Category Archives: War of the Worlds

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

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.

Deep Ice: The spirits know the insides of people (War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, Part 3: Henry James)

Previously on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

It’s September, 2003, five to seven days after the 17th. I’d recently finished up grad school (or washed out, depending on your point of view. I finished my Masters and just sort of petered out instead of finding an advisor to move on to a Doctoral program) and was looking for a job. Some time around now, I’d get one for two days as a temp at a car dealership, but it turned out that the requirements weren’t a match for my skills, and to this day still don’t know what exactly they wanted me to do. Something to do with their website, but not actually making or running it. The staffing agency would place me with a real estate company in January and I’d work there regularly for a year and then do some contract work for one of their agents a year later.

I’m in the waning days of what ought to be a major romantic relationship. We’ve rarely seen each other in person for several months, though we talk on the phone every night, except for when she disappears for a week at a time. She’d like me to propose, or maybe buy her a car, but she’d dissatisfied by my lack of employment. I am dissatisfied by the fact that we seem to be in a long-distance relationship despite living about ten miles apart. I have a strong feeling that I am being played, but I can’t figure out the angle exactly. I’ve basically checked out of the relationship by now, just sort of waiting for it to fizzle out. The fizzling will happen in December, kinda by accident.

None of this is directly relevant to me buying a copy of War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, I just thought you’d like some background. I read the book in the library of my two-bedroom rowhouse in Hampden, sipping white wine and sitting in the tan wing chair I’d bought from the Salvation Army for thirty bucks. Turns out that if you spill white wine on a keyboard, it stops working. I drink like two bottles of wine in six years, but I remember this one because in December, I sprain my back and am rendered so immobile that I am forced to use the empty bottle as an emergency latrine.

That abandoned NaNoWriMo I mentioned last week was a crime thriller about a teenage girl who suffers from severe cataplexy following a traumatic brain injury, with the gimmick that chapters alternated between the present-day with the heroine learning to cope with her condition and the past, showing the events leading up to it. I manage about ten thousand words and then get hit with a case of writer’s block that renders me unable to produce anything but Power Rangers fanfic for the next three years months.

By now, I feel like there’s a pattern emerging of there being pretty much two very different interpretations that the various contributors took for the prompt of this collection. Marcus, and Williams, and Anderson himself all approached the concept as the fairly straightforward, “Write a story about a historically significant person from the turn of the century getting involved in the events of The War of the Worlds.” And then there’s contributors like Resnick, or like our next author, Robert Silverberg. Rather than simply providing a narrative in which a historical person is a character, they took the tack of trying to tell the story of The War of the Worlds as though their viewpoint character were the one writing it.

Both approaches are fine, of course, but — and you may have guessed this if you’ve noticed that I’ve spent a year and a half doing more-or-less that on Saturdays — the second approach is somewhat more relevant to my interests. This, of course, limits what kind of historical figure you can interject: neither the Dowager Empress nor Pablo Picasso really work for that sort of thing. Heck, Teddy Roosevelt is a bit of a stretch for it. But this next one is more like it.

“The Martian Invasion Journals of Henry James” begins with a lengthy editor’s note giving the provenance of the following journals and explaining why they’ve never been published before (They’d gotten filed with the papers of James’s sister, and were nearly illegible due to James’s severe writer’s cramp at the time), namechecking the actual real-world definitive collections of James’s personal writings. It’s a touch that makes me think of the long tradition among “old school purists” that speculative fiction must always be framed in a way that grants plausible deniability to its fantastic elements so that we can, like a good Watsonian, engage in the great game of pretending that the events really happened despite the fact that it’s the sort of thing that really ought to have made the papers if it had. This is an especially odd conceit, though, for a writer to uphold while he’s about to deliberately rewrite history, not once, but twice.

The basic premise of the narrative, told as a series of excerpts from James’s diary, is that while, in the summer of 1900, Henry James was visiting his friend Herbert Wells (With cameos by Samuel Clemens, Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, and references to the recent passing of Stephen Crane), when Martians landed in Woking and started invading England. Wells, cutely, admits to having outlined a novel along those lines, which he’d now have to abandon. On seeing the Martians themselves, there’s a really wonderful juxtaposition that you could predict from the differences in style between the writers. For a refresher, here’s how Wells described the alien:

Two large dark-coloured eyes were regarding me steadfastly. The mass that framed them, the head of the thing, was rounded, and had, one might say, a face. There was a mouth under the eyes, the lipless brim of which quivered and panted, and dropped saliva. The whole creature heaved and pulsated convulsively […] Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of its appearance. The peculiar V-shaped mouth with its pointed upper lip, the absence of brow ridges, the absence of a chin beneath the wedgelike lower lip, the incessant quivering of this mouth, the Gorgon group of tentacles […] THere was something fungoid in the oily brown skin, something in the clumsy deliberation of the tedious movements unspeakably nasty. Even at this first encounter, this first glimpse, I was overcome with disgust and dread.

Even though I usually find Henry James’s prose overly dry and dense (I will cop to it: I seem not to like turn-of-the-century writers very much), but one thing I always did like is his romantic view toward strangeness. Here’s how Silverberg has James describes that same first look at the Martian:

What we see is a bulky ungainly thing; two huge eyes, great as saucers; tentacles of some sort; a strange quivering mouth — yes, yesm and alien being senza dubbio, preturnaturally other.
Wells, unexpectedly, is disgusted […] For my part I am altogether fasciated. I tell him that I see rare beauty in the Martian’s strangeness, not the beauty of a Greek vase or of a ceiling by Tiepolo, of course, but beauty of a distinct kind all the same. In this, I think, my perceptions are the superior of Wells’s. There is beauty in the squirming octopus dangling from the hand of some grinning fisherman at the shore of Capri; there is beauty in the terrifant bas-reliefs of winged bulls from the palaces of Nineveh; and there is beauty of a sort, I maintain, in this Martian also.

Even when the killing begins, James is reluctant to believe it, insisting that it must be some sort of misunderstanding, that the Martians were frightened and mistook their victims for a threat.

And there’s a very James moment when his reaction is contrasted with that of Wells, who immediately recognizes this as a, “War between worlds”:

Wells gives me a condescending glance. That one withering look places our relationship, otherwise so cordial, in its proper context. He is the hardheaded man of realities who has clawed his way up from poverty and ignorance; I am the moneyed and comfortable and overly gentle literary artist, the connoisseur of the life of the leisured classes.

The passage rings very true to James’s class- and culture-consciousness. I had initially planned to say that it seemed like a bad choice to frame this story as journal excerpts rather than as a James-authored narrative, but I won’t do it now, because this framing, as an unpolished, personal reflection not intended for publication feels very true to what Henry James was about in his writing, but carries an intimacy and casual air that I always struggled to find in James’s actual published work. It’s kinda like I’m reading a “secret” Henry James who isn’t constrained by the literary conventions and trends that keep me from being a fan of this period in literary history.

Also, I like that James quickly becomes bored with Wells’s endless and unprompted lectures about Mars and speculations on the comparative biology of its inhabitants. And just as James alternates between admiration and frustration with the cool and analytical Wells (He will eventually count himself lucky to be stuck with Wells rather than, say, Conrad), he also alternates between terror and exhilaration at their precarious circumstances. Having for the first time in his life been really tested in a life-or-death struggle for survival, he is surprised at the extent to which he rises to the challenge. “At last I am fully living! My heart weeps for the destruction I see all about me, but yet—I will not deny it—I am invigorated far beyond my considerable years by the constant peril, by the demands placed upon my formerly coddled body, above all, by the sheer strangeness of everything within my ken.”

The climax of the story comes in an entry with a guessed date of June 23 (James had lost track of the exact date a week into the invasion). Having found and appropriated a motorcar, Wells and James are heading for London. I’ve mentioned in some of my comments on other adaptations that the narrator’s reasons for going to London in the original text are unsatisfying vague. Silverberg has Wells, in his typical expository style, justify the choice: of the places they can reach without crossing the battle lines, it’s the only one liable to have been abandoned with ample food and supplies left behind for scavenging. They are stopped by the sight of a motionless tripod, apparently unoccupied. Abandoning their vehicle, they approach on foot to find the Martian pilot has climbed down, for reasons of its own, to study a small stream, “Peering reflectively toward the water for all the world as though it were considering passing the next hour with a bit of angling.”

They watch the Martian dip its tentacles into the water, “In evident satisfaction, as though it were a Frenchman and this was a river of the finest claret.” James and Wells are transfixed by this “encounter with the other“, until the Martian looks up and notices them:

Yet it simply studied us, dispassionately, as one might stufy a badger or a mole that has wandered out of the woods. It was a magical moment, of a sort: beings of two disparate worlds face-to-face (so to speak) and eye-to-eye, and no hostile action taken on either side.

They flee when the Martian returns to its machine, fearing for their lives, but the Martian simple walks on. “Perhaps it too had felt the magic of our little encounter; or it may be that we were deemed to insignificant to be worth slaughtering.”

A cute moment ensues when the pair reach dead London. Wells, in a cute and humanizing scene, wants to visit the abandoned British Museum, where he belts out Ozymandias in the Egyptian hall, “in what I suppose he thinks is a mighty and terrible voice.” The first London entry does make a stylistic concession in the name of narrative by burying the lede about their discovery of a dead Martian until after anecdotes about their adventures in the dead city, including a tense moment when James lost track of his companion.

The next day, the rest of the Martians are dead as well. Wells crows about having predicted it, though James notes that he hadn’t previously mentioned it. The last entry, written in July upon his homecoming, has James reflect on man’s new place in the universe, saved from the Martians, but now aware that of the possibility of invasion either from “fortified” Martians, or indeed from aliens of other sorts. The entry ends by relating one final conversation with Wells before they parted company. As a tale of alien invasion would now be “reportage”, rather than Wells’s “usual kind of fantastic fiction,” James receives his blessing to author a novel about the invasion, Wells graciously ceding the claim implicit in his earlier reference to having an outline.

