personal risk; the various races of Mars join forces to defeat the Sarmaks. But who’d want to read a boring story like that when instead we could just focus on John Carter nodding off on a long airship ride, being paralyzed for a day, then listening to lots of exposition?

The Burroughs character does not bother filling us in on events on Earth, but John Carter alludes to them: his return to Earth to tell this story was specific in its motivation. He’s here to formally end the war. He wants Burroughs to publish this story for him, so that humanity will, “Understand that there is no longer any need for revenge and violence against Barsoom. The threat of the sarmaks is ended, and our worlds are again at peace.”

This is not for me, I’m afraid. Burroughs’s writing is hard enough to get through, but Effinger, intentionally or not, exaggerates it to the point that I’m just begging for it all to end. And yet, somehow it still manages to end too soon, basically doing all the boring setup and exposition, then bailing out at the moment the story actually gets interesting. It’s written like pulp, but it lacks the excitement of pulp. It’s like reading Power Rangers fanfic that gets the tone of early ’90s children’s TV dialogue right, but isn’t interested in any of that stuff with the spandex and the giant robots. Y’know, my entire creative output in the year 2004.

And what’s the deal with the framing story? I mean, not the bit at the end, that’s actually clever. But why does John Carter decide to bring his six-legged horse-sized hunting dog with him to Earth? Is this Effinger’s way of settling an argument with someone about whether or not Carter can bring stuff with him?

But maybe this is all just me being me again and it’s actually good. This is the second attempt in this anthology to bring Wells’s Martians into the Wold Newton universe, and it seems like this one had more influence. The Sarmaks are mentioned frequently in expanded-universe Barsoom reference stuff on the web, and apparently some people even like the idea of trying to match this story up with Alan Moore’s Barsoom/War of the Worlds crossover in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which apparently tells a similar story, but details the final battle and destruction of the space cannon. Me? I’m just glad it’s over. Moving on…

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Deep Ice: We have Indians in our country as well (War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, Part 6: Rudyard Kipling)

Fun fact: prior to World War II, Kipling’s books usually featured a swastika on the cover or title page, due to its ancient usage as a good luck symbol in India.

Previously on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

Rudyard Kipling is a hard figure to get a handle on. On the one hand, you’ve got what seems to be a pretty straightforward old-school jingoistic imperialist, as evidenced by his poem The White Man’s Burden. On the other, you’ve got a man with a deep, but flawed respect for native cultures and a cynic who lamented the hypocrisy of how short imperial powers fell from their stated goals, as evidenced by his poem The White Man’s Burden.

I’ve read a little bit of Kipling. Bits of The Jungle Book and Just So Stories, and some of his poetry. I don’t have much familiarity with his military fiction, and as a result, I didn’t fully recognize what was going on in Barbara Hambly’s Soldier of the Queen. Though she’s got plenty of her own characters in her stable, Hambly is no stranger to working with existing characters either; she’s published works in both the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises, several Sherlock Holmes stories, and a series of historical mysteries starring Abigail Adams.

Soldier of the Queen is the first story in the collection to really properly be exactly the sort of thing I’ve been saying this anthology seems like it was meant to be: it’s not “Rudyard Kipling meets Martians”, but rather “Rudyard Kipling writes War of the Worlds“. Specifically, it’s War of the Worlds as a Soldiers Three story, an adventure of the “Three Musketeers”, Learoyd, Mulvaney and Ortheris, trouble-making soldiers serving in India at the turn of the century. The narrator is unnamed and never described in much detail, though he seems to be an authorial self-insert.

Hambly’s narration is much more dense than the Kipling I’ve read, but I took a quick glance at some of Plain Tales From the Hills, and it’s about par for the course. It’s hard to get past the great walls of Hambly faithfully recreating Kipling’s convention of rendering thick, stereotypical accents into text, which is really hard to do without becoming cumbersome. There’s only so many times you can read lines like, “Hit wiped ’em out, sir … Wiped ’em clean out, like ants frizzlin’ up on a griddle, hit did, wi’ a beam o’ light. Blast me for six if I ever saw such a thing,” before your eyes start to glaze over. Nothing against Hambly here; I think we might just be heading back into “Ross doesn’t really like 1890s British literature” territory.