The story ends with a second editor’s note, revealing that Henry James wrote The War of the Worlds between July 28 and November 17, 1900, and that it (rather than The Ambassadors, whose writing, in this history, he puts off until later) becomes his most successful and well-received work. The fictional publication history draws on elements of the real-world publication of both War of the Worlds and The Ambassadors: it’s printed first as a serial in The Atlantic (Pearsons, perhaps, had not finished rebuilding after the invasion), finishing in December 1901, then published as a novel in the UK and US in March and April of the following year. Macmillan is given as the UK publisher, which is kind of interesting because near as I can tell, none of James’s works of that period were published by them. Pan Macmillan’s current headquarters is in Basingstoke, so maybe their business recovered faster than the London-based Methuen. The editor notes that three film adaptations were made, which is, of course, more than the real-world produced until 2005. There is no mention whether it inspired a short-lived TV series or a prog rock concept album. Wells did not write his own account in this history, though the events are said to have had a profound effect on his later work.

Profound, but unspecified. This is three artists (four, if we romantically assume Carlos Castegemas survives) in two stories now whose style is implied to be heavily altered by an encounter with aliens, and, frustratingly, we never really get to see what that change is. I’d have loved to see that final editor’s note give just a hint more detail about James’s future. Though his last entry mentions his now-delayed plans to write The Ambassadors, you’ve got to imagine that a book about Americans being charmed by Europe would turn out differently, written in a world where extraterrestrial invasion is a fact of life. Perhaps the footnote might mention, offhandedly, that James never did get around to writing the book in this timeline.

But beyond that small disappointment, this story is great. Close though its plot stays to the raw outline of Wells’s novel, it’s completely different, and it’s different in all the ways that I find Wells frustrating. The ceaseless exposition is mostly omitted, and it’s a far more interior story. And James’s tendency to find beauty in the experience of otherness gives a soul to the story. I even like Silverberg’s version of Henry James’s version of Wells a lot better as a character than the nameless authorial self-insert of the original novel. I would totally read Henry James’s The War of the Worlds, and while this isn’t quite that, it’s close enough.

To Be Continued…


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

Deep Ice: Do you not find it cold, lonely and sterile? (War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, Part 2: Empress Dowager Cixi, Pablo Picasso)

Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches

Less shiny, but I think it gives a better sense of the scope of the book.

I do not remember the circumstances that led to me knowing this anthology existed. But I do remember buying my copy. It was September 17, 2003, and the book was out of print, so I was excited to see a used copy on Amazon for a reasonable price. I also bought two books about crime writing in preparation for my first failed attempt at NaNoWriMo. Also bought a copy of The Vagina Monologues and a couple of memoirs by some bohemians. This is the period where Amazon became convinced I was a drug-addicted lesbian spy.

Estonia decided to join the EU last Sunday, and Latvia will do the same on Saturday. Today is also the day that President George W. Bush publicly concedes that Saddam Hussein wasn’t involved in the 9/11 attacks. Good thing we didn’t go invading that c— oh. Right. We’re still mourning Johnny Cash, who died last Friday, and John Ritter, who passed a day before. Warren Zevon (You you probably know as “The Werewolves of London Guy”) died a few days earlier, and it’s weird how quaint it seems for a mere three beloved celebrities to die within a few days of each other now.

Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy is out for your Windows-based PCs. Steam just released its first stable version. The big movie out this week is Lost in Translation. Beyonce holds two spots on the top ten, though “Shake Ya Tailfeather”, a collaboration between Nelly, P. Diddy and Murphy Lee holds the top spot. Matchbox Twenty is in the tenth spot, which makes me feel like I clicked on the wrong link and flipped back three years.

Jon’s guest on The Daily Show is Charlie Sheen. Enterprise tonight is “Anomaly”. Part of season three’s Xindi Superweapon arc, the Enterprise is crippled by the unusual properties of the Expanse, then attacked by pirates, but end up acquiring a crucial Xindi database and discovering the first of a network of alien spheres connected to the interdimensional aliens who are manipulating the Xindi. Next week, the series will give up on this whole “It’s not really Star Trek yet; it’s something new and exciting,” and switch to calling itself Star Trek: Enterprise. Most everything else is in repeats this week, but Saturday’s Power Rangers Ninja Storm is new. “The Wild Wipeout” sends blue ranger Tori to an evil mirror universe where she has to team up with the series big bad to defeat the counterparts of her teammates.

One week from today, the BBC will announce that a revival of Doctor Who is in development. The Telegraph notes that “purists” might be worried by the choice of Russell T. Davies to head the project, on account of he’s gay, and in 2003 you could still say things like “Are we sure we’re comfortable with letter a gay man run a television show?”, especially if you forget that Doctor Who had already been helmed by a gay man for all of the 1980s. (Yes, okay, it turned out he was a sexual predator. Shut up.)

I know basically nothing about the political history of China in the late 1800s. I can’t really speak to the historical parity of Walter Jon Williams’s “Foreign Devils”, the next story in the anthology, told from the perspective of Empress Dowager Cixi. Even if I were more familiar with the facts, the style of the story is heavily inflected with a kind of mystical air with heavy reliance on figurative language and euphemism, which adds an extra layer of unreality. I’m not even familiar enough to know whether the style is influenced more by the conventions of nineteenth-century court manners in the Forbidden City or by a western author’s romanticized notions of what things are supposed to “feel” like in the Mystical Land of China.

What I do know is that “Foreign Devils” is primarily a political intrigue. Set around the time of the Boxer Rebellion, the Guangxu Emperor (Referred to here using the archaic Wade-Giles Romanization “Kuang-hsu”) has been reduced to puppet status, under de facto house arrest following the Hundred Days’ Reforms. His aunt, the Dowager Empress had sided against the Emperor during the reforms, and history generally characterizes her as despotic and reactionary, the real power behind the throne. Williams is kinder in his take, depicting the Dowager Empress largely as a pawn of her own circumstances, regretful over the betrayal, and motivated by a sometimes-misguided desire to protect the young Emperor. (Williams wouldn’t have known that in 2008, forensic tests would suggest that the Dowager Empress probably murdered the Guangxu Emperor. She herself died the next day and some theorize her goal was specifically to outlive him). The Emperor himself is weak, frail, and prone to, ahem, spontaneous orgasms. This is not mentioned in his Wikipedia article.

The real power lies in Prince Tuan (Duan), leader of the Boxers, whose private army is “protecting” the Emperor. The Emperor isn’t quite powerless at first, but he’s too weak to mount an effective defense against Tuan’s machinations. With China basically being steamrolled by Europe and Japan, Tuan wants to expel or execute the “Foreign Devils” and crack down on the “Secondary Foreign Devils” — Chinese Christians and other locals who’ve been heavily influenced by European culture.

The Emperor and Dowager Empress can do little other than play for time, and even that breaks down with the coming of the “meteors” from Mars. Tuan interprets these as a sign from Heaven, and strongarms the Emperor into granting permission for him to raise an army to drive out the “white ghosts” from Europe and “dwarf-theives” from Japan. When the meteors disgorge “Falling Star Giants” that attack foreign-controlled cities across China, Tuan is sufficiently emboldened to seize power outright, issuing his own edicts under the Emperor’s seal.

But things go south as it becomes increasingly clear that the Falling Star Giants are not agents of heaven, but just a new kind of Foreign Devil, attacking Chinese and European populations alike. The Emperor, despite his precarious position, proves more capable than he’d seemed, and is able to take advantage of the invasion to decimate his enemies both foreign and domestic: Tuan might be able to issue orders in the Emperor’s name, and laugh off the Emperor’s own orders to kill himself, but actually leaving the divinely-appointed Emperor to die at the hands of the aliens is out of the question. Tuan is compelled therefore to commit his own forces to defend against the approaching Falling Star Giants, and weaken his own position by evacuating the imperial family from the Forbidden City, leaving behind the all the power structures of the court and the princes and the eunuchs (I feel like there’s a couple of words in this story that get used a lot which carry additional connotations in context I am not strictly familiar with). The impression I get of the imperial court during this period is that they basically existed to obstruct the Emperor: by interposing themselves as intermediaries, they could make sure that if the Emperor ever tried to give an order they didn’t like, it wouldn’t make it far enough to be acted upon.

Prince Tuan is obvious relieved when the news comes that the invaders have died of unknown causes, and lets his guard down despite the decimation of the Righteous Harmony Fists (Boxers) and his Tiger-Hunt Marksmen. At the celebration of their victory, under the pretext of teaching Tuan’s son — currently the heir to the throne — an advanced sword technique, the Emperor kills Tuan, his son, and several of their allies. Leaderless, the forces loyal to Tuan are quickly overcome by those loyal to the Emperor. With the Dowager Empress at his side, the Emperor pledges to continue the reforms of the Hundred Days, and, with Europe occupied by its own rebuilding efforts, bring China into the twentieth century as a world power, free of foreign domination.

This is the first story in the anthology to really seriously fit the mold of “alternate history”, and it’s an interesting take. There’s broad similarities to the outcome of the real-world Boxer Rebellion. The idea of Empress Dowager Cixi becoming a reformer despite having been a reactionary a few years earlier is consistent with what actually happened in the wake of the rebellion. Even the flight of the Emperor from Beijing mirrors the similar evacuation to Xi’an during the Battle of Beijing. The major difference, of course, is that unlike the Eight-Nation Alliance, the Martians conveniently all die off at the end, meaning that the conflict can go mostly the same way straight up to the last minute, but the fallout is completely different, with China coming out of it far stronger and more stable. The story does not reveal whether the Guangxu Emperor is successful in his plans, but the implication is that the Qing Dynasty doesn’t go on to collapse in 1911, and China becomes a major player on the world stage decades early.

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Deep Ice: We’ll blast them all over the world (War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, Part 1: Teddy Roosevelt, Percival Lowell)

Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

Tantalizing enough that it’s got me kind of interested in what would happen if you tried this experiment another way around. What if you didn’t try to match up a new story with Wells’s style, but rather tried to match up the same story with a different style. I wonder…

War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches cover

With Roosevelt / The Skipper too / Emily Dickenson / and Mark Twain / The Relativity Guy / And The Rest…

It is May 1, 1996. More or less. Australia is reeling from a shooting spree in Port Arthur two days ago. The deaths of thirty-five people will, inexplicably, shortly lead to heavy restrictions of private ownership of firearms in Australia. Of course, as we all know, banning guns has never succeeded in reducing shooting deaths, which means it must be a coincidence that in the following 20 years, there been no mass shootings in Australia. Maybe it’s because they ban violent video games. Former CIA Director William Colby will be found dead in a marshy riverbank in Maryland, victim of a boating accident, or maybe that’s just what they want you to think. The Keck II telescope in Hawaii is getting ready for its grand opening Saturday. Gerald Williams gets six hits in a single game, the first Yankee to do so since 1934.

New in theaters this week are Barb Wire and The Craft. Twister, Mission: Impossible, Spy Hard and Dragonheart will be out later this month. Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” is revived on Broadway. I think I actually see the touring company of this in Baltimore the next year. Howard Stern’s radio show will be premiering within a week. Nickelodeon spins off their “Nick-at-Nite” TV block in the form of the TVLand network. This week will see the finales of Nick Jr. series Allegra’s Window, NBC’s Sisters and Captain Planet and the Planeteers, whose cast will go on to great things, especially Hoggish Greedly, who will eventually be elected President of the United States of America. Later this month, we’ll see the end of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Nowhere Man, and seaQuest DSV. The Daily Show with Craig Killborn premiers in July.

TV is new this week. Roseanne. Coach. Frasier. The Drew Carey Show. Home Improvement. NYPD Blue. Wings. The Nanny. Murphy Brown. Grace Under Fire. Friends. Seinfeld. ER. Chicago Hope. This is like peak TV for me, but nothing really stands out. Star Trek: Voyager airs “The Thaw”, which I do not remember at all. It’s about VR and sounds pretty close to the plot of an episode of Stargate SG-1. Deep Space Nine airs “The Muse”, in which Sisko’s son Jake is preyed upon by a sort of muse-succubus, who inspires him to start the novel they’ve been foreshadowing him writing, but nearly kills him by sucking out his life force or whatever. Also, Majel Barrett Roddenberry makes her last appearance as Lwaxana Troi.

NBC’s got a miniseries of Peter Benchley’s The Beast, which I think is a sea monster movie, and I think next week one of the other networks does another sea monster miniseries. Fox will make jokes about this in their commercials, which is petty of them given that The X-Files this week, “Quagmire”, is also about a sea monster. I don’t get into Homicide: Life on the Street until years later, but my dad watched it whenever he managed to stay up that late. This week’s is “The Damage Done”, which introduces Luther Mahoney, a Baltimore drug dealer who becomes the closest the series ever has to a “big bad”. Sliders is “Post-Traumatic Slide Syndrome”, an episode which sets up the possibility that John Rhys-Davies’s character has been replaced by an unscrupulous doppleganger. This will never come up again. Power Rangers Zeo today is “The Puppet Blaster”. It’s about a brainwashing robotic children’s entertainer.

I’m a junior in high school. This is the year I take a ridiculous number of AP tests. US History, Calculus AB, and both sections of Physics C. I’m also the Editor-in-Chief of the school newspaper, a position I’ll hold for one more semester by convincing the school to invent a “Journalism IV” for me to take next year. My stamped, official high school transcript has a hand-written correction on it. This was fun to explain on college interviews. I also appear on television this spring, in the high school quiz bowl show It’s Academic. On our previous appearance, we’d killed it, utterly crushing our competitors, but this time, luck isn’t with us. Or at least, timing isn’t with us, because we get a perfect score on the timed round, but only managed to buzz in once in the other two rounds. It was weird. Also, Mac McGarry is the first person I ever met who tried to pronounce my last name the traditional Polish way. And that amazing, deep, imperial voice he had on the show? That was his real, normal, everyday voice.

I remember being very upset this week, because the cable kept going out. I realize that is a petty thing to be upset about, but when you’re a sixteen year old boy with no romantic prospects (I’ll get there eventually), it’s kind of a big deal that the cable comes back on literally like 5 minutes before a big event epsiode of Roseanne. Yeah, in two weeks ABC airs the episode of Roseanne where Dan has a heart attack and dies. I mean, he dies during the cliffhanger at the end of the episode, but we don’t find out about it until the series finale a year later, because it turns out that from the second season onward, the series has been an increasingly fictionalized version of the family portrayed in the early seasons drawn from Roseanne Connor’s short stories. Also, Fox’s Tuesday Night Movie, which “doesn’t star a giant Octopus”, is a US-made revival of Doctor Who, starring Hugh Laurie, Marcia Gay Harden and Peter O’Toole. It doesn’t win its time slot thanks to Roseanne, but it does well enough to go to series in the fall and run for eight years Paul McGann, Daphne Ashbrook and Eric Roberts. It has some nice set pieces, but little in the way of a plot, and its middle-of-the-road ratings persuade Fox to go with the cheaper option of making a second season of Sliders instead of picking it up. Doctor Who does not return to television until 2005.

The top ten is full of things I don’t recognize. I mean, Mariah Carey is at the top with “Always Be My Baby”, Celine Dion is behind her with “Because You Loved Me”, and Alanis Morissette is hanging out at number 4 with “Ironic”, but there’s a whole lot of stuff I don’t remember at all. The top 20 is more my speed, featuring Everything But The Girl, Tracy Chapman, The Bodeans, and Jann Arden.

Popular books of 1996 include A Game of Thrones, The Notebook, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Fight Club, and Angela’s Ashes. Doing okay for itself, but not quite to that level, is this.

It is rare for adaptations and remakes and even discussion of the original novel The War of the Worlds to bring up a strange matter of geography. I mean, except when it’s me doing the discussion, because I’ve personally said it a bunch of times. Wells all but states outright that the Martian invasion was limited to England. Most people ignore this, for reasons such as: 1. It’s pretty stupid. Delightfully English, to proceed from the assumption that an advanced alien race would decide that invading just specifically England was the right way to conquer the Earth (“Naturally. The rest were all foreigners,” Doctor Who), but intensely stupid.

Come 1996, prolific science fiction author Kevin J. Anderson decided to ignore this delightful stupidity when he had (according to the acknowledgements page, while hiking in the redwood forests of California) the idea to compile an anthology of short stories about the Martian invasion across the globe. But not just across the globe, really. Because every story in War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches is told from the point-of-view of a literary or historical figure belonging to the time and place where the story is set (more or less. I’ll explain later). That, I think, elevates this anthology above being just a globalized retelling of the original story. We don’t just have “Basically Wells’s story but set in New Jersey,” or “Basically Wells’s story but set in San Francisco”. We’ve got “Jack London’s War of the Worlds in Alaska” and “Mark Twain’s War of the Worlds in New Orleans”.

This isn’t just wonderful in its own right, too. The addition of these big personalities helps smooth out the fact that there is absolutely no thematic, structural, or story continuity between the various writers. They contradict Wells. They contradict each other. They contradict the backstories of their own characters. And that’s fine, because it’s not like you were expecting Teddy Roosevelt to provide an account of fighting the Martians in Cuba and not make it all about himself. Anderson gives it a wink and a nod in his forward, as told by Wells, noting that Picasso and Verne aren’t on speaking terms over the differences in their accounts of the sack of Paris, and sniping that he doesn’t recall Henry James taking notes at the time. Anderson dedicates the book to Wells, and also to George Pal and Jeff Wayne. Sam and Greg Strangis get no love.

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Deep Ice: Life Begins Again (Eric S. Brown’s The War of the Worlds Plus Blood, Guts and Zombies, Part 4)

Previously on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging…

The dead are entirely absent from chapter eight. It goes entirely unremarked that the Martians themselves, having proved vulnerable to “putrefactive and disease bacteria” turn out to be unaffected by the reanimation fungus. There are only a handful of stories I can think of where a zombie plague isn’t specific to humans, but you’d think it would at least merit a mention. It isn’t explicit whether terrestrial animals are affected, but doesn’t seem to be the case, and the absence of any comment on this feels at odds with the thoroughness of Wells’s exposition.

For the most part, Brown doesn’t fall into the common trap of having his characters intuitively know what kind of story they’re in — that’s a common enough foible for zombie horror writers, not so much with characters intuiting the “rules”, but more often with characters intuiting the “boundaries” of their world. Most zombie stories have a scene where the characters learn of the efficacy of head-wounds or the infectious nature of bites (curiously never established in The War of the Worlds Plus Blood Guts and Zombies), but it’s rare for characters to “learn” that animals don’t reanimate, that humans don’t turn directly into zombies without dying first (In the rare stories where they do, that also doesn’t come as a surprise), or that plants can’t be zombies (Has anyone ever done a zombie plant story? Like, not “plants turn into carnivorous monsters”, but just “Dead plants reanimate and are evil, but still constrained by the basic biology of plants. So you’d have to be careful you didn’t accidentally eat a zombie apple and get infected).

The lack of curiosity about the mechanics of the zombie plague is the one area where Brown gives in to this tendency. We already know that the narrator, for reasons he never explains, doesn’t share his inside knowledge about the origins of the plague to the scientific community, and as a result, they never work out its cause. But there’s not even any mention of scientists studying the dead in the epilogue, trying to work out, if not the cause, the mechanism. No mention of anyone trying to develop an inoculation, no mention of anyone rounding up zombies for study. It would be very Wellsian to insert a paragraph about scientists discovering the presence of some element or energy that acts upon the pineal gland or something to stimulate movement in the absence of whatever, and that it only works on humans because of the unique something of the whatsit. But no. The dead only come up at the very end to mention that they’re still around, a persistent threat to all humanity, but kept at bay by sensible precautions.

But the dead do put in one meaningful appearance near the end of the book, and it’s the one place where Brown meaningfully diverges from Wells’s plot. It’s the only place where Brown deletes significantly from the original text rather than appending. Chapter nine ends, in the original, with the narrator returning home, depressed to find no sign of his wife, until:

…A strange thing occurred. “It is no use,” said a voice. “The house is deserted. No one has been here these ten days. Do not stay here to torment yourself. No one escaped but you.”
I was startled. Had I spoken my thought aloud?