The beginning of the story tacks surprisingly close to Walter Jon Williams’s Foreign Devils. A meteor has fallen near Fort Chopal, stirring up a great commotion. The narrator has heard of similar events occurring in England and the US. Just like in China, many among the native population have interpreted the meteors as a sign from the heavens, and the Martians are initially taken for a kind of demon sent to evict their British oppressors. Or, as Ortheris puts it:

Meself, I find it ’ard to b’lieve the ’igh-up god Shiva really up an’ sent a failin’ star down at Gorakhpur wi’ a load of demons to wipe out the gora-log just ’cause the local Brahmin got done out o’ two square feet of land and a cow by some Manchester bank.

Yeah. Sorry about that.

“Thugees, hunters, Pandies, and malcontents of all sorts whose dissatisfaction with the Queen’s rule and the Queen’s justice had been a slow-simmering constant since the days of Lucknow and Cawnpore,” try to take advantage of the soldiers’ distraction when the first tripod appears, and mount an assault on the fort. It soon falls under joint assault from Martian and Indian forces. Which is a weird sentence to have just written.

The narrator falls from a crumbling parapet and is knocked unconscious, and his recovery is one of the few passages where I properly enjoy, rather than simply appreciate the prose:

“Goad, sir, Ah’m glad you’re alive.”
I wasn’t. Nor was I sure I still lived, for the heat was theological, the stink of dust and blood suffocating, and my body an armature of pain.
Even the sound of that deep Yorkshire boom, or the light Cockney, “There, what’d Hi tell yer?” that followed, did not reassure me. Could I be assured of any facet of the afterlife, it would be the eventual downward destination of Mulvaney, Ortheris, and Learoyd.

The ragged remains of the unit retreat to Patna, then Calcutta. The narrator elides over most of the journey, accounts of which he claims have been documented elsewhere. Only three members of the unit receive any attention: Ortheris, Learoyd, and the highest-ranking surviving officer, Captain Sotheby. Mulvaney is not found after the fort collapses. The Martians stay mostly at arms’ length during the march. Their first appearance at the fort had emphasized how fast and how fluid in motion the tripods were, details that are only rarely emphasized. But after that, the presence of the Martians is conveyed primarily by their wake: buildings ruined by heat rays, fields blackened by soot from the black smoke, or choked by red weeds, “glowing sickly purple in the blackness”. Captain Southeby deduces that a wet cloth over the face offers some protection from the black smoke. His predictions about the state of Calcutta are less successful; no other military unit had survived there and the town is largely abandoned.

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Deep Ice: I brought your picture of John Wayne (War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, Part 5: The Texas Rangers, Albert Einstein)

Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging…

Before we begin, I just want to point out that in certain parts of the US, large, herbivorous freshwater river turtles of the genus Pseudemys are referred to as “cooters”. This is just a fact of life and not funny at all. Cooter.

Let us for a moment hop back a little. It is December 8, 1983. Space Shuttle Mission Columbia-6 lands at Edwards Airforce Base. Two jets crashed into each other on the runway at Madrid Airport, killing 93. France tested a nuclear bomb at Muruora Island yesterday; the US will test one in Nevada tomorrow. Also tomorrow, Ed Meese, basically Ronald Reagan’s Steve Bannon, claims that people go to soup kitchens because, “Food is free and that’s easier than paying,” showing the trademark compassion that made the Reagan era so egalitarian. Or, as we’ll soon be thinking of it, “Back when our leaders were really compassionate toward the poor.” Saturday, Raul Alfonsin will become Argentina’s first civilian president. Lech Walesa, who we’ve run into before thanks to his role in Poland’s evolution during the Cold War, won the Nobel Peace Prize back in October. Fearing he wouldn’t be allowed back in the country if he left, his wife receives it on his behalf Saturday. William Golding picks his Literature prize up in person.