In the original text, he turns to discover his wife and cousin just outside, leading to tearful reunion in the novel’s one moment of genuine human tenderness. But this is a zombie story now, and will brook no such happy ending. In Brown’s version, the narrator did indeed speak his thought aloud without realizing it. For he turns to find not a pair of survivors, but the reanimated corpses of his wife and cousin, drawn home by, “Some lingering aspect of their lives before death,” after dying at Leatherhead (Brown mistakenly says “Leatherwood” here). Despite his horror, the narrator manages the grisly task of dispatching his late wife with a kitchen knife and flees the house. His cousin is granted, “Peace I knew I would never find again in this life,” thanks to a pair of patrolling soldiers who happen conveniently by.

It is an odd segue, even in the original, to jump from the reunion into several pages of exposition, mostly about how many mysteries remained about the Martians: though the previous chapter noted that examination of the Martian machines were quickly yielding scientific wonders, such as powered flight, the epilogue notes that the principles of the black smoke and heat ray remain impenetrable (and research on the latter seems to have fizzled out after an obliquely referenced disaster that sounds like a research lab blowing itself up), that indeed the Martians’ cause of death is only broad speculation. The jump is even stranger in Brown’s version, given the gruesomeness of the preceding scene.

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Deep Ice: Mad Distortions of Humanity (Eric S. Brown’s The War of the Worlds Plus Blood, Guts and Zombies, Part 3)

Previously on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging…

Book two opens with the Curate and the narrator holed up in an abandoned house in Halliford, where they’d retreated to avoid the black smoke. This looks promising. House under siege is the number-one archetypal zombie horror story. And indeed, chapter one of book two starts right in with the dead breaching their defenses in the night, leading to a pitched fight scene with the narrator and the curate turning action-heroes temporarily. No explanation is given for how they’re able to defend themselves in the dark; Brown seems not to have accounted for the lack of artificial lighting. Even with the dead forced back and the door barricaded, cabin fever sets in quickly, with perhaps a bit more justification than in the original. Brown elevates the narrator’s despair to the point that he considers suicide a good fifty pages early. He is stayed by the thought that, “God was still present. The Father in Heaven watched over us or we would surely not have been alive now,” a somewhat more overtly religious sentiment than you’d expect in a Wells novel.

The dead disperse along with the black smoke — they are unaffected by the smoke, it seems, but are presumed to have moved on due to the scarcity of living humans in the area. They return to their usual status as an ominous, liminal presence in the narrative as the companions make their way toward Sheen: head wounds mentioned on the corpses they pass along the way, and the remains of a pyre where casualties of the Martians had been burnt by human survivors to prevent their reanimation.

Upon taking refuge in a well-stocked house in Sheen, we find the most hilarious addition Brown’s made so far:

As we gathered our bounty, a noise sounded from the house’s back room […] I reached the back room and cautiously peeked inside it. Something black leaped at me from within and I staggered backwards, swinging the hatchet’s blade through the air. My back made contact with the hallway wall, bringing my retreat to a halt as I looked down to see a black cat racing away through the house.

That’s right, folks. A legit, for-reals literal cat scare. With an actual literal cat. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen one of those in prose before. Later, when the greater part of the house is demolished by a landing cylinder, the narrator inexplicably waxes philosophical for a paragraph, contemplating the forces which have reanimated the dead. He concludes that it could not be a deliberate act by the Martians, who view the zombies as a nuisance. He considers the possibility that it is divine judgment, but dismisses the notion as unbiblical, another odd example of Brown projecting far more specific (and, frankly, modern) religious inclinations onto the narrator than he ever displayed in the original. It comes up again when he considers murdering the curate, but his hand is stayed by thoughts of God, and he prays instead. All the same, where Wells merely has the narrator “resort to blows” to silence the curate during his reckless lamenting, Brown has him knock out several teeth.

We have not, so far, gotten a solid explanation for the dead. There’s a strong implication that the Martians caused it, not deliberately, but as a side-effect. The dominant theory, the narrator will later explain, is that the Martian cylinders gave off a form of radiation which caused the effect — this is clearly assumed in the early chapters. But the narrator goes on to note that this explanation does not account for the spread of the “plague”, which was more rapid and more global than the Martian invasion.

Not giving us an explanation would be fine in most zombie stories. Lots of them lack one. Romero’s zombies are never explained canonically, and lots of stories which do give an explanation do it terribly. I recall one particular story which asserted that if you mixed a whole bunch of non-biological toxins together, they would turn into a virus. But this is primarily an H. G. Wells novel, and it would be bizarre for the resurrection of the dead to go without long, boring passages of exposition to justify it. The bulk of chapter two of book two is spent with the narrator giving his observations about Martian technology and biology from his vantage point in the partially-collapsed house beside a newly-fallen cylinder. It’s here that he foreshadows the Martian weakness by describing what he observes of their biology, and takes time out to slam Warwick Goble for the illustrations he did for the original Pearsons serialization of the novel.

Brown uses this exposition-dump to present an explanation for the zombie menace. He nails the expository style, mimicking the way that Wells’s narrator doesn’t fully get the details, but manages to work out the basic gist of things, with a good bit of his own speculation. The revelation is a little more intimate than really fits, but it’s not too far off. The narrator witnesses an “argument” between two Martians, and watches as they review what’s essentially the flight recorder video from their capsule in the form of, “A small box that projected patterns of light.” I don’t know why, but the insertion of a hologram projector here feels somehow un-Wellsian. Given that Wells himself frequently described the heat rays as resembling cameras, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with a Wells story including an advanced form of movie projector. The technology was cutting-edge when the story was written. Maybe it’s just Brown’s choice of words that puts me off: it’s written as if by someone who hasn’t heard of a zooipraxiscope or a magic lantern or a film projector, and so has a kind of steampunk air to it that feels not like a nineteenth century author speculating about something futuristic, but like a twenty-first century author describing something that exists in his own time, trying to sound like he doesn’t know what it is and has to re-derive vocabulary for it.

In any case, the narrator deduces from the flight recorder footage that the walking dead are linked to purple flakes, described as being similar to mold, which ablated from the Martian craft as they entered Earth’s atmosphere. He concludes that the contamination was accidental, caused by a space-borne “fungus” that had hitched a ride with the Martians. The dead are a serious problem for the Martians not as a threat to their invasion, but to their food supply. The handling machine which the Martians build as the narrator watches is armed against the dead, equipped with, “A beam of light brighter than the hottest fire,” that could cut, “With the sharpness of a surgeon’s blade.” That is, a laser. Described with the same steampunkish, “Audience, do you get that I’m describing a laser? Only I can’t say ‘laser’ because it would be an anachronism?” style as the hologram projector. Never mind that the Martians already had a heat ray. There are references earlier to the Martians being reluctant to use the heat ray at times, implying that it might be a limited resource, so I don’t have a problem with the idea that they’d use something different here, but you’d expect the narrator to at least draw a comparison — call it a “precision heat-ray” or something.

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Deep Ice: There won’t be any concerts for a million years or so (Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds Part 4: Brave New World/Dead London/Life Begins Again)

Previously on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging…

Liam Neeson and Jason Donovan in War of the Worlds

Yup. Still great.

Holographic Liam Neeson punched a clergyman. It was exactly as awesome as it sounded.

Our expository sidebar ends abruptly with the reintroduction of the Artilleryman, who warns him off claiming the area as his “territory” before recognizing the Journalist from Maybury Hill. The scene plays out really awkwardly in the original stage show, with the Artilleryman addressing the audience as though they were the Journalist. It’s staged in a normal sort of way, like you see in lots of one-man-plays, with the audience standing in for a sort of abstract person-the-actor-is-conversing-with. Only this abstract person actually responds, and the response comes from that stupid CGI head floating off to stage-left. Because to a much greater extent than in the Spirit of Man segment, the narrator does interact with the on-stage character. They carry on a conversation. Thankfully, the Artilleryman does not address his conversation to the Big Giant Head, but to an imaginary on-stage character, but it’s incongruous.

Since Liam Neeson can appear in a virtual on-stage form, it’s less awkward in The New Generation, though none of the various recordings I’ve looked at of the scene were blocked very well. The new version adds a couple of minutes of additional dialogue at the beginning of the scene as well. It’s a normal, traditional conversation where the Journalist and the Artilleryman interact as normal fictional characters in a traditional narrative, and that’s really unusual for this show, and is one of the few concessions toward trying to reorient the performance into a proper stage show. That said, the content isn’t really interesting. They cover basically the same ground that the Artilleryman is about to cover in song, adding only the Artilleryman’s speculation that the next step for the Martians will be full-on colonization and a systematic rounding-up of the human survivors.

The biggest disappointment I’ve had with The New Generation, both the album and the show, is that the modest changes that have been made to create a more fleshed-out traditional narrative… Don’t really do that. Practically every addition is one of two things: Liam Neeson pretending he’s really part of the story, as in the “Distant Shores” interlude, or prose spoilers for something that’s about to be more effectively conveyed in song, as with the new characters in the prologue. The additions to the Artilleryman scene are both: Liam Neeson having a conversation with the Artilleryman in which we get to hear all about his grand plan… Right before the big show-stopping number about his grand plan.

Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds Artilleryman Scene

It made it about three fourths of the way down before I realized that this was intentional and the lighting gantry hadn’t just come loose.

“I’ve got a plan,” he declares, and there’s another rare bit of stagecraft as a large bridge is lowered onto the set. I don’t know what specifically the bridge is supposed to represent, beyond the abstract notion of civil engineering. And maybe that the Paris Barricade in Les Miz was really cool. In the various staged versions, the Artilleryman dances around the stage as he sings about his plan to develop the system of tunnels and sewers beneath London into a living space, toying with shovels and surveyor’s tools. The bridge in the original stage show has a very realistically Victorian wrought-iron look to it, but in later productions, it becomes more steampunk, acquiring large metal gears that the Artilleryman can “work on”.

The song is high-power and lots of fun, but you don’t usually get too far from the unpleasant implications of what the Artilleryman proposes. And yet, you can start to see why his message would be compelling:

Look, man is born in freedom,
But he soon becomes a slave,
In cages of convention,
From the cradle to the grave.
The weak fall by the wayside,
But the strong will be saved,
In a brave new world,
With just a handful of men,
We’ll start all over again!

There’s a strong strain of populism there, which on paper sounds weird when juxtaposed with the imagery of “just a handful of men,” until you realize that populist movements always do this: try to appeal to “the masses” using language based around exclusion of everyone who doesn’t slot in neatly with the herrenvolk. There’s anti-elitist sentiments in there that become less subtle in The New Generation. In both, he’s dismissive toward the idea of teaching children, “poems and rubbish,” and the later version adds in more of the novel’s dialogue sneering specifically at the arts. This attitude seems at first to simply be a kind of stoicism that’s not unreasonable in the face of hardship, but he goes on to make an offhand reference to the individual enclaves in his proposed underground civilization having cricket leagues, and then later he proposes that seaside vacations would be part of his new world. So it’s not really about a life bereft of luxury, but rather one that eschews highbrow entertainment like the Royal Academy of the Arts, the opera, or fancy restaurants, but still permits the sort of amusements that would have been available to the hoi polloi. By the late 19th century, seaside resorts for the working class had become a “thing” in Britain, thanks to the growth of railways coupled with the industrial revolution that had introduced regular work schedules which now often included a week off every year when the factory closed down for maintenance. In the novel, the Artilleryman refers to, “A dislike of eating peas with a knife or dropping aitches,” as useless traits in his new world.

Unlike Parson Nathaniel, there is a lot of variation among the various singers who’ve played the Artilleryman. There’s an interplay of a whole bunch of aspects to his character, and different performers choose different ones to play up. It’s exemplified really well in the way they handle the middle eight, which, coincidentally, is my single favorite block of lines in the whole album:

I’m not trying to tell you what to be,
Oh no, oh no, not me.
But if mankind is to survive,
The people left alive,
We’re going to have to build this world anew,
And it’s going to have to start with me and you!

David Essex sings on the 1978 album, and his Artilleryman is a bit of a con man. You hear it all through the song, but most especially in his, “Oh no, oh no, not me…” It comes out like a snake-oil salesman setting you up for the hard sell that comes with a transparently fake reluctance in “But…” As if to say, “What? Me? Oh, no, I’d never try to make you do something you didn’t want to… Of course, if you don’t, it’s just the end of humanity. But it’s completely your choice…”

I love how he clearly conveys that he has no idea how to use it and then goes ahead and does it anyway.

I love how he clearly conveys that he has no idea how to use it and then goes ahead and does it anyway.

In the 2006 tour, Alexis James’s Artilleryman, on the other hand, is completely on the level. That really took me by surprise, but it’s the first time I really got the “strange charisma” that the character is supposed to have. He’s an evangelist with a convert’s zeal. He’s not going to tell you what to be; he’s just going to tell you this awesome idea he had. He’s always smiling, especially when he’s selling, “Think of all the poverty / The hatred and the lies / Imagine the destruction of all that you despise.” His version is the one whose shtick I can most see the Journalist buying into.

For the 2010 tour, Jason Donovan played the Artilleryman. Remember, he’d go on to play Nathaniel in The New Generation. And the parson’s madness that he would convey so well a few years later is also the core of how he plays the Artilleryman. His version is twitchy and desperate, his, “I’m not going to tell you,” nervous and withdrawing, like he’s afraid you’re going to take a swing at him if he comes on too strong. He plays the character like the street-corner hobo holding up a sign that the end is nigh. Ironically, he’s the only performer who does the “All over again!” line in a falsetto rather than as a squeal. Both he and Alexis James salute the audience before leaving the stage, but while James’s exit is bold and indefatigable, Donovan slinks off the stage, defeated. In fact, he visibly deflates as the Journalist comes to see, “The gulf between his dreams and his power,” his last refrain coming off as a man desperately trying to cling to a fading dream.

wayne-a-clockwork-bridgeRicky Wilson took over the role for the first tour of The New Generation, and his Artilleryman is the most sinister. There’s a cynicism to his performance, but also a great deal of showmanship. He leans more heavily on the lines about destroying the decadent conventions of the past. His “Oh no, oh no, not me,” isn’t simply dismissive, it’s the same sort of manufactured offense a mid-level politician would display if you suggested that his white hooded robes might indicate he’s racist. He’s beating the drum to rally his audience, and rally them with the fantasy of taking their country back and giving the what-for to all the weak and undesirable and elite classes. Also, he’s going to build a wall around Mars and make the Martians pay for it (This joke was probably funnier when this post was originally scheduled to go out on Halloween).

For the Farewell Thunderchild tour, Shayne Ward plays the role, and… He’s fine. I haven’t found a complete recording of his rendition of Brave New World, but what I’ve heard seems to be technically fine, but lacks the distinctiveness of the other performers.

After leaving the Artilleryman to his brave new world, the Journalist finally makes it to Central London. The music takes on an ominous tone, but the “Ulla!” cries of the Martians become wailing and mournful. It has a profound effect on the narrator. “Why was I wandering along in this city of the dead?” he asks, “Why was I alive when London was lying in state in its black shroud?” As he approaches the wailing tripod, the cries and also the music cut off suddenly.

Abruptly, the sound ceased. Suddenly the desolation, the solitude, became unendurable. While that voice sounded London still seemed alive, now suddenly there was a change, the passing of something, and all that remained was this gaunt quiet.

An insane resolve possessed me: I would give my life to the Martians, here and now.

Continue reading

Deep Ice: One thing unites them and gives them power – their music (Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds, Part 3: The Spirit of Man)

This past week, I’ve been flipping back and forth between “There must be something worth living for / There must be something worth fighting for / Even something worth dying for,” and “There is a curse on mankind / We may as well be resigned / To let the devil take the spirit of man,” so let’s go ahead and get back to this. I’d been holding off because I was trying to import a copy of the DVD of the New Generation tour, but it got lost in the mail and the seller gave me a refund. Because of this, several pictures in this and the next part of this essay were borrowed from Youtube instead.

Previously on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging…

Martians invaded and sank a boat.Jeff Wayne

As with the 1938 radio play, the second act of Jeff Wayne’s adaptation comes closer to a traditional narrative, if only a little. Disc 2 consists of seven tracks in the original, basically three major “scenes” with short connecting pieces. Rereleases in 1989, 1995 and 1996 add some remixes at the end of the disc. The New Generation version of Disc 2 has nine tracks, though it only runs about five minutes longer. There are more noticeable additions to the story in disc 2 from the original to the New Generation than there were in disc 1, but it’s still only a modest change.

The basic structure of the second act, just as in the novel, is roughly “Here are some interesting things that the Journalist happened upon as he walked back to London after the destruction of the Thunderchild.” This sort of travelogue kind of story can be really cool and it’s one of the elements of the original War of the Worlds story that I wish got played up more in adaptation. Offhand, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a musical structured that way, which is surprising. I wonder if the more episodic structure is a bridge too far when you’re already in a format that’s fighting an uphill battle to be a narrative rather than a concert.

The narrator of the novel wasn’t actually present for the Thunderchild scene: the account in the book is framed as the account of his brother. By this point in the story, the novel’s narrator was penned in by black smoke with the curate. As a result, there’s a point of sloppiness where the musical version has to bring itself back on course: the great throng of refugees who watched the battle along with the Journalist abruptly vanish with no explanation over the act break, so that when they switch on Giant Dead-Eyed Disembodied CGI Richard Burton, he’s alone again, wandering through a countryside choked by the red weed.

The blood of the martyrs will water the meadows of— wait, wait. Wrong musical.

The blood of the martyrs will water the meadows of— wait, wait. Wrong musical.

The red weed is mentioned numerous times in the second half of the novel, it’s a recurring image, and it’s used to foreshadow the ending, since it’s already being killed off by a “cankering disease” by the time they reintroduce the artilleryman. But it’s never really addressed in detail. In fact, it’s not even the only Martian plant mentioned, just the one with the widest proliferation. The musical is much more prosaic about it. The red weed isn’t just a few spray-painted twigs, but has an active, ominous presence that is almost as threatening as the Martians themselves:

Wherever there was a stream the red weed clung and grew with frightening voraciousness, its claw-like fronds choking the movement of the water. And then it began to creep like a slimy red animal across the land covering field and ditch and tree and hedgerow with living scarlet feelers, crawling, crawling.

In the New Generation stage show, Liam Neeson is even shown on-screen struggling through a field choked with red CGI vegetation. It’s the red weed that serves to segue into the introduction of the musical’s equivalent of the Curate, here identified as Parson Nathaniel. The Journalist sees his apparently dead body about to be engulfed by the stuff and stops to give him a proper burial, only to discover him still alive, though injured and half-mad from an ordeal whose details we aren’t given.

The second of the new characters created for this version appears here: Nathaniel’s wife, Beth, who introduces herself with the delightfully expositiony line, “It’s me, Beth, your wife.” In his deluded state, he waffles on this, sometimes accepting her, but mostly believing her to be a demon that’s taken human form.

This whole segment is a little strange, because the Journalist seems in some ways to not actually be part of it. He does speak directly to the on-stage characters, but only a few times. They never respond, or really give any indication that they’re aware of him. Some of Nathaniel’s ravings might be addressed to him, but he might equally well be talking to himself. Beth doesn’t acknowledge the Journalist at all. In her defense, I would probably try real hard to pretend I didn’t notice the giant floating head off to stage left as well. The New Generation gives the Journalist a few more lines here for its holographic Liam Neeson, including a very nice one where he challenges the parson, “Pull yourself together, man. What good is religion if it fails you in a calamity?”, adapted from a similar exchange in the novel (Which goes on to add the wonderful line, “God is not an insurance agent.”). But the scene really is about Beth and Nathaniel, not the Journalist.

Tara Blaise, Richard Burton, Russel Watson

Three quarters of the speaking parts in this show and two of them are computer generated.

If “Forever Autumn” is the objectively best song and “Thunderchild” is my personal favorite song, “The Spirit of Man” is the most musical theater of the songs in the production. You could probably even expand it out to two or three separate songs if you wanted. The song is a sort of musical debate between the ranting Nathaniel and his wife. He wallows in despair, fatalism, and self-hatred:

Listen!
Do you hear them drawing near,
In their search for the sinners?
Feeding on the the power of our fear,
And the evil within us?
Incarnation of Satan’s creation
Of all that we dread,
When the demons arise,
those alive will be better off dead!