In video gaming news, Nintendo releases Donkey Kong Jr. Math for the Famicom. and Namco releases Pole Position II in the arcade this month. Hudson Soft will also release Bomberman for the Famicom in a week or so. Silly Japanese, thinking that home video games will ever catch on. Everyone knows that home video games are dead dead dead and will never return. On Yugoslavian newsstands, the January 1984 edition of popular science magazine Galaksija includes instructions for a personal computer which could be built entirely from off-the-shelf parts.

This week’s Knight Rider is “Ring of Fire”, in which Michael and KITT rescue a Cajun woman from her husband, a dangerous escaped criminal. KITT’s one-off new technological feature which is coincidentally introduced in this episode right before it becomes useful is “pyroclastic lamination”, which allows KITT and Michael to drive through a swamp fire unscathed. It will never be seen again, and roughly the same feature will be “newly” added two seasons later to let them drive through lava in “Knight Flight to Freedom”, which I was like this close to confusing with this episode. Shows are new this week, including such well-known series as One Day at a Time (The show whose running gag is “The landlord keeps perving on his tenant and her teenage daughters”), Newhart, Happy Days, The A-Team, Remmington Steele, Three’s Company, St. Elsewhere, Cheers, and The Dukes of Hazzard. Benson and Webster are repeats this week for some reason. We’re also into Christmas Special season, though it’s all repeats this week: Filmation’s A Snow White Christmas; Ziggy’s Gift; Christmas Comes to Pac-Land, The Smurfs’ Christmas Special and A Chipmunk Christmas. Tom and Dick Smothers hosted Saturday Night Live last week with musical guest Big Country. Flip Wilson and Stevie Nicks are on this coming Saturday.

Lionel Ritchie’s “All Night Long” cedes the top spot on the charts to “Say Say Say”, a collaboration between Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson — who, for what it’s worth, has his historic music video for “Thriller” aired on prime-time TV aired in the coming week. Also charting this week are Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl”, Hall and Oates’s “Say it isn’t So”, and Quiet Riot’s “Cum on Feel The Noize”.

Opening in theaters tomorrow are Scarface, Christine and Sudden Impact. And the film world loses classic western actor Slim Pickens. Which is why we’ve hopped back here: it is to his memory that Howard Waldrop dedicated a short-story first published in the April 1987 issue of Omni. That story, reprinted here in Global Dispatches, pits the Texas Ranger Division against Martians. And it’s called, ahem, “Night of the Cooters”. Cooters.

Actually, that’s not quite right; the Texas Rangers don’t exactly show up. The story is really just pitting the local police in a small Texas town against the Martians; though summoned, the Rangers don’t show up before the story ends. Stylistically, it’s a bit of a Wild West Theme Park thing. It’s funny. Not over-the-top laugh-out-loud funny in the style of modern parody, but more of a broadly-affectionate stylistic caricature of the down-homey western lawman genre. If you compare Gunsmoke to Danger Man, imagine Wild Wild West as Get Smart, then Night of the Cooters would be somewhere around The Man From UNCLE. Sorry. That made more sense in my head.

For maximum down-home folksiness, we meet our main character, Sheriff Lindley, as he’s having a cool dream about being a teenage Aztec sports star. While asleep on the toilet at work. He’s interrupted when the local asshole rich guy demands that he come arrest a couple of local poor children for stealing peaches, because this is just about the most adorably folksy western lawman pastiche I have ever read. “I seem to remember that most of the fellers who wrote the Constitution were pretty well off, but some of the other rich people thought they had funny ideas. But they were really pretty smart. One of the things they were smart about was the Bill of Rights. You know, Mr. De Spain, the reason they put in the Bill of Rights wasn’t to give all the little people without jobs or money a lot of breaks with the law. Why they put that in there was for if the people without jobs or money ever got upset and turned on them, they could ask for the same justice everybody else got.”He responds to the rich asshole’s blustering about property rights with a pretty pitch-perfect Marshall Dillon speech about equality under the law which is maybe just a hair Marxist for a former Confederate. Then he adorably threatens the kids with forcing them to attend school until age twelve if they don’t straighten up and fly right.