While Beth tries lovingly to break his fugue and inspire strength in him with a boldly rousing response as, in the stage show, she literally picks him up and brushes him off:

There must be something worth living for!
There must be something worth trying for!
Even some things worth dying for,
And if one man can stand tall,
There must be hope for us all,
Somewhere,
Somewhere in the spirit of man.

Powerful words and a powerful delivery, and my daughter seems to really dig it when I sing that refrain to her. Nathaniel is unconvinced, though, protesting that, “Once there was a time when I believed without hesitation,” but now, “How much protection is truth against all Satan’s might?”

Beth and Nathaniel were both recast several times during the original version tours, but the performance is largely the same in every version. Starting with the first stage show, and repeated for all the subsequent versions, a distorted echo is added whenever Nathaniel talks about the devil, which sets up a sort of auditory irony, as he speaks of humanity possessed and consumed by Satan, while suggesting that it is actually Nathaniel himself who is “possessed” by his madness. For The New Generation album, Joss Stone voices Beth, and she’s absolutely fantastic, which is a shame, because she’s paired with Irish rapper Maverick Sabre’s Nathaniel, and he’s terrible. He comes off as whiny and pusillanimous, simply scared rather than broken. Jason Donovan and Kerry Ellis take the parts for the stage version, with Carrie Hope Fletcher taking over as Beth for Farewell Thunderchild. Jason Donovan really plays up Nathaniel’s madness, making him at times almost gleeful as he shouts how he’d been right all along with his warnings of divine wrath, then falling apart as he acknowledges the scale of the destruction.

Ellis adds one really cool element. Beth’s line, “People loved you and trusted you, came to you for help,” delivered by everyone else as a reassurance instead comes out as an accusation. An attempt to shame him for a dereliction of duty. It’s the only time in any version that Beth shows anything other than complete faith and complete support in her husband — she even takes his cross away from him at this point.

Kerry Ellis and Jason Donovan

Symbolism!

Beth’s part of “Spirit of Man” is really two parts; after this exchange, she switches from trying to rally him and restore his resolve to simply comforting him: “No, Nathaniel, no; there must be more to life,” she sings, “There has to be a way we can restore to life the love that we have lost.” (This is the point where Beth gives his cross back to him in the later stage versions.) Strains of this second melody appear right at the beginning of “Spirit of Man”, acting as curious foreshadowing in the album version. By The New Generation, they’ve added an extra “No, Nathaniel, no,” there, which I think reduces the effectiveness when the second melody is introduced in the middle of the song.

Throughout the song, in the staged versions, Nathaniel alternates between accepting Beth’s support and pushing her away, to the point that it confused Dylan when he watched part of it with me. “Doesn’t he think she’s a bad guy?” he asked. I explained that he was all mixed up. He most rejects her on the “Something worth living for” verses, and then is drawn to her on the “No Nathaniel” ones. When the last “Something worth living for” verse comes around, it’s done as a call-and-response:

There must be something worth living for!
No, there is nothing!
There must be something worth trying for!
I don’t believe it’s so.
Even some things worth dying for,
And if one man could stand tall,
There would be some hope for us all,
Somewhere, Somewhere in the spirit of man.Somewhere in the spirit of man.Nathaniel joins in on this line in The New Generation
Forget about goodness and mercy, they’re gone!

I really like the decision to have Nathaniel join in on Beth’s last line; it hints that he’s starting to come around. But it’s at odds with its position in the song, as he goes on to do another verse about how he warned everyone to exorcise the devil and now it’s too late. The stage production seems to realize the incongruity here, since immediately after “Forget about goodness and mercy, they’re gone!”, he takes Beth’s hand, and the two walk together upstage and nearly off it, when he holds up his cross so that it casts a shadow on the back wall, then turns to the audience suddenly and bursts into verse, with the tone and charisma of a fire-and-brimstone revival preacher. Beth watches sadly from upstage, only returning to him with her last round of “No, Nathaniel”s.

The staged version definitely plays up the notion that she had, in fact, come close to bringing him around, only for him to slip back into despair at the last minute. The new version also seems like it’s making a point to indict Nathaniel’s faith. First, the Journalist challenges him on it, that it should be a source of strength for him but isn’t, and then the symbolism with the cross seems to indicate that his faith takes him to a dark place: he repeatedly waves it at Beth as a warding sign. When she returns it to him halfway through the song, in Jason Donovan’s rendering, he cradles it like a child, but also starts pulling at his hair in a way that’s very commonly used in stage and film to indicate an impulse control disorder. He seems to be restored when Beth takes it from him; it’s the sight of its shadow on the wall that prompts his final turn away from her. And after Beth’s last “No, Nathaniel,” she takes his cross again and leaves the stage.

And then she comes right back on again. Or rather, her stunt-double does, because at the end of the song, a Martian cylinder hits the house where they’ve been sheltering. In the most spectacular example of expository dialogue since… Okay, since a few minutes ago when Beth told her husband that she was his wife, Nathaniel announces, “A cylinder has landed on the house and we’re underneath it in the pit!” In yet another example of the New Generation telegraphing its reveals, we actually see her collapse in a spray of pyrotechnics in this version, even though it’s a few minutes before her death is revealed in the narrative.

The whole "Spider-Dalek" thing from the proposed Doctor Who reboot

The whole “Spider-Dalek” thing from the proposed Doctor Who reboot was a bad idea.

Instead, hologram Liam Neeson or Creepy CGI Richard Burton tell us all about how the Martians spend the night building a handling machine — a short-legged vehicle with claws and a cage which they use to hunt and capture humans. Yeah, this is a weird place in the narrative to break for exposition. This is one of the only adaptations to show the handling machine. Most adaptations limit themselves to the tripod fighting machines. Martian flying machines also appear in the CGI video, though they are not mentioned in the narrative. That 1998 video game gave them an ample supply of cheap 3D models to choose from. Though they don’t show up in the stage show, the video game version is the only adaptation I know of to include the “embankment machine”, a Martian craft used for excavating their landing sites. Even Timothy Hines’s slavishly faithful version doesn’t bother with them and Wells himself only mentions them in passing.

When Nathaniel finally does discover Beth’s body (and retrieves his cross), he loses it completely, demanding, “Satan! Why did you take one of your own?” and performing his own dark version of Beth’s verse:

There is a curse on mankind!
We may as well be resigned,
To let the devil,
The devil take the spirit of man!

Starting with the original 2006 stage show Beth’s disembodied voice offers another round of “No, Nathaniel!”s, this time altered with a haunting, ethereal effect. In the New Generation version, a cloaked version of Beth appears as well, then is lifted from the stage by wires.

Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds

Spooky!

The curate is often omitted in adaptations. The only ones we’ve seen to include him until now are the slavishly faithful Timothy Hines version and of all things, the Asylum version. One thing I notice is that the character’s final breakdown in both this version and the Asylum one are triggered by the same thing: the sight of the Martians feeding, which is described to us in detail by Giant Disembodied Richard Burton at this point in the story. This doesn’t occur in the novel, where they witness the feeding much earlier. There, it seems like the curate’s breakdown is largely due to hunger, as it’s immediately preceded by him pitching a fit over the narrator withholding food (this point is repeated in the Asylum adaptation, where, if you’ll recall, it’s leveraged to foreshadow the ultimate fate of the aliens when George gets to thinking about the dangers of eating spoiled food). No other version has an equivalent character to Beth, of course, so where the novel has the curate declare his intention to witness to the Martians and the Asylum film has him simply give up on his faith, it’s only the musical version where Parson Nathaniel is inspired to a crusade: he declares that he’s received a sign that he is to go out and smite the invaders literally with the power of his crossSymbolism!

Depending on which version of the musical you’re experiencing, it’s ambiguous what exactly happens next. In the novel, the narrator clubs the curate in the head with the blunt end of a meat cleaver. It’s not clear if the blow is fatal, but we’re told it leaves a visible injury. In the original album, Burton doesn’t say what happens, but we hear a thwack and a thump. It seems obvious enough what happened, I think, assuming you don’t just miss it outright, as it lasts a fraction of a second and isn’t described. And I’m not sure if it even really “seems obvious” because it is, or just because I’ve read the book and know what’s coming. But in the original stage version, creepy CGI Burton has no hands or anything, and if the thwack is actually there, I couldn’t hear it over the music, so it seems more like Nathaniel just trips over something on his way out to confront the aliens. The thwack sound is more pronounced on The New Generation and sounds unambiguously like a punch. On stage, the result is, of course, amazing:

Liam Neeson and Jason Donovan in War of the Worlds

I am unspeakably happy this happened.

That’s right. Holographic Liam Neeson punches him in the face. Look, I’ve had my reservations about this kinda-sorta-halfway-conversion from a presentation designed for pure audio into a stage format, but it is all worth it to watch a hologram of Liam Neeson punch a live actor in the face.

The rest of Nathaniel’s fate is revealed by the dodgy CGI backdrop as a metal claw locates a CGI ragdoll and tosses it into a giant alien Cuisinart. Setting aside just how hard it is to buy that CG sequence as something we were meant to take seriously, I really really like the way that the Spirit of Man scene translates to the stage. From the album, to the first stage show, to the second album, to the second stage show, you can really feel this scene in particular trying to evolve toward being a proper theatrical presentation. It isn’t quite there yet, but it’s close. Close enough, in fact, that I’d say this is the one thing in the album that is outright better on stage. All the other stage numbers are basically neutral, but this one actually adds new layers of meaning to the groundwork that’s already laid by the song.

I'm pretty sure I saw this exact scene in a Star Trek fan film.

I’m pretty sure I saw this exact scene in a Star Trek fan film.

Once the aliens have buggered off about their own business, the journalist emerges from the pit and gets back on his way to London, finding the countryside completely abandoned.

He decides that this quiet interlude would be a good time for more exposition, and why not? The narration changes a bit from the original to The New Generation. Small but important changes in phrasing make it more intimate in the new version. In the original, CGI Richard Burton speaks abstractly about abandoned towns and the end of “Man’s empire.” Holographic Liam Neeson describes a sense of “dethronement” from the realization that he, a once-master of the Earth, now seemed to rank lower than even the encroaching red weed. There’s a reason for it, though. He explains that the Martians are effectively creatures “composed entirely of brain”, whose machines served as made-to-order task-specific artificial bodies rather than wasting energy lugging around complicated limbs and digestive systems. The point of the aside is foreshadowing: the Journalist explains that, “They never tired, never slept, and never suffered, having long since eliminated from their planet the bacteria that cause all fevers and morbidities.” Gee. I wonder if that will somehow become relevant later…

To Be Continued...

To Be Continued…


  • Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds is available via iTunes and Amazon.
  • Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds: The New Generation is available via iTunes and Amazon
  • Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds: Live on Stage and Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds: The New Generation: Alive on Stage! are available on DVD in region 2 only.

Deep Ice: Dead Men From Mars! (Eric S. Brown’s War of the Worlds Plus Blood, Guts and Zombies, Continued)

By the time we get to chapter eleven and the first meeting of the narrator with the artilleryman, Brown’s additions have become shorter, but more frequent. A reference to checking his ammunition before setting out from his house. Mention of soldiers guarding refugees as they packed their belongings in Byfleet, and references to civilians arming themselves. Not all of the insertions directly relate to the zombie menace. When the narrator first meets the artilleryman and invites him into his house, he points out that hiding outside won’t work. At Shepperton Lock, where Wells notes that, “There was a lot of shouting, and one man was even jesting,” Brown adds, “He joked about the end of the world in an odd kind of black humor [sic].”

These little additions work a lot better than the earlier ones. By being short and matter-of-fact, they don’t clash with Wells’s style, yet they add a bit of subtle shading around the edges of the whole section, a little tonal difference in what kind of panic has gripped those in the path of the advancing Martians and zombies.

The artilleryman’s account of his own survival sticks out as problematic in context — Brown presents it unmodified, despite the fact that it involves him, “lying under a heap of charred dead men and dead horses,” in a context where that would almost certainly get him bitten. Otherwise, though, Brown is largely consistent about adding explicit head wounds to corpses seen by Wells’s narrator, or specifying them as, “True dead burnt to a crisp or devoured to the point that they had not reanimated.”

The dead are suspiciously absent from the battle at Weybridge and Shepperton, but they reappear when the Martians retreat in chapter 13 to reevaluate their tactics after a cannon takes out a tripod. We return to the curious theme I mentioned last time. “The dead were still very much a threat and a terrible one,” Brown inserts into a paragraph about the positioning of human reinforcements, “But the Martians’ sheer capacity for destruction was appalling to the point that they, for the moment, outweighed the threat of the dead.” We retain the strange juxtaposition that, confronted with Martian invaders, even the walking dead seem like a manageable threat by comparison. Indeed, Brown goes on to interject that, along with the military preparations for their next fight against the tripods, teams are sent out into the streets to prevent the last round of casualties from rising up.

By this point, I’m surprised by the fact that we haven’t yet had any explicit reference to the zombies having an infectious bite. Sure, the victims of the zombies do rise up, but we haven’t yet had any mention of soldiers who survived a biting, only to turn later. For now, the military continues to keep things in order by dispatching teams to issue the coups de grace to their casualties. The clinical tone Brown adopts here is a better fit with Wells’s normal style. Particularly in context, the fact that the army is able to keep the dead at bay complements the general sense at this point in the story that things are still under control. We’re a few chapters away, at this point, from humanity at large admitting that the Martian threat is insurmountable rather than just serious — despite the casualties and destruction so far, the humans managed to destroy a tripod in the last chapter and they have as yet no reason to believe that, once they’re prepared, they won’t be able to continue to dispatch them.

That said, there’s a tension here, because it’s also at this point that the narrator, having only narrowly escaped the last battle and scalded from a heat ray hit to the river, flees in a panic. That tension exists in the original too, with no specific or imminent justification for the narrator’s renewed panic. The lengthening of the opening paragraphs of chapter thirteen by Brown exacerbates it, though. Maybe it’s a cultural thing for me as a modern reader, but the addition of the risen dead for me does help make the curate’s breakdown more believable when he is introduced in this chapter. As someone whose ballywick covers what happens to people after they die, it’s easier for me to imagine a zombie apocalypse having such an immediate impact on him  than the Martians, who, at this point, are still behaving in a way that’s recognizable to anyone who’s familiar with a technologically advanced culture launching a military invasion. They might be alien cephalopods, but the tripods are essentially doing a cavalry charge. Brown adds a full page of action at the end of chapter thirteen, placing the narrator and the curate in a fight scene with some zombies. As has happened before, Brown’s gorier style clashes with that of Wells.

Now, I’ve pointed out a few popular zombie conventions that Brown has surprisingly omitted so far, in order to retain parsimony with the Wells story. In chapter fourteen, when the viewpoint switches to the narrator’s brother in London, things start to change. If this change in style is deliberate, that’s a clever place to do it. It has little relevance to the narrative in the original text that the brother is a medical student. Brown takes advantage of the lucky break here and has the brother witness the resurrection of the dead first-hand as medical cadavers manage to devour some of his classmates. The sense that the Martians are the real threat and the zombies just a sideshow continues here, but there’s a tonal difference: the government deliberately suppresses news of the dead to avoid panic, presenting the Martians as the primary threat, even as the press persists in emphasizing the sluggishness of the creatures in Earth gravity and insisting even after the battle at Weybridge that the invaders, despite their powerful weapons, will eventually succumb to the greater numbers and home-field advantage of the humans. An addition by Brown also informs us that the authorities were inspecting refugees for bite-marks as they fled to London from the countryside. If this means that the zombies do indeed have the traditionally infectious bite, the brother doesn’t know it yet.

Distrust of the authorities is a common trope in zombie fiction, of course, and Brown plays it up here. Where Wells notes with wonderful understatement, “At the time there was a strong feeling in the streets that the authorities were to blame for their incapacity to dispose of the invaders without all this inconvenience,” Brown adds an entire paragraph expressing condemnation that, “The fools who made first contact with the aliens,” hadn’t simply dumped a mountain of explosives on them, “The second it was known the men from Mars were not men at all.” Aside from the overly Star Trek word choice at the beginning, the sentiment, “Okay, not shooting them on sight might have been justified if they’d turned out to be humanoid, but since they’re octopuses, we shoulda nuked them from orbit just to be sure,” is pretty pitch-perfect here. And the notion that the success of the Martian campaign was largely predicated on the slowness of the initial human response fits in very well with recurring themes in the original book.

The hope that greater preparation by the humans would be able to contain and defeat the Martians is, of course, dashed by the introduction of the deadly black smoke that can be deployed to depopulate an area before defenses can be set up — and adds to the ranks of the dead. The dead vanish from the narrative for a few pages but then return with an abrupt transition from the army “somehow” being able to hold them back to the army being completely overwhelmed by them. Chapter fifteen ends with the tale of General Alves, whose troops fought to the last man to buy the population time to flee from the dead.

The dead remain only a haunting flavor for the remainder of book one. As the narrator’s brother flees from London, there’s mention of a family of refugees, unable to face the facts, carrying their zombified daughter with them, carefully bound, a somewhat welcome bit of standard zombie cliche, honestly. Even in the original, the scene is heavy on human suffering, and Brown enhances it. Where in the original the brother observes that an injured man he passes is “lucky to have friends,” Brown has him wonder, “If his friends wouldn’t be unlucky to have him. If he died, they may find themselves in unexpected trouble.”


At this point, I was going to start plowing through the second half of the novel, but my neck has hurt for days and it turns out that Halloween is a comparatively busy time when you’re a parent, and I’ve already blown my schedule enough that I have to go take out all of the election jokes out of the the remaining parts of my review of the musical, so instead, I’ll just remind you that The War of the Worlds Plus Blood Guts and Zombies is available from Amazon.

To Be Continued…

Deep Ice: And if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian; it’s Halloween (Eric S. Brown’s The War of the Worlds Plus Blood, Guts and Zombies)

God damned third-party seller on Amazon. The DVD I needed to finish my scheduled post was due to arrive no later than last Thursday. Yet here I wait without it. So instead, here’s the post I was going to put up on Halloween.

It's like they took every stylistic element of every rendition of the tripod and slammed them together without any appreciation for how these things should go together.

It’s like they took every stylistic element of every prior rendition of the tripod and slammed them together without any appreciation for how these things should go together.

It is April 30, 2009. Chrysler declares bankruptcy. South Korea has created transgenic fluorescent dogs. Tomorrow, Carol Ann Duffy will become the first woman, first Scot, and first openly gay person to be named Poet Laureate of the UK. X-Men Origins: Wolverine opens tomorrow as well. Navy cop drama NCIS launches its spin-off NCIS: Los Angeles. We continue to mourn Bea Arthur, who died last week. We’ll lose Dom Deluise in the coming one. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation this week is “The Gone Dead Train”, about a tattoo parlor that gives people rabies. Hugh Jackman is Jon’s guest on The Daily Show. Ethan Nadelmann is on Colbert. A few weeks ago, the BBC aired the first Doctor Who of the calendar year, “Planet of the Dead”. Saturday’s Power Rangers RPM is “Ranger Blue”, a focus episode for The Tribe alum Ari Boyland, which has the disappointing resolution that the solution to this week’s problem (he’s left unable to summon his spandex due to an overload) is to pull the battery out of his morpher and reinsert it backwards.

The Billboard charts are stable this week; “Boom Boom Pow” by the Black Eyed Peas is number one for the third week in a row, and they’ll stay there until October because “I Got a Feeling” is coming out soon. There’s been no movement in the top three since they bumped Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” down a notch. Flo Rida follows them in number 3 with “Right Round”. Everyone else in the top ten has been jocking for position for weeks, aside from Eminem’s “We Made You” which enters the charts this week at number 9.