The invasion proper occurs around dinner time, and Sheriff Lindley at first mistakes impact of the cylinder for the crazy old local prospector screwing around with dynamite again, which isn’t just down-home folksiness but foreshadowing. News of the explosions on Mars had already reached the local paper, but he quite reasonably doesn’t connect the two even when a local boy (with a twin brother, I gather, since there’s a running gag about the Sheriff confusing him for his brother) shows up with frantic news about a tree and some cows having been crushed by a meteor.

The Martians emerge while Lindley is on his way back to take a second look at the cylinder the next morning, attacking many of the gathered onlookers and vaporizing the Sheriff’s horse. By now, you’re probably tired of me reminding you that there’s a heavy implication in the original novel that the rapidity of the Martian’s success was in part due to a lack of preparation and slowness to appreciate the scale of the problem by the locals. It’s a big theme here, to the point that it’s called out explicitly. The local fancy-college-boy contacts the university, which “Thinks it’s wonderful,” and even Percival Lowell gets namechecked as having sent inquiries from his observatory. But the down-home folksy Sheriff Lindley will have none of it: “This won’t do. These things done attacked citizens in my jurisdiction, and they killed my horse.” So he gets another old-timer, a former sniper from the “War for Southern Independence,” to take a few shots at the Martians in their pit with his sniper rifle, possibly killing one. He dies “off-screen” when the Martians assemble their first tripod. The description of the tripod is the only place where I think the folksiness pushes a little too far. It’s described as looking like a water tower, which is a perfectly good description, and really spot-on if you’re working from the 1906 Corréa illustrations. But it continues: “It had a thing like a teacher’s desk bell on top of it, and something that looked like a Kodak roll-film camera in front of that,” and it sort of becomes a mess.

Lindley conscripts Elmer, the aforementioned crazy old prospector and his load of unstable, sweaty dynamite, and blows the hell out of the Martians in the pit before they can assemble a second tripod. The action takes place annoyingly off-screen, but Lindley relates the details later. “We threw in the dynamite and blew most of them up. One was in a machine like a steam tractor. We shot up what was left while they was hootin’ and a-hollerin’. There was some other things in there, live things maybe, but they was too blowed up to put back together to be sure what they was, all bleached out and pale. We fed everything there a diet of buckshot till there wasn’t nothin’ left. Then we hightailed it back here on horses, left the wagon sitting.”

The assembled tripod is able to disrupt the train service, knock down the telegraph lines, and set fire to much of the town. But it’s brought down by a single (massively overpowered, as Lindley’s goofy deputy uses five times too much powder) shot from the town’s courthouse cannon. It had been introduced early in the story, a mostly-ceremonial piece fired off on three times a year to mark their most important civic holidays: July 4, March 2 and January 19. Lindley is forced to sacrifice his beloved Stetson to use as wadding. The tripod remains comical even in death.

All six of the tentacles of the machine shot straight up into the air, and it took off like a man running with his arms above his head. It staggered, as fast as a freight train could go, through one side of a house and out the other, and ran partway up Park Street. One of its three legs went higher than its top. It hopped around like a crazy man on crutches before its feet got tangled in a horse-pasture fence, and it went over backward with a shudder. A great cloud of steam came out of it and hung in the air.

Two more cylinders fall near Pachuco City, and are dispatched by the heavily-armed townsfolk before they can unpack their heat rays. The third cylinder has a rough landing and the Martians emerge in obvious distress, suggesting their eventual fate in England. This does not give Lindley and company any pause before shooting them. The college boy deduces that the third cylinder is liable to be the last, based on news reports from England and local observatories — ten launches on Mars, and seven daily landings in England. It’s against his protests that Lindley orders the rest of Elmer’s dynamite be used to destroy the remaining Martian machinery while the Sheriff takes a well-earned nap.