Ever since George Romero and Mike Russo invented the modern zombie horror genre in 1968, the popularity of tales of the risen dead has waxed and waned as they caught the zeitgeist of whichever assortment of cultural fears ruled the day. When their popularity started to peak again in 2007, things were different on the pop culture scene, though. The larger horror genre was, like all of geek culture, somewhat less marginalized and film storytelling had become more sophisticated. At the same time, the wider culture was becoming more polarized. There was a growing cultural angst, a sense of impending apocalypse. The Cold War had long-since ended, paradoxically making us feel less secure since we no longer had the comforting thought of sudden nuclear annihilation to stop us from worrying about things like the fact that there was a limited amount of oil and most of it was in a part of the world basically synonymous with violent political instability. There was a major housing crisis on the horizon, the catastrophic effects of global climate change were getting harder to ignore, international terrorism seemed — accurately or not — like a bigger threat than ever, and both Gilmore Girls and The West Wing had been canceled. The world didn’t feel especially sustainable, and we couldn’t really say why. The reason we couldn’t really say why was mostly because “Actually what it feels like is that white Christian heterosexual men are not going to have a monopoly on power much longer and ‘working-class white man’ isn’t going to be the cultural notion of ‘default human’, and as far as I’m concerned, that is the literal end of the world,” is not something it’s socially acceptable to cop to.

While geek culture was becoming more mainstream, another thing that was starting to become more normalized and less, “I’m already preparing my ‘He kept to himself and always seemed like a quiet, non-threatening man,’ speech for when the reporters interview me after he goes postal,” were the militia and doomsday prepper subcultures. People who were increasingly convinced that any day now, human civilization would collapse and their survival would rely on them having been prepared with a stockpile of canned goods, gold bullion purchased from an infomercial during Glenn Beck’s show, and many, many guns.

And I’ll confess here that I’ve got maybe just a touch of doomsday prepper mixed into my hoarder sensibilities. Mine’s a little different from most; I don’t expect the actual literal collapse of human civilization, nor do I presume that I could actually defend myself from it, since my diabetes meds aren’t shelf-stable. But the knowledge that I’ve got enough freeze-dried food to outlast a hurricane does a little to offset my general paranoia. Mostly I’m interested in it for the MacGyver aspect.

But I think there’s another aspect to the prepper/survivalist boom and the not unrelated zombie revival at around the same time that people don’t like to talk about, and it’s where I start to bring us back around to The War of the Worlds. There are exceptions, obviously, but earlier zombie fads seem to have focused more on running away, holing up somewhere, and shepherding resources to find a way to improvise around the absence of civilization. This isn’t absent in the more recent fad, but there’s something else: a much greater emphasis on the visceral thrill of zombie-killing. Where in earlier films, the survivors go on the offensive only rarely, usually just for a climactic scene that ends either in a tragic downer ending or at best a Pyrrhic victory, more recent films take considerable joy in showing their heroes hunt down and dispatch the undead.

I think that maybe in a culture that’s increasingly polarized, that anticipates the collapse of society with a kind of perverse eagerness, there’s a certain fascination in this one angle of zombie stories: that they are stories in which your neighbors, your coworkers, your countrymen have become something which it is morally acceptable to shoot in the head. It is a chance to live out your every dark fantasy about murdering hobos. It is exactly what David Essex was singing about: imagine the destruction of all that you despise. And even more the radio play version of the artilleryman: get a bunch of strong men together, no weak ones; that rubbish, out. Get yourself a heat ray and turn it on the Martians and the men. Bring everybody down to their knees.

So I was into the zombie thing for a while around this time, but I eventually lost interest, a little bit before the fad crested and zombies became the big hit pop cultural thing, which makes me sound like a hipster, but really I just kinda peaked too soon and had burned out before The Walking Dead happened.

I have wandered well away from my point, and you’re probably wondering what I’m doing way out here in the woods, assuming you did not read the title of this article, which gives the game away. The Literary Mashup is a recently popular fictional genre which, if it wasn’t created outright created by Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, was certainly popularized by it. The genre varies considerably, from telling mostly original stories that introduce modern horror genre tropes into historical settings, such as Grahame-Smith’s 2010 Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, adaptations of modern works into classical styles, like Adam Bertocci’s Shakespeare pastiche, The Two Gentlemen of Lebowski, or adaptations which simply append a new subplot to an existing work. Jane Austin seems popular for this one, as Grahame-Smith’s seminal work was followed up a few months later by Ben H. Winter’s fantastically named Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Winters would go on to produce Android Karenina, which warms my heart.

Now, I am familiar with the works of Eric S. Brown from my own zombie-fanboy days. I generally found his short stories really good. So I’m not going to pass judgment on the fact that no one was really doing these mashups before Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was published on April 1, 2009, and by April 30, 2009, he had his own literary mashup in print. War of the Worlds Plus Blood, Guts and Zombies is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. It is the complete text of The War of the Worlds with fairly modest additions amounting to a side-plot in which a side-effect of the Martian invasion is that while the Martians are shooting up the south of England, the dead also start rising to feed on the living.

Don’t get me wrong. I bought this book because I dig War of the Worlds and I dig (or dug, at the time, I guess) zombies. But these are really two great tastes that do not taste great together. Like steak and ice cream. The Austen pastiches at least have going for them that the introduction of supernatural horror provides a sharp contrast to the tone and style of Georgian romance in revelatory ways. There’s a tension that arises from the fact that people are still acting like really uptight, proper eighteenth-century Englishmen in the face of the existential horror of dead people getting up and eating folks. Heck, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is largely based around an extended metaphor comparing the antebellum southern gentry to blood-sucking demons, which is apt because that is exactly what they were.

But adding zombies to War of the Worlds doesn’t have the same, if you’ll pardon me, bite. That new MTV show put me in mind of how much The War of the Worlds fits into the mold of a modern post-apocalyptic series, where an unstoppable, unknowable force tears down civilization, and the narrative centers around how people survive in the resulting world. Adding the undead to Austen changes everything. Adding them to War of the Worlds just doesn’t. War of the Worlds doesn’t need zombies: it’s pretty much already got them. In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the presence of the zombies changes things. You can’t kill off characters in a character-driven romance and not have it change things. But none of the characters in War of the Worlds have any impact on the unfolding of the plot, so it doesn’t actually matter if the zombies eat them.

So it’s pointless, ill-conceived, and unnecessary. But is it bad? Well, no. Not really. It’s fine. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I find the concept of The War of the Worlds far better than the actual execution of the original novel. I just don’t like H. G. Wells as a writer rather than an idea man. I don’t think you’re liable to worsen War of the Worlds by adding to it. It’d be nice if the additions amounted to an actual plot or characters which consistently served a purpose beyond being vessels for exposition.

But Brown’s additions to the text are modest. The content he adds boils down, in almost every case, to, “and also there were zombies.” But the pleasure in reading a book shouldn’t be down just to the content of the ideas. And Brown is very good at making these modest insertions carry a tone of powerful horror.

Ironically, though, this is kinda the project’s downfall. Because Eric S. Brown does a fine job of inserting little snippets of a modern zombie apocalypse being told in a style that can reasonably pass for nineteenth century horror. But H. G. Wells can’t. There are moments in The War of the Worlds Plus Blood, Guts and Zombies which evoke Lovecraft (The Call of Cthulhu and Also Zombies is probably way too obvious to be worth doing), or Shelley (Frankenstein, or the Modern Undead Prometheus might possibly work, but again, too obvious), or Stoker (Been there, done that), even at times Henry James (The Turn of The Screw Into The Brain of The Living Dead could probably work, now that I think of it), but his style never actually matches the style of the person he’s actually imitating.

The first insertion, for example, is a single sentence on the second page, interposed in the large opening exposition dump about how Mars is dying and the Martians really didn’t have much choice but to go invade their neighbors. Just before Wells calls us to not judge the Martians too harshly in light of the fact that humans had, for example, wiped out the dodo and indigenous Tasmanians [1. Anyone else uncomfortable that the dodos come first in this list? 2. Happy ending: turns out that after Wells’s time, it was discovered that ethnic Tasmanians weren’t quite extinct. Though the last full-blooded Palawa, Truganini, died in 1876, there were a number of survivors of the genocide of mixed native and European descent], is this observation:

I imagine that even they did not realize the full effect their war with us, the dwellers of this bright blue and green orb of light, would bring about, or the utter terror it would unleash. (Page 6)

It’s a really nice sentence all on its own. Spooky and foreshadowy, but stilted in a distinctively Victorian way. The sentence works. But when you look at the surrounding text, it just doesn’t fit. The rest of the chapter is clinical and dispassionate with no sense of terror. Besides, it jars rather badly with the paragraph which follows it. Because “Hey, sure it sucks for us, but before we judge them too harshly, remember that they invaded because it was their only chance to survive, whereas the British Empire committed genocide purely for profit,” seems a bit hollow when the other thing the aliens did was cause the dead to rise as cannibalistic revenants.

Later, even as Wells’s tone does start to include elements of horror, it doesn’t approach the horror in the same way. Worse, Brown’s zombie horror is in tension with Wells’s alien horror. Consider the narrator’s reaction to his first sight of a tripod:

It was an elusive vision—a moment of bewildering darkness, and then, in a flash like daylight, the red masses of the Orphanage near the crest of the hill, the green tops of the pine trees, and this problematical object came out clear and sharp and bright.

And this Thing I saw! How can I describe it? A monstrous tripod, higher than many houses, striding over the young pine trees, and smashing them aside in its career; a walking engine of glittering metal, striding now across the heather; articulate ropes of steel dangling from it, and the clattering tumult of its passage mingling with the riot of the thunder. A flash, and it came out vividly, heeling over one way with two feet in the air, to vanish and reappear almost instantly as it seemed, with the next flash, a hundred yards nearer. Can you imagine a milking stool tilted and bowled violently along the ground? That was the impression those instant flashes gave. But instead of a milking stool imagine it a great body of machinery on a tripod stand.

To a modern audience, it’s an oddly abstract kind of horror. “Problematical” is just intensely weird adjective in context. The one I use to describe when some piece of media I like turns out to be steeped in sexism or something. He tells us it is “monstrous”, but Wells’s style remains largely clinical. I mean, he compares it to a milking stool. But there’s no ambiguity about it being intended as a moment of terror.

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