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Deep Ice: He went into the desert for one moon (War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, Part 4: Winston Churchill)

Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging…

Silverberg’s story is based on the strangely complicated narrative frame of not being “Henry James’s War of the Worlds“, but rather the backstory to James’s War of the Worlds. There’s all manner of interesting metafictional contradiction going on in that notion: we first grant that it’s Henry James, rather than H. G. Wells, who writes The War of the Worlds. But rather than tell that story, we instead grant the second notion, that The War of the Worlds is not speculative fiction, but rather a fictionalized version of then-current true-life events. It’s a 1901 novel about an alien invasion that was published in a world where writing about aliens is no more speculative than writing about — just to pull a random example out of my hat — the Second Boer War. So what we’ve got is something different from just “What if Henry James wrote it?”, because Wells wasn’t writing a true-life war novel. In fact, that’s the basic justification for Wells giving James his blessing to do it: true-life war novels aren’t Wells’s thing. So the implied text is rather “What if Henry James wrote it and also it really happened.” And yet, the bookending editor’s notes force us to grant a third part of this metafiction. Because those editor’s notes don’t, especially, seem to be from a world where alien invasions are a fact of life that humanity has had a century to contemplate. James’s novel is referred to as the definitive book on the subject, when James himself namechecks a half-dozen other authors who surely would have written about the war themselves (several of them will even turn up later in this anthology).

Not that a brief note by a Henry James scholar ninety years later should be expected to digress at any particular length to let us know how their world is different from ours, of course. But the presence of that implied external frame heightens our awareness of the fact that all of these stories start from the same two conceits: that the Martian Invasion of Wells’s novel was real, and that these various historical persons had some intimate connection to the events. Yet not one of the stories has so far touched at all on how the world would be changed by such events. The strongest thing we get is an implication that the Qing dynasty will survive longer. James’s final journal entry mirrors the worries of Wells’s narrator in the epilogue, that perhaps Earth has received only a reprieve and that the Martians or some other extraterrestrial foe will attack again in the future. The existence of the contemporary editor suggests the answer is either “no” or at least, “not successfully”. There’s an obvious missed opportunity here for the editor to at the least comment that James’s fears proved baseless. Or heck, instead of the vague mention that Wells’s style was influenced by his experiences, say that he did go on to write a book about the second invasion in the 1930s.

This is hardly a unique omission to Global Dispatches (and it is not universal even in Global Dispatches, but we’ll get to that later). In fact, it’s been one of the strange recurring themes as we’ve been wading through the deep ice: even when telling the story of the War as a historical event, the “present” shown or implied is curiously unchanged from our own. The Great Martian War showed us many glimpses of a modern world whose pan-European war of the early 20th century was fought against aliens, and it looks much like our own. Even when mentioning the extent to which captured Martian technology had been integrated into our society, they don’t show us any concrete examples. The television series holds that aliens invaded twice in the twentieth century, yet there’s no discernible impact to it in the modern day, and most people have literally forgotten it (The second season is, of course, different, but the connection between the societal collapse and the invasion 35 years previous is tenuous).

It’s a very Watsonian instinct, to recast a work of fiction as a kind of secret history. But for whatever reason, The War of the Worlds consistently lacks the scholarly rigor of what Sherlockians call “The Great Game”: the systematic attempt to explain how it could simultaneously be true that the greatest detective the world has ever known worked on dozens of high-profile cases in the late nineteenth century, and yet the only direct references to him and his work come from a single literary agent publishing his sidekick’s journals. All we get is “And the aliens were defeated and I guess that’s the end of it.”

In “The True Tale of the Final Battle of Umslopogaas the Zulu”, Janet Berliner takes a similar approach to Silverberg, but adds yet another metafictional layer, which is starting to make me wonder how we avoided an Italo Calvino story in this collection. Her story uses the same basic conceits as “The Martian Invasion Journals of Henry James”: it is told as a memoir giving the backstory for a hypothetical version of The War of the Worlds which is based on true events, by a different author, in her case, H. Rider Haggard. But she diverges from Silverberg in that the narrator of the memoir is not Haggard, but rather, of all people, Winston Churchill.

Like Silverberg, Berliner frames the memoir with an editor’s note, though hers is more personal. She (I will assume the editor is intended to be based on Berliner herself) tells how she’d become a fan of Haggard during her youth in South Africa. Researching a novel (not, it appears, one Berliner would go on to write in reality), she’d planned to visit one of the real tribes that had inspired Haggard’s She. Participating in a traditional exchange of gifts in preparation for the trip, she received a manuscript addressed to H. Rider Haggard by a young Winston Churchill.

The story Churchill tells is a secret alternate history set during the time that history records him as having been taken prisoner during the Boer war. While Churchill maintains the accuracy of his account, he presumes that the official history would consider his story a delusion brought on by his injuries from the Boer assault.

Prior to the assault, Churchill, a war correspondent at this point in his life, had hoped to seek out the Zu-Vendi tribe described in Haggard’s Alan Quartermain, in hope of learning the true story of Quartermain’s companion, Umslopogaas. Umslopogaas is fictional in the real world, but there’s some anecdotal evidence that he might have had a real-world inspiration. In Alan Quartermain, the old warrior, mortally wounded, had, as his last act, destroyed the sacred stone of the Zu-Vendis. This act, according to prophesy, would lead to an “alien” king reigning over the land, which is fulfilled when one of Quartermain’s English companions marries the queen.

‘One more stroke, only one! A good stroke! a straight stroke! a strong stroke!’ and, drawing himself to his full height, with a wild heart-shaking shout, he with both hands began to whirl the axe round his head till it looked like a circle of flaming steel. Then, suddenly, with awful force he brought it down straight on to the crown of the mass of sacred stone. A shower of sparks flew up, and such was the almost superhuman strength of the blow, that the massive marble split with a rending sound into a score of pieces, whilst of Inkosi-kaas there remained but some fragments of steel and a fibrous rope of shattered horn that had been the handle. Down with a crash on to the pavement fell the fragments of the holy stone, and down with a crash on to them, still grasping the knob of Inkosi-kaas, fell the brave old Zulu—dead.
Allan Quartermain

Churchill explains that, rereading the book as an adult, he found it dissatisfying that a noble warrior’s dying act would be to desecrate the holiest artifact of his allies. And positioning it as a justification for Sir Henry’s ascension to power by marrying the queen was a blatant deus ex machina. So he writes a letter to Haggard one night, unable to sleep after the excitement of seeing the green fireball of a meteor that we in the audience should damned well recognize the significance of by now.

Churchill is captured by the Boers and imprisoned, says history, at the Pretoria High School for Girls. According to the memoir, his capture is occasioned when his train derails due to the impact of a Martian cylinder. It’s then that he encounters, “A mechanical being […] looking as if it had been constructed out of the combined nightmares of Messrs Wells and Verne. He survives the tripod, thanks to having dropped his gun and therefore not being overwhelmed by the desire to mount a futile counterattack, but is captured shortly thereafter by Louis Botha himself.

Berliner’s Churchill gives a highly abbreviated account of his escape and subsequent rejoining of the army which is true to history as far as it goes, and Churchill promises to publish a fuller account if he survives the war. But the punch-line of the story comes some time later when Winston has another encounter with a Martian tripod and is saved by Umslopogaas himself.

Sadly, though, we don’t actually get the climax of the story in Churchill’s words. He finishes his letter before the actual reveal. He realizes, as I’m sure you have as well, that the coming of the Martians is the true fulfillment of the prophecy. Umslopogaas, or perhaps his ghost, it’s not quite clear, brings Churchill to the Zu-Vendis temple where he means to make amends for his dying act by slaying the alien king.

This hastily scribbled note, written in the semi-darkness of the cavity beneath the Temple’s white marble stairs, will doubtless be my final entry in this chronicle. There is no coffer here containing the embalmed body of Umslopogaas. Above me, he stands with battle-axe raised, facing an enemy such as he nor anyone else can know how to vanquish.

The story ends with a second author’s note. She summarizes a correspondence from a minister of the queen that explains the provenance of the Churchill memoir. Umslopogaas had indeed slain the alien, his axe cutting through the alien’s armor even as the Zulu was incinerated by heat-ray. The dying alien gave off noxious fumes which overcame Winston, and he was returned to his own people by the Zu-Vendis. We can conclude for ourselves that Winston either decided the entire incident was indeed a hallucination or at least decided it was better to keep it to himself.

This story is a pleasant read. There’s a section that I think gets a little slow in the middle, but it’s generally pretty solid. There’s a particularly cute bit where, offering up his narrative to Haggard as the basis for a future book, he notes that the story is more up Wells’s alley, but the two aren’t on good terms since Churchill had panned Russia in the Shadows. I am a sucker for people slagging off Wells.

It’s a different take on the War from any we’ve seen before, possibly excepting the Roosevelt piece. Despite being as formidable as ever, it appears that the Martians don’t manage to make any sort of impression on the global stage. Perhaps the idea here is that the invasion was limited to South Africa, just as Wells’s invasion was limited to England. And with the confusion of the war that was already going on, it seems like they were entirely overlooked. Which is a hard pill to swallow, but this is also a story which features an undead fictional Zulu.

And to top it off, there’s a lovely and subtle bit of irony buried in here that I’m sure Berliner did on purpose, but was clever enough not to call attention to it. Because what else was The War of the Worlds but an analogy for Great Britain’s colonial interests. So there’s a hidden meaning in relocating the Martian invasion to a British colony. And another hidden meaning in relocating it to a British colony during one of the biggest colonial wars of the period. And yet another when a story which predicted the horrors of mechanized warfare is relocated to a war that in many ways presaged the new technologies and tactics that would feature in World War I. And we’re not even done with layers of meaning, because who do they choose for the point-of-view character? The British Bulldog, a man who, to anyone whose knowledge of the man extends beyond the fact that he was one of the good guys in World War II, is pretty well known for being one of the last staunch defenders of Britain’s exploitative imperial ambitions. And then — and then. What defeats the Martians? Not the overwhelming might of the British Empire. Not the tactical brilliance of the British Bulldog. Not even the littlest thing that God in his wisdom put upon the Earth. The aliens are defeated by Umslopogaas the Zulu, one of those “noble savages” that the British liked to tell themselves they were uplifting through benign conquest, chopping their leader in half with an axe despite being dead at the time.

There is some intentionally sloppy logic here too, which is weird. Churchill himself points out that, while these events do provide a different resolution to that prophecy from Allan Quartermain, it still doesn’t actually explain the plot hole that was Churchill’s initial motivation. We still never find out why, seemingly on impulse, Umslopogaas decides with his dying act to destroy the black stone. We also, of course, never find out what he’s doing being alive, if indeed he is. The story has a strong sense of the cliche “It was all just a dream… Or was it?” structure, set up with an implied ending where Churchill wakes up back in civilization with a head wound and no proof. But the structure of the story doesn’t allow for that, and the result is a story that exists in a liminal space, with many of its best ideas implied rather than stated outright.

That liminal quality makes it a more interesting concept than the preceding stories in the anthology— I don’t think it’s outright better than “The Martian Invasion Journal of Henry James”, but it’s more interesting at a conceptual level. I mean, look at the attribution: this is Winston Churchill and H. Rider Haggard’s War of the Worlds allegedly. But is it? Where the Henry James story gives the backstory to a hypothetical War of the Worlds written by James, this story is framed as the backstory to a hypothetical War of the Worlds written by Haggard. Only Haggard doesn’t end up writing War of the Worlds: Churchill never manages to deliver his memoir to him. Haggard doesn’t actually appear in the story. It’s only H. Rider Haggard’s War of the Worlds insofar as it presumes that Allan Quartermain had a stronger basis in fact (though interestingly, not that it is entirely nonfictional; Winston himself takes for granted that Haggard’s version does not give an accurate account of the death of Umslopogaas, and the opening author’s note says only that the tribe inspired Haggard’s). The story only slightly incorporates Haggard itself; rather, it attempts to incorporate The War of the Worlds into the “mythos” of Haggard’s Quartermain novels. It may be, in fact, an attempt not to bring Haggard to the War, but rather to drag the War of the Worlds into the Wold Newton family, which makes it just a little sad that Philip Jose Farmer isn’t going to turn up in this anthology. That idea of dragging War of the Worlds into someone else’s mythos is going to crop up again, but not really with the same panache.

To Be Continued…


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